Call me “Dr. Janitor”

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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95 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    This lowers my opinion of Salon even more.

    This was a great article that, seriously, explores the whole question of what is really going on with higher education to a point where it makes me wonder what, if anything, could be done.

    Excellent article, Rufus. I’ll try to have a real comment after I chew on this some more.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Jaybird says:

      “This lowers my opinion of Salon even more.”

      The trick to reading Salon is to skip any piece that includes the first person pronoun (in any inflection) in the headline. This is not quite an absolute rule, but follow it and you will miss very little of substance. Headlines that include the second person pronoun also should be regarded with deep suspicion.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      Thanks! [I think the issue there was actually an emailing snafu on my part.]Report

  2. Saul DeGraw says:

    I am a lot like you in many ways. I loved grad school and what I did there. It was the only time in my life when I was able to spend a lot of time discussing and doing theatre. Ryan Boudinot got in trouble on the internet recently for taking a piss on writer M.F.A. programs and the people who study at them especially if the program is low-residency (which is mainly done via correspondence) or is not the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where you are almost guaranteed a publishing deal by just attending. Dan Kois defended M.F.A. programs on Slate by saying that it can be the one time in your life when you can dedicate yourself to reading and writing. Of course this probably comes at a great cost.

    The issues are probably what you noted about the pyramid scheme nature of academics where only a few top schools get positions usually. The problem is that there are a lot of people who love school out there and would love to spend a life in the academy. My realism kicked in before a PhD program. If I could have a genie wish career, one option could be the idealized professor’s life but those ideals have low odds. We seem to be entering an age where everyone except super-stars have low to mixed odds for success. This is why I think there is such a push for STEM and other practical/useful subjects. I’ve always pushed back against the old English major and a buck fifty joke but a lot of people might think it is true.

    The problem with the pyramid scheme is that non-elite universities also need graduate students. There is also no pleasant way in a democratic country to drastically limit the supply except through withering and other market forces.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

      Right, and part of the problem is we’re not doing much to grow alternative markets to siphon them off. I don’t object to academics advising their bright young undergrads to go into grad school with shrinking chances of gainful academic employment- better that than advising them to go into some profession they’ll likely hate. And, I have to say, my co-worker is EXACTLY the sort of person who should be in academia.

      The problem, as I see it, is there aren’t enough alternate structures of intellectual life. The university model has been in the process of “transformation” for at least three decades and so we’ve seen the administrative level metasize beyond all belief, tenure vanish, and more and more courses being taught by these “gypsy faculty” who schlep around the country with no benefits, pensions, offices, or time. I think in the US it’s at 70-75% of the course instruction is done by the non-tenure track and Canada doesn’t record it.

      So, where else should these young intellects go? Where are the new journals and publishing houses for them? I mean, can you imagine what resources there are, given that most grad students never enter the profession? Where is the new New School? (That, ironically, would probably look a lot like the old school!) Is it online? Does that even make sense? I think it’s time for scholars to start thinking seriously about what comes next after the university fully cannibalizes itself.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Rufus F. says:


        1. The Little Magazines were called so because that is what they were, little with invisible to moderate circulations.

        2. There are some little magazines out there and quarterlies. N+1 comes to mind. Whatever you think of TNR, they were very much dedicated to a robust backpage with significant coverage of high culture. There is also the New Inquiry, Jacobin, The Federalist on the Right.

        3. Editors and the heads at larger newspapers and media organizations used to think that it was important to give audiences their “cultural vegetables”. Now this attitude would be seen as being horribly snobby and wrong. The early history of radio is really interesting. David Sarnoff help found what became RCA and NBC and he was really into cultural vegetables. William Paley at CBS went for broader entertainment and Sarnoff had to compete. He did it well even if he disliked it. The BBC had a similar history. Radio in Britain was originally done by people who were into it for a laugh and light entertainment, Peter Eckersley (the entertainer) was forced out by John Reith (the high-minded broadcaster).

        4. The people who wrote for the little magazines in the 1930s and 40s eventually became academics. Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer went to grad school and became sociologists. Irving Howe taught and later went on to write more popular works like “The World of Our Fathers”. Dwight MacDonald taught. Mary McCarthy is more known for her novels. Edmund Wilson taught. Delmore Schwartz taught everywhere while drinking himself to death.
        Philip Rahv taught.

        What happened is a sustained and successful attack on intellectualism.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    One of my best professors at my little commuter college (if not *THE* best professor) was a Nietzsche scholar with a doctorate from Brown. I asked him “what in the hell are you doing here at this little commuter college?” one day and, instead of berating me for not being all “Be True To Your School”, he explained that the college environment was pretty cutthroat and, at the end of the day, he’d rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.

