Tag Archives: Ph.D.

“The Great Ph.D. Scam” (or: Academy Plight Song)

Thanks to the Wayback Machine, here’s my piece from the Boston Phoenix on the MLA, the first feature piece I ever wrote for publication, twenty-one years ago last month.

Who knows if the Wayback Machine is forever?  Just in case, I’m including the text of the piece here.

The Phoenix gave this piece its title, which I think is too fighty.  My title was “Academy Plight Song.”  (Get it?)

I think this holds up pretty well!  (Except if I were writing this today I wouldn’t attach so much physical description to every woman with a speaking part.)

Melani McAlister, the new hire at GWU who appears in the opening scene, is still there as a tenured professor in 2018.  And all these years later, she’s still interested in helping fledgling academics navigate the world of scholarly work; her page “Thinking Twice about Grad School” is thorough, honest, humane, and just great.

Here’s the piece!

The great PhD scam
by Jordan Ellenberg

“We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time of life when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent . . . ”
— William James
“The Ph.D. Octopus,” 1903

By nine o’clock, more than 200 would-be professors have piled into the Cotillion Ballroom South at the Sheraton Washington hotel, filling every seat and spilling over into the standing space behind the chairs. They’re young and old, dressed up and down, black and white and other (though mostly white). They’re here to watch Melani McAlister, a 1996 PhD in American Civilization from Brown, explain to a committee of five tenured professors why she ought to be hired at Indiana University.

Everybody looks nervous except McAlister. That’s because, unlike almost everyone else here, she doesn’t need a job; she’s an assistant professor at George Washington University. This interview is a mock-up, a performance put on to inform and reassure the crowd of job-seekers. As McAlister cleanly fields questions about her thesis and her pedagogical strategy, the people in the audience frown and nod, as if mentally rehearsing their own answers to the similar questions they’ll be asked in days to come.

This is night one of the 112th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, the national organization of professors of English, comparative literature, and living foreign languages. Ten thousand scholars are here in Washington, DC, to attend panels, renew acquaintances, and, most important, to fill open faculty positions. A tenure-track job typically attracts hundreds of applicants; of these, perhaps a dozen will be offered interviews at the MLA; and from that set a handful will be called back for on-campus interviews. For the people who are here “on the market,” that is, trying to become professors of English and so forth, the MLA is the gate to heaven. And, as everyone in the room is aware, the gate is swinging shut.

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Doctoral programs can have a strong influence on the weak-minded

Daniel Drezner:

First, I cannot stress enough the cult-like powers of a PhD program. Doctoral programs can have a strong influence on the weak-minded. Even if you’re pretty sure what you want going into a program, that can change as you’re surrounded by peers who want something different. You might think you’re strong-willed, but day after day of hearing how a top-tier research university position is the be-all, end-all of life can have strange effects on your psyche.

I really do feel this is something we handle well at Wisconsin.  Our Ph.D. graduates go on to a wide variety of positions, some in primarily teaching colleges, some in research institutions, some in industry, some in government.  We do not consider the North American research university the be-all and end-all of life.  We are not just trying to produce clones of ourselves.  We really do strive to help each of our students get the best job among the jobs they want to get.  

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Why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

Great open from Chris Hayes:

Imagine you’re a scientist in some sci-fi alternate universe, and you’ve been charged with creating a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths more or less willing to do anything.

There are two main traits you’d want to cultivate in your recruits. The first would be terror: You’d want to ensure that the experimental subjects were kept off-­balance and insecure, always fearful that bad things would happen, that they would be humiliated or lose their position and be cast out. But at the same time, it would be crucial that you assiduously inculcate a towering sense of superiority, the belief that the project they happen to be engaged in is more important than anything and that, because of their remarkable skills and efforts, they are among the select few chosen to be a part of it. You’d want to simultaneously make them neurotically insecure and self-doubting and also filled with the conviction that they and their colleagues are smarter and better and more deserving than anyone else.

He’s writing about young investment bankers, whose lives, such as they are, are described in Kevin Roose’s new book “Young Money.”  But doesn’t this boot camp actually describe the Ph.D. experience pretty well?  And if so, why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

I can think of one reason:  in finance, the thing you are trying to do is screw over somebody else.  If you win, someone has lost.  Mathematics is different.  We’re all pushing together.  Not that there’s no competition; but it’s embedded in a fundamental consensus that we’re all on the same team.  Apparently this is enough to hold back the sociopathy, at least for most of us.

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Reader survey: Have you advised — could you advise? a Ph.D. student online? Or have you been so advised?

Jason Starr asks a great  question in the comments to the previous post:  if you are a Ph.D. advisor, to what extent do you think you could advise a graduate student who you rarely or never physically met?  If you’re a graduate student, to what extent do you think you could thrive if you rarely or never saw your advisor in person?

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Men: bad at anthropology?

The blog is simmering with gender controversy anyway, so here, via Crooked Timber, is a  chart of the percentage of women earning PhDs in various disciplines:

To my eye, this isn’t very compatible with a biologically deterministic view of the professions.  What feature of life on the savannah explains why so many more women get Ph.Ds in statistics than in religion?  Are men chromosomally undercapable at anthropology?

To forestall one obvious comment — of course it is plain from the chart that there is some loose correlation in these numbers between the “mathiness” of a field and its “maleness.”  But surely  it’s just as plain that this isn’t the only thing going on.

 

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Should NSF give more, but smaller, graduate fellowships?

