Monday, January 5, 2009

The Reality of Grad School & Beyond?

I was doing some venturing outside of my normal realm of blog reading, and came across this post  by Dean Dad through an elongated trail leading from Dr. Isis' latest blogrolling post. 

To give you the basic background, this story tells us that the number of students taking the GRE has dropped this year, and there's all sorts of concerns about this. Dean Dad and many of his commenters take the position that this is GOOD news because it means that fewer students are getting led down the garden path of academia only to find themselves un- or underemployed in the long run. 

The way I see it, there are two separate sides to this whole issue involving getting advanced degrees and getting paid. There is the master's and other comparable degrees side, and the PhD, PsyD, JD, and other comparable degrees side. 

Based on my experience in the "real world" of work, a master's degree is generally a good investment, the all-too-common and too-easy-to-get MBA not included. A Bachelor's degree generally isn't enough to get you a job - a master's puts you in a much better position. A PhD, (in my humble opinion) is fucking useless unless you want to go into academia. If you want to work in the private sector, a master's is generally more than good enough. (Flame away, dissenters.) And I don't care what field we're talking about. 

Let's make a comparison, shall we? A psychology major, fresh out of undergrad, who wants to work with people has a few options available to them - the PhD or PsyD in Clinical or Counseling psych, a master's in Social Work (MSW), or a master's in counseling. All 3 of those degrees qualify them to take the state licensure exam that allows them to counsel the community. If you could complete a degree in 2-3 years and have the same end result, why the hell wouldn't you take it? Granted, the pay is slightly higher for a licensed psychologist (PhD or PsyD only), but it's not enough to justify the additional 2-3 years of grad school plus a 1 year internship. 

Now Clinical is not my area. But I considered it at one point as a specialty still with academia in mind. Clinical psych is THE MOST competitive area for grad school admissions. Why? Because it's the default option. It's for the people who major in psych because they want to "help people" and that's as far as they've thought about it. There are a lot of well-qualified applicants for clinical programs who really understand what they're applying for and what they'll be doing who get booted out by applicants who don't have a fucking clue, and they just know they want to be called "Dr." someday. These are the same people who think that a PsyD is "less than" a PhD. 

And that is where the distinction is made between the two degrees - it even says it on the program websites - the PhD in clinical is for students who want to pursue academia, the PsyD is for students who want to "help people." 

Okay I've gone a little off-topic. Back to the issue. 

I WANT the number of applicants to grad programs to drop. I WANT more men to pursue doctoral degrees in psych because women are the vast majority in this field and I hate that, because I'd rather be a token than a stereotype. (I know, I know......)

There was a time, in my lifetime, that a HS diploma was enough to get you a decent-paying job that would allow you to care for a family. This was back when we had a "middle class." People with undergrad degrees went to work in suits, made really good money, and were looked up to. There was a push for everyone to go to college, and suddenly you became worthless if you didn't have a 4yr degree. The undergrad degree has become the new HS diploma. 

So now it's moved on up the ranks. Now the grad degree is looked to as the ultimate accomplishment, attainable by anyone and everyone. Don't believe me? Take a drive through New England and count the number of billboards advertising for MBA's available "in your free time" or all the online colleges charging premium tuition dollars for unaccredited programs. 5 minutes from my house is a college that offers an MBA in a saturday-only class format that gives you a degree in a year and a half. While I applaud the convenience, a flood of MBAs into the market doesn't help anyone - it just pushes the bar up higher. Supply and demand, folks. 

We actually have TOO MANY lawyers in this country. And law school costs a FORTUNE. But still, shitloads of undergrads every year are applying to law school as their "default" option. What no one tells them is that even if they get in, unless they work their ASSES off to be in the top 2-5% of their class, they are not guaranteed a job anywhere. 