    This was in the mid-90’s and he was hired there in the early 90’s (maybe the late 80’s).Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Jaybird says:

      The truth is that a lot of academics end up where they can get jobs. A lot about being an academic is a willingess to go where the work is and where the positions are. My uncle did an ABD because he decided he did not want to leave the Bay Area and sticking with academics would potentially mean needing to move to Nebraska and this was in the 1970s. He was also an openly gay guy so the Bay Area was the place to be in the 1970s.Report

    • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

      I’ve heard that a lot, both from faculty and grad students at certain schools. The atmosphere in my graduate program was (mostly) mutually supportive, but when I was picking schools, I visited a couple more prestigious schools and the graduate students all complained about the competitiveness (it’s probably worth noting that those programs were not the top programs in my field, or really all that close to it, but the general atmosphere of the schools bled into the programs I suppose).

      Ivy League schools, particularly the top 3, are famous for never giving junior faculty tenure as well.

      Somewhat ironically, I suppose, I remember when Marc Hauser visited our department around ’01. When he gave a talk to the department, he was introduced by our department chair as “One of the few junior faculty at Harvard to ever receive tenure.” I guess the system is really, really broken.Report

    • j r in reply to Jaybird says:

      This isn’t something that is limited to academia. There are some industries – finance and law, for instance – where prestige jobs come with the highest salaries. In lots of other worlds, however, it is the exact opposite. Want to work in media, publishing, fashion, non-profit world? The most prestigious entry level gigs in those fields are often the most poorly-paid and come with the least chance of advancement.

      I remember reading an article once about fashion models. The models who make the most money are the ones who do catalogs and ads and the more commercial stuff. High fashion runway models get paid peanuts and sometimes do shows for free, to “get their name out there.”Report

      • Chris in reply to j r says:

        A good friend of mine was a (mostly) catalog model in the 90s. I remember her going away for a day (a day! like flying out early in the morning and flying back in that night), and the next day showing me the check she’d received. It was in the many tens of thousands. For less than a full day’s work.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to j r says:


        Now I have My Angel is a Centerfold in my head.


        There is an old law joke “A students become Professors. B students become judges. C students become really rich lawyers.” The A students are the ones that get the really good big firm jobs but most of them can’t handle the grind for too long and drop out to be professors or for medium sized boutique firms with reasonable hours. The C students start off in low-paying jobs but eventually become lucrative plaintiff lawyers if they are lucky. One of the signs of the law school crisis was plaintiff’s firms getting graduates from better schools because the Big Firms were not hiring. Before that, Ivy League Law grads would usually look down on working at plaintiff firms.Report

      • Chris in reply to j r says:

        I say less than a full day’s work, but she just told me the shoots sometimes lasted 12 or 14 hours in a day, so I probably lied. I just remember that time she left and came back the same day.

        Also, Saul, centerfolds are a different kind of model. I have a bunch of pictures of her from her modeling days, and they’re almost all in jeans or dresses.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to j r says:


        I know. I was joking…Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

      I think the golden years of the post war period were just as an unusual time for academics as they were for other jobs. Higher education was expanding all across the world as more and more people were going to collges. These new colleges and univeristies plus the expanded ones needed more professors than ever before, creating probably the biggest job market for academics of all time. Since the economic logic of the time dictated that it really didn’t matter what you studied in college because it was the degree that counted, students could study nearly anything and land a white collar job. This meant lots of people could become academics in the humanities and fine arts and land a job as a professor somewhere. Often a tenure track one.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

        There were always academics who did not get jobs.

        I was at a wedding in September and talking to a guy who got his PhD in the 1970s. He couldn’t get an academic post and ended up at the National Archive in a librarian-esque position. Of course National Archieve types of jobs are dried up as well.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        That is still a very academically oriented job and in line with his training. Its not like he ended up as an ordinary white collar worker.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I was an undergrad in the early ’80s. I seriously considered grad school in history, but looked around and decided that the job market didn’t justify this. This looks like a golden age in retrospect, but I suspect I made the right decision.Report

      • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        at least with physics they pay you to go to grad school.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I’ve only read a few books on the topic, but suspect you could historicize what happened to North American universities into periods, with the earlier religious-based university giving way to the post-WWII “multiversity” and that existing and working with serious strains up until about the 1970s, when public funding was gradually removed (or, more accurately, diverted into loans) and what gets called the “business-like” or “corporate” university model started to dominate. By the 1990s, you already have academics warning that the job market is vanishing and the grad student market is booming.

