Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Via Nathan Nobis at In Socrates' Wake, here's a piece from the AP about universities churning out an oversupply of PhDs. Justin Pope, the article's author, doesn't really get too far in explaining what the problem is--that is, why so many fucking schools feel like they need doctoral programs in everything. He says, "[f]aculty members like having graduate students around. They're good intellectual companions, and they bolster a professor's research efforts." Yeah. But also deans like having grad programs, because then they're deans of research institutions. States like having flagship universities. (In which case, interestingly, the schools' presidents are admirals. The presidents and deans of branch campuses--or "frigate schools"--are only captains and lieutenants. Grad students are cabin boys. Avast!)

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, the AP piece. It does offer a fantastic little nugget to illustrate the basic dynamic at play in the issue.

In its report last month, a 30-member commission called for New York's state and city systems to alleviate the over reliance on adjuncts by hiring 2,000 more full-time faculty for their 87 campuses.

But just one page away, the report also called for adding at least 4,000 doctoral students.

I take it the problem here is, one thing universities produce is their own labor supply. That's weird, and it looks like it has some pretty clear economic consequences. Universities have a strong incentive to produce enough PhDs to keep the cost of PhDs down. As the AP piece puts it, "with universities already under fire for skyrocketing prices, it's probably unrealistic to expect most will pay more than the going rate for a captive labor pool." No doubt.

So it's nice for the New York schools to commit to hiring more tenure-tracked faculty to teach their students. But at the very same time, they're laying the groundwork to make sure the economic incentives cut the other direction. And when it comes down to it, which consideration do you think is going to win out? A high-minded commitment to the quality of a public school education? Or cash?


I actually only ever took Econ 101 said...

Who produces their own students? Princeton aside, most department faculties are not primarily made up of their own university's graduates. It seems like no individual institution has an incentive to over-produce students to keep the labor cost low, even if that's nice for departments overall.

Anonymous said...

Graduate students serve as TAs and teachers. It's a double incentive for programs: 1) Look good by producing PhDs and 2) Get cheap labor while students are in school.

Anonymous said...

Other incentives:
PhD departments look down on non-PhD depts.
The state may pay more for grad students - mine does.
Depts need TAs, otherwise profs do all the grading.

Prof. J. said...

Don't forget that not all disciplines are like philosophy. In many fields, a PhD qualifies you to be something other than a professor.

Anonymous said...

The article suggests that perhaps the call for more PhDs is more for research oriented fields. States are always looking to be "cutting edge" in research fields like biofuels or cloning to bring in the federal funding to the state. But the article is right in suggesting that this increase invariably leads to more PhDs seeking tenure track teaching positions as a by-product. Whatever the case, Anon 9:06 point is correct: why think even in this case that the researchers stay in the state in which they receive the doctorate.

Anonymous said...

They overproduce students to keep their labor costs low, in the sense that the grad students do much of the teaching and grading.

Anonymous said...

Of possible relevance given recent discussion on this blog:

Personally, I think that a big part of the reason there are fewer women in philosophy comes up at the undergrad level, where blowhard guys often dominate discussions in class. (Note: These guys are seldom good at philosophy, and seldom go on in the profession. But they leave their mark nonetheless by driving some women away.)

recent hire said...

The national average for full-time assistant professors is about $60,000, and $100,000 once they get tenure.

Out of what orifice were these numbers pulled? Could you run the numbers again without lumping in med schools, law schools, business schools, and engineering schools with PhD-granting departments, which is what the article is ostensibly about?

Anonymous said...

At the mid-tier R1 I graduated from, roughly 40% of the classes (campus-wide) are taught by grad students. This is a very cheap labor source, and it's one of the ways that schools reduce the cost of business. The incentive is grad student teachers, not a big pool of PhD's. This big pool is just a by-product. The Phil Dept Head told me that the Phil Dept couldn't teach the number of sections the dean requires without grad student labor, (without, that is, requiring tenured and TT faculty to teach more) so they had to admit more PhD students than they might want to, just to earn their keep at R1.

I know that some grad programs don't require teaching. But the surplus of PhD's doesn't come from just these schools.

m.a. program faculty member said...

