Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Philosophical Thirsty on Giving a Phuck if we Want To.

Back before our most recent near-death experience (latest in a continuing series) something in the discussion of Mozman got me thinking.  Three Sigma voiced a wish all of us share to get rid of a slave labour system based on grad students and postdocs.  Snarky writer pointed, though, to a veritable alphabet soup of bureaucratic hurdles to legally protecting grad students by redefining professional work.

My first thought was to wonder whether we need a maze of committees and statutes and whatnot to treat people decently.  As Terry put it - I have tenure and I can give a fuck if I want.  So I do.  I won't take on students just to have worker bees in the lab.

Of course, we need the legal alphabet soup for the ones who don't give a fuck - but it doesn't seem like most proffies are in this category.  Mozman is an extreme, possibly a charicature.  Most of my actual colleagues (for all their quirks and foibles oft pilloried here) are decent people.  They like their students and want the best for them.  Yet collectively somehow academia (at least STEM fields) maintains this culture of students-as-cheap-labour.

What the fuck is up with that?  How do basically decent people wind up perpetuating this?  

Sure the productive labs get rewarded by the admins and the granting agencies, and exploiting grad students is one way to crank out 'product'.  But once a PI has tenure, the baubles on offer don't seem enough to motivate the truly greedy, and you'd think someone willing to sell out underlings for advancement would go into finance.  Are we all just locked in some sort of massive version of the Milgram experiment?


  1. As you say, most faculty are basically decent people. However, they also love their research and pursuing that usually ranks higher than decency. In the sciences, you can't do high quality research* without graduate students working for $7 per hour (average $20K/yr, 60 hr/wk). That's below minimum wage for an adult, professional scientist. The research professor rationalizes it but when pressed to explain his/her position, ultimately says, "Well, I don't like it but the research has to get done." When I was a grad student, I worked for the most politically liberal professor in the department but when it came to paying his students, it was like working for a Koch brother (but one that didn't spend his money to build hospitals).

    The rewards don't stop with tenure. There's summer pay from funding, travel to conferences, the respect of your peers and the pursuit of research. That last item is most important - we wouldn't be faculty if we didn't care about extending the knowledge in our field, all else be damned.

    I should add that I perform research and I'm just as guilty as any other in exploiting students.

    * Sure, you can but you won't do enough to get tenure at an R1.

  2. It's not (usually) malice: it's TRADITION. Graduate student labor exploitation is a side-effect of their "apprenticeship" based on the now-absurd premise that there are good jobs out there afterwards.

  3. There's a lot of reasons. One is that WE got exploited, and look how we did OK? The problem with that is that there simply aren't enough full-time science positions to employ all the graduate students and postdocs that we are "training".

    Some people say that those students will have excellent degrees they can use elsewhere... and they're not wrong that the skills may be in demand. But the specific degree is usually not.

    In my field, another reason is simply that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked by previous generations, so discovering new things requires a LOT of effort. Lots of people Massive budgets. So there's been continual, gradual pressure to move the work onto students and postdocs.

    Personally, I have followed exactly the same path as you suggest: although my postdoc research prepares me for an R1-like position, I explicitly looked for jobs at SLACs and got one. Only undergrads for me. The upshot of which is that I have to do all the work... which is OK because I LIKE doing all the work. At R1s you spend all your time writing grants and supervising the work.

  4. My first supervisor saw his grad students as hired help and treated them accordingly. If any of them managed to finish their degree, it was by accident and he intended to prevent that from happening again.

    As far as he was concerned, he owned the data they produced while doing their research. His attitude was that he paid for it, so it belonged to him. (Funny, I don't remember signing away my rights to my results when I started there.) He shamelessly published it under his own name without actually doing anything for it or giving anyone else credit. Before I started at that institution, one of his former students caught on to what he was doing. The matter became quite nasty, going high up in the institution's system and nearly ended in litigation.

    Over 20 years later, I read that supervisor's obituary. In it, he was portrayed as being benevolent and generous, a step or two short of divine. I had to go through it more than once just to make sure it was referring to the same man. Maybe he changed his ways after we parted company, but, frankly, I doubted it.

  5. The Milgram experiment is a good way to think of it--keep doing what you need to, and ignore the screams of anguish coming from the other side of the wall. A Ponzi scheme, an arms race, and The Stanford Prison Experiment all seem to fit in one way or another as well. Maybe some unholy offspring of all four? Or maybe the concept of selfish routing is useful here: Independent individuals acting in their own interests gum up the system for everyone.