        The big irony, as I see it, is that as universities brought in a huge administrative class and tried to run themselves more “like a business”, their operating costs skyrocketed and the quality of their service noticeably decreased!Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The United States always had a larger percentage of its’ population going to college than many other Western countries. State universities date back to the reconstruction era and lots of our private universities were founded during this time to. Its’ just that the number of college bound kids positively exploded during the baby boom meaning that you needed more colleges with more professors. It was during this time that many state universities became multi-campus affairs.

        Turning public funding into student loans was the real kicker because it provided an easy source of money for salaries, bonuses, and gifts of the top administrators. This has created all sorts of problems for modern colleges.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

        “Turning public funding into student loans was the real kicker because it provided an easy source of money for salaries, bonuses, and gifts of the top administrators. This has created all sorts of problems for modern colleges.”

        I would definitely agree. A friend, who is at the Canadian equivalent of a community college, recently sent around a list of the salaries of all the deans, deanlings, deanlets, assistant vice-presidents of student fun, and admin jobs that I don’t even know what they are and most were around $300,000/ year, which on one hand ain’t that high, but I’ve applied for sessional gig there and the people providing the actual service they sell don’t even come close to that.Report

      • aaron david in reply to LeeEsq says:

        “The big irony, as I see it, is that as universities brought in a huge administrative class and tried to run themselves more “like a business”, their operating costs skyrocketed and the quality of their service noticeably decreased!”

        It didn’t quite work like that. Most of the admin grunt work was done by professors at one time, this being the majority of “committee” work. As time progressed, and the laws of many areas started to affect these groups, committed HR, facilities, IT and others where needed to handle a more professional workforce and changing technical needs. And while this area has an absolute ton of bloat, professors jump at the chance to offload things as timekeeping for student employee’s, managing basic university IT systems and providing sexual harassment prevention training. Combine this with the shared governance system that many universities have (Academics have as much say in uni functioning as chancellors/presidents) and the problems become much clearer.

        Harder to solve, but much clearer.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Yes, I definitely agree that profs offloaded what they used to do onto admins and would prefer to go back to them sucking it up for a year, working on a committee, and then rotating to another prof, if only to save money. But I do think another important factor here is the sort of arms race of universities trying to outdo each other in amenities and rankings that will lure in students. I’ve been at universities with people whose six figure salary, and office and staff, were there to basically put on a few events for the students each year and attend to a general idea of student satisfaction that most profs probably haven’t a thought about.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @aaron-david @rufus-f

        As I have noted before, I attended college between 1998-2002 and the accommodations at my undergrad were rather Spartan. So the whole push for fancy accommodations and recreation facilities is pretty recent and it is partially connected to the the professionalization of university admin. I also think that it is done to attract wealthy students who don’t need financial aid in their domestic and international forms.Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Italian education system over-produced a lot of lawyers and to a lesser extent doctors. When these young lawyers and doctors graduated from school, they found glum employment prospects because there were too many of them for what Italian society needed at the time. Naturally, a lot of these unemployed professionals turned to radical politics and this helped contribute to the Fasicist takeover of Italy. At the sasme time, much of the lower echelons of Italian society found that they needed to combine sustenance farming with multiple day labor jobs to survive. It was considered lucky to have 150 days of work a year in southern Italy. This did not help things.

    There seems to be a lot of parralels betweeen Italy before the Great War and modern employment. We might be more educated as a whole but there is a tendency to overproduce professions like lawyers or professors. Many people have to engage in task rabbit jobs to survive. This can not end well.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        There were similar problems with the education system in late Tsarist Russia. The Russian empire educated its’ subject poorly as a whole but those that were educated, ended up really educated. Even the the Russian economy was rapidly expanding and industrializing, there weren’t necessarily enough job opennings for newly minted university graduates in the private or public spheres. The old Bolsheviks were a curious combination of genuine working class Russians and over-educated university graduates without prospects.

        The inadvertent genius of the American education system at the time was that it educated people broadly and roughly to the level that was economic necessary. This was more by accident than design but pre-World War I America did not produce more college graduates and professionals than were economically needed. This is why Rufus F. great-grandfather, I still find it kind of schocking that a lot of people older than me have much younger great-grandparents, could be an international journalist without much education. Different job requirements back than.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Ya know, people here aren’t that fond of Megan McArdle, but I remember she made an interesting point that one reason academics might lean so far to the left is they come up in a brutally exploitative labor market and generalize to “capitalism” as such. I do think it has a radicalizing effect. My dissertation was not particularly political (there were some things about post-Revolutionary French politics, but I don’t think my stance against Napoleon is too controversial at this point), but it seems that even doing apolitical scholarship in a university setting now requires one to first take a political stance. It’s even harder to stay apolitical in the labor market. Trust me, some of the small-scale labor struggles I’ve had to take part in have had the same radicalizing effect.

