Death of the invisible adjunct

I stumbled on a channel setup by Seb called Topic Exchange: Channel ‘invisible_adjunct’. I was an avid reader of the invisible adjunct. For those that don’t know, the invisible adjunct was one of the many Ph.D. holders who have a decent publication record and are in every way competent scholars, but they still fall through the system and end up beggars at some university. For those of you not familiar with the context, let’s just say that there is tremendous pressure on professors (like myself) to train more and more and more Ph.D. students.

This comes in part from the government which likes to measure universities by numbers: how many Ph.D. does this university produce… and so on…

Now, of course, if all these graduates are unemployed… well who cares? And who’s going to believe you when you say that Ph.D. holders can’t find jobs? Who’s going to pity them? Surely, they can’t find a job because they want to earn $500k a year? Right.

No. Most Ph.D. graduates are lucky to find a post-doc. A post-doc, in Canada, pays around $30k. Sometimes more, sometimes (amazingly) less. I’m not saying that some of them don’t find great jobs. It happens. But it is statistically insignificant.

So, the invisible adjunct is someone who just gave up. She’s not alone.

Some people are smarter and they leave early, like wolfangel… but many don’t.

I particularly like a recent post by Erin.

Here’s a comment which rings very true:

My experience with a Ph.D program was that the myopic focus on only academic skills was very damaging to the students in my program. Academic who have devoted their whole life to study of a particular subject in an educational setting have little understanding of the learning that takes place on the job or as part of living life.

But here’s some advice from a couple of science Ph.D.s :

There is only one reason to get a Ph.D. — because the career path you want to pursue requires it. Do not do it because you think it will make you feel important, because it will do the opposite. Do not do it because “there are a lot of things you could do with it”, because there are plenty of things you can do without it. Do not do it because you think it will be an intellectual adventure, because you’d do much better with a library card.

I think that all students should read and seriously consider such statements before undertaking a Ph.D. I’m not saying a Ph.D. is a bad thing… but, well, read the quotes above!

There is more:

your odds of getting the PhD are smaller than you think, your odds of getting a job are slighter still, and your odds of getting tenure at a place yet smaller, and then all of this happening at a place you would otherwise choose to live? Infinitesimal.

6 thoughts on “Death of the invisible adjunct”

  1. I know Daniel questions a lot on the Ph.D. level education.
    University education is not professional training. In Europe, the two are clearly different
    paths for youths. So is Ph.D. education. It may more replies on the professor’s vision about how to train the Ph.D. students and what his expectation on the students. But the students should know all the risks before they start the program, because there is no standard on how to train Ph.D. students and the status when they get the degree. I would suggest the students to take a Ph.D. as a sophisticate training on intelligence and scientific thinking. It gives the students the ability to pursue knowledge in a depth level. I don’t see things more than that.
    Sure, there are only a small portion of the graduates who end up on the tenure track. That is the selection system. If not so many candidates, we will have low quality professors to train our children.

  2. But the students should know all the risks before they start the program

    And who is going to tell them? When you were 19, did you know what the life of a Ph.D. holder was like? Of course you didn’t. Yet, you slowly committed to getting a Ph.D., and now you have it… were the implications clearly outlined to you at any point in time? Was the information readily available? I don’t think so… because schools have a conflict of interest: they want to train more and more Ph.D.s, and yet, they are also expected to present the facts to students so that they can make informed choices.

    I would suggest the students to take a Ph.D. as a sophisticate training on intelligence and scientific thinking. It gives the students the ability to pursue knowledge in a depth level. I don’t see things more than that.

    Do you see it that way? Then it’d be fine if I told you have to erase your Ph.D. from your c.v. and start again? Why do you advertize the fact that you have a Ph.D. and look for jobs having a Ph.D. has a requirement if you did it only to pursue knowledge?

    Sure, there are only a small portion of the graduates who end up on the tenure track. That is the selection system. If not so many candidates, we will have low quality professors to train our children.

    Why don’t we apply the same logic to doctors, phamarcians, high school teachings, and so on?

    I’m not saying you should equate a Ph.D. with a job. No. It is fine the way it is.

    However, we should stop telling the government that all these Ph.D.s are required and highly employable. The government will then stop putting millions into universities so we train all those students…

    But see… who’s going to the government the reality of it all? Universities? Why, so they loose their funding?

    No, we’ll keep receiving massive funding from the government so we can train more and more, and always more Ph.D.s We’ll apply for funding explaining to the government how training these Ph.D.s is key for the knowledge economy and so on.

    In short, we’ll keep lying for money.

  3. Why people can’t get another job if they can’t be a professor?

    They certainly can. And in fact, they often do. Professorship is rather mediocre as a job in fact. Lower than average salary. Higher than average hours. Of course, you get great job security, but that’s also a curse (don’t forget that if you get job security, so do the others…).

    The medical school is famous for high failure rate. I don’t know where these failed students go.

    No, it is not famous for high failure rate. If you get a medical degree, you almost certainly can be a doctor. If you get a law degree, you almost certainly can be a lawyer. If you get a Ph.D., well, you get a Ph.D.

    If you want to guarantee that every CS ph.d. gets a decent job, do not issue too much ph.d.

    Right. Or simply make sure that students understand quite well what’s waiting for them once they have their Ph.D. That research is not some romantic job like you see on TV.

    Research is spending money. So don’t feel shame. I’ve read the book “ph.d. is not enough” again during my vacation, check the chapter on grants application.

    This is a good book, but it offers a cynical view not everyone can easily embrace, especially students who have been always told they are very smart. It is full of healthy realism, but at the same time, it shows the flaws of our research culture.

    P.S. I agree with your idea, also from this book, that research has to be lead by problems, not techniques. But many “good” papers are produced behind a shut door.

    Good papers not read by anyone. Producing papers is not as important as Feibelman puts it, I think, though he offers good strategies like, do not sit on results, and do not get too ambitious.

    The important thing in research is to build solutions to problems. It is as simple as that. Now, by doing so, you’ll document your work and thus produce papers. If you provide many solutions, you’ll end up, with many papers…

    But in the end, the papers are just a consequence of your success, not the success itself.

  4. Even Galileo’s father told his son not to learn Mathematics. I thought the curse of Ph.d. was known for historically long time. Starting a 9-5 job at age of 22 is not so funny. Why not to try some crazy things, like a Ph.D. when you have no family to worry? This would be the only peak in your life if you would not get on tenure track. Why people can’t get another job if they can’t be a professor? I hope their minds are not blocked by their titles and have gained visions on the society and their own life during the years staying with some odd professors . Sure the investment and the return are not so compatible, if they get a 30K job. But that is only temporary. They will find their way out.
    The medical school is famous for high failure rate. I don’t know where these failed students go. If you want to guarantee that every CS ph.d. gets a decent job, do not issue too much ph.d.
    Research is spending money. So don’t feel shame. I’ve read the book “ph.d. is not enough” again during my vacation, check the chapter on grants application.
    P.S. I agree with your idea, also from this book, that research has to be lead by problems, not techniques. But many “good” papers are produced behind a shut door.

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