I read Professor Taylor’s op-ed about postgraduate education (particularly PhD programs) on Monday, and I’ve been letting my response ferment for a couple days. I’m still torn. It’s the classic paralysis by analysis that grad school prepares students for.
As some of you know, my PhD is from a top-20 program and I have a tenure-track position at the kind of instution that motivated me to pursue a doctorate in the first place. I agree with Taylor – grad school is economic nonsense. Even if you don’t have to take on student loans for tuition, it’s seven (and often more) years of training that would otherwise be prime income-earning years. Instead, you bunk up with a roommate (or thank your deity that you have a spouse with a job – Hi Missy!) and toil away at an assistantship to make ends meet. When you stumble out, you get to face a dreary job market for shamefully-low salary. To call it a lopsided relationship in favor of the universities would be a heroic understatment.
I love my job, but I recognize that I’m incredibly fortunate. The advice I give about grad school belies my experience – get a PhD if you can’t not, and even then, refuse to enroll in any program that would necessitate student loan debt (which isn’t even my advice – it’s from this essay, and this one. Also, this one).
So I think he’s spot-on in that regard.
However – and correct me if yours differs – my experience is that departments already value and strive for the kinds of interdisciplinary connections he proposes. It would be an utter mistake, in my mind, to replace the department structure with “zones of inquiry”. Unless tens of thousands of young faculty have their publication requirements taken off the tenure wagon, academia depends departments organized on discipline-specific lines to shake out the chaff. I support the basic concept, though – but I think most places are doing it within the department structure. An economist, a hydrologist and I study water together – brining department-specific knowledge to bear on a common problem. Broad academic value aside, it’s intellectually rewarding on a personal level.
Also, there may be appropriate place for creative projects – video games, plays, films, etc – in the sciences, but dissertations ain’t it. I feel like I’m overstepping my bounds here, but the point of a dissertation isn’t to generate a publication-ready book, right? I’ve always understood it as a rite of research-related passage – an apprenticeship on one of the middle floors of the ivory tower. The ones with the tiny, steel, windowless cubicles.
In the end, I think his advice – “Do not what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back andd tell me about it” – is solid. But I give the argument that got him there a B+.