Is it my job to discourage PhD students?

I stirred up some trouble over at Code and Culture because I pushed back on Gabriel’s post on the problems faced by adjuncts. Rossman’s breakdown of the contemporary academy’s treatment of adjunct is pretty standard, which is one reason why I stirred the hornet’s nest: Rossman is not one to fall into standard tropes about anything.

The standard story: poor adjuncts, sufferers from the glut of PhDs, eat the crumbs left by the tenure track faculty, while the tenure track faculty live well, teach only highly desired graduate courses, etc. This story you can find almost weekly in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Economist runs a story on it every decade. One nonstandard element of Rossman’s breakdown is the (probably) correct assumption that unionizing won’t accomplish much for adjuncts.

I have a somewhat different perspective. Rossman has spent his graduate and post-graduate time at universities that have a tremendous number of hangers-on: Princeton and UCLA. By contrast, I began at Virginia Tech in a challenging location for recruitment, and while we did have PhD students teach, we did not have an army of adjuncts. Nonetheless, we still taught the standard load. It was a bit more work than what I have at USC–I did more course preps—-but it was hardly a life of slavery. It got me thinking: who really benefits from the excess labor pool and who doesn’t?

I strongly suspect–though I have no proof–that universities and taxpayers/tuition payers are the big beneficiaries of adjuncts. At VT, we simply offered somewhat fewer courses to graduate than other programs do, which made us a bit less competitive. So one thing universities get to do is require more credits to graduate if they have adjuncts. And even though parents, students, and taxpayers are footing the bill for this diversity of choice, they would have to pay more if they got this diversity with tenure-track faculty. In return students do get access to a much bigger pool of classes and majors than otherwise. The university benefits (and employees, like faculty, benefit) from the appearance of satisfying customer/voter demands and capturing more consumer surplus through more supply provided by adjuncts–and I suspect this is particularly true in the campus moneymakers of business and engineering.

So at VT my senior faculty preferred I teach environmental courses rather than transport courses because we had a critical mass of environmental courses already, and we could respectably claim that speciality. But a credible transport concentration was not going to happen with just me and Tom Sanchez, both of us capable of buying out classes when we felt like it. At USC, we have more faculty and a whole bunch of professional transport people who actually want to teach, so we can credibly offer both transport and environment.

Thus I’m not convinced my life is that much different as a faculty member in an adjunct rich place than it was in an adjunct poor one. And it’s not like faculty at major research universities fifty years ago taught five classes a semester prior to adjuncts becoming common. These tenure-track faculty taught their 2/2, they did their research. Same as now.

If anything, the adjunct labor pool probably depresses tenure track wages and makes tenure track positions more scarce. Why hire a relatively more expensive, less governable t-t faculty member if you have two people who are willing to work for low wages with little long-term risk? Tenure creates its own barriers to entry, but surely the willingness of some to work for little compensation does not help.

So if there are too many PhDs, whose fault is it? The tenure-track faculty who exploit graduate student labor? I find that hard to believe because in my experience with students, even very good ones, are time-consuming. Some are simply not going anywhere: they don’t really understand the job, and they don’t listen to you, or conversely, you are incapable of communicating anything in the way they need to hear it; there are many ways a teacher can fail a student and vice versa. My own advisor, an exceptionally gifted scholar in multiple ways, is truly gifted at working with students of differing intellectual and emotional maturities, approaches, and interests. My colleague, David Sloane, is similarly gifted. But not all of us are so gifted, and I most assuredly am not.

As to my needing graduate students to do my work? My workload is less when I am by myself, working alone: few people that I know (and, more importantly, that I can boss around) handle data as well as I do.

Moreover, it’s very hard to distinguish–really–who among graduate students has the stuff to succeed and who won’t. So while perhaps we should cull back, it’s hard at admissions to suss who is going to be a star and who won’t be. It’s also hard to figure it out at the margin. At the extremes, it’s easy: the people who think the academy is a 9 to 5 job with three months off in the summer–good luck to them. Chances are, they will have more time off than they’d like. Sure, you think you know who has the juice to fight their way through a tough labor market and who doesn’t, but you don’t know. My colleagues are wrong about students all the time, and so am I.

Stars like Rossman and his spouse, one of my incredibly productive colleagues, Nicole Esparza, are easy to place bets on. They are on the end of the distribution of young people easy to see as likely successes–the shiny ones who say and write more brilliant things before breakfast than the rest of us do in a week (or in a lifetime). They possess a winning combination: they have great ideas, motivation, and strong writing voices. But among us ordinary types, work and luck make a difference, and it’s harder to see who should stay and who shouldn’t.