From the comments — the power of professors

The PhD is a credential that graduate students need, and which the supervising professor uses to hold power over them. Doing away with the PhD as a valuable credential takes power away from professors. That may not bother Tyler, but most professors covet and zealously protect whatever institutional and personal power they can grasp.

That is from Tom Meadowcraft, commenting on my proposal to limit economics graduate study to three years.

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Who did a lot of race stuff but also shoved hisdo-hicky in the face of the ladies? I remember reading the NYT article about it and the common explanation for why it wasn't reported sooner was because he controlled their professional careers.

Professors are human and they exploit the subtle countors of power as much as anyone else.

the person who brought Fryer down was his administrative assistant: absolutely not a graduate student.

https://www.realclearinvestigations.com/articles/2019/01/27/harvard_the_new_york_times_and_the_metoo_takedown_of_a_black_academic_star.html

Which just confirms the argument that Professors have a lot of power over grad students. Students were also harassed, but were even more timid to say something than the secretary.

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Most professors don't teach Ph.D. students or have teams of grad student assistants. The personal assistant to the Dean has more power than 95% of professors.

The dean's secretary doesn't have any power.

It is true that complaints like this reveal that the complainer has an image of higher education derived from the little corners of it which he occupies. If you read the critiques being offered ca. 1985, you realize the authors of the critique had in mind Harvard and a hand full of other places. That aside, there was never any acknowledgement that the majority of students (65% nowadays) were enrolled in occupational programs.

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In economics at least, professors don't have that much power over graduate students. It's generally a lot easier to pass a weak student through than to fail them -- many (most?) students drift through with substandard work and then go work in industry. Even at top schools, it's kind of amazing how bad some theses are.

Yes, you probably need that professor's approval if you want to go into academia with a good reference letter. But if you are acting in ways that make it impossible to get a professor's approval, you probably wouldn't be that desirable on the academic market anyway.

It sounds like profs in the lab system in the natural sciences have more of the power the commenter is talking about.

They have enormous power over who graduates. Most PhD programs have a minimum GPA for core and field courses. A slight bias in grading can easily tip a grad student out.

Professors can refuse to take on a grad student as an advisor. They can provide little assistance or advice. They can give enormous help to people they favor.

Professors can coauthor with favored students, vastly improving their ability to get published.

Professors can refuse to give letters of recommendation or damn a student with faint praise.

Professors can drop the atomic bomb and not pass the student on their dissertation defense. Or not approve the topic in the first place.

Professors can pressure slow students to leave.

Professors can remove assistantships.

Finally, professors can use all of the above to make it so difficult and stressful that a student will quit.

It's truly remarkable for you to say that (econ) professors have no power. That's not even close to being true.

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My prof was keeping his Ph.D. students for 7 years as cheap labor. I had to threaten to quit to prevent myself meeting the same fate.
There are obviously too many Ph.Ds. Many stuck as contract temps. sad.

Average time to PhD is 7.2 years in Econ, last I checked. Seven years isnt remarkable.

And wouldnt the professor get cheap labor from newly admitted grad students replacing the older ones? Clearly theyre not as experienced but certainly not useless.

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In the early 1970s when I did my PhD in chemistry, nobody stayed past four years. Of course it was cheap labor for the research director and we all recognized that. Academic positions were a rarity then and still are today. One has to be flexible and recognize that there are multiple career paths available.

nobody stayed past four years.

No one you were acquainted with. I recall seeing some data which indicated that the median time to complete and defend a dissertation had increased between 1962 and 1997 - by nine months (from 6.3 years to 7.1 years). The difference between the two eras was that in 1962 it was common to receive your PhD after several years of f/t teaching, whereas by the latter date hiring someone without a signed dissertation was quite unusual. To take some prominent examples: Christopher Lasch taught for five years without the degree, Norman Maclean taught for 11 years without one, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr never bothered to complete a dissertation.

