too much education

UPDATE: I’ve found a few spelling and other errors and have corrected them.  Doubtless others exist but I have corrected enough of them to warrant announcing the corrections.

I’ve just started reading “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” (amazon, The Atlantic review).  The book is about an Adjunct professor and how the proliferation of adjunct professors harms students, the professors and the system.

The extra adjunct profs are needed because of an artificial demand for college degrees for jobs that don’t particularly need them.  They aren’t “real professors” and their work typically won’t help them become real professors either.  They are an artificial supply created to handle this artificial demand with no one but the university profiting from the arrangement.

Hereabouts, In the Herald there is an article about “people who are highly educated but economically inactive”.  I foolishly thought the article would be about highly educated housewives.  Korea is still a land where married women choose to stay at home.

No, it is about people unwilling to look for work they didn’t train for:

Presumably, many of those economically inactive people have given up the idea of actively seeking employment when jobs available to them are considered to be beneath them. They are often referred to as “discouraged” workers.

Decent jobs are not easily created at a time when colleges and universities are sending out an increasing number of graduates each year. When such jobs are not available, discouraged graduates simply give up, rendering the high level of education they have received useless.

Many Koreans overeducate themselves out of the job market, with more than 80 percent of high school graduates being admitted to colleges or universities each year. The ratio soared from 33.2 percent in 1990 to 83 percent in 2009 ― a phenomenon often referred to as “inflation in education.” 

If you read the original Herald article, there is a strange paragraph about how companies – out of the goodness of their hearts- should create jobs for these university graduates – simply because they should and apparently have the money.

Anyway, Professor X (the anonymous author of Basement) describes the expectations the university has for his students – they should be able to find work with the training he gives but also be prepared and with the skills needed to advance to graduate degrees in their fields.   The business of the US government is business and the business of professors is apparently to make more professors.

Which brings us to three articles from Nature on PhDs.

In Rethinking PhDs, Allison McCook writes:

“Most of them are not going to make it.” That was the thought that ran through Animesh Ray’s mind 15 years ago, as he watched excellent PhD students — including some at his own institution, the University of Rochester in New York — struggle to find faculty positions in academia, the only jobs they had ever been trained for. Some were destined for perpetual postdoctoral fellowships; others would leave science altogether.

Within a few years, the associate professor was in a position to do something about it. A stint in a start-up company in California had convinced him that many PhD graduates were poor at working in teams and managing shifting goals, the type of skills that industrial employers demand. So he started to develop a programme that would give students at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) in Claremont, California, these skills. “I was determined not to have to keep watching scientists struggle to find the jobs they were trained to do.”


In The PhD Factory, David Cyranoski and others write about the rising popularity of doctorates:

Scientists who attain a PhD are rightly proud — they have gained entry to an academic elite. But it is not as elite as it once was. The number of science doctorates earned each year grew by nearly 40% between 1998 and 2008, to some 34,000, in countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The growth shows no sign of slowing: most countries are building up their higher-education systems because they see educated workers as a key to economic growth (see ‘The rise of doctorates’). But in much of the world, science PhD graduates may never get a chance to take full advantage of their qualifications.

Japan’s case may relate well to Korea’s:

In the 1990s, the government set a policy to triple the number of postdocs to 10,000, and stepped up PhD recruitment to meet that goal. The policy was meant to bring Japan’s science capacity up to match that of the West — but is now much criticized because, although it quickly succeeded, it gave little thought to where all those postdocs were going to end up.

Academia doesn’t want them: the number of 18-year-olds entering higher education has been dropping, so universities don’t need the staff. Neither does Japanese industry, which has traditionally preferred young, fresh bachelor’s graduates who can be trained on the job. 

Mark Taylor in Reform the PhD System or Close It Down continues the call for change:

The system of PhD education in the United States and many other countries is broken and unsustainable, and needs to be reconceived. In many fields, it creates only a cruel fantasy of future employment that promotes the self-interest of faculty members at the expense of students. The reality is that there are very few jobs for people who might have spent up to 12 years on their degrees.

Most doctoral-education programmes conform to a model defined in European universities during the Middle Ages, in which education is a process of cloning that trains students to do what their mentors do. The clones now vastly outnumber their mentors. The academic job market collapsed in the 1970s, yet universities have not adjusted their admissions policies, because they need graduate students to work in laboratories and as teaching assistants.

Teaching assistants.  They would be similar to adjunct professors, right?

The three articles do suggest ways to improve the system.  Most involve cross-disciplinary degrees and work on real-world problems.  “Provid(ing) clean water to a growing population” is a one example.  Cyranoski also suggested cross-ocean degrees (‘cross-ocean’ is my term) where students might study at an American and a British university with two advisors in two disciplines.  The fact that neither advisor was fully in charge would require the student to take more control of his work.

Rethinking PhDs and The PhD Factory are also available as PDFs at the links above.

I have worked at two universities in Korea.  The first was perhaps at the third tier and the current one is rising through the ranks rapidly (according to their own PR).  Both seem more like three- and four- year technical schools.  My students don’t learn biology, they learn bio-tech; I don’t think there is a computer science program but there is a computer game design major…  One student in a Police Administration program told me she was interested in continuing to a PhD in Pol Admin (and she seemed smart and capable enough) and the other students looked surprised.  I had thought this technical school focus was wrong.  I have nothing against such schools but felt, from the way my university worked, twenty-something years ago, that such College style training was improper for University.  Clearly, I need to rethink this.

Added later: Possibly related: Tom the Dancing Bug explores For Profit Universities.

Added later still: By 2014, there will be more administrators than instructors at some US colleges.

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One Response to “too much education”

  1. In the basement, a book review « Surprisesaplenty's Blog Says:

    [...] Surprisesaplenty's Blog learning how to teach how to learn « too much education [...]

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