Implied Warranty

I’ve had an enormous outpouring of support from friends, and from people I’ve never met, about the excerpt from the book that was published last Wednesday in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The stories have been achingly reminiscent, infinitely different in detail while all too similar in structure.

Two of them, though, left me a little shaken. One was from a friend who has just retired as a faculty member at a major research university, who’s seen her department drop from 45 faculty to 25 in her forty years there. She recognizes the changes that have gone on all around her, and says “I no longer expect grad students to be able to become tenured professors.” So what is it, I wonder, that her department now DOES tell its incoming doctoral students? I wonder how that department, a premier destination in its discipline, communicates what doctoral education is for, now that it clearly isn’t a reliable key to the academic door? It’s really become like selling lottery tickets now—there’s absolutely no guarantee of the product, but as the state boards love to remind us, “You can’t win if you don’t play!”

The other, from another friend teaching at a major research university, was a little darker. I’ll paraphrase to disguise details: “Thanks for the heartbreaking essay. I’m sure I’ll share it with many of my former students who are trapped in adjunct service. It must start to feel like a stairway to nowhere after a few years.”

And I know this person, smart and generous and deeply supportive of his students… but there’s something a little off about this. The analogue that came immediately to mind was a comfortably employed mortgage lender sending a note to his many[!!] bankrupt former clients, sharing a touching account of the experience of being foreclosed upon that they might find relatable. It’s just… ick.

The National Research Council shows roughly 4,800 departments in American universities that are authorized to offer the PhD across their various disciplines. That seems off by an order of magnitude, a supply that comes by the barrel for a demand that comes by the quart.

Grad students and postdocs are good for colleges, getting lots of work done at low cost. But the doctoral product increasingly needs to come with one of those standard disclaimers right on the welcome letter:

Bigdeal University makes no warranty, expressed or implied, on the marketability of its graduate degrees, or their fitness for any particular use or purpose. This degree product is purchased as-is, and hazard for all flaws—both those known and unknown—will be assumed by the purchaser.