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The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps (chronicle.com)
23 points by mikecane on May 6, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

When I was in physics grad school, some 20 years ago, I was paid $11K/year. As a single male with no dependents, living in a room which cost $200/month, and walking distance from classes and work, it was quite doable. Others, married and/or with children, had it more complicated. Some students did get welfare. The plan was that after graduation we would have access to much better paying jobs. But some of my friends, PhD trained in chemistry or physics, still found it difficult to find a job in their chosen profession. Many ended up with postdoc positions, making more than the adjunct professors mentioned here, but still with little money and little job security.

One may say they have "zero pity for highly educated people who do not understand the basics of supply and demand in their chosen job market" - and bear in mind that I'm talking here about people trained in the sciences, and not humanities which is oft smirked at for its dearth of job prospects. But the thing is, we as people get to decide what failure means. We don't need to let one bad choice prove ruinously disastrous.

As jseliger's link points out, I, as a 21 year old who outside of a few summer jobs had never been outside of the academic environment, really did not understand the job market and options available to me, so made my decision on rather limited information. I hadn't even realized, for example, that graduate schools paid TA salaries. I thought I would have to apply for scholarships like I did for my undergraduate education.

It worked out well for me, but it also felt like a lot of chance was involved. Lady Luck could easily given a worse roll. I do not see my success as purely my own achievement. I do not want my failures to be my own cross to bear, and nor would I wish that on others.

Yes, I believe in funding a strong social safety net.

This article is tailor made for a lot of Nelson Muntz-ish "HAHA"s.

1) Gloating over your own skills being in demand can be short-sighted. How many of the people here were thinking, "wow, I'm really passionate about medieval history, but I'll go into software development because that's where the big bucks are?" I'd hazard to say none: people choose to do what they enjoy, not what will make them money. Just because your passion happened to line up with today's market discipline doesn't mean that anyone whose passions aren't in that same direction are fools. (And do you really want a bunch of people who have no innate skills in programming flocking to IT and CS in the hopes of cashing out?)

2) That said, I'm not massively sympathetic toward her. Lots of people don't have the ability to easily cease living off food stamps: she could find a job to catapult her into the middle class in a matter of months. It's a choice on her end. Though, it's not even clear that it's a poor choice, since she gets to do what she loves and has enough money plus entitlements for food, shelter, and medical care.

3) But to tease out some points even further... most people are more interested in pissing on her choices than in figuring out how they can use her situation to better the world. Wait, (ostensibly) great teachers in obscure topics are out there in abundance working only a couple hours a week? Shouldn't we be spending more time wondering "Is there an opportunity here?" than wondering if her choices make her education worthless or if she deserves our pity or not?

> she could find a job to catapult her into the middle class in a matter of months. It's a choice on her end.

On what basis is this assumption made? I'm genuinely curious because I think it reflects the attitude of many in certain segments in our society. The idea that poverty is a choice, and if they wanted to they could just choose their way out of it just like that.

Keep in mind the context of the present age we're living in - unemployment, across almost all sectors, is still extremely high. Are all these people, especially the educated segments, just choosing to live off public assistance? It's pretty clear, and this was the whole point of the article, that having an education isn't an IWIN button for middle class standard of living anymore, and yet society keeps selling that idea to the younger generation.

> That said, I'm not massively sympathetic toward her.

It's dangerously easy to judge people who aren't doing as well as oneself.

The idea that poverty is a choice, and if they wanted to they could just choose their way out of it just like that.

There is of course no way to prove she has alternatives. But the article does not suggest she looked.

It's quite easy to judge most poor people in America, since most of them do choose to live off public assistance. Most poor people choose not to work, and if they do work, choose not to work full time. Bruninga-Matteau seems to fall into the latter camp.


(In contrast, Stegall does seem rather more sympathetic, since he did attempt to find non-academic work.)

That's all true and valid. I do believe there's a distinction between a person from an upper-middle class family, racially and economically privileged, who has the intellectual ability to get a Ph.D. and the typical welfare recipient. And even if a college degree doesn't guarantee anything nowadays, people with college degrees do have many more opportunities than those without. Which is reflected in, e.g., Medicaid and food stamps, which is why we get so surprised when a person with significant higher education ends up on Medicaid and food stamps.

Different programs need different abilities. I have two family members who are currently completing 'go through the motions' higher degrees.

