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Interesting discussion on the crisis in higher education

  1. May 8, 2012 #1

    StatGuy2000

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    Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    Hi everyone. I have found the following interesting post regarding the "crisis" in higher education (a topic brought up in numerous posts here on Physics Forums) from the blog of Aaron Clauset, a physicist turned computer scientist, and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder:

    http://www.cs.unm.edu/~aaron/blog/archives/2012/01/a_crisis_in_hig.htm

    I was curious what the rest of you feels regarding the opinions expressed by him.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. May 9, 2012 #2

    Andy Resnick

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    I agree with the majority of that post.
     
  4. May 9, 2012 #3

    Choppy

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    I think this last statement is pretty important and deserves some serious consideration.

    There is a practical issue of time to consider though. The time it takes to earn a PhD is growing. If we were to simply tack on some MBA courses or an internship with a company that does research in your field (like a PhD co-op) the time to earn that degree will get even longer. Maybe that's just going to be a practical reality.

    On the other hand maybe there is some fat that could be trimmed or at least some places that could serve as double time.

    One example is teaching. When I was a graduate student we had to take a series of teaching workshops. The theory was that it developed us as TAs and gave an additional bullet to our academic CV. I don't see why such a program couldn't be developed further so that graduates come out as certified teachers.

    Another might be project management. Towards the end of PhD candiate's program, he or she could opt to organize and guide an undergrad thesis or summer research project. The grad student would outline the project, interview for the position, hold regular meetings, etc. Another avenue might be simply organizing group projects (ones where everyone is an equal contributor, not group work where everyone piles on to the work of one person). Hosting efficient meetings, tracking multiple tasks, effective delegation, problem escalation and follow-up, are all examples of extremely valuable and marketable skills that can evolve out of collaborative research projects.

    Another example might be product development. What if rather than simply producing original research papers, the PhD required the student to file at least one patent prior to graduating.
     
  5. May 9, 2012 #4
    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    I agree with his factual analysis. Don't care very much for the tone.

    If you are unemployed in the United States, that's a crisis. It's a personal crisis. The fact that you have a lot of Ph.D.'s that have to go through some pain to get a job is a crisis for them.

    The tone is shrill because people are living in fear and pain. The fact that it's a long standing problem doesn't diminish the pain. The fact that there are no "easy solutions" makes people even more shrill.

    And yes, creating a "crisis" is a standard marketing tactic. Without a crisis people aren't going to consider any basic changes to the system. So if you want to do anything to fix your personal crisis, you have to manufacture a social crisis.

    Exactly. So we probably aren't going to fix the problem without looking at all of society. Also, my belief is that there's a feedback mechanism. Social stratification causes educational inequality and educational inequality causes social stratification.

    It's my belief that it's the role of academics and intellectuals to act as "thought leaders" to create creative solutions for social problems, and I'm more than a little annoyed that people "giving up too easily."

    As far as what I think is the issue. Let's go back to Marx and the Communist Manifesto. In the late-19th century you had a similar problem in that you have enormous class stratification that occurred when agricultural jobs moved to industrial jobs. This put society on the road to social revolution, and in the early 20th century, people ended up with a lot of mechanisms that prevented social revolution in the United States and Western Europe.

    The problem is that those mechanisms stop working when you move from factory manufacturing to service jobs. In a factory, you can enforce a 40 hour work week and have labor unions that create contracts and collective bargaining. When we moved from factory to service jobs, those protections disappeared.

    I think that there *is* a crisis, because if you just extrapolate business as usual for the next twenty to thirty years, you are going to end up with a Marxist revolutionary scenario that most countries managed to avoid in the early 20th century.
     
  6. May 10, 2012 #5

    atyy

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    Sounds dangerous. Maybe undemocratic - or was democracy also invented by intellectuals?
     
  7. May 10, 2012 #6
    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    I think he misses an important effect- academic job markets work like any other job markets- as conditions worsen- the very best applicants DON'T ENTER THE MARKET. The super-crowded job market doesn't spread great academics to all universities- it makes sure that society's best and brightest don't bother to try to become academics.
     