      It’s just not clear what’s “left” and “right” anymore. I mean what I’d like to see in academia is a lot like the return to a traditional university that “conservatives” would like. I’m not unaware of the irony.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        And, actually, one of the interesting ironies of the current moment is how often neoliberalism aligns so many left-leaning cultural people with traditionalist cultural conservatives.Report

      • Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:

        it was Harris Wofford writing eloquently about how much he loved the old institution…Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I don’t particularly hate McArdle. I don’t agree with her that often but sometimes she is very perceptive in her remarks. Her comment on why so many academics lean to the Far Left is one of them. Before World War II, most academics in the United States were not known as being terribly left-wing. In fact it was the opposite, they were seen as being very conservative. During CUNY’s first hey-day from the 1890s to the 1930s, there was a lot of conflict because you had some very conservative Protestants teaching some rathering Far Left leaning Jews according to Mike Wallace in his book Gotham. The idea of the leftist university professor only really became a think during the post-World War II period when a lot of conservatives did not like what was happening on campus even in the very early part of it. Professors were seen as corrupting American youth.

        As to neoliberalism making strange alignments, politics have always made for strange bedfellows.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I mean what I’d like to see in academia is a lot like the return to a traditional university that “conservatives” would like.

        What’s weird is that the social liberalism of certain parts of the cathedral are married to some very, very catholic (small-c) traditions and assumptions. Support for SSM? Of course! Desire for single-payer health care? Oh mais oui! Support for integration? You’ve never seen a whiter group of people supporting integration!Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        What was funny was that I’ve asked academics what sort of university they would like to see, if we had tens of millions of dollars to found a new New School and it was basically that they like the broadened demographics of the student body and the expanded canon, but wanted more deep reading, more books, rigorous scholarship, faculty governance and in fact no non-faculty administrators, small class sizes, and more tenure track positions. So, basically the university in the 70s. But, also, not a heck of a lot different from what someone like Allan Bloom would have wanted.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I imagine that liberal academics would be more supportive of things like LGBT studies or the Institute of Post-Colonial Popular Culture than Alan Bloom but I see your point, Rufus F. What liberal academics want is a university that is broadly accessible to as many people as possible but focused on the humanities rather than more pragmatic, job-oriented courses of study.

        This kind of university never really existed except in the imaginations of people. Even during the golden days of the late 1940s to early 1970s, I imagine many people went to college simply because it was seen as necessary for their middle to upper class aspirations rather than out of a desire to learn in a cloistered environment. I’m not sure how many people. We know that some women went to university to make a name and career for themselves and others for the MRS degree. I’m sure a lot of first in their families to go to college male students just saw the degree as a ticket to the middle class, suburban lifestyle. Finally, there was plenty of fratty partying happening in colleges even during the height of the Counter Culture. The number of students that wanted to study in a cloistered environment for four years or more was always probably very small.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Yeah, it’s probably hard to achieve. I went to a very traditional liberal arts school where people were mostly nerds, but the problem was with “broad access”. They never lacked for students, but kept enrollment down at a fairly low level.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I actually got talking a bit about Bloom with Henry Giroux last week for an interview- if you think I’m critical of modern academia…

        I’m more generally okay with Bloom than he would be, but there was some agreement that what resulted over the last few decades is, in many ways, the opposite of what a conservative, as opposed to a right-winger, would have hoped for in academia.Report

      • Zac in reply to Rufus F. says:

        “What’s weird is that the social liberalism of certain parts of the cathedral are married to some very, very catholic (small-c) traditions and assumptions.”

        Is the bit about the “cathedral” a reference to the Neoreactionary concept of the same name, or am I just misunderstanding/misreading this sentence?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

        No, that’s the reference I was making.Report

      • aaron david in reply to Rufus F. says:

        “What liberal academics want is a university that is broadly accessible to as many people as possible but focused on the humanities rather than more pragmatic, job-oriented courses of study.”