I don't think people only have one passion. I personally have a passion for pure mathematics and number theory. My passion for software and hardware comes in a close enough second that I chose to focus my career on development rather than pure mathematics.

I was all set to double major in mathematic when I got married. When my wife and I had our first kid I decided to finish up a Computer Engineering degree and enter the workforce rather than take an extra year to finish the math major.

Sometimes you have to find something you enjoy enough. I absolutely enjoy programming, but it still doesn't come close to how fascinating I find number theory.

Everyone has options, and they make (or should make) their choices fully aware of the likely outcomes.

I don't think we disagree. But it's likely that most people who end up in a Ph.D. program in Medieval Studies don't have many passions that are marketable: there's a lot of self-selection involved, and if the main subject of the article was also passionate in, say, EECS, I think it's a fairly good bet she would have chosen it. And passions in Medieval Studies are likely correlated with similarly un-marketable passions.

Though, maybe not. I could totally see someone being really interested in the structures of everyday life of medieval peasantry. Seems worthless, but you could totally parlay that into a profitable business doing furniture making or even green/natural/traditional housing.

I happen to share your passion for mathematics, but IMO, mathematics is actually a really poor example of "see, I have this passion that I can't make money out of, so I decided to become a developer".

The kind of money that is available in finance to someone with an advanced degree in math or physics is nothing short of astounding, with CS a distant second. Of course, there are all kinds of ethical compromises one must make for that.

But finance is not pure mathematics. It's more in the realm of applied mathematics. There isn't a whole lot of organic money (ie, not prize money) in pure mathematics.

Vladimir Arnold once said that there is no such thing as applied mathematics, only applications of mathematics. I think he was right.

i read the article twice. something in it really hit home with me. i have an offer from a prof at the local univ to pursue a math phd, and i might do so in the fall. my employer is ok with it, so i get to keep my job as well. however, its a fairly useless part of math ( useless in the GH Hardy sense ) in commutative algebra, specifically prufer groups ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pr%C3%BCfer_group ) Now, I could do something "useful" and closer to finance, like stochastic calculus and stats and applied pdes & so forth...but my heart's not in those things. it feels like what i do anyway at work, so why would i do more of the same out of choice ? some of the comments below make me quite queasy. see, supply-demand is not a normative ideal. "One of the things you are are supposed to learn in economics is to avoid extremes. It is never all or nothing. Everything has advantages and disadvantages. And any way you jump has an opportunity cost because there are lots of things you would like to do with your limited means. So life is about trade-offs between rival objectives and you should optimise rather than maximise. " - so said Ross Gittins, and there's much more where that came from.

so this supply-demand thingy - its just something that happens to accurately describe the current state of the world, or more particularly the usa, especially in a bubble where it is infinitely more preferable to drop out of college and pursue ruby on rails than stick it out for a lousy diploma with your name on it. but if an athlete wanting to compete in the olympics mistakenly walked into a circus and started jumping through hoops, the crowd would throw coin at him. he can then collect that coin & settle down, get married, raise a family, get a drivers license, buy an automobile, pay municipal state and federal taxes & so on. but that just means he's become a clown, not an athlete. it is unfortunate that athletics is non sexy and training to be one involves grueling practice for years and years in isolation with no attention, no fame, no coin. but to dodge that work and passion because of what society chooses to value at a particular point in time is quite defeatist. none of what we do in cs today would have been considered useful in the 20s and 30s. church and turing would have clearly been better off working in the railroads or digging an oil well. yet they did what they did, and here we are... so, respect. you never know what the future holds for medieval history or english literature. i spent 3 semesters as a film major before i dropped out, and i must say it was a royal blast. repeatedly watching blondes strip and run towards the beach in their red bikinis while their breasts bobbed up and down, and the professor of film studies pausing the remote at the critical instant when a tad bit of cleavage was visible and saying "hey, this is why baywatch was a hit" and all of us students scribbling down "must place camera on sand level and tile up to show cleavage in beach shots" - i mean, nothing beats that. no amount of fancy research in STEM will match the pure adrenaline that passes for film studies. so there's a reason people in their youth pursue these non-lucrative fields, so lets not rain on their parade.

Completely true. My argument isn't to avoid the one thing you are truly passionate about. It's to understand the realistic results of that pursuit. If I hadn't gotten married while still in school I probably would have gotten the double major and perhaps gone to graduate school in mathematics. But my priorities shifted. I found choosing a close runner up in order to better my family life to be superior. Just as I would probably pass up on a promotion that would require me to travel 30% of the time. For me my family is a passion. For other people, having a nice house and nice toys is a passion. As you said, it's all about optimizing rival objectives. For me that optimization between my interests and having a family is software development. That is purely from my perspective, but it's a choice I have made and there are consequences of that choice, both seen and unforeseen.