  8. May 10, 2012 #7
    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    And it's not going to help if the jobs aren't there.

    If you have 10 jobs and 20 applicants, and then you make those 20 applicants more competitive for those 10 jobs, then you end up right back to where you started.

    This is something that I'm very keenly aware of when giving career advice to people in finance. For example, if I help one person write a better resume, that one person has a better chance of getting a finance job. However, if the overall number of finance jobs are limited, and I help everyone write better resumes, then we are back to where we started.

    The fact that the queue is getting longer is a symptom of a deeper problem. If you have a queue, then it balances out load, but if the average inflow is higher than the average outflow, then the system is going to break.

    Something that happened in the Great Depression and what is happening now is that people are delaying "growing up." In the 1930's, you had people in their 30's and 40's that were still considered "youths" whereas in the 1960's, people in their early twenties were consider "full adults." It's the "when are you moving out of your parent's garage?" question.

    Because then instead of having lots of unemployed physics researchers, you end up with lots of unemployed certified teachers. A lot of the solutions for dealing with the problem are essentially "load balancing" solutions both in "time" and "career space." If you have a demand for X, and a supply of Y, then you have fix the problem by moving X to Y.

    The trouble is that the economic system is already very good at this sort of issue. If there was an obvious demand for certified teachers, then the problem would self-correct. You wouldn't have to set up any formal programs since people would take the hint and do stuff on their own.

    There's also a basic conflict of interest. The trouble is that universities get paid when people take courses. There's only so many courses that you can get people to take, and only so much debt, before there is a backlash against universities.

    This also happened in the 1930's. One bright spot was that once the jobs turned up in the 1950's, you had an economic boom, as all these people that attended high school and college suddenly were able to be productive.

    Sounds like "useless busy work" to me.

    If you can figure out quantum electrodynamics, you *will* be able to figure out on your own how to put together a meeting. If someone has to "teach" you to put together a meeting, then something is broken. Also, if you have to learn these sorts of skills, then academia is a horrible place to learn them. What happens is that the skills fossilize and people come up with tests and curriculum that has nothing to do with what's in demand, and then you come up with even more certifications and barriers that produce useless busy work.

    Let me point you to an example where I think physics is useful in analyzing social problems....

    Someone that doesn't know about the first or second laws of thermodynamics can come up with all sorts of elaborate and complicated ways to built a perpetual motion machine. Once you realize that there is a basic constraint, it becomes obvious that none of these things will work.

    You if you have more people then jobs, then putting more effort into training just will not work. If you have X people and 0.5 X jobs, and you train those X people, then you aren't making the situation better, and quite possibly making things worse.
     
  9. May 10, 2012 #8
    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    Ideas are always dangerous. Thinking is dangerous. The only thing more dangerous than thinking it not thinking.

    Depends on how you define "intellectual" but a lot of the philosophy behind democracy was invented by Aristole and Plato. You also have people like Rosseau and Montesequieu. Also people like James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton were clearly "intellectuals" by my definition (i.e. read the Federalist Papers).

    Within American political thought, there is a strong aversion toward intellectuals (Tocqueville pointed this out) because it's a form of social hierarchy that people dislike. On the other hand, because people dislike it, people tend to deny that it exists whenever it happens, and that makes it hard to do anything about it. If you don't think that political power ought to be concentrated in an "intellectual elite" then it probably should bother you that both major candidates for President were Harvard graduate students.

    One thing that you have to do if you run for public office in the United States is "look stupid." If you look smart people won't trust you. However, just because you look stupid doesn't mean that you are, and every recent President has perfected the art of looking stupid.
     
  10. May 10, 2012 #9

    StatGuy2000

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    If the basic problem is the fact that there are more people looking for work than there are jobs available, then the logical implications would be either to create more jobs or reduce the supply of people in the labour market seeking employment.

    One historical approach to the latter was migration/emigration -- people leaving their village, town, city, or country in search of opportunities elsewhere.