You recall correctly. Last I checked time to PhD was 7.2 years regardless of whether the student had a prior masters.

Some schools kick students out the door at four years, at various stages of completion. Hiring an ABD at a university or college is getting more and more rare.

Data trumps anecdotes.

Trump anecdotes trump data.

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Can you imagine if U profs had to actually live by the rules they insist are critical for the rest of us? Actually pay people what they are worth, etc?

The entire post-graduate world would collapse.

so who is paying for the apprenticeship skills (which teaches you how to navigate the research world) that grad students receive as part of the graduate training? This is what allows grad students to publish future research and "Earn"

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No joke, my landlord is a wealthy economics professor and Marxist. He writes books which conclude with a call for communist revolution. He also refused to reimburse me after running the entire building’s shared laundry off of my electricity meter. I had to ask him “do you consider yourself a public figure?” before he even clued in. Even then I had to threaten him with a lawsuit when he low balled the reimbursement.

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Why not do away with all degrees? Maybe there is an information content the market demands.

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I'm happy to have the market signal that I was able to finish. I think Tyler's idea may have merit when you are thinking only of the top 5 or 10 departments. I think the rest of us need to finish.

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"but most *people* covet and zealously protect whatever institutional and personal power they can grasp."

FTFY

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Professors use the Ph.D. to hold power over everyone, not just grad students, but I understand your point.

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This is unique to academia. Everybody else freely gives up their institutional and personal power.

Best sarcasm of the day.

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Things like ABD's are often rewarded with an MPhil. That's 2-3 years, during which a bit of research must be done, say a course paper or such. So, we already have the three year (almost) PhD! Seems like demand from employers ain't that great, given all those PhD graduates. That's where the source of the allocation lies.

You are correct, but colleges and universities are hiring people with Masters less and less. The PhD is favored for accreditation. Even teaching colleges require research now.

And even community colleges in favored places hire only PhDs because they can. See Boston, SF Bay Area, Southern California, DC, New York City.

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I think no one responded to this comment the first time around, because it was fine. There obviously is an incentive that could be viewed this way.

Of course my professor friend says she can't go on vacation right now because her students need help with their dissertations .. so some are tryin' the good way.

Indeed. A friend who was a professor helped students get their PhD for the same reason that I train apprentices; someone has to be trained to carry on the work once I retire.

As in most things there are people who take advantage when they can.

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"That may not bother Tyler."

Of course it does.

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Arbitrary time limits for a PhD? That is what I am hearing - "It should take 5 years" or "It should take 6 year" - excuse me - but are we talking about "research" -? Or is someone just counting the hours, minutes and years and come up with something that someone, some groups says that it meets the standard for a "PhD"? If indeed there are arbitrary limits imposed on a "PhD" then perhaps it is not a "research" degree in any sense - but time served? If so, yea, restricting the time spent in servitude may be a good idea and deflating the credential inflation may not be all that bad. I can almost hear howls from bean counters who depend on the numbers of PhDs to send the signal to the world on how wonderful they imagine they are!

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Law professors certainly have less power over their students.

This is true. Theyll graduate nearly anyone.

The bar exam is their weeding out process.

But references and letters of recommendation do matter quite a bit if you want good employment. This effect is somewhat muted because students at the Ivies tend to be a cut above everyone else to begin with, and the people who bought their way in have network connections to Big Law.

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Professors have about as much power as they have prestige in America. I am reminded of this fact almost daily when students greet me with "Yo," and when they address me with the honorific of "dude" or "bro."

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Sometimes the profs unintentionally give the game away. During a seminar class someone expressed anxiety about the job market. The (Harvard) prof. said with a cute demi-smile, "Of course, we hope that all of you obtain tenured positions at places like Harvard..." His expression said he was lying, and I knew I was screwed. I take full responsibility, however, for being an idiot who believed my profs up until that point.

If you look at the pedigrees of faculty at Harvard, at least half graduated from Harvard and the rest graduated from top 10 schools if not top 5.

