My musings on different political topics relevant to America today.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The PhD Dilemma

I have been considering pursuing an Economics PhD.  However the more I have looked into it the more I have realized that the odds are heavily, and by that I mean HEAVILY, stacked against you that you will land a faculty job at a College as a Professor, let alone ever be tenured.  I am still weighing my options but I realize that a PhD very well may not be for me.  Many articles I read indicated that even if you went to a top notch school, your odds of obtaining a teaching job at a college when you finally finish your PhD program are slim.   There are bright spots.  Despite how hard it is to obtain a teaching job, those in the sciences have good opportunities in the private sector.  This unfortunately, is not the case in the social sciences, where you probably will not do anything directly related to your discipline unless you teach, or work at a think tank.  The unfortunate fact is that there is simply an oversupply of PhDs in the social sciences.  Thus there is insanely intense competition for the few jobs out there.  The average number of applicants for American history positions at colleges and Universities was 118 in 2011,  118!

While I studied this I started thinking.  I asked, what if this oversupply is not only affecting the poor penniless PhDs that are underemployed or unemployed, what if its affecting the whole institution of higher learning?  I had realized from studying up on it that it has been a persistent problem for several decades for there to be an oversupply of PhDs.  An oversupply of PhD's inevitably means that colleges, Universities, and think tanks, have an insane number of applicants to choose from for each position.  This of course meant that those institutions could probably find the "perfect" candidate more or less, and by perfect I mean someone that fits the mold precisely for what they want.

The best way to explain what I exactly I mean is to describe my own experience applying for internships at think tanks.  I applied to one think tank that is very conservative.  I submitted my resume and they prompted for my first interview.  The first interview went smoothly, but then came the second interview.  I put down on my application that I was interested in the politics of health care, and she asked me about that interest.  I foolhardily expressed exactly what I thought about it at the time.  I believed that government should mandate a standard policy that insurance companies must offer that would be the same across the board with every other insurance company (I didn't think it should be the only policy, just a benchmark for comparison).  I believed that this would help consumers better know what they were buying and which company had the best deal.  I drew off the life insurance market as the prime example of how this would work.  When websites opened up that allowed people to compare life insurance prices, the price of life insurance dropped because people could easily see which was the better deal. Since health insurance is more complicated, a standard plan should be offered as a benchmark to allow people to access the price competitiveness of identical policies.  I also believed there should be a basic mandate for catastrophic insurance.  This probably did me in for the internship.  I never heard back for a third interview.

Those types of internships, political internships, face stiff competition as well.  That stiff competition allows the institutions to be through going ideological purists, secular religious zealots, if you will.  The same, I believe, is happening to academia.  Its becoming a political game of saying all the right things to the right people, of stroking egos, and of hiding any misgivings you may have about the secular religion you have chosen.  After all, if you dare to misspeak and express doubt, then you won't pass the institution's litmus test, and will be automatically disqualified from consideration.

Indeed, while before achieving tenure gave a Professor security and then allowed him to go astray from the flock and think on his own if he wished, now only a very lucky few are ever given tenure, so now many Professors have to stress day in and day out that they might say something that will get them kicked out of the club.  The sad thing is that it was already unlikely that dissidents would be offered the job in the first place, but now the lack of tenure offerings guarantees that any dissidence can instantly be  squashed.

All of this combined means that there are tons of very smart people, but only the few that are the most narrowminded (in appearance at least) will ever be awarded a job as a Professor or on the staff of a think tank.  This is very unfortunate.  There is already plenty of arrogance in the ivory tower.  The ivory tower is notorious for viewing anyone without a PhD with disdain, as if the opinion of other's matters little unless they have a PhD as well.  This arrogance, coupled with narrow mindedness, could not possibly be a worse combination.  We have been seeing it openly on capitol hill, this pugnacious combination.  Behind the scenes, its been wreaking havoc in the ivory tower.

Here is one article I looked at that I highly recommend looking at if you are considering a PhD.  Its fine to go after it, but please, at least do your research first before jumping in to the fray.

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