Just to be clear, I am a huge fan of education, especially higher education. But sending a ton of people off to college where they will amass huge debts just to end up as a manager at Starbucks is not smart. This whole higher-education-for-profit shit is killing everyone, because they'll hand out advanced degrees to anyone who can pay the tuition or is willing to strap themselves with student loans. Those degrees used to be reserved for the most ambitious, most talented students who would go on to high-power positions where they could reap the rewards of their effort. Not so anymore. Do you know how hard it is to get a fucking scholarship or "real" financial aid these days??

And the aspect of the problem that really hurts academia? They're not hiring more professors. You'd think that with increased demand for education, there would be more tenure-track faculty positions available. But there aren't, because that would hurt the bottom line. Instead, they hire adjuncts and lecturers in the best cases, and don't hire anyone in the worst. This is why we have overcrowded classrooms, stressed-out profs, and why it's so fucking hard for an undergrad to find a mentor at a university. It's bullshit. 

I WANT to work in academia. It's what I've always wanted. I WANT to be a scholar in my field. But if we keep going on this track we've been on, I'll need a PhD just to have the fucking job I have now. 

We have been lessening the meaning of higher education while simultaneously widening the class gap. Because college is getting more expensive, we continue to tell underprivileged populations that the almighty degree is something they can't have, trading the ability to afford it for its worthlessness. I might be an idealist, but I want to see a bright, talented first-generation college student earning a degree on scholarship over a fucking overprivileged, c-average, prep school brat buying a piece of paper so they can go work for daddy's company. 

The fucking GRE should be FREE. It cost me over $1,000 to apply to 9 grad programs this fall. The ETS charges $20 PER COPY of your official score reports to be sent to schools ELECTRONICALLY. I wonder how many lower-income, super intelligent students don't make it into advanced studies just because they can't afford to apply. Shit, I couldn't really afford to apply, I can't imagine how they could. 

Wow, this turned into a rant. My bottom line points: Grad school needs to MEAN something again - intellectually, not financially. In order for that to happen, we need to stop giving away degrees based on who can pay for them. We need to do a better job at educating undergrads about their options after graduation instead of providing grad school as a default. I want to see the best and the brightest moving on to advanced degrees, regardless of their financial status. That's how it's supposed to be, goddammit. 

And you know what I REALLY want to see?? Our K-12 teachers getting paid as much as full professors. Because they're the creators of the best and the brightest, not DNA and trust funds. 


Eugenie said...

I totally agree with you about the cost of the GRE. I had a friend of mine spend well over $2000 in applications last summer. That is INSANE!

Applying to vet school scares me too- I can't play the female card there either.

PhizzleDizzle said...

Very interesting post JLK - I agree with you that the push for everyone being educated hasn't exactly worked out - our society is filled with people with $100K+ college debt with no chance of paying it off before their kids go to college. It's ridiculous.

I only kinda agree with you about a PhD only being necessary for academia, but I think that is as a result of the field I am in. I know you think it goes for all fields but I don't quite agree. A "run of the mill" PhD in my field might not be worth it, but a good one from a good school can be very worth it in an industrial lab setting. I kinda touch on the subject here:

Finally, I must contend that a JD is a lot more comparable to an MBA than a PhD. A JD is a professional degree. 3 years and you're out. And you have to pay. And you take classes the whole time and it's totally structured. It's NOTHING like a PhD, which is basically free (unless you are considering things like salary opportunity cost and how it eats at your soul), unstructured, and totally amorphous.

I don't know what a PsyD is so I can't comment on that.

JLK said...

@ PD:

I'll admit I don't know much about computer science, but I have multiple friends with bachelor's and master's degrees in comp sci that have VERY good paying jobs. There are always exceptions, depending on what your specialty is and all that, but the way I view it is that the PhD is only "necessary" for academia.

As far as the JD goes, that's what I was trying to say. People are running out and getting law degrees, piling up mountains of debt, and many of them are doing it JUST to get that piece of paper under their belt. I can't tell you how many undergrads at my MRU were talking about going to law school even though they have no intention of ever becoming a lawyer. Seems like a ridiculous waste to me.

I feel like it's one thing to get an undergrad degree in something you have no intention of pursuing a career in, but it's completely different when we're talking about grad degrees of any kind. People are crowding out opportunities for those who really want a career in what they're studying, just to get the piece of paper on their resume.