That’s a proposal that appeared today on Citizen’s Briefing Book, the digg-style section of the Obama transition website where interested citizens can post, and vote on, suggestions for the new administration.

On first glance, this sounds good to me! Currently, the NSF has a successful graduate fellowship program, which each year awards a few dozen students full support for their Ph.D. study, along with a $30,000 annual stipend. These students are the very strongest math undergraduates in the country, and the large majority go to one of the top 5 programs.

What if, instead, the NSF gave ten times as many students a much smaller package? Say, enough to supplement a TA salary by $5,000 per year, and to offer one or two semesters of full support to be used during the dissertation year? That would make a big difference to a lot of students at state universities, who otherwise have limited time off from teaching.

The argument for using the money to fund a small number of full-tuition fellowships, I guess, is that budgets are limited even at Harvard and Princeton, and the NSF fellowships allow more students to train at top departments than otherwise would. From running graduate admissions at Princeton I know very well that many, many students who would succeed at Princeton get rejected in favor of even stronger applicants. But graduate admissions are limited by things besides money — primarily the time and attention of the faculty.

The justification for the huge stipend is even harder to imagine. It’s more than doubled since I was a grad student fellow in the mid-90s. If a student is deciding whether to go to grad school on financial grounds, $30K is the same as $15K — bubkes next to what a star math major can make in industry.

So what would happen if the NSF gave many small fellowships instead of a few big ones? The students at Harvard and Princeton would still be fully supported, maybe teaching one semester to get some classroom experience. Maybe some students who otherwise would have gone to Harvard and Princeton would go to Chicago or Columbia instead. And a lot of U.S. students at good places like Wisconsin would write better dissertations faster.

Of course, the effect would also include a big transfer of wealth from the top-5 math departments to my graduate students; so maybe my self-interest is showing here.

See also: I. Laba’s thoughtful post on Canada’s NSERC Discovery Grant program, and whether it should switch from it’s current “many small grants” model to a “few large grants” model like the current NSF Graduate Fellowship.

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Where should you go to grad school?

April 15 approaches, and seniors with math degrees are deciding where to begin their graduate study. Isabel Lugo at God Plays Dice has a great post addressed to prospective graduate students at Penn:

Your mathematical interests will change during the first year in graduate school, because a lot of subjects “feel” different at the undergraduate level than at the graduate level, and there are some things you just don’t see as an undergraduate at all. (This statement about “feeling” is incredibly difficult to make precise, but two examples are probability and number theory. Probability is usually taught in a “naive” way to undergrads and in a measure-theoretic way to grad students; number theory as taught to undergrads pretty much exclusively concerns itself with reasoning that takes place in the integers, whereas at higher levels it uses Big Fancy Algebraic Machinery. In addition, it may turn out that you think you are interested in X but in reality you had a particularly good teacher of X as an undergrad which colored your perception of that field.)

Read the whole thing: I agree with every word, except that Lugo says you should go to Penn, whereas in fact you should come to Wisconsin.

If you’re wrestling with this decision right now, the most important thing I can tell you is that this decision doesn’t matter as much as you think. More precisely: it matters a lot, but the ways in which it will matter are almost entirely unpredictable, so you might as well not worry about them. Four or five years from now you’ll very likely look back and say “How wise I was to have chosen graduate program X!” — which is just what you’d have said about graduate program Y, had you decided to go there.

Some things that matter more than you might think:

  • How much do you like the city where you’d be living for the next several years? Living in a place you hate can be depressing, and being depressed means not doing good mathematics.
  • How strong are the graduate students at the program, how long do they typically take to finish, and what kind of jobs do they get when they do? Make sure the program is well set-up to meet the kind of ambitions you have.
  • How’s the atmosphere? Some math departments are really fun. Some are kind of dead. I don’t know any way to figure out which is which without physically visiting the place and walking around.

Some things that matter less than you might think:

  • How strong is the university “overall,” e.g., how highly rated is it in US News and World Report? In math we only care how good the math department is; membership in the Ivy League, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean much.
  • How strong is the group of faculty in my research area? As Lugo explained, you probably don’t really know what your research area is going to be, even if you think you do. Lots of undergrads have had some exposure to number theory and differential geometry; many fewer have seen algebraic geometry, or representation theory, or PDE, or homological algebra, or symplectic geometry, or homotopy theory, or …. Don’t be afraid to go to a place where you don’t have any idea who you might work with. If the institution is a good fit for you, it’ll work out.
  • How much am I going to get paid? In some circumstances, obviously (e.g. supporting a small child) this really does matter. But if you’ve got a B.A. in math, you’re already taking a huge pay cut by studying for a Ph.D. instead of becoming an I-banker. If you can go to a school that you like better and where you think you’ll do better math at the cost of making a few thousand dollars in annual stipend, you should do it — if you end up getting a fancier postdoc as a result, you’ll break even in a year.

I, too, found this decision really difficult. For a long time I was pretty sure I wanted to go to Berkeley. But a friend of mine who was going to M.I.T. found a nice house in Somerville, and needed an extra person to live there, and I’d heard finding a house in Berkeley was really hard. So I went to Harvard instead. Is that a dopey way to choose a graduate program? Maybe. But it worked out fine for me. And it’ll work out fine for you, too!

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Defense

Congratulations to Mrs. Quomodocumque, who shall now and henceforth be known as Dr. Mrs. Quomodocumque!

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