I have described the difficult economic and practical realities of pursuing graduate education in the past. (See here.) Now I'd like to offer a limited defense of going to grad school, particularly in this economy.
The first thing to talk about is the ideal of informed choice. To put this argument simply, anyone who chooses to engage in graduate education with a goal of working at a university actually has a vastly better set of employment information than many other occupations. Professional academic organizations keep detailed records of the number of PhDs graduated and the number of job openings. That means that you can understand the odds with numerical precision, at least in the openings/candidates sense. While I have sympathy for graduate students who fail to fully appreciate the meaning of this kind of research, I have limited sympathy for those who fail to appropriately research the job prospects and the assumed near future of the university. Being a graduate student means, usually, that you are saying "I intend to be a researcher for the rest of my life." If you can't dedicate yourself to fully exploring the numbers, the facts, and the opinions about the academic job market, perhaps it's better to consider your temperament.
What's more, many simplistic takes on graduate education assume an average student. And, of course, there are exceptional students and mediocre students and so on. Of course, self-knowledge about such things is difficult, but it's important to reckon with the fact that some students certainly can and should proceed with some degree of confidence. Additionally, there are as many trends and fashions and dynamics within the academic job market as there are within in any other field, and occasionally, such things can be exploited if a young academic is a mixture of savvy and lucky.
Certainly, though, such things don't change the essential situation. What does change the equation is this: many PhD students are funded with GAs or fellowships that provide tuition reimbursement and a modest stipend. Under these conditions-- and I think people absolutely shouldn't enter a doctoral program without funding-- the calculation changes considerably.
With funding, the arguments against going through a PhD program become rather toothless. It's true that graduate students make scandalously little money for their teaching, but of course PhD funding includes a tuition waiver. And while lord knows how difficult it can be to survive on less than $20,000 a year (in the privileged American sense of "survive"), one of the nice elements of university life is how much is subsidized for students. Killer library access, a rich suite of computer and technical resources at even poorly funded universities, access to all kinds of guidance and expertise, cheap tickets to college sporting events and concerts, lots of subsidized day trips and reduced price tickets for museums and galleries, a genuine community with multiple outlets for social engagement, free condoms by the bushel.... For someone who is willing to live without a plasma TV or a new car, and who doesn't have the pressure of raising children, it can be a stimulating life on little pay.
No, if a graduate student is funded, the argument hinges on the idea of opportunity cost. The graduate student, in this argument, is not merely laboring for little pay, but is losing out on the pay that he or she would be earning at a job. There's many things to say about this, but the simplest is that opportunity cost suggests, well, opportunity. That is, the arguments about opportunity cost often seem to assume a world where you can go and get that uninspiring but reliable, reasonably well-paying office job. Instead, we're operating in a country with something like 12% true joblessness and an absolutely brutally competitive market for those jobs.
It's worth asking: how many Americans, faced with a growing sense of hopelessness after prolonged unemployment, would take the funded PhD deal even if they were certain they wouldn't be employed in a TT job after? In other words, how many Americans would take 4 or 5 years of teaching class, attending class, and generally living the grad student life, all for the paltry wages of a grad student? It's a sad statement about the current economic situation that I think a fair number would.
It's also the case that there are actually more outs than people tend to imagine. It's true that many PhD candidates see anything else than a tenure-track job at a research university as failure. But a long-term contract at a community or junior college, in the broader perspective, can often be rewarding, particularly if your first interest is in teaching rather than in research. Even adjuncting full time is not some horrid life. Obviously, long-term contracts are better, and it helps to have a spouse with medical benefits (but let's see what ACA has up its sleeve in the long run). But the idea that adjuncting four classes is a terrible life, particularly in the context of this economy, doesn't scan to me. (It's true that, as I understand it, long-term adjunct or community college work can hurt a CV for applying to TT jobs, and this seems to me to be one of many ways college administrators and department chairs can walk the talk and make life better for those struggling postdocs.)
