The Rules of the Game

Graduate school presents itself as a classic apprenticeship opportunity in which you work long hours over many years for a poverty salary, receiving in exchange instruction, mentorship and an entree to the field. I believe that that contract, as played out in academia, is fundamentally unfair, because a graduate student’s teaching and research often yields his university tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition and research funding, while he only receives a small fraction of that value in compensation.

Still, students willingly enter into these contracts, and so the situation might not be so bad if the universities actually lived up to their half of the bargain. The trouble is, they often don’t. Many graduate students are given minimal mentorship, and many are “mentored” destructively – with the student himself being blamed, of course, if he underperforms as a result.

Moreover, the career payoff is, in many cases, illusory. In her 4/18/2010 New York Times article, “The Long-Haul Degree”1, Patricia Cohen cites a study that found that more than a third of 2008 humanities Ph.D. students remained unemployed a full year after getting their degree. Of course, academia is happy to continue exploiting those unemployed Ph.D.’s with poorly paid, part-time, no-benefit, no-advancement “adjunct” and “instructor” gigs.

Obviously, not all grad experiences are awful or exploitative, and some are wonderful. But the bad stories I hear are truly awful…