And that's the point. Once we make a choice, we must accept the consequences. The article indicates there was some sort of agreement between life and students that says "If you study hard and get an advanced degree you won't have financial troubles." Since that wasn't the case, the world seems unfair. There is no such agreement. I'm not raining on the parade of students studying things that interest them. I feel strongly that their studies are beneficial and they become better people and better members of society because of them. But they were never promised financial success and not having it is not a breach of contract in any way shape or form. That's why this article rubs this crowd the wrong way.

actually, your point about being a film major is right on target. yea, it was awesome for 3 semesters, but if you'd spent 10 years getting a phd in that and then discovered that you aren't going to make coin, then yes, may your parade be rained on.

I've lived long enough to see unemployed engineers, ex NASA rocket scientists, programmers after the .com bust,. The more specialised the profession, the harder it is for the person to find work when the economy drastically changes.

The smarter a person is, the more likely they suffer from the myopic perspective that things will be different for themselves.

In particular, young people make all sorts of uninformed choices based on the biases of people around them. For instance, youths are exposed to 8 hours of indoctrination that school and the life of the academic represents the highest ideal. But look who's telling them?

The same goes for startup communities which glorifies sleeping on the couch. Ideals and realities are often two different things.

Yep at #1. Perhaps, as an exercise in empathy, people here could imagine how their lives would change if, due to "supply and demand", programmer salaries dropped to $20k/year.

Believe it or not, I imagine that all the time, and keep a long list of subjects that I casually read about on the side as a hedge.

The first thing I would do is ditch programming as a means of producing a living, and only do it as a hobby, and immediately reorganize my life to transition to a field that pays what programmer salaries are now.

This isn't the half of it. Many PhD programs are funded, and most people going into them know they're studying things for the joy of learning about them and are not necessarily going to find work easily, especially at lower ranked schools.

Try going to one of the top ten law programs, taking out an enormous amount of debt, dealing with 3 years of opportunity cost etc., in what's supposed to be a professional program that tracks you onto finding good paying work, and then finding out no one wants your professional services.

Not whining ... I made my bed, it's made of student loan bills, I've got to sleep in it. But you can be damn well sure that I shout from the rooftops about the very dubious investment proposition that even "elite" educational programs offer these days...

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau does not blame Yavapai College for her situation but rather the "systematic defunding of higher education."

In fact, it is the systematic overfunding of higher education that has led this person to getting a degree that is worthless.

Plus her own poor choices, of course.

Choices, in her partial defence, she did not make in a vacuum.

I'm willing to gamble that at least one person indoctrinated her with 'follow your dreams, and the money will come'.

I think the underlying assumption in the article is that people who get an education are more entitled to a high paying job than those who don't have such an education.

That entitlement is a huge question. Why should they be entitled to higher paying jobs? Because they worked hard to get there? I used to work 12 hour days as a construction worker making $10/hour. I work half as hard as a programmer as I did as a construction worker, yet I earn 8 times as much. In the 4 years of school it took to get here, I can't even pretend that I worked harder than my former colleagues did. Clearly how hard we work isn't the only factor in our wages.

So what is this entitlement based on? I'm not asking what wages should be based on. We almost all agree that you should be paid according to the value you add. My question is why it is (or why is it supposed to be) surprising that someone with a PhD in medieval studies can't find work. What is the assumption by the general public based on?

I'd substitute the word "entitlement" with "expectation". And it's not hard to see why they'd have it. I'm 29, and I can clearly remember getting the message from every corner of society that more education = higher income/earning potential. From every teacher, guidance counselor, and regular adult in my life the message was the same. College education means financial security.

The racial overtones of the article confuse me - should I be more sympathetic because the literature professor is white?

That's what immediately jumped out at me. Which is sort of funny, because the majority of people on Medicaid are white, IIRC.

I attribute it to, on the reporter's part, two parts laziness to one part subconscious racism.

I think the article was seeking to address the widely held view that the vast majority of public assistance recipients are black, and relatedly that they're lazy, uneducated (by choice), and all around primarily responsible for our nation's financial problems.