    1. The Milgram comparison resonated (frighteningly) for me, too. Throw in the frog-in-the-gradually-heating-pot comparison, and a bit of wishful thinking (a lot of my advisors made it through the '70s Ph.D. glut and managed to land at a Very Nice Place, and they tended to assume that the then-current drought of jobs would end, and the predictions of the Bowen Report would come to be, just a bit later than expected, and all would be well. I don't know what advisors these days are thinking, though).

    2. I won't speak for others, but I've mostly given up on taking students unless they seem ultra-talented, once-in-a-lifetime prospects. I've got a couple of excellent former students bouncing around in VAP land right now and it is hard to watch. If there were jobs they'd be getting them, but there are simply no tenure-stream jobs to speak of at the moment. None. Some of my colleagues talk themselves into the idea that the dam will burst any minute now and their unemployed former students will suddenly be awash in offers. I'm too cynical to believe that.

      The jig is up. The band is putting the instruments away. The sound my colleagues hear is most definitely not the music starting up again. It's the bartender ringing the last call bell.

  6. This is a major reason I came to Fresno State. We don’t have a Ph.D. program, so I don’t have to make a living like a vampire.

    How do basically decent people wind up perpetuating this? I trust you’ve noticed that many of them aren’t so decent.

    The rules for the care and feeding of grad students were written during a time of exponential growth. It’s very much a Ponzi scheme, and funding agencies, universities, and many academics still act as though the exponential growth will continue forever. It may be because they just don’t want to think about it: not caring about people does reduce workload, after all.

    As David Goodstein has observed, science grew exponentially from the 17th century (yeah!) to Fall semester of 1969. Science stopped growing exponentially because, as Derek de Solla Price observed, “In the real world, things do not grow and grow until they reach infinity.”

    Why did the crash come during the Fall of 1969? Notice that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969. In the wake of Sputnik I in 1957, the U.S. thought it was “falling behind.” Suddenly, we had to lead the world in every field. This coincided with unprecedented growth in universities, with the G.I. Bill, and with the Baby Boomers. All this contributed to another characteristic of exponential growth in the real world: the growth is fastest just before the crash that ends it.

    The last Moon shot was Apollo 17 in December of 1972. (The first commercially available digital electronic pocket calculators hit the market two weeks later, just in time for Christmas.) I grew up in Florida in the ‘70s in the wake of this. Thousands of previously patriotic technical workers were discarded. The pain it caused made a big impression on me, so I try to be careful with making a mess of people’s lives.

    Another reason I feel strongly about this because I was a grad student just after the tax law changed in 1986, and grad student stipends wouldn’t catch up until after I finished my Ph.D.—yes, it took quite a long time! I then traipsed around the world doing three postdoctoral research jobs in the next five years, and was an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor (Hi, Walter!) for another couple years. Only then did I get a tenure-track position, at age 41. All this came after three years when I was horribly taken advantage of while giving shows at a major planetarium: the assistant director would tell me, “Your WORK is its own reward!”

    So, after all this, being at Fresno State isn’t so bad, if you ignore the occasional unsavory episode with a sheep. I make sure to help all my students all I can, and to tell my research students (undergrad and M.S.) what they’re getting into, and give every one of them a copy of “A Ph.D. Is Not Enough,” by Peter Feibelman. It does help some of them.

  7. Academia isn't unique in this. Exploitative hazing of the up-and-coming seems to be endemic in the professions -- M.D. interns (getting low pay and hours that put patients at risk); unpaid business internships; junior attorneys (getting decent pay but being expected to have no life).

    I think academia ranks worst because not only are grad studemts woefully underpaid and expected to have no life, but they are PAYING to be there, and they haven't even received a professional degree yet.

    1. I agree to some extent, but what distinguishes academic exploitation from the exploitation you find in the other brain-work professions is that the ego-dividends for the exploiters are so much higher. In other words, the attending physician doesn't have her self-worth wrapped up in how many residents there are in her teaching hospital, whereas graduate students are at least partially an index of self-worth for many in this profession.

      If we all stood up and said we aren't taking any more graduate students there would be nothing that adminflakes could do about it. They couldn't punish us in any way and the whole system would come crashing down. But we won't do that because with their right hand all our colleagues are crying that the system is broken and it is just awful that there are so many exploited faculty while with their left hand they are busy stroking themselves over how many graduate students they personally have.

      And because I really am angry some days I'll add that in my experience it is the most worthless piece of crap colleagues who feel the most entitled to have grad students. Until we can put a stop to that the whole cycle of abuse will continue.

      I am more and more convinced that asking a colleague "how many students do you have?" is more or less the same question as the old line about "when did you stop beating your wife?"

  8. In my state, TAs and SRAs have collective bargaining rights as part of the university staff. That would be a good place to start in other states, except for Walkerian politics.