        I think that is only true for professors in humanities fields, as there are plenty of Architecture, Engineering, Mathematics etc. professors who feel that the areas they are involved in are just as, nay more than! any of the humanities. Liberal or not.Report

      • The parts of mathematics that are job-oriented, like first-year calculus, are chores to teach. Math professors are there to do research in stuff that’s of no interest to anyone that isn’t also a mathematician. As I’ve said before, I think my BA in Math was great training for being able to analyze systems and approach problems in certain ways, but I’ve use almost none of the actual material since, except occasionally to write blog posts. Not unlike the advertised value of a history degree.Report

  5. j r says:

    First off, I went to a lower-tier university for grad school to be close to my fiancé because I thought that getting my Bachelor’s at a public ivy was what mattered and just the opposite is true. Then, I fell head over heels in love with teaching and devoted much of my time and energy to it in a profession that places publications far above teaching. I never had anyone say to me, “Be a great teacher or perish.”

    This may get to the heart of it. There really are major differences between the university as a place to conduct research and train future academics and the university as a place to instruct undergraduates. For historical reasons, these two places developed in the same place, but there is no reason to think that they have to remain that way. I expect that one of the reasons why we are seeing the proliferation of adjuncts and lecturers is that people with Masters Degrees are perfectly capable of instructing undergrads.

    I expect that at some point there will be a break of sorts between the research arm of the school and the instruction arm. Not sure what that looks like yet, though.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

      When universities started in the West, they were seen as storehouses of knowledge rather than generations of knowledge. The idea was to train clergy in what they needed to know in addition to some lawyers and docotrs. After the Reformation, they became places to provide some polish for the children of the gentry and nobility but nobody saw them as generators of knowledge. Like wealth, people used to assume that you couldn’t generate knwoledge. It took the Germans in the 19th century to change the nature of the university. Thats when you had the idea that a university should seek to generate knowledge rather than just educate undergraduates came from.Report

    • Crprod in reply to j r says:

      Will there be any research arm in state universities? There is a lot of commotion in NC this morning about the possibility of requiring faculty members to teach four classes each semester at UNC-CH. That might well result in a rapid departure of many who view themselves as research stars.Report

  6. zic says:

    Rufus. Wow. Write more.

    I wanna hear your coworker’s voice, to hear about how sound the clank and swish of the dish sink washes out the loud exhaust-fan pot-clanking of the kitchen; the feel of the knife slipping through onions and assaulting your eyes.

    It’s very easy to get distracted away into the life of the mind; to forget how tactile and engaged ‘work’ can be, how it frees the mind. And there’s a lot more of human history here then in the plush onion-free retreats powerful.Report

  7. Richard Hershberger says:

    Serious question: why aren’t you teaching high school? If teaching is what you love, this seems a reasonable option. Yes, there are serious down sides to this, but the same is true of teaching college.Report

    • Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Upside to teaching high school: less likely to have students attempt to blackmail you…Report

    • Good point and this is most likely what I will wind up doing. Right now, the issue is I live in Ontario where high school teachers are required to get a certificate that takes two more years of schooling. I’m about ready to suck it up and go take classes to learn to do what I did for five years, but can’t quite afford it and am trying to figure out the loan process. The alternative is private high schools, which used to not require certification but increasingly want it as well to make themselves more attractive to parents.Report

      • Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Stateside, they have 6 month courses that’ll get you a shiny “emergency certification” if you’re in a field where they need teachers (Probably Not History).
        Of course, I also hear that the American teaching certificate is easy enough that you can get two years done in one if you try.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I came very close to applying for a one-year program over the border and was only stopped by the difficulty of getting together the higher tuition in time. Also, I did not have 100% confirmation that the certificate was transferable, which made me suspicious.Report

      • Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:

        oh, it’s probably not. Certificates may not transfer from state to state.Report

  8. Burt Likko says:

    I wonder if people like Rufus and his unnamed colleague are necessary to have as widespread an academy as we do. It’s in the nature of higher education that a single professor has many students, who then disseminate out into the world.

    Work with me here. Let’s say that in [Liberal Arts Discipline], tenure-track faculty positions are only offered to holders of terminal degrees from a) Prestige University, b) Flagship University of Snobby Eastern Seaboard State, c) Elite State University of the Midwest, d) Western Elite University, and e) Elite University of the South. That’s between twenty to thirty Ph.D.s coming out of those five top-tier universities a year. And that may represent the totality of vacancies in tenure-track [Liberal Arts Discipline] faculty positions for the entire country. But “entire country” is a much larger tower of campuses* than just those five schools; these schools generate more graduates than they have vacancies themselves to fill.

