Monday, April 27, 2009

Abolish universities? Not so fast

The NY Times is carrying an editorial today from Mark C. Taylor, the chair of the Religion department at Columbia, saying that we need to rethink the structure of graduate education, and universities as a whole, to make them more relevant in today's world. The article is generally thought-provoking, but dead wrong when it comes to science and engineering. Unfortunately, the article does not qualify its statements as being relevant only to the humanities and social sciences, which is too bad considering that some readers might extend this flawed line of thinking to apply to other fields.

I'm surprised the author would be so careless to say things like:
"Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market..."
"Young people enroll in graduate programs ... all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments." [Emphasis mine.]
What planet is this guy from? What he really means is that in the areas of "religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy" (the author's all-encompassing list of the realms of human thought that apparently really matter) it is damned hard to get a decent job after graduate school, and I agree. But this has little to do with the situation in the sciences and engineering, where graduate students go on to a wide range of careers in industry, government, military, and, yes, academia.

I grant that it is possible that we are headed towards a brick wall in these other fields. According to the latest Taulbee survey, Ph.D. production in Computer Science has been skyrocketing, at its highest levels since the survey was started. However, far more students are going into industry than academia. Even for students dead set on a faculty position, many can get a job straight out of graduate school -- postdocs are still the exception rather than the rule. This situation could change, but I'm not sure it's time to end universities as we know them. Religion departments are maybe another matter.


  1. I'd disagree with you here about the prospects for a CS grad student in academia. Luis van Ahn had a great post on his blog about the irrationality of choosing to go to graduate school in CS if your goal is to be a faculty member in a top or mid-level department ( In order to get into a top graduate schoo (which is required to get a job at any top 50 programl, you need to have done very well as an undergrad. If you're good and lucky enough to finish your PhD, the numbers are not in your favor on the job market and I think that's been making postdocs far more common. I've definitely noticed an uptick in the number of postdocs we interview for junior faculty positions.

    Compare that to what would happen if this same top student went into industry straight out of undergrad rather than going to graduate school. They'd likely be making a lot more money, deal with less stress, and wouldn't have had all of the uncertainty and pain of graduate school.

    I think being a professor is a great job, but I do think too many students in CS do enroll in graduate school with the illusory promise of faculty appointments and most graduate programs in CS do produce students who have no chance of being hired at the school where they get their PhD.

    Great blog, by the way.

  2. Good point. The thing is, I'm not worried about those "stressed" grad students in CS. If they aren't doing well, and not on track to get the kind of job they want, they should just drop out of grad school and go get that industry job. This is likely not true for the poor religion and history grad students!


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.