This post was previously published at Peachleaves blog.
Slow day at work, so I finished reading Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas. In the final chapter, my leisurely read-while-at-work pace was jarred when I reached this paragraph:
What the surveys suggest is that if doctoral education in English were a cartoon character, then about thirty years ago, it zoomed straight off of a cliff, went into a terrifying fall, grabbed a branch on the way down, and has been clinging to that branch ever since.
Wait, what? What are you saying, Louis Menand?
Up to half of all doctoral students in English drop out before getting their degrees (something that appears to be the case in doctoral education generally), and only about half of the rest end up with the jobs they entered graduate school to get – that is, tenured professorships. Over the three decades since the branch was grabbed, a kind of protective shell has grown up around this process, a culture of ‘realism’. . . students are told from the very start, almost from the minute they apply to graduate school, that they are effectively entering a lottery.
No. . . no, I was not told that. I mean, I learned that it is the case (cf. randomocracy.) But I certainly was not forewarned.
Menand goes on to describe that the effect of an oversupply and underdemand is that English departments (and many of their humanistic kin) are essentially producing ABDs, not PhDs, and then those who win the PhD lottery are then required to perform tasks for which they usually have no training (such as teaching their specialty to nonspecialists). All demonstrably true, all often complained about by me.
But I was really stung by that matter-of-fact statement of statistics. I felt the way ecentipede must have felt when I told her that in the wild, about 46 of 200 eggs hatch, and of those that hatch, only about 3 grow up to become adult birds.