Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The second part of Matt Feney's look at PhD programs

Matt Feeney, Is The PhD Trap a Trap? (II) (The first part.)

Mr. Feeney writes:

In fact, the trap he describes, the dire life-botch of setting out for a Ph.D. and then for an academic job, is only a trap (or only necessarily a trap) when viewed through a sort of grad student logic and pathos. That is, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of any freestanding pleasures of pursuing a humanities doctorate that might do some, if not all (but maybe all!), of the work of justifying that loopy decision. He reinforces the strange and unfortunate phenomenon by which the people least capable of seeing what is cool and special and potentially ecstatically fun about being a grad student are grad students. I saw this first hand (like really first-hand, as in, in the mirror). Benton talks about how grad students are socialized in various maladaptive ways. But he doesn’t talk about maybe the most directly harmful socialization grad students undergo, which, in fact, the general thrust of his several articles serves to reinforce: You enter a Ph.D. program and breathe in the supposition that your life is supposed to suck.

The negatives of a grad program: (1) the infantilization that grad school promotes, and the obstacle it posses to married life (if both spouses want to raise a family), (2) the grunt work that ranges from the perfunctory to the ridiculous, depending on the faculty member and course -- the good faculty members and courses devoted to the pursuit of truth rather than idelogy are not common in the humanities, (3) and the community surrounding a PhD program tends to be focused more on becoming an academic than truth -- if there is truth it is multiculturalism or moral relativism or cultural Marxism. It is very difficult to build friendships with people who are other opposed to your beliefs or too cowardly to stand up for them. Grad students may not speak out in defense of the truth for fear of alienating faculty members (and to a lesser degree, other students), and this is the beginning of a bad habit that they will have if they succeed in becoming academics. But it is disheartening to see faculty members who are content in their own niche and circle and reluctant to offend their colleagues, even if it is in defense of the Faith at a supposed Catholic institution.

What pleasures are there of pursuing a humanities doctorate in comparison? Learning from the greats can be done in part by reading on one's own, or learning from a teacher that is willing to teach -- it doesn't have to be done in a grad school.

As for Mr. Feeney's recommendations:
(1) View the Ph.D. as an end in itself.

What is the trade-off, in terms of time spent and opportunity cost? Is it worth it?
And a PhD that can be given to those who are hostile to the Western intellectual tradition is rather worthless, even if it is the ultimate in credentialing.

(2) Try not to take too long.

A no-brainer, but 4 years is too long for people who should already be participating in civil society as adults.

(3) Take an occasional moment to note that your “job” for the time being is to read books, some of them “great,” and talk about them.

And one has to write papers about them, which are to be evaluated by the professors and occasionally other students. This can be a major negative for doing coursework. "Surely the grade about how good your argumentation is, and not your conclusions." Yeah, right. Studying in an environment that is hostile to your point of view or academic interests is still a net negative, when one is considering the grad school experience as a whole, and not a part of it in isolation from the rest.

Such differences do not build up friendship, and are more likely to lead to a loss of respect as one evaluates the faculty members critically. (Assuming that one had such respect for them before they entered the program.)

(4) Take up a dissertation topic might get you sent to cool places for research, language-learning.

It's nice to be single, unattached, and without responsibility, isn't it?

The rest of his recommendations deal with socialization -- which in most urban areas requires money and time. Can a Catholic find other Catholics in academia? Yes, but finding time to meet with them can be hard, given the different schedules. Socialization for the sake of socialization leaves one hungry for true friendship.

Mr. Feeney thinks that grad school can be turned into a net positive for all who were in the same circumstances as he. I disagree.

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