Yeah, I think that your hypothesis that Universities produce more Ph.D.s in order to have a big labor supply is pretty shaky. Even if that's the result in the aggregate, the impact of any individual program is small enough so that the incentives aren't really there.

But your guess about Deanly pressure to have Ph.D. programs is spot-on. Universities get prestige and higher rankings by outfits like the Carnegie Foundation based on the number of Ph.D. programs they have. And since Philosophy is a relatively cheap field when it comes to starting up a new Ph.D. program, the Dean of SW Large Square State U is going to be leaning on SWLSSU's philosophy faculty to start up a Ph.D. program, even though the philosophers at SWLSSU know that their grads would do badly in the job market.

Anonymous said...

But it's also the case that many people with a PhD, in many fields beyond the humanities (and in the humanities), don't want to go on to teach. Not just because the pay is shitty or the competition too high, but because that's not what a PhD is training them to do - they're training to be physicists, chemists, biologists, managers, etc.

So isn't it a mistake to infer that that the NY state system is aiming to produce 4,000 professors for 2,000 positions? Certainly, there are lots of economic factors involved, but I doubt that these numbers are enough to keep the supply of teachers so high as to keep salaries of full-time teachers at ridiculous lows. Overall it seems to me to be much better than the current situation with adjuncts.

Anonymous said...

I agree that no one really tries to produce more students to feed their labor pool. No one is that cruel to their students.

But programs do have an incentive to produce more students.

Pressure from schools where smaller programs get cut to save money(oh you only have X students and in order for university to keep funding you need x+15 students) and reallocate professor resources. So to stave off the wolves programs try to get TA lines and such to become larger so that at the next round of budget cuts they can say we are bigger than Z, you should eliminate the grad program in Z to save money.

The perception that bigger is better.

Then there are limits on funding 4 or 5 years at most places. While the same number of students get funded every year more students go through a program. [the alternative would be to give people more funding for longer- less students are produced, but university gets TA's around for a longer amount of time, more productivity from students(people arent adjuncting to eat), better classes being taught]. One or two more students isnt a big deal on a small scale, but when you are talking 100 schools these differences add up to a lot of philosophers being produced.

Anonymous said...

My sense is that senior administrators are pushing for universities to enlarge their graduate programs in part because of demographics -- they see the size of the standard undergrad pool (18-25 yrs olds) shrinking in the coming years -- and in part because of a view about the 'changing economy' wherein more and more people will need to go back to get MAs or a second degree or even a PhD to further their careers.

Anonymous said...


Unrelated question, just out of curiosity: do you have a hits-tracker on this website? If so, how many hits in total and/or per day? I'd be interested to know. God knows I'm here at least four or five times per day myself.

Anonymous said...

1. While TAs are cheap compared to TT faculty, they are actually pretty expensive compared to adjuncts, I think that the prestige associated with having such programs has more to do with their growth than a financial incentive.

2. "The national average for full-time assistant professors is about $60,000, and $100,000 once they get tenure." Those figures don't seem that off to me, but they don't represent *starting* salaries at those levels, which are clearly much lower.

Sisyphus said...

Over at Confessions of a Community College Dean, Dean Dad analyzed that same article:

"Apparently, Gov. Spitzer believes that a stronger SUNY system will help the state economy both directly and indirectly, and that raising its academic profile is the way to do that. The grad students are understood to be support staff.

The grad students are understood to be support staff.

They aren't understood to be, say, apprentices. Outside of a few specific fields, there's simply no shortage of graduate students or Ph.D.'s. If anything, there's a terrible glut. Anyone familiar with the higher ed employment stats – or the blogosphere – knows that there's a backlog of doctorally-qualified people looking for full-time jobs. Worse, unless I'm fundamentally misreading the proposal, the hiring would be concentrated outside the fields that need it the most. Since the point of the proposal is economic development, rather than a jobs program for academics, it would mean more money for, say, certain applied sciences, and nothing at all for the evergreen disciplines. In other words, it won't do anything to help, say, folks in English or history."

It sucks, even for Science/Engineering, because these are being opened up as "temporary" grad student positions rather than permanent research staffers, which just means that the glut we see in the humanities is moving over to other departments as well.

And over in English, many MA programs exist for the sole purpose, it seems, of having a constant, huge population of TAs to cover composition classes.

