Friday, January 05, 2007

Ph.D. Scandals: More Evidence

By Richard Vedder

"Doctoral education of the most wasteful of all the activities of the university" Frank H.T. Rhodes, former president of Cornell University opined in a 2001 book. I agree, and there is new evidence confirming this.

I am an economic historian and love history, but think we are training far too many PhD.s in history, most of whom are lucky to get $50,000 a year in earnings after completing around 10 years of post-secondary education. The typical B.A. in my field, economics, makes nearly the same as a newly minted history Ph.D.

New evidence from the American Historical Association shows that less than 25 percent of Ph.D. candidates complete their degree within 5 years,and that the 10 year graduation rate is only 59 percent (meaning 41 percent of candidates have not received a degree).

Why is this so? Universities love to have their graduate students hang around. They are cheap teachers of undergraduates. At state schools, they often trigger large public subsidy payments (where subsidies are based on enrollments). They help their professors get papers and books published. Therefore, us professors pile on requirements to keep them around longer. We nitpick them over trivial issues in their dissertations, often making them take many months or years to do marginal additional research to fulfill the eccentric wishes of dissertation committee members. I have been on many history Ph.D. committees, and have seen all of this first hand. Moreover, some of the students like the long years at universities, since job prospects are slim. Better teach at some respectable university as a graduate student than teach part-time at night as an adjunct professor at Last Resort U., or work at Pizza Hut.

In the for-profit private sector, withering demand would lead to a reallocation of resources away from such programs, but it appears that this is happening only very slowly in this discipline. I am not picking on history. The same thing can be said of other disciplines and programs. Tenure adds somewhat to the problem, since we tend to keep programs going for tenured senior faculty who are teaching courses in ever diminishing demand.

Moreover, the newly minted historians are often not trained in the areas where there is a popular demand --political history, for example, but rather they have focused on topics that are politically correct and trendy in leftish academic circles, but of little interest to either undergraduate students or to the broader public that might buy an new historical account by, say,a David McCullough or my colleague Alonzo Hamby (who is writing a new short biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt). Here is still another area where reform is desirable.

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