Of course this has never been true, and part of the point of the article was that it's even less true today. Perception is very important in how people view these issues. When people see someone they can relate to, someone that looks like them, or their sibling, parent, next door neighbor, etc., it becomes a lot harder to sit in judgment and be morally dismissive of their circumstances.

I've lived in various parts of middle America, Tennessee, South Dakota, Montana, and many of these people feel these programs should be abolished exactly because of this misperception. Of course when you point out that their grandma, or auntie or cousin is on Medicare, food stamps, etc., their immediate response is - "Well I'm a hard working, Christian American, I deserve these things. It's those OTHER people who are the problem."

If you watched fox news for a few weeks, you'd be forgiven for thinking that approximately 99% of medicaid went to black people, and that those expenses are responsible for the majority of the budget deficit.

I suspect that the reporter's channeling the media environment as "what most people believe", which would make the subjects' whiteness somewhat novel.

Does it make me a bad human being if I feel zero pity for highly educated people who do not understand the basics of supply and demand in their chosen job market?

I suspect people downvoted you because of the tone and your use of a rhetorical question—if you'd just said, "I don't pity highly educated people who don't understand supply and demand in their chosen job market."

And you know what? You're right. I'm in English Lit grad school, and the number one thing I tell other people who are contemplating it is not to go. Then I tell them to read Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas and Thomas Benton's articles: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Big-Lie-About-the-Life-of/6... .

I think the problem is more complicated than basic supply and demand. There is a lot of demand for college education. Enrollment is higher than it has ever been, and the people profiled in this article have jobs. The problem is that in order to cut cost colleges are hiring more and more adjunct professors as opposed to full-time, tenure track professors. It's not uncommon for these adjunct professors to take on jobs at multiple community colleges in order to make enough. The end result is that they are doing as much or more work than a full time professor but for less pay.

It is still over supplied. If it weren't then colleges would be forced to hire tenure track professors to fill the positions since there wouldn't be enough people to teach.

Oversupplied compared to what? Just because there's no immediate industrial benefit to medieval studies doesn't mean that there's no overall societal benefit from liberal arts programs.

If you took a strict Econ 101 view of this, there would be no medieval studies professors in the whole country.

"If you took a strict Econ 101 view of this, there would be no medieval studies professors in the whole country."

I don't believe that. (note that I am the guy who originally made the "zero pity" comment) Knowing how society developed from medieval times into the Renaissance is very valuable, especially from the point of view of someone who studies history of technology, markets, and means of production. Within that context, there is most definitely demand for professors of medieval studies.

The conversation really is about how there isn't enough demand for dozens of medieval studies experts every year. Perhaps there would be demand for a dozen every five years or so.

Ok, so a dozen every 5 years, according to who? Nobody pays specifically for medieval history education, it's usually part of a larger liberal arts program, so there's pretty much zero Econ 101 factors in play as far as the employment of medieval history experts.

Your contention that we're producing a couple too many, ok, I can buy that. But the people in the article have jobs -- and it doesn't seem to stand that the depts in question would pay more for medieval history experts if there was a smaller pool of talent.

There is some demand, that is why they exist at all. Most likely from people who want to study it and don't care about the financial repercussions later. Not all demand is created by rational buyers.

The bottom line is that if the price is low there is high supply relative to low demand. Econ 101 factors are always "at play". While a more advanced econ class may explain more complex pricing concepts, it really isn't necessarily here since this basically a classic econ 101 example.

What is even more interesting is that every time someone graduates with a history PhD they are in a position where they either go in to the field where their low paid professors already work or go to a different job. The ones that don't want food stamps take the second choice.

Those people who decide to sacrifice for the first 3 or 4 years out of the program and take jobs to get experience in a new field which can yield higher pay later will make more than those that stay in low demand history PhD positions in academia.

Why would colleges want to hire tenure-track professors if adjuncts can teach the same number of students for less money?

The full-time vs. adjunct debate has nothing to do with whether college is over- or under-supplied. It's a problem with how colleges supply whatever it is that they supply.

"Why would colleges want to hire tenure-track professors if adjuncts can teach the same number of students for less money?" That is precisely the point. There is an oversupply of people willing to do the job and thus people are willing to do it for less money (teaching adjunct). If there were a shortage, then the university would be forced to pay more and give more benefits (hire tenure track).