I think the "prestige" argument is an important one to consider, as well as anonymous 8:15's point about size of program protecting against budget cuts.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to recall in this context the strategy recently used by university administrations at NYU, Columbia and elsewhere to deny that grad students have the right to unionize. The strategy was to claim that the nature of graduate programs makes grad students apprentices, not employees... Among academic philosophers, two prominent supporters of this strategy have been NYU's Paul Boghosian and David Velleman. Basic civility prevents me from making explicit what I think about these two individuals (although sometimes I wonder if basic civility is not overrated).

part of the cheap labor problem said...

I do know a professor who used to teach at a Big State University who says that they used to admit many more Ph.D. students than they intended to pass, just so they'd have enough TAs for their gigantic required classes. Then they'd fail them on their qualifying exams and send them packing.

recent hire,

I had the same reaction to those salary statistics, so I went to hunt down the AAUP's latest data on faculty salaries, and found out that that's where the numbers come from—kind of. The average salary for assistant professors, looking at Ph.D.-, M.A.-, and B.A.-granting programs combined, really is about $60,000. (Of course, it's considerably lower for those not in doctorate-granting programs.) The $100,000 figure is actually for full professors, not newly tenured (associate) professors, and again, it's averaging over all institutions. So it's a bit off, but not as wildly as it seems. (Women get paid less on average, in case you were wondering.)

Anonymous said...

PGS, I think you get the structure of the incentives wrong. While I agree that universities have an incentive to create TAs, they have very little economic incentive to train PhD students. PhD students, unlike MA students, get paid to go to school and use up university resources. This is a significant cost to a university (assume 1/4 of a professor's teaching load is for grad training, and it's even worse: you have to hire more people to deal with the paying customers). The cost of training a single PhD, even after the benefits gained by having them as a TA, is still fairly significant. Why would universities take on this cost if their goal was just to increase the labor supply? Wouldn't it be better to free-ride, and let the other universities foot the bill? An MA program is clearly a money-maker, and it helps deal with the TA situation. A PhD program is almost certainly a loss leader for a university, especially in the humanities where we're not patenting anything that can be new lines of revenue for the university.

The oversupply issue is a funny one though. It's clear that we're over-producing PhDs in the sense that there are not enough jobs to go around. But where should we put the filter? It doesn't seem like it should be on undergrads - they should be able to get a philosophy major if they want one. How about with MA programs? After all, these people are *paying* to get *philosophy training*. But so long as these people aren't being lied to, they should be able to pay for more philosophy training. Maybe instead we should do it with PhDs? After all, a PhD is a lot of investment that may well not pay off in terms of a TT job.

This is of course just my view, but I don't see a reasonable place to cut off the flow of people into PhDs. To cut it off, we have to claim that some people should never have spent their time studying philosophy, and we're in a good position to assess upfront who that is. I just don't think we're in that position. Would we rather have a whole lot of apparently qualified people who felt like they were shut out of doing what they loved for a little longer, or people that got to study what they wanted, and then found that it didn't quite work out? I don't think that there is a right answer to this question, but I would rather be able to do what I wanted for a few more years.

Mr. Zero said...

Anon 1:55,

What's the difference in cost to the university between Ph.D. students and MA students? When I was enrolled in an MA program I got paid to go to school. Some places, like Tufts I hear, make you pay your way at least part of the time. But those places don't put you to work while you're paying your way. That is, you get paid for your work as a TA whether you're a TA for an MA program or a Ph.D. program. You aren't TAing for free, are you?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Zero,

My understanding was that most MA programs make you pay, and then if you TA they pay you some amount. While I don't think that anyone demands free labor from MA students, their total pay is much less than a PhD student. Namely, they're still putting up something for tuition, and they have no stipend beyond what teaching affords them. Perhaps I am mistaken about what most MA programs are like: I'd actually never heard of one that paid the students stipends and waived their tuition. It still seems to me that on the whole, MA programs are money-makers for departments/schools, and PhD programs end up costing departments money, especially those departments that do not students to TA every semester.

Anonymous said...

Anon 155:

I've been part of two PhD-granting graduate programs. In each case, MA students received tuition waivers and stipends.

