Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.01


William G. Bowen and Neil L. Rudenstine, in collaboration with Julie Ann Sosa, Graham Lord, Marcia L. Witte, and Sarah E. Turner, In Pursuit of the PhD. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. Pp. xxii + 442. ISBN 0-691-04294-2. $35.00. 'Printed in Mexico.'


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

This elaborate and weighty tome reports, and where it does not merely report it creates, the essential points of the managerial vision of the present and future of graduate education in the arts and sciences. The statistical apparatus is colossal, and the prose is the sort that accompanies a colossal statistical apparatus. The sometime president of Princeton and the present president of Harvard, colleagues at the Mellon foundation for the last five years and before that for twenty years at Princeton, are men not without clout in our profession, and their words have the same creative force as the divine Logos in Genesis. The approach is fundamentally conservative, in an institutional sense. No thought is given to any systemic or structural change; no mention is made of the sharp criticism that the contemporary academy receives from outside, and the threats that criticism brings with it. The heated debates inside the academy about new methodologies and principles in the humanities particularly evoke embarrassed and clumsy response: an appendix on 'Theory and Its Ramifications' reads like a decent enough graduate school term paper, but it is acutely limited. Finally, this e-zealot reviewer scanned the pages keenly but in vain for any slightest sign that any change to the structure, substance, or management of graduate education might be expected to arise from the impending electronic revolutions.

The issue they address is a matter of productivity: why are graduate programs so slow and so inefficient? Why do only 50-odd% of those who start PhD programs finish them (when 90% of those in -- MBA and JD programs do so)? Why does it take the finishers so long? They conceive these questions as identifying a waste of resources and they look to enhance the efficiency of the system. (They began their study in response to a perceived 30% increase in time-to-degree, but conclude that the actual increase has been only about 10% over the last two decades.) The problems are not new: they quote a 1960 study quoting distinguished deans and faculty (e.g., Jacques Barzun) lamenting the same problems in the same terms that one hears today.

The work is a tissue of statistics. Their special collection is a data set from ten elite universities, and within those universities they emphasize six fields (English, history, political science, economics, mathematics, and physics). Their numbers have numerous points of interest. It is striking to see that the decline in PhD production in the early 70s and after began not with the great job crisis of c. 1971 but with the end of the draft deferment for graduate work in 1967. Had Lyndon Johnson not taken away that artificial stimulus to pursue wisdom beyond the BA, there might have been thousands more PhD's driving cabs by now. The end of the draft deferment, the job crunch, and the generation-long flight from arts and science BA programs are all to blame. (Subjectivity has a selective, and important memory, and so the job market has been, since about 1971, the universal excuse for failure of every kind: it is as though we forget that there were plenty of failures before 1971, and that the reasons for failure are sometimes to be linked to the personal inadequacies of the candidates. And the job market is spoken of in two modes these last twenty years: bad, and worse. The authors do not address the power of this fear very directly.)

They show as well that national fellowship programs for distinguished undergraduates are not very good at boosting productivity. The most eye-opening figures reveal that the national Mellon fellowship program the authors inherited (and that has just awarded its last prizes) produced an initial cadre of 94 students in 1983 of whom, eight years later, 33 have so far donned the doctoral robes. Of the first two cadres, totalling 210 BA's, 17 got their PhD within five years, and 25 more finished during their sixth year, leaving at that point 168 still slogging away. Only NSF fellowships (not Danforths, not Whitings, not Woodrow Wilsons, not Mellons) have any noticeable correlation with reduced time-to-degree and reduced attrition. There is an unsurprising statistical correlation between shorter time-to-degree and promotion to tenure, but talent is the unexamined factor in both: and of course the tenure clock favors those who can get serious work done in six years or less.

The authors show that lack of financial support is crippling; but they also show that form of support does not appreciably matter. Students receiving TA-ships and students receiving string-free fellowships show no significant variation in tenacity or speed. (The authors clearly do not quite approve of TA's -- their Princeton background shows here -- but they leave room for the argument that TA-ships may in fact be the most cost-effective form of support institutions can provide.) They do not address the question of the optimum level of funding, and this seems a lack: surely if graduate students were given fellowships amounting to, say, $40,000 a year, they would stay forever and so never finish. If given support of $2,000 a year, they would bail out quickly and so never finish. Where in between is the optimum payment that keeps body and soul together but still urges the recipient on to finish faster and get the heck out of grad school?

