Inside Higher Ed op-ed, Academe as Meritocracy
, by Joshua A. Tucker
In its year end issue, The Economist makes one of those increasingly familiar attacks (see here and here for other examples) against the academy as an institution for the way it recruits personnel. The article has lots of great statistics ... [b]ut the bottom line is basically that universities are producing more Ph.D.s each year than there are jobs available in academia for people with Ph.D.s.
Why is this the case? According to The Economist, "universities have discovered that Ph.D. students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labor."* And why would anyone ever subject themselves to such "slave labor"?** Well, because these naive young things "are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they've done" and "few will be willing to accept that... even hard work and brilliance may not be enough to succeed." ...
This reminded me of former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza. Piazza was drafted in the 62nd(!) round of the 1988 baseball draft. He went on to become one of the (if not the) game's best-hitting catchers, and is a sure bet for the Hall of Fame. Without a minor league system that allowed many, many more people to play some level of professional baseball than there were spots for in the major leagues, Piazza would never have made it to the majors. Being picked in the 62nd round shows that the talent evaluators at that stage of the process would have missed him as a potential star.
And this, perhaps, is why it is not a bad thing that we admit more Ph.D. students to programs than we have jobs for as university professors. Because the alternative is that we have to decide a lot earlier who is going to be good and who is going to be bad. If I can admit 20 students to the Ph.D. program at NYU next year, then that is 20 students who have a chance to shine. They may not all make it, but it is worth considering whether we are better off giving those 20 students a chance then picking now -- based solely on their undergraduate record -- only five who will be given a chance.
Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old who is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will? Personally, I'd rather give more people a chance, in large part because I don't think we know which 22-year-olds are going to make the best academics.
Like it or not, academia is a meritocracy. It may be a highly flawed meritocracy susceptible to overvaluing labels or fads of the day, but ultimately tenure is bestowed on those who earn the respect of their peers, and the more of your peers that respect you, the more job offers you are going to get and the more money you are going to make. I fully believe we need to be honest with graduate students about what they are getting themselves into -- the same way a minor league baseball player needs to know what the odds are of making it to the majors -- but if they want to take a shot at achieving success in this kind of a career, I see no reason why we should excessively limit the number of people who have the opportunity to do so. And at the end of the day, that's the trade-off here: the fewer students we admit to Ph.D. programs, the earlier we make the decision regarding who gets to be the next generation of professors.
For a contrary view, see Inside Higher Ed op-ed, Meritocracy and Hiring:
Is academic hiring meritocratic? The author of this piece assumes that it is. As someone whose job it is to actually hire faculty, I can attest that merit is only a small part of the picture. ...
[T]here is no such thing. Instead, there’s something like ‘fit,’ which only makes sense in context. Situational merit -- or what I above called “best at your role” -- necessarily relies on the situation (or role). As the situation changes, so does the merit. Quick, who has more situational merit: a well-published candidate with an indifferent teaching style, or an engaging teacher who rarely publishes? ...
he key is to recognize that hiring is always more about the employer than about the employee. Employers hire to solve problems they consider important. If you’re the best darn German professor who ever walked the planet, congratulations, but I don’t need you. I don’t doubt your brilliance, your hard work, your civic virtue, or your habit of helping old ladies across the street. They just don’t matter. It’s not about you.
Conversely, if you landed in a great job, congratulations! Enjoy it, work hard, and do it without guilt. But it would be ethically unbecoming to assume that it reflects your personal superiority to those who didn’t make it. There’s such a thing as being in the right place at the right time.
My objection to the ‘meritocracy’ piece isn’t just that it’s inaccurate, although it is, or that it’s arrogant, although it is. My objection is that it feeds a myth that does real harm. ...
My proposal: let’s recognize the academic job market as the uneven, unpredictable, often unforgiving thing that it is. Good people lose. Frankly, some real losers sometimes win. It’s not entirely random, of course, but it’s a far cry from a meritocracy. Let’s stop recruiting for a meat grinder of a market and pretending that it will all work out in the end. And for heaven’s sake, let’s stop pretending that it’s all about the candidates. It just isn’t.