    Thus, terminal graduates of these top-tier schools go out into the world and take tenure-track positions at second-tier universities, where they are expected to, in descending order of importance, 1) research and publish, and 2) mentor new generations of graduate students, 3) from time to time condescend to lecture undergraduates and hold office hours for the required amount of time imposed by the Academic Provost and not one damn minute longer, and 4) take their turns grudgingly serving as academic department heads. Which activity generates cash flow and prestige for their university but creates as a byproduct graduates and postgraduates holding degrees in [Liberal Arts Discipline] from said second-tier universities, which degrees, as @rufus-f notes in the OP, are functionally useless for the purpose of securing tenure-track employment even at third-tier universities, which may not even have tenure tracks these days.

    If terminal degrees from second-tier universities in [Liberal Arts Discipline] are not really useful for obtaining academic jobs, then we must confront the question of what else can be done with them, and thus we wind up with plenty of “Dr. Janitor” and “Barrista, Ph.D.” It wasn’t that long ago I read (and wrote) about adjunct professors in [Liberal Arts Discipline] taking night jobs as wait staff in restaurants to make ends meet, and coming across their students as customers and what that does to the academic’s authority in class.

    And that, in turn, makes me wonder whether terminal degrees from second- or lower-tier schools in [Liberal Arts Discipline] ought to be considered luxury goods or something akin to them — appropriate things to make available to people who have sufficient financial wherewithal to use the education they represent as an avocation or a sidelight rather than as a principal means of deriving financial support.

    * I read somewhere long long ago that the aggregate term for a grouping of more than one campus is a “tower,” like the way the aggregate term for a grouping of multiple crows is a “murder” or multiple fish is a “school.” But I’ve not verified that and I don’t know if it’s right. If it isn’t, then it ought to be, because I think “a tower of campuses” is a pretty cool phrase.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Burt Likko says:

      “And that, in turn, makes me wonder whether terminal degrees from second- or lower-tier schools in [Liberal Arts Discipline] ought to be considered luxury goods or something akin to them — appropriate things to make available to people who have sufficient financial wherewithal to use the education they represent as an avocation or a sidelight rather than as a principal means of deriving financial support.”

      I think that not only ought such degrees be regarded this way, they already are by sensible people.

      There are some specific instances where they can be of financial use. My wife teaches high school. She has a Master’s degree, and receives a modestly higher salary because of this. A doctorate would result in another modest uptick in salary. The subject matter of the degree is irrelevant to this, though it might influence initial hiring.

      But in the general case, anyone who takes a post-graduate liberal arts degree from a third tier school in the expectation of going into academia on the college level simply has not performed his due diligence.

      That being said, if you have the means and no illusions, engaging in higher education for personal satisfaction is perfectly reasonable, and indeed admirable. I have known some people like that, and generally find them interesting and engaging.

      There also are outlets for people of a research bent who are not professional academics. Local historical societies have thrived in this niche since time out of mind. I scratch this itch researching and writing about early baseball history. Finding publication outlets for article-length writing has not been a problem, and I get to an annual symposium of like-minded eccentrics. The trick is to find a subject area that interests you and which you can research at a cost in time and money that is within your means, and the complementary requirement to find a way to pay the bills that allows you also to pursue your interests. It can be done, and formal academia is largely irrelevant to this.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


      Just as there are a handful of people from lower-tiered law schools who make it into BigLaw as 1L associates, there are a handful of professors from lower-ranked programs that achieve the brass ring of a tenure track position.

      The big issue is that Universities are required to confer graduate degrees. I suppose they could get away with Masters and Professional degrees but maybe not based on various standards. I don’t think any state is going be okay with a flagship/land-grant university that does not offer PhDs in a variety of field.

      As I said above, I think that there are enough young people with the curiosity and intellectual drive to succeed in grad school and get a Masters and/or a PhD. The problem is that there is not enough demand for them post-PhD. Any large sized nation is going to produce a healthy number of intellectuals. The problem is that as Rufus mentioned, there are no longer that many avenues for intellectually inclined young people anymore.

      Law used to be a field that people went into when they were intellectually inclined but realized that academics was not for them. My Antitrust Professor had a very long and successful career in law. He introduced himself as a “failed academic” on the first day of class. It used to be possible for people to get middle-class lives by working the Arts section of the local media, this has also passed because of the Internet.

      The solutions to the problem seem unrealistic and/or draconian. There is something profoundly undemocratic about deciding that “These grad programs are worth it and only these can exist”. There is a reason why someone chooses to major in Renaissance Studies instead of Marketing Studies. But it is also profoundly cruel to turn raise unrealistic hopes in people about prospects on the academic job market.

