Some proposals for dramatic change in academia

Here’s an article from today’s N.Y. Times by a professor of religion at Columbia on proposed changes to graduate education.  He makes several interesting points, but I see two important ones from our perspective.  The first is that most graduate students will not get a job in the field that they are being educated in.  Schools take us on mostly to get cheap labor re teaching and RAing, and there will be no jobs for us when we get done.  This has to be especially troubling to those of us who aren’t at a top-20 school.  Yes, this doesn’t do us much good now, but if anything it underscores some of our recent conversations about the need to take more methodology courses, if only to try to bump out the Iowa State and Kansas and Missouri students who will be competing with us for what jobs there are.

Secondly, he argues that many dissertations are irrelevant to issues of any real importance, the reason (implicitly) being that too many people follow the normal science pattern of research where you look for a gap in the literature and then fill it.  Grad students would be better off thinking about questions of importance and seeing what contribution they could make to solving it.  AND this means, in all likelihood, taking an interdisciplinary approach.  I’ve been thinking about this with regard to my research interests recently, and I’m realizing that sociology and economics both have large literatures on the questions I am interested in, and I have no idea what they say.

This second point echoes what Kristin Luker says in “Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences” where she says we should frame our research projects in terms of questions rather than hypotheses, at least at first.  If we don’t, we’ll get ourselves into dissertations we don’t really have any interest in, and we probably won’t do the job very well anyway.

Food for thought.


About Jake Wobig

I teach international relations and comparative politics at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina
This entry was posted in Academia and the Profession, Graduate School. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Some proposals for dramatic change in academia

  1. Tina Mueller Zappile says:

    I read this article this morning. I couldn’t agree more on point two, taking an interdisciplinary approach. I would highly recommend branching out to other departments for anyone in poli sci and not necessarily to economics, though that’s the direction I went in. It opens your eyes to different perspectives on often the same problems. Some (not all) of my favorite graduate courses were in other departments: history, economics, and anthropology.

    However, I have been warned to be careful about being TOO interdisciplinary in your research- departments don’t know how to categorize you and apparently that is a bad thing for the job market and tenure.

    I would like to hear more about this issue from others in our department….

  2. It definitely seems like there is a balance to be struck between within- and without-department courses, as Tina noted. I obviously don’t have experience going out on the job market but it makes intuitive sense.

    In terms of research questions vs. hypotheses, I’m not sure that it’s as strict a dichotomy as suggested (maybe I’m misunderstanding it, though). It seems to me that when I get interested in doing a certain brand of research questions always come first. Like, “what are people paying attention to?” followed by something along the lines of “given the past literature on such and such, I would expect that…” It seems like the two are inseparable, but again if I’m wrong please correct me.

    I am afraid, however, that looking for gaps in the literature is the name of the game. It’s an “in.” It gives us a way to inject ourselves into the research game as lowly grad students. Sure, later on (when we all hopefully have tenure, many moons from now) we can go about asking big heretofore unasked questions, but I don’t see how that’s going to happen at this point in the game.

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