Finally, there is the simple fact that education is not exclusively an investment, and that thinking of it as such is perverse. (The tendency to think of absolutely all aspects of human behavior in terms of making an investment or cashing in on one is part of the legacy of some very serious people, and thanks, dudes.) To look at graduate education only as a matter of earning potential and without considering the value of the, you know, stuff you learn and experience is like buying a chair and trying to quantify its value without taking into account the value of sitting in it. For many graduate students, the years in grad school are among the very best of their lives. There are some people who merely want to appear to be scholars, but most are truly obsessed with their idiosyncratic academic issues. To get the opportunity to do little but pursue those interests, teach, and think is a rare privilege.
Does any of this change the basic math? No. Reform is badly needed. Academic departments need to take on less graduate students, particularly unfunded ones. (Some schools that can afford it admit no one to their doctoral programs who won't be funded.) Professors and administrators need to be far more assertive to students that they feel shouldn't pursue a doctorate. This should include refusing to provide letters of recommendation to such students. Fewer grad students will necessarily raise the price of instruction, and it's fair to ask how to facilitate that when the price of college is already rising. This is a whole other discussion, but I would start with walking back the crazy expansion of the ranks of college administrators, which would come along with a perhaps sad but very necessary reduction in the number of extracurricular and athletic activities on college campuses. (Slowing mission creep, in other words.) Additionally, I would counsel a move away from the frankly absurd physical expansion that has occurred at many college campuses, which is part and parcel with the "Club Med plus classes" perspective on collegiate education.
What I am asking for, in the short term, is perhaps just a little more regard for a beleaguered and largely defenseless class of people. I often can't decide what is worse in the endless round of videos and animations and essays describing these tough realities, the openly mocking and hateful, or the crocodile tears of those who merely resent the impertinence of those who want to live the life of the mind. There are plenty who talk about this situation out of deep principle and real concern, of course, but many do not. Academics are my people, and whatever mockery you'd like to come up with, I love them.
Ultimately, though, I doubt that arguments, or qualifications of arguments, like this one will penetrate. This is in part because of the persistent and rampant anti-intellectualism that pervades American life. There is something about the implied judgment of educating yourself that really brings it out of people in our country. (I have friends who are graduate students in other countries, and they always ask me, "why do Americans hate higher education?" They particularly can't understand it because American higher education is the envy of the world.)
But that's not the only thing going on here. Going to law school, long the definition of practicality and the sober pursuit of capitalistic success, has become in a few short years a numerically bad bet, and the boo birds have descended with a frenzy on law students. The absolute glee with which others mock their condition is, frankly, shocking and ugly. Yet it's a perfectly common way of acting these days. I loved this little post from Conor Friedersdorf. Conor recognizes the stale mean-spiritedness that seems to be the order of the day when talking about anyone else's professional or academic choices. What I would ask those who mock anyone for facing an uncertain job market, in this economy-- who are you? And what are you doing that's so great? I don't think that there's every been a time for a person of character to mock wannabe lawyers, scholars, artists, actors, musicians, or any other. But if there ever was, it wouldn't be now, when the idea of full employment seems to be collapsing around us.
Here's what I think: I think everyone is scared. I'm not yet quite 30 years old. I look around at my peers and I see a generation that is rapidly losing any faith in the American social contract. I know many, many people who have been looking for work literally for years, and found nothing. Not nothing as in "nothing that offers the package of salary and benefits they want" but nothing full-time, period. This is an entirely common situation. And I'm sorry to say that, rather than coming together, people are allowing their fear and anxiety to be delivered outward, preempting examination of their own difficult situations by mocking those who are attempting to gain employment in fields where it is very difficult to do so.
If I could do one thing to change the American people, it would be to revive the spirit of solidarity. Solidarity is, I think, essential to the democratic process, but ours has been systematically degraded by the commercial ethic of hyper-individuation. Everyone is a rugged individualist, which is another way of saying that everyone is alone. Solidarity is humane, generative, and liberal, but it doesn't have much place in modern American. There's no money in it.