There seems to be a lot of confusion in this thread about what one another is saying. sparsevector said that colleges are not oversupplied, because there's a lot of demand for them. wtvanhest replied with a comment that sounds as if colleges are oversupplied, when in fact his evidence suggests that teachers are oversupplied. That's off-topic. So I was trying to point that out, and now you're repeating wtvanhest's argument that teachers are oversupplied. That's not a bad argument in itself, and I'm not downvoting you (HN doesn't allow me to downvote replies to my own comment) but it's still off-topic in the context of sparsevector's argument above.

I downvoted his comment while trying to upvote it. (android phone is hard to use hn on) which is probably why it went grey.

I am talking about professors since that is what the article is about and completely not worrying about colleges since that is off topic.

The entire point of the article is that a person who decides to get a PhD in history should be paid because they went to school for 4 years. To me, that concept is ridiculous and people don't get to be paid a lot for what they want to do in the absence of basic economic theory.

Too many professors, not enough demand = low pay. It sucks that person made that choice, but there are plenty of secretarial jobs which pay above poverty level which someone with a PhD in history could get.

Well as a matter of fact, the colleges really can't get enough people to teach. This is why there is such movement towards online super-sized lectures: they want to teach an order of magnitude more people (charging them for the service).

The problem is that university administrations have tried to transform their institutions into profit-making businesses, and have insisted on cutting corners. They are hell-bent on the notion of teaching an order of magnitude more students without hiring any more tenure-track professors.

Medieval History, English, & Film Studies. I shouldn't throw stones, because my chosen discipline of Political Theory is not exactly a bustling field. But: what did they think they were getting into? Education for the sake of education is fine, but it is incredibly difficult to take care of a family when you completely ignore economics.

Study what you love, sure, but don't expect that it will lead you to financial success.

They do exactly what people outside of academia do: look at those who came before. They see their advisors doing fine. Academia is weirdly deceptive in that way.

This is a silly excuse for anyone who started grad school after google was invented.

It's also a silly excuse for anyone in their 2nd year who ever spoke to a 5-6th year.

Since you ask: Yes, actually, it does.

By what moral standard?

By one different than your own? Not being snarky, and I'll assume your original question was asked in good faith. However, logical arguments, no matter how well crafted, tend not change people's minds about moral issues.

If you don't care, then you don't care. And there's probably nothing that can be said in this thread that will change your position on the matter.

They make it sound like a new development, but this has been the Chronicle of Higher Education's bread-and-butter topic for a long time.

I somehow got on their mailing list during grad school, and I've received regular updates about the supposed oppression of the worlds PhD's and graduate students ever since.

Supplemental skills are essential, even for us fancy-pants code warriors. On the day they were awarded their degrees, the half dozen buddies I have who graduated as computer science majors could barley fizz-buzz their way out of a shot glass; it took a lot of studying, experimentation, and self-direction outside the classroom before they really came into their own as valuable professionals.

Software is a lucrative career path, but a college education from most universities is almost worthless on its face. Degree holders with a dim economic outlook need to consider the value in supplementing their education with a skill set that allows them to capitalize on their specialized knowledge.

These people could come to SE Asia and actually make more money teaching basic English, in cities where the cost of living is 1/4th or less that of any US city. The English teachers I talked to in Hanoi said they couldn't spend their entire salary there if they tried.

Can't help noticing that she's unpacking her food stamp purchases in front of a $300 KitchenAid mixer.

Obligatory Thomas H. Benton link:

Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846

What? No one needs an expert in medieval studies?

There's a Nova episode about the effort to prove that a portrait was a lost da Vinci.

An important part of the investigation was Elisabetta Gnignera, a costume historian and expert in renaissance hairdos, identifying the bound ponytail of the girl in the portrait as being a style that only ever became prominent in Milan, and only for a few years--the same years when da Vinci served the Milan ruling family as artist and engineer.

I thought it was cool that there are people who are experts in renaissance hairdos--and that their knowledge can actually be put to practical use.

(There is much more than the hairdo evidence to tie the painting to da Vinci. It's worth watching the Nova episode if they show it again. The combination of historical research and modern scientific analysis was quite intriguing).

"...with a Ph.D. in medieval history..."

Say no more.

She's just lucky she had a Republican governor to blame for her economic situation.

"Some are struggling to pay back student loans and cover basic living expenses as they submit scores of applications for a limited pool of full-time academic positions."

That's the real problem right there. If she went into higher education expecting to make a comfortable living from it, she should've checked her prospects first. I can't imagine there would be very many opportunities for a medieval history doctorate.

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