But even if this isn't generally the case, why do you think PhD students cost so much? What are all these resources you're talking about? What are these costs that universities have to assume by taking on PhD students? I've got to say, I don't see any reason to believe your assertion.

recent hire said...

part of the cheap labor problem wrote:

I had the same reaction to those salary statistics, so I went to hunt down the AAUP's latest data on faculty salaries, and found out that that's where the numbers come from—kind of.

True enough. But these numbers lump all disciplines together; from Table E Table E, the numbers include law, business, engineering, and health professions faculty. And there's a huge gap between pay in those disciplines plus economics and comp sci and everything else; the lowest-paid of those six (health professions) made 139.4% of what English faculty make, the next-highest paid discipline (physical sciences) made 118.4% of English faculty. Since the "average" was 125% of English faculty, the disciplines are basically divided cleanly into haves and have-nots, and it's ridiculous to average them together. Especially in an article about PhDs, when med/business/law schools don't give out PhDs.

If you're wondering, philosophy assistant professors made 97.7% of English professors, second lowest just ahead of fine arts. That means the average philosophy assistant professor is making something like $47k.

These numbers add to the perception that faculty are a bunch of rich fat cats, and it's just not true outside the professional schools.

Anonymous said...

"But even if this isn't generally the case, why do you think PhD students cost so much? What are all these resources you're talking about? What are these costs that universities have to assume by taking on PhD students? I've got to say, I don't see any reason to believe your assertion."

At a school with a 3/2 load and at which TT faculty teach one graduate seminar per year, 20% of the TT teaching resources are going to graduate teaching. If they replaced the TAs with adjuncts, they could teach the same number of students with 20% fewer TT faculty.

Thats a big savings on its own, and given that adjuncts are typically paid less (sometimes much less) per class than TA's, there would be a considerable saving of resources there as well.

m.a. program faculty member said...

Most assistantships at M.A. programs come with tuition waivers.

Anonymous said...

At a school with a 3/2 load and at which TT faculty teach one graduate seminar per year, 20% of the TT teaching resources are going to graduate teaching. If they replaced the TAs with adjuncts, they could teach the same number of students with 20% fewer TT faculty.

The place I'm at now has 20 TT profs and 50 grad students. Using the numbers you postulate above, this group of TT faculty could teach 20 undergrad classes if it didn't spend time on grad classes. But, right now, grad students are teaching 40-50 classes. Isn't this 20-30 classes more than the department could teach without the grad program?

You say it would be cheaper to have adjuncts teach these 20-30 extra classes, but I don't believe that adjuncts are paid less per class than grad students. Why do you think this? It hasn't been the case in the two departments I've been part of.

In any case, I don't want to claim that an inexpensive pool of grad student teachers is the only reason that some school might have a grad program, or the only reason why PhD's might be over-produced. In fact, I think the situation is likely pretty complicated overall. The prestige factor is certainly relevant too, as are other factors mentioned above. But I just think it's hard to deny that the way grad students are used is also part of the problem.

Pseudonymous Grad Student said...

Anon. 8:56 --

Watching the site stats has been interesting, although I have to confess PGOAT keeps a closer eye on that stuff than I do. The traffic is pretty much what you would expect: it ramped way up a couple of weeks before the APA, and since then it's ramped back down. These days we get in the neighborhood of 14-15 hundred unique visitors/day.

Pseudonymous Grad Student said...

Anon. 1:55 --

I guess I just don't see the problem of where to make cut-off. The first cut-off comes after college. Ideally, there'd be a second cut-off after a masters program, for the people who weren't sure rught after college whether being a professional philosopher was for them.

In the case of either cut-off, I don't think it involves saying, "some people should never have spent their time studying philosophy". There's every reason to be a philosophy major in college, even if you don't want to be a prof.

And a terminal MA is (among other good things) a perfect way to try philosophy at the grad level just to see if you like it. I wouldn't say someone "shouldn't" have studied philosophy for couple of years if that's what it took for them to realize they should do something else with their lives.

As for people forced out of the business, I guess my sense is it's better to do it earlier than later. I.e., at the BA and MA points, rather than the on the job market. Then people at least still have their 20s to find something else they like to do.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:47 - it's absolutely my experience that adjuncts make *way* less than grad students. I live in a major urban area with quite a few universities, and I along with several grad friends have adjuncted. The standard adjuncting rate per class is 50% - 75% of what we make per class as grad students, and the classes tend to be larger (almost twice as large on average).