      Do we need to destroy intellectual curiosity especially if it is in the arts and humanities? “Oh no, Little Billy is developing an interest in 19th Century French History. Someone break his spirits before he decides to go to grad school….”Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I think there is something very perverse about a system that discourages the intellectually inclined from college and grad school but encourages the kids who just want to do marketing to attend college and university.Report

      • How does the system do this?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        By having graduates graduate with home mortgage-level amounts of debt.

        Personally, I think that making school debts discharagable in bankruptcy would resolve this problem.

        But I imagine that one of the unintended consequences will be “cash up front” for degrees considered most likely to result in bankruptcy. (They’ll have actuarial tables and everything.)Report

      • I tend to think the intellectually inclined who went to college are doing quite well compared to those who didn’t go to college. Generally speaking. And they don’t pay more for their education than their marketing students sitting next to them in Intro to Government core requirement class (unless they choose to).Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        1. By having people our leaders and elites talk about education in strictly utilitarian terms and having it all be about jobs, jobs, jobs. STEM and Business above all.

        2. By having tuition and funding policies which make education unaffordable for many without loans.

        3. A society that seemingly takes “An English major an a buck fifty” jokes seriously.Report

      • #1 and #3 don’t seem like a system, and #2 applies in roughly equal measure to literature and marketing grads.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Oh, I’m sure. There are personality types that will, all things considered, do better than others and “intellectually inclined” is one of them.

        But there are also stories like this one:

        (Be sure to check out the “majoring in debt” slideshow at the bottom.)

        Now, I’m less inclined to the solutions that I’m sure Saul and Lee would propose but I think that the whole “graduate with a mountain of debt with no real salable skills” is a real problem that is likely to get worse rather than better.Report

      • Jay, I’m saying something slightly different than that. I’m saying that while Saul might (or might not) have done better majoring in something marketable, I still think he would have been better off with just a bachelor’s degree in theater than no degree at all. He’s intellectually inclined either way. I just think that college probably did him good even controlling for intellectual inclination.Report

      • And by “better” I don’t mean in the sense of self-actualization, but lifetime earnings.

        I don’t think it’s true of everybody, but I think it’s true of him and people like him and probably most if the people on this site.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Ah, but we shouldn’t make that comparison (thank you for this one; it’s very good).

        It ain’t the comparison between Oberlin and no college that you need to make, you compare Oberlin to Berkley, Berkley to U of M, U of M to M State, M State to Commuter College, Commuter College to Community College, and Community College to no college.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I don’t disagree with that assessment. The data still shows college grads have good employment statistics. I will hopefully be okay in the long run despite my current seemingly endless freelance rut.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Yeah, I think that lifetime earnings probably do bear this at. My advice would still be, if you’ve gotten through the Master’s program like my co-worker, skip the PhD and go into the professional world.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @jaybird the most obvious solution is to return to the system where states provided direct funding for public universities so the costs of tuition would be low. If that is impossible, I would seriously suggest ending government subsidized student loans. This would prevent administrators from using tuition to fund their greed like what currently happens because government would not support it or banks would balk at it. As long as university tuition and costs are a source of free money, the problem is going to continue.

        The marketable job issue is a problem. Going to college helps more than it hurts regardless of the degree still but there are people who find that their degrees are useless after they graduate. This includes people with ostensibly practical degrees as well as humanities majors. There is not a good solution to this problem.Report

      • j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        the kids who just want to do marketing to attend college and university.

        In a thread of very Saul comments, this is perhaps the most.

        What is it exactly that makes you think that you have some special insight into the mind of people who major in marketing or want a career in marketing? What is it exactly that allows you to dismiss them as not intellectually inclined?Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “Yeah, I think that lifetime earnings probably do bear this at. My advice would still be, if you’ve gotten through the Master’s program like my co-worker, skip the PhD and go into the professional world.”

        @rufus-f my goal of where I´d like to see graduate education go (at least for the humanities and social sciences…..I can´t speak to the other disciplines), is for most of the PHD programs to turn into MA-only programs. MA´s are more doable, require less time and money and opportunity cost. And the really talented or those who really can afford the luxury of going for a phd can go to one of the smaller number of programs. Ideally, in my dream world, those inclined to the humanities and social sciences could then be part of an intellectually engaged society.