    The other "approach" (really more of a default) is the permanent departure from the accepted work force, either through a creation of a permanent "welfare" class (in which you could have generations relying on social assistance -- a phenomena seen in a number of European countries) or by joining the underground economy (e.g. drug dealing).

    Might I also suggest a "modest proposal" (those familiar with the works of Jonathan Swift will know where I'm heading with this). :wink: One of the ways that wildlife managers deal with excess supply of certain animals (such as deer) is through a cull (i.e. killing excess deer). Might we not propose culling or killing excess unemployed people during difficult times? In this way, this would reduce the supply of unemployed, and hence give more opportunities to everyone else!

    PS: For those not familiar with Jonathan Swift's work, the last paragraph above was intended to be satirical!
     
  11. May 10, 2012 #10

    StatGuy2000

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    twofish-quant, I would disagree with you on the statement above. First of all, life expectancy during the 1930's was shorter then than it is now, so people in their 30's and 40's would not be considered "youths" by any stretch of the imagination (in fact, people who were 21 were considered fully adult and expected to seek employment and those who could not often joined "hobo" camps essentially living the itinerant beggar's lifestyle).

    Also, the phenomena of "delayed adulthood" of which you are referring has been a feature of North American society at least since the 1990's, well before the current economic travails (the situation may well be different outside of North America).
     
  12. May 10, 2012 #11

    atyy

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    The problem with thinking is that intellectuals are usually over-confident in their abilities. Isn't the core of physics anti-intellectual - experiments are the key to truth, not thinking!
     
  13. May 10, 2012 #12

    Andy Resnick

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    There are some really well-thought-out posts here, hopefully I can add another-

    Consider the difference between 'education' and 'training'. Broadly speaking, a 4-year BS or BA degree was typically associated with 'education', while other credentials (2-year certificates, professional and graduate degrees, etc) were associated with 'training'- specialized instruction.

    Over the past several decades, perhaps starting with 4-year engineering and 'hard science' degrees, the BS has aligned more and more with 'training'- the new graduate was presumed to possess a specific skill set which would translate well to either the job market or graduate school. This is reflected in several aspects of the steps needed to earn a BS degree: a highly structured curriculum, standard textbooks, comprehensive assessments (including the GRE), internships/laboratory experience/etc, in close parallel to the steps needed to earn a graduate or professional degree.

    This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when the job market periodically tightens up, degree-granting institutions are naturally challenged to explain why their graduates, who presumably have possession of a specific skill set which would translate well to either the job market or graduate school, are not able to find work for which they were trained.

    The oversupply of highly trained graduates is not restricted to PhDs- ask anyone who is getting ready to sit for a bar examination- it's a horrible time to be graduating law school. MBAs are facing the same problem. The one profession that seems to be able to control and manipulate the supply is physicians, through allocation of residency slots and 'match day'.

    I totally agree that the oversupply of well-qualified PhDs has resulted in 'trickle-down'- many more institutions and corporations are able to access and hire top-quality scientists, granting agencies are easily able to select top-quality proposals for funding (although having too many choices results in a lot of angst), and academic programs are able to improve in quality.

    Even so, I am not comfortable with the trend towards 'training' and treating degrees as commodities. The trend is pervasive- here in Ohio, there's an underlying (and unspoken) pressure to 'pipeline' students from middle school through terminal degree: identify students in middle school and track them- for example, an 'average' student may go from high school to a 2-year community college for their gen-ed courses, then obtain upper-division coursework at university en route to a professional degree (say, a 2-year MS program). It's debatable whether or not this is a good thing either for the particular student or for the educational system.

    In the end, it really comes down to the essential difference between getting an education and getting trained.
     
  14. May 10, 2012 #13

    Choppy

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    But what's at issue is jobs within academia. The point I was making (or rather the point in the original article that I was building on) is that we, as academics, should be looking at ways to make those X people qualified for a larger pool of jobs or, even better, capable of generating jobs that didn't previously exist.

