Psychology professor Leslie Harris published a provocative column yesterday in Inside Higher Ed, in which she explains why she no longer accepts Ph.D. students into her lab at the University of Kentucky:
After a few years of watching the academic job market collapse into a seeming death spiral, I also started to wonder whether my “full disclosure” strategy of trying to scare off prospective graduate students was adequate. I started to entertain the possibility that if the problem was too many qualified applicants for too few jobs, then perhaps the responsible – even ethical – course of action would be for me to stop contributing to the oversupply of applicants.
So, a few weeks ago I revised my departmental web page to include the following statement: “Notice to prospective graduate students: I will not be accepting new students in my lab for the indefinite future.”
. . . . . .
I think academia shares many of the classic elements of a social trap: It is in most faculty members’ and departments’ best interests to recruit a lot of graduate students. Churning out Ph.D.s is one of the major metrics of departmental “success.” Departments need graduate students to teach their classes, and faculty members need them to run their labs. Yet, as in any social trap, when everybody acts in their self-interest, a negative collective outcome ensues. I have served as chair or co-chair of 13 Ph.D. students in my career, a number I’m guessing is typical of most research faculty. Population growth of that magnitude is a Malthusian melt-down in the making and simply isn’t sustainable. We’re not creating enough academic jobs to absorb all those Ph.D.s, and in today’s economy, applied jobs are disappearing as well.
The comments on her article at IHEare all over the place–from people accusing her of deciding not to do part of her job and of patronizing grad students, to people who applaud her decision. After all, she stands to lose prestige among her colleagues in her university as well as within her profession generally if she doesn’t work with Ph.D. students.
My department doesn’t have a Ph.D. program, but we have a strong M.A. in public history as well as a department with research emphases in environmental history and U.S. Western history that seems to do well by our students. Our students have been admitted to Ph.D. programs at Southern Methodist University, UCLA, and Notre Dame, for example, and our public history grads are fully employed. Even my former M.A. thesis students who didn’t concentrate in public history have jobs they enjoy, which is a big relief. And now that we have the funding to provide most of our graduate students T.A.-ships for two years, that means that many of our students can get a free M.A. degree and be fully employable as a public historian, which seems like just about the least exploitative graduate program around. (Most History departments with Ph.D. students treat the M.A. students as cash cows, because they usually pay full tuition and are not eligible for T.A.-ships or other graduate fellowships.)
So I’m just fine with training our M.A. students, and will participate as fully as I can in our graduate program. There’s a real limit to that, since I’m neither an environmental nor a U.S. Western historian, but there are a few people who are interested in my fields in every class. I’m not working nearly as hard with graduate students as some of my colleagues, but I reap the benefits of a T.A. whenever I teach a large survey class. But I’m also fine with Harris’s decision not to accept Ph.D. students–after all, nous devons cultiver notre jardins, n’est-ce pas? (As the Isley Brothers have taught us, “it’s your thing, do whatcha wanna do!”)
If you teach in a department that grants graduate degrees, have you (like Harris) re-thought your work with graduate students? What do you think about Harris’s decision, whether you teach graduate students or not.?
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