Wednesday, January 25, 2012

there are reasons not to go to grad school, but Red Lights is not one of them

Alyssa Rosenberg has an odd post up on her generally excellent blog for CAP.

The essential weirdness here is that Rosenberg is taking the fictional world of a movie and using it as proof positive that you shouldn't go to grad school. Making this even stranger is the fact that she herself admits that the situation in the movie is a fantasy. The plot, apparently, involves two skeptical professors who are losing their prestige within the department and university to a parapsychologist. I am very aware that there are failings in the modern research university, but I assure you, the creeping influence of parapsychology is not among them. So... what?

Rosenberg writes, "No self-respecting university would put this much muscle behind paranormal research, but no matter." Um, why is that no matter? Isn't the plausibility of the given situation precisely at issue when considering if a movie works as a critique of the academy? Rosenberg had very little regard for the movie The Ides of March; I doubt she'd take it as an effective critique of the state of political journalism, precisely because she finds it such an implausible document.

She continues:
Silly stuff, but it conveys some of the desperation of being shut out. I can imagine graduate students struggling to keep their funding will empathize. Ultimately, it’s Sally and Ben who make a critical discovery, rather than Tom, and their revelation turns out not to matter very much anyway. While I won’t reveal it, Tom ends up meeting a more dramatic fate that suggests whatever time and money he spent on his PhD may have been a waste. Academia has rarely looked worse.
 But how is a fictional movie specifically constructed to attack the academy a critique of the academy at all, particularly when the situation has such little relevance in actual scholarship? If the idea is that patronage and personality matter in the university, sometimes to the detriment of scholarship, I am on board with the critique. I must point out that political blogging is among the fields where social capture and patronage dominates the most. (I mean, really.) In any field, any field at all, talent and ability can take a back seat to likeability and social influence. The fact that the university resides in the real world and is subject to all of its problems is not an argument to avoid grad school.

Rosenberg shoe-horns a bit of a critique of the economics of graduate education in, by talking about graduate students who are in danger of losing their funding. This is an issue, though perhaps an overblown one. I've said it a thousand times: don't go to a PhD program if you're not funded, and be ruthlessly mercenary in your professional choices in pursuing this life. (I have myself.) It's just that this a wholly separate issue from which kinds of research and scholarship grant one authority in a given field. The declining fortunes of certain areas of scholarship relative to others is a product of a confluence of political and economic factors, such as the perceived practicality of a field or the ability of research to fund itself.

For the broader issue of graduate school and whether it makes sense, I wrote a long post about this awhile back that I think still stands. To put it simply, there are smart ways and not smart ways to go about graduate school. Sure: many people go and find that they can't get the jobs that they wanted. But many thousands go and find themselves gainfully employed. Individuals have tremendous ability to make sane, informed decisions about whether and how to proceed. As I say in that post, going to graduate school is announcing that you want to be a researcher. Those who attempt to gain entry without doing the necessary due diligence in researching the job market have no one to blame but themselves.

What's more, this is an odd time to critique going to grad school. As I mention in that post, criticisms of graduate school often revolve around opportunity costs. But opportunity costs imply opportunity; for recent college graduates, the job market is terrible to begin with. If you are funded, as you most certainly should be if you are going to get your PhD, your opportunity costs are only as large as the opportunities you actually had. Finally, I will note that, from a social justice standpoint, nobody should be weeping for the plight of the American PhD. The unemployment rate for such people is below 2%, lower than any other education level and far lower than the national average. Sure, there's selection bias and ability effects there, but from the position of social justice, that's irrelevant: people with PhDs are in great shape in great majorities, both in a national and worldwide context.

Even in failing fields, there are more practical and less practical paths, ways to take more or less risks. Choose, take your best shot, and see where you land. That's capitalism.

Ultimately, political punditry's ceaseless war on graduate education comes down to a very strange misreading of what getting a graduate degree means. Pundits and bloggers act as though graduate school has ever amounted to a guarantee of a certain job or a certain lifestyle. But in this system, employment and fulfillment are always a gamble, whether you pursue your dream in a comparative literature department or go full mercenary at a Wall Street bank.

Update: Incidentally, I've gotten some emails saying that I shouldn't have written this; I'm guilty of the sin of taking what Alyssa Rosenberg wrote seriously. Though the emails think that they are defending her, they both, in fact, operate on the principle that she was just a girl writing about movies. I don't play that.


Anonymous said...

I think you're conflating her description of the movie with ethical prescription. I think if she wanted to write about whether you should go to grad school, she would have done that.

Freddie said...

So when she titled the post "Red Wings:Seriously, don't go to grad school," that was because....?

Matt Eckel said...

She was commenting on the movie, not the life decision to go to graduate school. And even then with a healthy dose of irony.

Freddie said...

I would rather get it wrong by taking everything people say seriously than the other way around.

Brendan said...

It's a movie review. It should be taken seriously as a movie review that also contains a joke about grad school.

Freddie said...

I don't work that way.

MaysonicWrites said...

Puthoff, Targ, and Rhine. Zombie ideas never die.