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Who went to Graduate School? Why? Where?

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As openings in college teaching dwindle, will numbers of people taking graduate training go down? If so, how much? From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, first-year graduate enrolments in literary studies, history, and philosophy were between 30,000 and 50,000, and total graduate enrolments were between 60,000 and 85,000. Output of Ph.D.'s was 3000-4000 a year, approximately matching numbers of new career openings for college teachers. In the 1980s and 1990s, will graduate enrolments and final numbers of humanities Ph.D.'s plummet to match a much lower level of demand for college teachers?

At least for the first half of the 1980s, it is almost certain that new PhD's will exceed demand in the academic labor market, for well into the 1980s humanities Ph.D.'s will be predominantly people who started graduate work in the 1970s. The median time to a humanities Ph.D. exceeds 7 years. Be-cause many students take some time out, the median time from B.A. to Ph.D. is around 10 years.1 Since most professors and students did not notice the prospective drop in demand for college teachers prior to the mid-1970s, applications to and enrolments in doctoral programs did not begin to fall off until late in the decade.2 At the beginning of the 1980s about 60,000 remain in the pipeline.

For the first part of the 1980s, therefore, an estimate of numbers of Ph.D.'s is largely an estimate of how degree completion rates will be affected by the actual or prospective downturn in the academic job market. The basic question is this: How many will drop out? An estimate for years beyond the mid-1980s turns on the answer to a two-part question: How many new students will enter Ph.D. programs, and how many of them will complete the degree? Whatever the total numbers of Ph.D.'s in the 1980s and 1990s, where will they come from- all schools, only the better schools, only the poorer schools?



Unlike questions about numbers of teaching jobs, questions about numbers and characteristics of graduate students cannot be addressed by straightforward statistical projections. It is true that, over the past quarter-century, some rough correspondences have obtained between numbers of B.A.'s in the humanities and numbers of first-year graduate students in those fields. In the mid-1950s, approximately 5 B.A.'s out of every 20 went on to graduate school. In the 1960s, 8 out of 20 did so. In the 1970s, the proportion retreated to 6-7 out of 20. Meanwhile, however, there was a significant increase in numbers of graduate students who either did not complete the Ph.D. or stretched out the completion time. At the beginning of the 1960s, there was 1 Ph.D. in the humanities for every 6-7 students enrolled half-dozen years earlier as first-year graduate students. By the mid-1970s, the corresponding ratio was 1 Ph.D. to every 12-13 first-year students.

From these trends, it is possible to make projections, but only within a very broad band. If college enrolments and proportions of students in the humanities fall within the boundaries projected in the previous chapter, then in nearly every year there will be many more humanities PhD's than there are career openings in college teaching, unless the proportions of first-year graduate enrolments and of graduate students completing the Ph.D. drop below any levels known since World War II. As Table 2.2 indicates, it appears that the "surplus" English, modern language, history, and philosophy Ph.D.'s could run well over 25,000. If so, the figure would actually be much larger, for many of the career openings would go to people without Ph.D.'s. Although the birth-rate can be said largely to determine college enrolments and enrolments in turn largely to determine openings in college teaching, numbers of B.A.'s merely contribute to setting an upper limit on numbers of first-year graduate students and numbers of first-year graduate students to setting an upper limit on Ph.D.'s. They are not controlling factors.

To guess how many B.A.'s will go on to graduate school and how many will complete PhD's, one has to make assumptions about attitudes and motives. If people pursue graduate training in the humanities primarily to prepare for careers as teachers, then evidence of poor job prospects in academe should shut off the flow fairly rapidly. If they enter graduate school primarily for other reasons but complete the Ph.D. chiefly to pursue employment in teaching, then graduate enrolments might remain high but fewer and fewer students will stay to earn their diplomas. On the other hand, if non-vocational motives are strong all the way through, then trends in numbers of both graduate students and Ph.D.'s might correspond only faintly to trends in the academic labor market. The mix of motives could also influence student choices of graduate schools. At this point, therefore, we have to turn from demographic data to data drawn from survey research. m In the mid-1970s the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) conducted a questionnaire survey of approximately 4000 graduate students in English, French, Spanish, history, and philosophy. The two of us helped design the questionnaires and analyze the results. The students were located at 40 different universities, 20 of which were the leading producers of Ph.D.'s in these fields and 20 of which represented other large producers. We visited most of these universities, interviewing in all about 500 graduate students.

Of the questionnaire respondents, approximately one-fourth were first-year graduate students, most of who had enrolled with full knowledge that the outlook in college teaching was dark. Although most of these students thought their own prospects better than those of the typical student, the whole group of respondents rated as poor or uncertain the chances of any graduate student's landing any type of job. Their attitudes and opinions are therefore those of people aware of the trends described in Chapter 1. Students who were interviewed certainly knew of them, for we discussed them in detail with each panel.

The survey and interview results may therefore say some-thing about the graduate student population of the future. Half were men, half women. Three-quarters were in their twenties, and most of the rest were in their thirties. Half were single; half were or had been married. Not surprisingly, they had many academic honors. More than half had graduated cum laude or better. More than a third had held some kind of merit-based scholarship in college. Almost a quarter belonged to Phi Beta Kappa. On the whole, however, they had not done much extracurricular activities. Only one out of eight or nine had been involved in student journalism, debate, dramatics, or music; fewer still had held any elective class office. These returns were consistent with the stereotype of graduate students as "grinds."

The majority of these students had not just floated from college to graduate school. Over half had interrupted their education for a year or more, usually between college and graduate school. For the most part, however, they had not been exploring possible careers. Students who were inter-viewed told of clerking in stores, waiting on tables, or otherwise earning money in routine jobs not unlike those they had held in summers while in college. Most had thought of themselves as taking time off from school rather than trying out an occupation. They planned all along to enrol in graduate school and gave little thought to alternatives. In the HERI survey sample, less than 1 in 6 even considered a professional school. Only about 1 in 20 thought seriously of going to work for government or entering business.

In a different sample of graduate students surveyed by the American Council on Education at the end of the 1960s, three-quarters of doctoral candidates in the humanities were from families at or below the median-income level. One in five came from a working-class background. The percentages were higher than among students in professional schools, and, although nearly all said they were in graduate school for intellectual growth, 70% added that they wanted to increase earnings and almost half said that they wanted a prestigious job. These returns suggested a high proportion of students who expected a graduate degree to improve their social and economic status.
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