fairness and high-risk, high-reward

I have heard recently two concerns about training for job markets that might be called high-risk, high-reward jobs. The implication is that such training programs are unfair because they aim too high for students’ likely job prospects.

  • The so-called crisis of the Ph.D., particularly in the humanities, has spawned arguments that because very few graduate students will achieve tenured positions at R1 universities (as Neal shows here), graduate training should be reformed to emphasize where most students will end up, such as adjunct, small-college, private-sector, and “alt-ac”. The Chronicle carried a related essay, “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” arguing that “Producing a dissertation is particularly poor preparation, he adds, for graduates whose first jobs are outside of academe—now roughly half of new Ph.D.’s with postgraduation employment commitments.”
  • One of the criticisms of big-time college revenue sports (football and men’s basketball) is that the athletes are exploited by their universities, which earn large amounts of money while the athletes are “compensated” only with access to education and training that may lead to a lucrative career in the big leagues. But since most such athletes will not end up in the big leagues, or (particularly in football) will likely only play there for a few years, the training model at the collegiate level is portrayed as “unfair.”

In both of these cases, (almost) the only possible training for the rare but highly desireable outcome is the high-risk road. Few graduate students will become academic stars, but all academic stars had to be graduate students first. Few college basketball players will become NBA stars, but (almost) all NBA stars had to be college basketball players first.

From the perspective of a prospective graduate student or college basketball player, it may well be appropriate to exercise caution and avoid such high-stakes gambles. But from the perspective of graduate schools and college basketball programs, it is not necessarily the right policy choice to target training and preparation at the modal graduate/player. My contention is that there’s nothing inherently unfair about a system that aims to produce the few top achievers, even if that means the modal outcome is below ambitions. Of course it would be nicer if we didn’t make the modal people feel like failures, and if there were sufficient employment opportunities for them to make sure that destitution isn’t the alternative. But I’m wary of proposals to change the overall focus to reflect probable outcomes because that may compromise the possibility of achieving the rare but most desirable outcomes.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

8 thoughts on “fairness and high-risk, high-reward”

  1. One small point of clarification. I was only looking at hiring by top 20 departments, not all R1s. My guess, based on ASA job banks studies, is that there is about 100 R1 jobs each year filled by sociologists. So about 80% of sociology PhDs don’t live the 2/2 life.


  2. I can’t read the Chronicle article here at home, but the quoted passage strikes me as another example of the fallacy of assuming what [may be] true in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences is true everywhere. Yes, it may very well be that writing a dissertation on gender politics in early 17th century English drama is an inefficient way of learning the skills involved in the types of nonacademic jobs that English PhDs enter.

    On the other hand, writing a dissertation that uses longitudinal survey data or a quasi-experiment to assess school effects on some attainment outcome strikes me as excellent training, probably the best there is, for a job as a lead analyst in the Department of Education. I’d guess that the tighter link to non-academic job-relevant skills also characterizes dissertations in the physical and life sciences and engineering.

    Put differently, even if one accepts that PhD programs should be teaching to the modal outcome (which I don’t), it doesn’t follow that we should abandon the dissertation.


  3. First, I don’t agree with abandoning the dissertation either. The process could use some demystification, but that is an argument that can be made about much of the graduate student experience.

    The comparison to collegiate athletes brings up an interesting point: Many feel that collegiate athletes are underpaid or should even be considered employees of their school (and paid accordingly) rather than students (with all of the lifestyle compromises that are part of being a student athlete).

    Should this not also be the case for graduate students at R1 schools? Particularly in cases where those graduate students are shouldering a significant portion of the load of teaching or research – were they to be replaced with bachelors-level research assistants or masters-level instructors, those replacements would be paid a higher wage (perhaps not in the case of masters-level instructors, given the adjunct problem).

    What, then, is the justification for the underpayment of graduate student research assistants? They require training, of course, but wouldn’t a newly-minted BA/BS level research assistant require just as much training? I’m not saying I think this is a great or even good idea, but it would probably contribute to smaller incoming cohort sizes at the very least (and as a result of that, admissions committees would have a great deal more pressure to select good employees). A side effect of this is that moving into a research analyst career after the PhD wouldn’t be quite as blind a process as it is now.

    Disclaimer: I have no gripes about how funding decisions have been made at my department.


    1. As opposed to people who only work, graduate students in addition to their stipends receive education. This is not cheap. In fact, graduate education is very expensive and undergraduate tuition typically subsidizes the cost of graduate education at most private universities. Consider the relatively small class sizes and the high levels of individual instruction in labs or office hours, including all the time spent commenting on your paper/thesis drafts.

