The Grad School Hamster Wheel


It's in grad school that students tend to really feel stressed about their student loans and other debts. After years in the trenches, they often ask themselves what this is all for.

So check out this interesting observation in "End the University as We Know It," an April 26, 2009 Op Ed article in the New York Times by Mark C. Taylor:

"The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn't conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That's one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course - with no benefits - than it is to hire full-time professors."

Taylor, who chairs Columbia University's religion department, continues, "In other words, young people enrol in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings."

Okay, this is not news to many grad students, but it does seem to be getting worse. So how do we get past this academic hamster wheel?

Taylor has two suggestions on this point (his article covers other issues as well). Here they are, with the caveat that neither would directly ease the debt burden of grad students.

"Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world...

Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills."

Here's a link if you'd like to read the full article.

As for that little matter of growing student debt and low stipends for grad students ...


© Jeannine Mitchell 2009-2013


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