Dumping on academia has become one of the favorite pursuits of print journalists everywhere. As the higher education system in this country suffers one blow after another, journalists are happy to serve their corporate masters and promote the idea that education is bad, useless, and harmful. In their efforts to talk people out of pursuing higher education, such journalists stoop to half-truths and even outright lies.
Take, for example, a piece titled “The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time” that appeared a few days ago in The Economist. The author of this article demonstrates how partial truth easily becomes a full-blown lie. In order to prove that graduate students are often overworked and exploited, this irresponsible journalist says the following about Yale: “A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching.” As somebody who graduated from the doctoral program at Yale, let me tell you how things really are.
A graduate student’s stipend at Yale is, indeed, in the vicinity of $20,000 per year. A graduate student at Yale also gets a tuition waiver and medical insurance, which put the value of the entire package somewhere around $50,000 per year. You are guaranteed to get this funding for 5 years. Out of these 5 years, the first two are spent taking courses (not teaching, mind you) and preparing for the comprehensive exams. The next two years a graduate student does teach, but never more than one course per semester. For people who have the hardest teaching workload (those who teach language courses) this means working for 50 minutes a day five days a week. For the rest, it’s less than that. The fifth year of the doctoral program is dedicated to writing the dissertation. You get the same funding as in the previous years but do not have to teach or, actually, be on campus at all. I, for one, moved back to Canada in my fifth year to spend time with my family and my Montreal friends. A simple calculation shows that a graduate student at Yale ends up receiving a total of $250,000, in exchange for which amount s/he is required to teach a total of 4 courses. Not too shabby at all, in my opinion.
The article’s barrage of lies gets completely out of hand when the author states that “In the humanities . . . most students pay for their own PhDs.” When I apllied (and was accepted) into several of the best graduate programs in the US, nobody asked me to pay for anything. Some universities had a worse package, some offered a better one, but there was never any talk of me paying tuition anywhere. The Economist‘s article goes out of its way to prove that “too many” people go to graduate school. Anybody with an ounce of grey matter would ask themselves where all these grad students are supposed to get the huge amounts of money to pay for this education. This quasi-journalist, though, is happy to spread unchecked falsehoods just to prove the point that more education is worse than less.
The article’s author uses the favorite trcik of irresponsible journalists as Fox News, which consists of introducing unsupported, ridiculous lies as something that “some people say”: “Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.” It would be nice to get a couple of quotes here from these “fiercest critics” and “business leaders”, or at least to be given their names, but The Economist‘s authors feel no need to burden themselves with looking for proof for their outlandish suggestions. Only a complete idiot would think that a PhD is about “teaching skills.” It’s not like the information is top-secret, so there is no justification for this quasi-journalist’s strange criticisms of academia.
Another egregious statement provided by the article’s author is “Research at one American university found that those who finish [with a PhD] are no cleverer than those who do not.” Of course, the university in question is never named and no link to this mysterious study is provided. I, for one, would be really interested in finding out how you measure “cleverness” and what kind of scientists conduct such idiotic studies. As a blogger, I can afford to write pretty much anything I want in my posts. Still, I challenge anybody to find a single instance when I talked about “a study at a university” and failed to link to the information I referenced.
The main argument this article provides about why graduate studies are useless is that not everybody with a PhD ends up becoming a Full Professor and making the average professorial salary of $109,000. Obviously, that’s true. It is just as true for any other profession where becoming one of the top earners in your field is never a guarantee, no matter what your area of specialization is. Still, graduate school provides grad students with one undeniable benefit: five or more years that can be dedicated to bettering oneself intellectually, hanging out with friends, travelling, reading, thinking, writing, partying, etc. Grad school is the best way to delay one’s entrance into the hamster race of the corporate world. Who else but the graduate students have the luxury of sleeping in until noon on a regular basis or staying in bed with books for a month well into their thirties? No matter how much one will end up making after graduation, having this experience is priceless.
By the end of the article, the author reveals the real reason behind her dislike of grad school: “Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known. Your correspondent was aware of them over a decade ago while she slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology.” It is no surprise to me that someone who writes so clumsily and puts out such an unconvincing, badly researched and dishonest piece of rubbish didn’t thrive either in or out of grad school. Sadly, there are ignoramuses and under-achievers everywhere. Even the best system in the world couldn’t guarantee a complete absence of unintelligent, uninspired plodders who are incapable of benefitting from it.
I have cancelled all of my subscriptions to print media (except one to the Spanish newspaper El Pais.) I’m so frustrated with this irresponsible journalism that charges good money to provide me with material based on what “some people say” or “a study has discovered” that I now get all of my information from bloggers I trust. They, at least, never forget to offer proof for their statements and do responsible research before writing.