Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Academic Pyramids, Academic Tubes

Greetings from Cambridge! Traveling around Europe and the UK, I am struck by the extent to which different countries have relatively pyramid-like vs relatively tube-like academic systems. This has moved me to think, also, about the extent to which US academia has recently been becoming more pyramidal.

Please forgive my ugly sketch of a pyramid and a tube:

The German system is quite pyramidal: There is a small group of professors at the top, and many stages between undergraduate and professor, at any one of which you might suddenly find yourself ejected from the system: undergraduate, then masters, then PhD, then one or more postdocs and/or assistantships before moving up or out; and at each stage one needs to actively seek a position and typically move locations if successful.

In contrast, the US system, as it stood about twenty years ago, was more tubular: fewer transition stages requiring application and moving, with much sharper cutdowns between each stage. To a first approximation, undergraduates applied to PhD programs, very few got in, and then if they completed there was one more transition from completing the PhD to gaining a tenure-track job (and typically, though of course not always, tenure after 6-7 years on the tenure track).

Philosophy in the US is becoming more pyramidal, I believe, with more people pursuing terminal Master's degrees before applying to PhD programs, and with the increasing number of adjunct positions and postdoctoral positions for newly-minted PhDs. Instead of approximately three phases (undergrad, grad/PhD, tenure-track/tenured professor), we are moving closer to five-phase system (undergrad, MA, PhD, adjunct/post-doc, tenure-track/tenured).

This more pyramidal system has some important advantages. One advantage is that it provides more opportunities for people from nonelite backgrounds to advance through the system. It has always been difficult from students from nonelite undergraduate universities to gain acceptance to elite PhD programs (and it still is); similarly for students who struggled a bit in their undergraduate careers before finding philosophy. With the increasing willingness of PhD programs to accept students with Master's degrees, a broader range of students can earn a shot at academia: They can compete to get into a Master's program (typically easier to do for people with nonelite backgrounds than being admitted to a comparably-ranked PhD program) and then possibly shine there, gaining admittance to a range of PhD programs that would otherwise have been closed to them. A similar pattern sometimes occurs with postdocs.

The other advantage of the pyramid is that being exposed to a variety of institutions, advisors, and academic subcultures has advantages both for the variety of perspectives it provides and for meeting more people in the academic community. A Master's program or a postdoctoral fellowship can be a rewarding experience.

But I am also struck by the downside of pyramidal structures. In Europe, I met many excellent philosophers in their 30s or 40s, post-PhD, unsure whether they would make the next jump up the pyramid or not, unable to settle down securely into their careers. This used to be relatively uncommon in the US, though it has become more common. It is hard on marriages and families; and it's hard to face the prospects of a major career change in mid-life after devoting a dozen or more years to academia.

The sciences in the US have tended to be more pyramidal than philosophy, with one or more postdocs often expected before the tenure-track job. This is partly, I suspect, just due to the money available in science. There are lots of post-docs to be had, and it's easier to compete for professor positions with that extra postdoctoral experience. One possibly unintended consequence of the increased flow of money into philosophical research projects, through the Templeton Foundation and government research funding organizations, is to increase the number of postdocs, and thus the pyramidality of the discipline.

Of course, the rise of inexpensive adjunct labor is a big part of this -- bigger, probably, than the rise of terminal Master's programs as a gateway to the PhD and the rise of the philosophy post-doc -- but all of these contribute in different ways to making our discipline more pyramidal than it was a few decades ago.


howard berman said...

Hi Eric:

Would you call American society as a whole tubular or pyramidal?
Your answer might clarify your argument or ripple with complications

P.D. Magnus said...

There is a sense in which the pyramid structure thwarts non-elites getting into the system.
In the tube system, PhD students at good programs were funded and then got jobs that paid real salaries. In the pyramid system, there are more stages at which people have to pay (getting a Master's degree) or aren't paid enough to live (cycling around as an adjunct while looking for a permanent job).
This rewards the economically more elite students who can rely on family money or their own nest egg to pay the bills while working through the system. People without extra capital often have to leave or accumulate crippling debt.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the advantages of the pyramid are mostly at the pre-post doc education stage and the advantages of the tube mostly post PhD. If this us the right assessment then we can perhaps have the best of both worlds by encouraging more pyramidal structure for training (while being realistic about job chances) and less itineracy and pyramidal structure at the employment level, in particular by perhaps funnelling some of the money that is going to postdocs/non-permament positions into permanent ones, which would reduce the total number of jobs but make those available more stable and presumably better for both those from highly privileged and less privileged backgrounds

Mike Titelbaum said...

A couple of random thoughts: First, with Masters programs I had the impression there was an intermediate stage in which those programs were thought of as existing primarily to give students with non-elite philosophy backgrounds an alternative path, in a sense providing your cited upside without many downsides. But if a Masters degree comes to be seen as more of a requirement for a PhD---and if the percentage of funded Masters positions declines---then the downsides will really pile up.
Second: With respect to postdocs, I feel like you're looking at the demand side of the equation but not the supply side (or vice versa, depending on one's perspective). Along with the increase in willing finders of postdocs, there's been a glut of overqualified people to occupy them after the job market collapse of 2008.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! And sorry about the slow reply. (Travel, etc.)

Howard: It's hard to make that general assessment without a particular set of institutional structures in mind.

PD: Yes, that seems right to me.

Anon: I can see that as a possibly appealing resolution. The disadvantages of the extra transition of the MA stage between BA and PhD would still be there. But maybe if more institutions had optional MA programs that good BA students could continue into, that would help prevent at least the difficulty of relocation.

Mike: I agree with the first point. On the second point, my inclination is to think that the unusual period in the US philosophy market was approximately 1999-2008. Both before and after (and even to some extent during) that period, there have been many more excellent recent PhDs than tenure stream faculty lines.

Mike Titelbaum said...

That's interesting Eric. I don't go back far enough in the profession to have a sense of the labor market in the 90s. Obviously I know what happened in 2008 to make a change for the worse. Any sense what caused a change for the better around the turn of the century?