Professorial Economics

Are State Troopers Models for Professors? (Inside Higher Ed)

The American system of awarding doctorates and producing professors is a mess. On that, the disparate voices on a high-powered MLA panel on reforming the Ph.D. agreed Monday night. But the panelists offered widely discordant perspectives on what the biggest problems are and how to fix them. Their solutions included lowering the requirements and shortening the time it takes to earn a Ph.D., creating a federal “job corps” akin to the Work Projects Administration to put young Ph.D. recipients to work right out of graduate school, and, most radically, adopting a civil service approach in which new Ph.D. recipients, like firefighters and state troopers, would get tenure after a yearlong probationary period and then get regular raises over defined terms of service.


“It takes three years to become a lawyer,” [Harvard English professor Louis Menand] said. “It takes four years to become a doctor. You can get an M.D./Ph.D. in six years. It takes more than eight years to become an assistant professor in an English department. There is something wrong with this picture.” His solution: significantly cutting the research and teaching requirements of the Ph.D. — by, say, requiring a graduate student in English to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of a thesis. “Students are being way over-trained for the jobs available,” he argued. “The argument that they need the training to be qualified to teach undergraduates is belied by the fact that they are already teaching undergraduates. And the idea that the doctoral thesis is a rigorous requirement is belied by the quality of most doctoral theses.”


[University of Louisville English professor] Marc Bousquet wants to burn it down. He criticized colleges for “substituting student teachers or term workers” for traditional faculty members, and urged graduate students to unionize to protect their rights. He also, though, suggested that higher education abandon its current system for training professors for a truer apprenticeship system on a civil service model that would include military-style pay grades. He encouraged the audience to look at a Web site about the pay of state police officers. Comparing their pay to humanities professors, he said, is instructive. Entry level state troopers earn about as much as nontenure-track instructors, he said, and a state trooper with 20 years’ experience earns about as much as full tenured professors. “It only takes a year to become a state trooper,” he said.

While I can’t disagree that doctoral programs are both too much training (and yet no training) for undergraduate teaching, I find the article amusing. After all, the problem in the humanities is too many PhDs chasing too few jobs. So, what’s the incentive for the universities offering these much-sought-after jobs to lower their barriers to entry?

If we were starting from scratch, we would almost certainly create a different system for training and selecting university professors. Still, we’ve managed to produce a university system (as contrasted with our secondary education program) that’s widely considered the best in the world. Professorial pay is meager as compared to other professions requiring similar investments in pre-employment training. As in other occupations, though, pay scales are set by the market. With fifty to a hundred highly qualified applicants lining up for most tenure track university positions, the pay is unlikely to go up and the education required is unlikely to go down. Indeed, why should it?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.