Caveat emptor

William Croft wcroft at UNM.EDU
Mon Sep 23 18:24:34 UTC 2013

I was out of town last week and missed out on all the discussion. Dan raises two questions that merit discussion:

1. Is it morally wrong to encourage students to pursue a PhD in the humanities and other less remunerative disciplines?
2. Is it practically (economically) wrong for university administrations to let students pursue PhDs in such disciplines?

Question 1 is one that many of us who are professors of linguistics deal with every day. Question 2 is one that administrators deal with, from department chairs to deans to higher administrators. Dan strongly suggests that the answer to both questions is 'yes'.

First, a couple of things should be mentioned that should be taken into consideration, at least in the US system. There has been a huge shift towards non-tenure-track academic positions, thanks in part to the cutting of funding of public universities by state legislatures. So the chances for a tenure-track job has been diminished by a political change in attitudes towards funding higher education (and it is ultimately a political phenomenon), leaving aside any question of how many students pursue PhDs. I believe this is also true of private universities in the US, but not so much for UK universities, at least by the time I left the UK (2005).

On the other hand, departments are under pressure to increase PhD enrollments. As graduate admissions chair, I am soon to be visited by an administrator to ask how we could increase our graduate enrollments. And as minimum course enrollments are raised, we are given another incentive to increase graduate enrollments; otherwise, our graduate courses will be cancelled. Perhaps Dan, as a dean, is interested in pushing back against this trend; but at the University of New Mexico, it is a constant pressure.

Several people said that the answer to 1 is to be honest with students pursuing a PhD program. I asked a similar question on Linguist List around 20 years ago, and pretty much got the same answer. We are honest with our students about job propects at UNM.

The resources question (question 2) is an interesting one. Perhaps we should be more selective in admissions. Getting an academic position is one selection bottleneck. Getting tenure is another. Even so, most scientists do not contribute to the advancement of science, as pointed out by David Hull in "The evolution of conceptual systems in science" (included in his "Science and selection", CUP 2002). One might think this is very wasteful. But in the same article Hull reports a study of physicists and their publishing rates showed that the massive cutbacks in hiring in the late 1960s and 1970s led to a decrease in the number of physics publications. Biological evolution is "wasteful"; conceptual evolution may be as well. That is, cruel as it may be to the unlucky (or untalented?) individuals, giving as many persons a shot at a PhD, then at an academic position, may lead to more scientific advancement than engaging in conscious intentional selection processes. Of course, being generous in opportunity means being generous in funding as well; try convincing a state legislature of that...

Bill Croft

On Sep 16, 2013, at 10:59 AM, "Everett, Daniel" <DEVERETT at BENTLEY.EDU<mailto:DEVERETT at BENTLEY.EDU>> wrote:


I am posting this because linguistics is one of the disciplines I think needs to consider this seriously. There are too many academics in the liberal arts with no chance of full-time, secure employment in the area in which they have done their PhD.

I am not knocking the discipline. I just see too many folks in the areas where I have lived looking for part-time employment because they cannot get full-time work.


A lot of what drives prestige attribution in academics are rejection rates. Publishing in a journal with a 95% rejection rate is usually more prestigious than publishing in a journal with a 50% rejection rate. Getting into a college or program with a high rejection rate is usually more prestigious than getting into one with a lower rejection rate.

So it is only natural that academics, enculturated into this system, might believe that their department is better the more applicants it gets for a position. Up to a point perhaps. But if you are, as we had at places I have been in English departments, Linguistics Departments, Philosophy Departments and so on getting, say, hundreds of applications per position, it isn't prestige that is involved. It is an ailing discipline that needs to declare a moratorium on PhDs. Remember, potential graduate students  trust us. They will enter our programs if they seem interesting, even if there is about zero chance for them to get a good job. They do this because they believe that you wouldn't have accepted them knowing they had little chance of employment.

We need to think about this and talk about it more as a discipline.  One might make the case that PhD students should not be admitted to programs who have less than 95% employment rate in the subject of the PhD. Perhaps a few points lower. At least perhaps we could consider a moratorium on PhD admissions for lower-placement departments.

Daniel L. Everett
Dean of Arts and Sciences
Bentley University – Morison 308
175 Forest Street
Waltham, MA 02452
T: 781.891.2188
F: 781.819.2125<>


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