        I don´t know know how to get from A to Z, though, unless I were emperor of Academia and could waive my magic wand to force all universities to do likewise and to change the way the incentives work.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Or….what @michael-cain said below.Report

  9. Michael Cain says:

    One of the things that seems to have disappeared is the terminal masters degree. Either you stop with a bachelors, or you head for the PhD, but the masters seems to be disappearing. Oh, there are programs that give you one as a consolation for finishing the first two years of the PhD track but then failing/dropping out, and there are masters-level professional degrees, but the two-year-plus-masters-thesis (maybe a bit longer if you’re “deficient in preparation”) in academic subjects seems to be disappearing.

    Which is a shame. If things hadn’t gotten so bloody expensive, I’d spend a chunk of my retirement pursuing terminal masters degrees in several subjects.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain says:


      The exception being M.F.A.s. My Masters in directing is a terminal degree. Most of the professors in the drama department at my undergrad and grad school only had Masters degrees.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain says:

      There are also a bunch of professional degrees that stop at the Masters level. MBAs, MSWs. Masters of Education, Masters of Library Science, Masters of their Domain, Masters of Business Analytics, etc.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        @michael-cain can correct me if I´m wrong, but I thought he was referring to programs where one goes in just for the masters, even if there´s a PHD theoretically available to be gotten.

        Also, I had thought that a lot of business disciplines and arts disciplines offered things like doctorates, just that it´s not common for practitioners to go for them. But I don´t really know. I do know it´s possible to get a phd in education or an EdD, and also phd in library science (or something very close to an equivalent to library science).Report

      • Yes, I was thinking of programs where you get a masters, period. In my most recent bout of grad school, the terminal masters and the PhD tracks had minimal overlap. One woman who finished the terminal masters and decided to go on for a PhD at the same school had to start over completely. In my first bout, the masters and PhD were identical for two years. At that point, you either wrote a masters’ thesis, or you took the PhD qualifiers.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I yearn for the day that I can get a Master’s in Social Work and one in Philosophy!

      I went to grad school in upstate New York and we did have a requirement that came into effect while I was there that required a *lot* of high school teachers to get Master’s degrees. It was sort of good for the department because the MA program was packed, but bad because they really didn’t want to be there. I remember some bizarre cultural clashes between the Master’s and PhD students!

      I wouldn’t be surprised if states started asking for Master’s degrees from all of their High School teachers. In many ways, it’s a better gig than university instruction.Report

      • ScarletNumber in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Graduate degrees in education are noted for their lack of rigor.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I suppose what I really need for my long term research project is not so much the actual MA/MS, but between one and three post-graduate classes in several different fields. Weird kinds of things, though. Right now I could use a couple of history of the evolution of city classes, and a peculiar sort of urban planning class. One and maybe two on complex dynamic systems modeling/simulation and tools for same.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Getting a degree in teaching is like getting one in kissing. You’re not really going to learn it any other way than doing it and getting better quick.Report

  10. ScarletNumber says:

    armed with a PhD and “professional” skills in research, writing, teaching, analysis, and editing.

    This was the standard BS line offered by the history department at my alma mater.Report

  11. ScarletNumber says:

    Today in Dear Prudence a woman wrote in because she is embarrassed that her older brother is the janitor at her job.Report

  12. Damon says:

    “As a result, nearly every grad student I ever met is what I call emotionally overleveraged: they’ve sunk so much of themselves into the academic dream that not hitting that distant goal would feel like catastrophic failure. ”

    Didn’t we just have a post of fallacy of sunk costs?Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Damon says:

      Yeah, I pretty much made the same comment there. Just fleshed it out here a bit.Report

    • Chris in reply to Damon says:

      I’ve known two types of PhD dropouts: the ones who come back a year later in their Mercedes to say hi, and the ones who come back a year later in the same car they left in, begging to be let back in. It’s hard to change your identity, and how you evaluate yourself, without something new to take the place of the old. People who see an ego-saving out will often take it, but so many graduate students have no concept of adult life outside of academia.Report

  13. ScarletNumber says:

    Dr Jan Itor was a character played by the janitor on Scrubs.Report

  14. Rose Woodhouse says:

    I’m going to be incredibly rude here and not read the comments that have come before mine, only because there are now 80+.

    I just wanted to say this hit home for me. I just had my third year on the academic job market with nothing to show for it and am transitioning out. I am still in the hopeful phase that some employer will see my PhD as a positive. I am also trying to make a go of writing.

    You’re absolutely right about the delusion that sweeps us in grad school. We know the stats, but don’t think it will happen to us.

    And I think you’re dead on that I have to view my PhD as of intrinsic, not instrumental value.Report