While not all Harvard grads can become Harvard profs because of scarce vacancies, there is certainly a huge advantage for them in both pedigree and personal relationships.

A Harvard grad should be able to find a job easily if for no reason other than pedigree. It might not be the most desirable job, but consider the job prospects for a PhD from a lower ranked flagship university down to a Texas Tech. They might get one tenure track job offer if they're lucky, in the middle of nowhere at a small state school.

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In my department, it wasn't so much that the grad students were the indentured servants of the profs, although we did help them with their huge courses. It was rather that in the seminars the profs would discuss their latest research and use the classroom to refine their ideas for publication. Theft of ideas was rampant. Without grad students those seminars wouldn't have happened, and the poor profs would have had to work out their ideas all by themselves.

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One reason why I refuse to pursue a doctorate is that it gives a set of people blackball-power over my career for several years. I went through that hell when I was a candidate for the ordained ministry. I'm never making that mistake again.

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Related to both this topic and GWU's strategic decision to reduce enrollment, that Tyler linked to a week or so ago: the University at Buffalo has decided to pause accepting graduate students for a year, due to lack of funds.

But the reason they lack funds is because they decided to better support their existing grad students, with a guaranteed $20K stipend.

So, fewer students but better supported. There's an over supply of PhDs in most fields, this seems like a good move all around. Except for the marginal students who won't get admitted -- but they were going to get crummy stipends and have crummy job prospects anyway, it's not doing them any favors to let them into a years-long PhD program that leads to a dead end.

But some students are planning to protest the decision.

https://www.chronicle.com/article/Amid-Rumors-of-Shift-to/247199

P.S. I wondered what kind of name is "University at Buffalo", why not just call it SUNY-Buffalo. It turns out there's another SUNY campus in Buffalo, the "State University College at Buffalo" which is a nightmarish name on its let alone the confusion with the other campus. The current nomenclature seems to be to call the one the University at Buffalo and the other Buffalo State College, which should reduce the confusion between the two.

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Taking this quote as true, it makes the leftist dominance of the profession even more concerning. They're using this power to select who gets in, who gets the credentials, who gets published, who gets tenure, and who gets praise and punishment. They control the faculty Senates and university administrations.

I'm not suggesting we get rid of the PhD or this legitimate use of professional discretion. Rather, like all power, we must be mindful of this bias and actively guard against it. It is as invidious as racial discrimination and moreso because it controls thought.

It also manifests directly as racial, sexual, and religious discrimination because of the propensity of certain races, genders, religions, and ethnic groups to align monolithically by party.

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First of all, it's Meadowcroft, not Meadowcraft.

My experience is from my time getting an Engineering PhD at M.I.T. in the 1990s.
I've also recently started teaching at Rowan University as a full time non-tenure track lecturer, but my contact is mostly with the undergraduates.

In my days at M.I.T., professors would often defer their students from defending and graduating until the students fulfilled a set of goals. That is not unreasonable in itself, although sometimes those goals were not directly about the research, but were grant proposals written, papers published and presented, i.e. academic product but not actually the research project. Many students felt that the goalposts for graduation receded as they approached them, and that professors felt little concern in keeping students additional years. Students felt their time was undervalued, and that professors rarely provided a structure and firm expectations that would facilitate efficient progress towards completion.

Then again, grad students always complain, and almost always hold primary responsibility for the course and speed of their own PhD. A minority of professors abused their authority by moving goalposts and making unreasonable demands; most did not. The problem is that there is very little to stop professors from being abusive if they so choose. It is a difficult problem. I think department heads should insist that advisers and PhD students write a contract stating what the expectations are for graduation, and update it annually, with review by a committee up of faculty and senior graduate students for fairness. The student should feed empowered to hold their adviser accountable for that contract.

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Thanks. Can I suggest that the problem is likely to be worse when there is lab work involved. It's easy to find grad students to do routine grading but a skilled lab worker, not so much.

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