The crucial turning-point? That moment when course-work is completed and the dissertation must be faced. The systemic weakness is that we treat new graduate students as superannuated and underprivileged undergraduates, expecting them to 'take courses' and 'write papers', things they have been doing for years (the move away from examinations towards term papers for undergraduates over the last decades has probably helped blur the line further); and then suddenly, two or three years later, we expect them to break out of the chrysalis and fly on their own power. No easy stunt; no wonder many fall flat on their faces. (A personal hobby-horse of mine has been to ask, and keep asking, why graduate students are charged 'tuition': not only does that gum up the economics of the situation, but it also perpetuates the notion that these are not apprentice colleagues but just old and tired pupils. I have asked repeatedly at several institutions, and once addressed one of the authors of this book privately with the same query, just how much 'hard currency' graduate tuition brings in -- most likely in funds accompanying science grants; much if not most of the rest is out-of-one-pocket-into-the-other financial aid, of course -- and never gotten a decisive answer. Deans don't want to tell you, while the Mellon man appealed, rightly, to the incredible complexity and variability of the issue. If we could live without the subsidy of that 'tuition' income, then more people could decide to take a chance on themselves and make less artificial economic decisions about how long to continue. But most of all, we could begin to treat them with the respect they deserve.)

One fundamental assumption is unaddressed and seems to me at least questionable. Why do we worry about attrition? Why do we worry about time-to-degree? Are these not questions for the students, not the administrators? Does it not make sense that in a difficult, high-stress professional engagement, some will be found not satisfactory? That personal as well as intellectual qualities will hold some back? That would seem to be a common-sense reading of what we in fact see in our programs. Do we conclude that we must change the programs to accommodate those qualities? That we must do everything in our power to reduce the possibility of failure? Why? A culture that struggles so hard to forbid failure runs the risk of encouraging mediocrity. The good will is unmistakable: but it raises the further question nowhere here addressed -- What is a PhD? Is it a professional certificate like an MBA or a JD, where you show up, go through the motions, learn some stuff, and go off to fame and glory, having learned at least how not to embarrass yourself? The authors do not adduce attrition rates from medical school, and I wonder if that is not because PhD programs more closely resemble medical training as a whole-person ordeal, sorting sheep from goats.

But the implicit culture of the institution of course speaks in favor of compassion and support; and it cannot be denied that we give too little of that. The nub of the problem seems in the end personal: Ch. 13, 'Program Design, Oversight, and "Culture"' speaks to the underlying disorganization, bad management, and irresponsibility of faculty and departments. If there is a solution to any of the problems outlined here, it is to be found at that intractable level. How institutions, much less foundations, can affect behavior at that level seems to me a very dark question. A fundamental cultural change would be required, one I do not see occurring in my lifetime. I wonder how many shared my own attitude, that I loved the academic life but hated graduate school and so took no prisoners in my Stakhanovite drive to get out as quickly as possible. It makes for a comical chapter in my unwritten autobiography, but the surprising thing is that it was an effective and successful motivation. Many others are ensnared by the womb-like culture of graduate-dom, where as long as you are willing to live in modest surroundings and do without a car, you get insulation from the grown-up world and four months' vacation a year. It is probably less pleasant than what awaits on the other side, but the trauma of transition is so great for many that endless adolescence becomes in fact the de facto preference. Perhaps the lesson is that, just as there is an optimum level of inadequate funding, so there is an optimum level of abuse and mistreatment!

Now in fairness it should be admitted that no academic is really qualified to review this book. We have too much vested interest. We can argue with it, resist it, and occasionally give in to it with ill grace. Coming from authoritative sources, it defines the future for us; make no mistake, this book makes a major political statement, and it will be quoted and brandished by graduate deans for some time to come. Will the marginal and incremental modifications of established policy they recommend make a difference?