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Boston University Arts & Sciences
CAS News March 7, 2013
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Decanal Musings: Bleak Prospects for PhDs
By Virginia Sapiro, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and Professor of Political Science

AA colleague in History recently forwarded a connection to an article by Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic on “ The PhD Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts .” My colleague’s comment was instructive. He said he was used to hearing about how terrible the market is for humanities PhDs and social scientists, but he was “dismayed” to hear the “disheartening” news about natural scientists as well. No schadenfreude there—he expressed what so many graduate faculty members feel. What are we doing when we invite people to spend valuable parts of their relatively young adult lives studying with us to earn a PhD? What implied and stated promises are we making about their futures and what those futures might hold for someone with a degree that is aimed at providing them with advanced capabilities in research (and teaching)? With the job market as it is, are we like the coaches of undergraduate student-athletes who depend on those young people believing that they are on the path to the NBA or NFL?

“The PhD Bust” is part of a series Weissmann published in The Atlantic. The other two are “ The PhD Bust, Pt. II: How Bad Is the Job Market for Young American-Born Scientists?” and “ How Many PhDs Actually Get to Become College Professors?

This is not really news, of course. But we in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences have to think clearly about the implications for how we shape and aim our PhD programs going forward. The new funding model offers very different opportunities for the programs in the humanities and social sciences (less so in the natural sciences), but with the opportunity to attract students with resources, we have to make sure that our PhD programs are well designed to compete today with respect to what is often described as “the value proposition.” We have to make sure our PhD programs really offer students what they need to compete well for professional positions (including, but not limited to the professoriate) for which this research degree is necessary or valuable. Colleges and universities will not disappear, and therefore the job of being a professor will not disappear. But we have to make sure our programs are of the quality that will prepare our students well and carry the right reputation. We will increasingly direct available fellowship funds toward PhD programs in GRS that fulfill this expectation. We can’t invest these valuable resources in programs that are not positioning themselves to succeed well in this very challenging market.

We have already had a number of discussions about what the appropriate qualities are of a great graduate program, and will continue to do so. But they include: the high level of research quality, productivity, and impact among faculty that is the necessary requirement for offering a top-level PhD program; involvement of the faculty in the discipline or professional field at the national and international levels that makes them able to mentor and connect their students to that professional field; the ability to attract the best new students; a program that is designed around the best current practices of PhD training; careful attention not just to the teaching of the subject matter of the discipline (or interdisciplinary area), but also to training and experience in the practices of research and teaching and in other professional practices; and engagement in assisting students to find appropriate positions after they complete their degrees. Running an excellent PhD program requires an amazing amount of energy, dedication, attention, and collective and individual work.

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