Is Graduate School a Racket?


Megan McArdle writes about the grim prospects for graduate students:

Last week, I wrote that collectively, faculty need to deal with the terrible market for professorships by producing fewer potential professors: admitting a lot fewer students to graduate school….There are two criticisms I’ve received that seem worth responding to. The first is that I myself work in a profession that looks a lot like a tournament….[The second is:] Why not unions? Why not unionize the adjuncts and get them paid on par with the tenure-track professors? Better yet, why not convert all those positions to tenure-track lines?

By chance, I was talking to a professor buddy of mine about this just last week. His take was quite different: he thinks that unions love adjuncts and part-timers and have largely abandoned the interests of full-timers. This is because three part-timers produce three times more union dues than one full-time tenured professor. State legislatures love part-timers too, because three part-timers cost less than one full-time tenured professor. As a result, the number of tenure-track positions in his department has gone down from 22 to 8 in the past couple of decades. This is not because they have fewer students. They have more. It’s because the vast majority of classes are now taught by part-timers.

Now, obviously this might differ between teaching universities and research universities and between private and public universities. It also might differ from department to department and from state to state. But I know that a lot of professor types read this blog, which is why I’m throwing it out. Has the ratio of full-timers to part-timers plummeted everywhere? Is there a reason for this beyond pure cost savings? What role do unions play? Educate us in comments.

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