    So it's not a case of making the X people more qualified for the 0.5X jobs. (And I agree there is a danger in doing just that which is well worth paying attention to.) The solution lies in figuring out ways to increase that 0.5 to get closer to 1.

    I suppose the other alternative is to ratchet down the 1 in front of the first X to 0.5.
     
  15. May 10, 2012 #14

    Choppy

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    I think you were missing the point. This was an example of something a PhD program could potentially do to revamp itself into producing graduates that are more marketable in the world outside of academia. I suppose what I was trying to say is that one option would be to combine the PhD with an MBA. Maybe that's a dead avenue as there are already too many MBAs out in the world. I don't know.

    I do know however that being able to figure out quantum electrodynamics does not translate into managerial skill.
     
  16. May 10, 2012 #15
    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    To be honest, I think I agree with twofish here. Learning "practical" and business skills as part of the PhD program is a mistake because teaching practical skills is not what academia is good at. There is a good reason that relevant work experience is practically a prerequisite for getting into a good MBA program.

    I worked in industry for 7 years after I got my PhD and let me tell you from experience, academia is simply not set up to effectively teach you the things you learn when you are on accelerated projects where you absolutely must deliver. Nothing but jumping into the fire can teach you what I learned in industry. I agree with twofish that if academia *tried* to teach this, they would end up wasting a year of your life with an outdating smattering of Gannt charts, interpersonal communications hogwash and the like. The only way to learn this kind of stuff effectively is to do it and to work with experienced mentors. I don't believe there is any other way.

    To sum up, of course knowing QED doesn't translate into managerial skill. But I can assure you that some "management" training when you are an inexperienced graduate student who quite frankly knows almost nothing about the way the works won't translate into managerial skill either. I think that is what twofish was getting at.
     
  17. May 10, 2012 #16

    MathematicalPhysicist

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    Do you have statistics to back up your assertion?

    I believe that the brightest and the ones that prefer academia over making more money will get their place in academia. Anyway, you're not staying in academia for the big bucks.
     
  18. May 10, 2012 #17

    StatGuy2000

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    While I agree with the bulk of what you are saying here, especially in terms of the necessity of relevant experience, the question is still how recent graduates of PhD programs can essentially enter the non-academic work force when the bulk of their experience is in academia.

    This is probably less of an issue for those graduating with PhDs in engineering, computer science, statistics, operations research, or even applied math (since most people I know who pursued graduate studies in these areas have often sought internships or other forms of non-academic work experience during their PhD studies), but it is a concern for those pursuing research in other sciences such as physics (theoretical physics in particular).
     
  19. May 10, 2012 #18
    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    Ooooh you hit on a great point that I missed: the importance of internships. They are so important, yet many people don't pursue them with vigor (or when they do, they just kind of hang around when they get the job and don't get a lot out of it).

    I think it would be smart for someone studying theoretical physics to intern at a company writing software or doing engineering. Not only will he or she get some practical experience to complement his or her more theoretical research but also something concrete to point to in job interviews.

    The sad fact is there aren't enough PhD level jobs to go around even in engineering industry, either. So saying physics PhDs should just go to industry doesn't really solve the problem. That is part of the reason of the credential arms race. It used to be a BS was entry level and an MS was more advanced. More and more, in certain subfields, the MS is entry level and the PhD is getting more common.
     
  20. May 10, 2012 #19

    Choppy

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    So is your solution to further limit the number of PhDs that are produced?
     
  21. May 10, 2012 #20

    Choppy

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    Re: Interesting discussion on the "crisis in higher education"

    Another option, perhaps the default option, is to simply ignore the problem.

    One could argue that academia is what it is. It's purpose is to provide the student with an education. It does not exist to provide students with jobs. Or train them for careers. It is the student's responsibility to make his or her way in the world. If the education helps, then it's a bonus.

    If academia adopts such a philosophy, then really the only onus it has is to dispell the notion of "work hard and you'll be rewarded with a career."

    Of course, maybe that itself is one of THE lessons of higher education.
     
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