      A graduate student who does a good job teaching and makes no demands on the faculty (including, presumably taking no classes that require that their papers be read) and thus is making no progress to the degree is, indeed, being exploited as cheap labor. But in programs that are taking seriously the task of educating and mentoring graduate students and are doing the job of kicking out the students who are making no progress to the degree, the cost of educating the student cannot be ignored.

      This is not, by the way, to oppose a call for higher stipends on my campus or elsewhere. A case could even be made that graduate education is valueless for students who will not end up employed. But it is wrong to imagine that graduate education is free to the institution offering it.

      The correct question is what the balance is between the revenue TAs generate via undergraduate tuition and their total compensation (stipend plus benefits plus education). And then whether it would save money or cost more money to pay adjunct faculty. I believe the financial balance has tipped toward adjuncts being cheaper than graduate students, obviously varying with the actual wage and teaching loads of the adjuncts and the extent to which graduate students are actively educated by the faculty.

      None of this, by the way, is to disagree that the real reason there are too many graduate students relative to their job prospects is that faculty like to have graduate students to teach and work with and, yes, grade their papers, lead their discussion sections, and do the grunt work in their research, and consider a job to be less desirable if there are no graduate students.


      1. the real reason there are too many graduate students relative to their job prospects is that faculty like to have graduate students to teach and work with and, yes, grade their papers, lead their discussion sections, and do the grunt work in their research, and consider a job to be less desirable if there are no graduate students

        Whatever the truth of this for a public university, it is even more truetastically true at a private university, and trueriffically truer still for a department in a private university with a humanities-level grants profile. Another way of thinking about it would be to imagine the question coming before a Provost of “Why can’t we get rid of our graduate program in X?” Seems to me that the prospect of faculty revolt and departures would be the primary answer, and maybe the only winning answer.

        Of course, a “real reason” explanation of the supply side is still at most half the explanation. If there are too many students enrolled relative to their job prospects, the participation of students would still require its own explanation. (Me, I should note that I think that participating in a risky aspriational market of one sort or another is precisely the sort of thing a rational person should be doing in one’s twenties, although that by itself doesn’t explain Why Graduate School?)


  4. I’m not sure you need to be an administrator to know where these two different revenue streams enter on line items; revenue from sports do not magically transfer to the colleges or schools on campus in the same way that our grants cannot, on principle and practice, pay for new helmets. The only overlap in college sports seems to be offering academic training at a reduced rate (at elite institutions). Regarding graduate students and pay; we were all unknown quantities when we started teaching so there is no reason to pay high wages for the untested or unproven members of the department. Over paying bad-teacher-great-resesrcher-types is another story, but that is another discussion all together. On balance, however, I’m trying hard to imagine a training program — sports-related or educational — that is, in and of itself, low-risk and high-output (I think many folks see a sure thing like computer science in 90s or nursing in the 10s and think they’ve hit the sweet spot, but there is no such thing when we drift from statistics to the lived experience).


  5. I don’t see how the dissertation is the problem. The problem is the lack of other sorts of training. My dissertation work was excellent preparation for some aspects of my teaching-intensive career, including the research that those of us in teaching-intensive positions are still expected to do as well as for teaching research methods and mentoring undergraduates in their own independent research. Training in teaching, curricular development, and various sorts of service, however, is also essential, and I obtained such training only through my own efforts. Similarly, I think dissertation-writing is excellent preparation for any alt-ac career which entails writing, research, and project management; similarly, though, the dissertation cannot stand on its own and should be accompanied by opportunities to learn to write for broader audiences, earn grants, work collaboratively and cross-disciplinarily, and develop applied skills.

    And I don’t think high risk high reward paths are a problem UNLESS it is not clear to those along said paths that the path is indeed high risk. So aside from adding opportunities for graduate students to get useful career-focused training in addition to the dissertation, departments should also be much more explicit about job placement among their alumni.


  6. Regarding reasons for entering a low-payoff situation: The people who are disproportionately on the graduate school path are those who have family resources that cushion the risk. And there are the pool of people who prefer school to work and signed up for graduate school as an extension of school. And the people who would prefer a job but couldn’t get a job and if they can afford to go to graduate school, find that to be an option with a better potential upside than unemployment. Prior to the changes in the Affordable Health Care Act, another reason some people were in graduate school was to have access to health insurance.

    The field is surely competitive at the top and a lot of departments could do a much better job of training graduate students for all dimensions of their future careers, but don’t forget that a significant fraction of the drop out rate along the way is people whose entry was not due so much to a desire to be a sociologist as a lack of any other plan. This statement of course does not apply to the people who work hard, write a lot, publish or at least try to publish etc and still have trouble getting a job at the end.


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