In other fields, it's not as prominent an issue as it is in psych. I have been perusing other blogs of grad students in psych, and many of them are saying "I don't want to work in academia, but this opportunity for a prof job just fell into my lap." I get really pissed when I see that for several reasons. First, there are so few faculty slots open that I get angry when someone who doesn't want to be there takes the spot from someone who really does. Second, an undergrad degree in psych is useless without grad school so a lot of people enter grad programs by default when they shouldn't have majored in psych in the first place.

That's why psych is often the largest dept at a college or university - it's become what Communications was when I went to college 8 years ago - what the "undeclareds" switch to when they're forced to make a choice. Nobody majors in Physics or Engineering by default. Nobody goes to grad school for Physics or Engineering because they've run out of options. You have to be committed to those fields, as I imagine you must be for Comp Sci also.

I know there are a bunch of Bio grad students on here, many of whom do not want to work in academia. And I get that pursuing a PhD in molecular biology or whatever your specialty is gives you great research experience that makes you a highly desirable candidate for the private research sector. But if your goal was to work in a lab for the rest of your life and not pursue the big $$$, you COULD do it with a BS in Biology, and certainly with a MS in Biology.

I also know it's hard to imagine what I'm addressing about the social sciences when you're a "hard" science grad student. Your fields aren't flooded with people seeking just the piece of paper. We don't have ENOUGH hard science grad students. So for you guys, the PhD is just as good for the private sector as it is for academia. There is a low supply of qualified people and a very high demand. It's the opposite in the social sciences, and the hard sciences are the safest place to be - they'll be the last to get affected.

But PD, you know as well as I do that it's happening in Comp Sci too. 15 years ago, a BS in Comp Sci would get you a 6 figure salary. Then the field got flooded by students pursuing the $$ and now the 4yr degree comp sci majors are a dime a dozen. So now, if you love your field and want to do well in it, you HAVE to pursue the doctorate in order to have options that suit your level of talent and passion.

Those recent grads have to go somewhere, and if they can't find a job with the degree they have, they're going to head off to grad school with dreams of the PhD leading to more $$ down the line to pay off the shitload of debt they have from undergrad.

I don't want to be working side by side with grad students in my field who are there to make more money. I want to be there with grad students who love what they're doing and want to be an expert in the field.

With how rare academic positions are, it riles me up when psych faculty positions "fall into" the lap of someone who previously had no interest in academia. And in my field, that seems to be the story of the day right now.

PhizzleDizzle said...

Oh, you're totally right that you can get a good paying job with a BS or MS in computer science. It will probably just be mind-numbing. I decided to get a PhD in order to avoid a mind-numbing job. I'd be in the 6 figures plus right now if I'd taken my proffered jobs out of college. I guess in my mind, just because a job is well-paying doesn't mean it's a no brainer to forgo the higher degree.

As for the discussion about the JD, I was merely bristling at the sentence: "There is the master's and other comparable degrees side, and the PhD, PsyD, JD, and other comparable degrees side." I absolutely do not consider a JD and PhD comparable degrees. That's all I was saying. I'd put JD in the master's degree category.

I do think our field differences are making a difference in our perspectives because no one gets a PhD in CS "for the hell of it" because you might as well go out and get that good-paying job right now, as you say. I feel for you that people would get a PhD in your field "for the hell of it" when you want to get it because you really want to. That's tough and good luck to you.

As for 15 years ago a BS yielding a 100K job, I'm pretty sure that wasn't universally so. 30 years ago, with a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering my father was just getting by. And I think the perceived change in salaries has come as a natural result of the maturation of the field. There was no such thing as CS like 30 years ago. When it was starting, and you need people to do crazy shit like create the internet, how do you lure smart people? With big money. Now that the field is HUGE and more mature, there's no need to sweeten the pot anymore and you need people of all skills (and thus all ranges of salaries) to do a range of tasks to support our newly massive technical infrastructure.

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