Mr. Zero said...

Anon 8:47,

Mrs. Zero is an adjunct and makes far, far less per class than I do. Like, less than 1/3.

Anonymous said...

On the incentives thing, here's my rough estimate of what sort of numbers are relevant:
Typical PhD Stipend: $15,000
Typical tuition for MAs: $20,000
Typical Adjunct pay (per class): $3,000
Typical Professor Salary: $70,000
Typical Student fees/insurance: $5,000

Obviously, these numbers vary - some PhD programs pay more in stipends. Probably there is a good amount of variation between public and private schools on how much MA programs charge. Adjunct pay definitely varies, and this is not the lowest number I've seen. Professor pay is a guess on what Associates make - I have no idea how accurate this number is. Student fees incorporate things like any office space you might take up, library access, IT resources, access to various school facilities, health services, etc.

I take the total cost of a PhD student to be their stipend + Opportunity cost of professors training them + student fees - the saved adjuncting fees. This leaves out tuition, as I assume that that is a price, not a cost, and that the true cost is measured in opportunity cost of professor's time, and the student fees. So this works out to:
15,000 + ((0.25 * 70,000)/N) + 5,000 - 3,000 = 17,000 + (17500/N)

N stands for the ratio of grad students to faculty, so as to capture the cost imposed by each graduate student,

So note that departments are WAY in the red for grad students. You'd have to claim that we do the work of at least 6 adjuncts before departments make money on us. MA students, on the other hand, can get tuition waivers for teaching (itself pretty generous I'd think, compared to the cost of employing adjuncts). They still come out way less ahead than PhD students.

Of course, none of this is to say that we're being lavished with pay and we have nothing to complain about. It is to say, however, that given these costs, it does not make sense to claim that universities intentionally have lots of grad students to keep their labor costs low. Let's assume a department that has 2:1 grad students to faculty. So each PhD student costs about $25750 a year. Since there are two for every faculty member, that means that for each faculty member, the yearly cost of keeping their salary low is $51500. This seems wildly implausible. Feel free to quibble with my numbers, but I'd have to be off by an order of magnitude for the story to be plausible. The economically rational thing for a department to do would be to have an MA program where student don't teach, cut their phd program, and free ride on everyone else producing PhDs.

Anonymous said...

I live in a major urban area with quite a few universities, and I along with several grad friends have adjuncted. The standard adjuncting rate per class is 50% - 75% of what we make per class as grad students, and the classes tend to be larger (almost twice as large on average).

Are you an adjunct-ing and grad student-ing at the same school? Are you adjuncting at a school with a grad program and comparing your pay as adjunct to the pay grad students get there? Otherwise, I'm not sure what to make of your claim.

Mrs. Zero is an adjunct and makes far, far less per class than I do. Like, less than 1/3.

Same question: Mrs. Zero is an adjunct in the same dept and school that you're a grad student in?

FWIW, I'm not doubting your claims, but asking for clarification.

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:30,

I don't think your numbers add up, in part because I don't think you can generalize so easily across grad programs. I think the costs of the various things you describe vary widely.

I'm not clear on the opportunity costs you assign. Are you saying that professors spend 1/4 of their time in a given semester on one grad class? Otherwise I don't see why you figure the opportunity cost at 25% of 70K. If this is what you mean, it strikes me as dubious. In any case, why would this cost be incurred every year? Do prof's recreate these classes de novo every semester? And are you saying that the whole of this cost results from educating grad students, and that none of it should be assigned to the prof's current research interests?

Anyway, I don't find the math here compelling. I'm not satisfied with these numbers in a way that amounts to more than "quibbling."

Anonymous said...

This money (0.25 * 70,000) is going to be spent whether there is a PhD program or not, because if the professor in question doesn't teach a graduate course, she'll teach an undergraduate course. So how are we justified in applying all of this expense to the cost of a graduate program? It's money that's spent either way.

Mr. Zero said...

anon 2:13,

Mrs. Zero is in another field and adjuncts in two schools, neither of which is mine. One is a local CC, the other is a small private school a little further away. She teaches 6 classes per semester and barely makes more than I do.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Zero,

Thanks for the clarification. But now I'm not sure that the data you provide is very helpful.

