Graduate students in America live like ancient monks: they subside primarily off of stale noodles and rice, in constant fear that bureaucratic politics or the whims of their superiors will end their careers at a moment’s notice. They spend a little time researching and a lot of time inflating egos and toiling in drudgery, too overwhelmed with the full professors’ work to complete their dissertations.
Part of the problem arises from the nature of academia. As the eminent physicist Max Planck said decades ago, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The old guard will also look unfavorably upon any threat to their intellectual hegemony; most graduate students learn quickly to think what they like but to act like everyone else, feigning unwavering support for their advisors’ pet theories. Part of the problem arises from the total absence of accountability in academia, and the acceptance across many disciplines that graduate students are unpaid laborers who can be terminated at will rather than grant-supported students who represent the next generation of higher education.
It’s not like the dismal state of graduate studies is a big secret. The creator of PhD Comics (a.k.a. “Piled Higher and Deeper”) makes a living out of lampooning it. Earlier this week an email at an Astronomy PhD program was leaked (more here at Slashdot); helpful advice for succeeding with a stipend of around $20,000 annually includes, “We realize that students with families will not have 80-100 hours/week to spend at work. Again, what matters most is productivity.” It’s not a recent problem; one widely circulated letter from a Chemistry professor to his post-doctoral researcher in 1996 warned, “I have noticed that you have failed to come in to lab on several weekends, and more recently have failed to show up in the evenings.” To many universities, graduate programs are a for-profit racket not unlike medical residency.
Unfortunately, there’s a certain segment of the population — comprised mostly of people who hold tenure of some sort, like full professors, federal judges, and prominent newspaper columnists — that believes graduate students are insufficiently obsequious and afraid, and that academic freedom is in great peril when a professor can’t destroy a student’s career for some sort of grave “fault,” like being a girl (despite Title IX).