As I understand it, the question is whether PhD-granting Philosophy Programs spend more on grad students than they do on adjuncts. And this is part of the broader question, why do PhD-granting Philosophy Programs overproduce PhD's? (Well, in any case, this is the problem I'm trying to understand.)

I was told by one Dept Head that his program admits more grad students than maybe it should, because without grad students, they couldn't teach enough sections of various philosophy courses to satisfy the Dean.

So, why do PhD-granting Phil Programs overproduce PhD's? According to this Dept Head, his dept does it because it has to in order to teach all the course sections the university wants it to teach. I gather that other people here think the main cause is the prestige of having a grad program. I think this is a good point too.

Some are saying that adjuncts are less expensive than grad students, so if cost is the only consideration, then grad programs aren't a good solution. If so, they claim, the cost is not the reason for overproduction of PhD's. To make good on this claim, they have to offer data about the relative costs of PhD Phil Grad Students and Phil Adjuncts at one school and in the philosophy program. If we're trying to make sense of the actions of some particular philosophy department, it's no good to compare costs across disciplines or within philosophy but across schools.

In any case, if they are correct about the relative costs (and this is something that is in dispute), they are perhaps correct about what programs should do, if they are trying to save money. But claims about what programs should do don't answer the question of just what programs actually are doing. If the Dept Head above is acting on the reasons he himself offers, then we know why his department might be contributing to the overproduction of PhD's, don't we?

mr. zero said...

Anon 7:09,

I'm not sure why we're overproducing Ph.Ds. I mentioned Mrs. Zero's teaching situation in response to someone's suggestion that adjuncts are more expensive than grad students. it seems to me that they're not--they pay grad students more to do less real work; they're not getting any tuition from either group.

I appreciate what you're trying to control for, but I know lots of people who adjunct in lots of different fields in lots of different schools, and the variations are very small. So I don't think that the overproduction of Ph.Ds doesn't have a purely financial explanation. Perhaps your program admits a few extra grad students for cheap labor, but that doesn't explain why your department has a grad program in the first place, since it would be cheaper just to hire a couple of adjuncts.

I suggest that at least some of it has to do with prestige. The MA program I attended started a Ph.D program during my first year there. This was done over the vehement objections of at least half the faculty, who thought that a) there are too many Ph.D programs already; b) the Ph.D program would be (and is) poorly ranked; c) it would (and kinda did, but not that bad) ruin the MA program, which was highly ranked.

So why did they do it? Their dean told them they had to. This was at a second-tier state school, and the dean wanted to compete, research-wise, with the flagship school.

Perhaps there are moral reasons, too (I know, I'm living in a dream world, but hear me out). Perhaps your department recognizes hiring adjuncts for the exploitation that it is: low wages, vast amounts of work, no benefits, etc, so they don't hire them. Of course, there's a parallel problem with overproducing Ph.Ds, but it's less severe for the same reasons.

Anonymous said...

On opportunity costs:

I assume that one quarter of a professor's time is spent on grad students. This is an assumption that one out of four classes taught is a grad course. Someone pointed out that I don't devote any of the salary to teaching time. Fine - cut the percentage devoted to grad students to one sixth, and the numbers are still very in favor of not having a grad program. The important thing here to remember, though, is that it's not even a matter of how much time professors devote, but how much of the teaching load it is. Professors don't slowly ratchet up to teaching more courses over their careers because prep time goes down. They have a given teaching load. If they were not teaching a grad seminar, they would have to teach an undergrad class. That's all that matters here.

Also note what "opportunity costs" mean, as opposed to "costs" - someone noted that this should not count, as professors would have had this salary anyway. I pre-supposed that this was true - I'm just claiming that the money would have gone toward undergraduate education, not graduate education. (It's not a matter of *whether* money would have been spent, but *what* it would be spent on. Hence "opportunity costs" instead of "costs") But my assumption is probably false, as my understanding of salary data is that PhD-granting institutions pay more than non-PhD-granting institutions. But this point is largely irrelevant, because I'm just claiming that money being spent on grad education would have been spent on undergrads, which holds true in either case.

So again, I'd claim that you're quibbling with numbers in a way that does not qualitatively change the analysis.