With hundreds of Ph.D.s competing for every available faculty position, the apprentice model that sustained generations of silversmiths and printers seems to fall apart at the university level.
Originally published in Duke Magazine.
THE APPRENTICE IS ONE OF AMERICA’S most enduring icons. Whether it’s Paul Revere silversmithing at his father’s shop or fifteen-year-old Horace Greeley knocking on an editor’s door to ask for work, our history is filled with tales of accomplished men taking younger ones under their wing, teaching them a craft, then releasing them into a world of boundless economic opportunity. In his paean to John Deere, inventor of the steel “singing plow,” Neil Clark describes the young man’s apprenticeship to a Vermont blacksmith: “Under his master’s eye, he acquired the art of making his forge fire neither too great nor too small. He learned the maxim ‘Strike while the iron is hot’—and the reason for it…. Skilled workmanship was the master’s creed, and became the boy’s delight. He gained proficiency in sharpening farmers’ plowshares, shaping axe heads, repairing scythe knives. He took even more pleasure fashioning new tools…. He could, in a word, do more than make sparks fly from the anvil. He could create.”
These stories were, of course, romanticized. Apprentice Ben Franklin fled his Boston printer after one too many beatings. And after the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers viewed apprentices as cheap semiskilled labor. But the legend persists.
These days, the apprenticeship model has descended on the university full-force. A bright young student is given tuition and living expenses for five years. During that time, she is assigned to a faculty mentor, who teaches her everything she needs to know to become a professor. She develops teaching skills through a series of assignments—first grading papers and leading discussions, then giving the occasional lecture, then designing and teaching classes of her own. She learns research skills through a series of assistantships. By the time she finishes her dissertation and earns her Ph.D., she’s a master of her profession, ready to be hired for a tenure-track position at another university.
That’s the model.
Now, meet the reality: Jennifer Terni, a sixth-year graduate student in Duke’s Romance Studies department. A native of Montreal with a master’s degree in history, Terni moved south because Duke offered her the opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary studies at an outstanding university. She’s been working on a dissertation about consumerism, spectacle, and theater in nineteenth-century Paris. But the research is going slower than she’d like—partly because she has spent an exorbitant number of hours each semester teaching classes such as Elementary French. Terni loves teaching—”It makes my time here rich,” she says—but after eight sections of similar language courses, she’s sharpening her pedagogic skills less and less. And with her pay, which has ranged from $3,300 to $6,000 per class, she wonders if her work could better be described as inexpensive labor rather than true apprenticeship.
“We provide a huge amount of the labor that actually runs the department,” says thirty-three-year-old Terni. “That’s how we eat.”
What makes this all the more difficult is the fact that Terni has no guarantee of a job once she finishes her degree, despite Duke’s stellar reputation in Romance languages. While John Deere had his pick of blacksmithing jobs across Vermont, today’s Ph.D. faces the specter of part-time or temporary employment, or even total unemployment in her field; while universities churn out Ph.D.s at record rates, those same institutions are relying more on low-wage adjunct lecturers to teach undergraduates. That has kept the schools’ expenses down, but it has also depressed the market for tenure-track professors. According to the Association of American Universities, nearly 40 percent of recent doctoral students from its prestigious member schools were still looking for work by the time they received their degrees, up from one-third a decade earlier. Hardest hit are humanities areas like English, literature, and foreign languages. But the situation is not much better for the social sciences and even for some natural sciences.
And with hundreds of Ph.D.s competing for every available faculty position, the model that sustained generations of silversmiths and printers seems to fall apart at the university level. “How can you have all these apprentices if there are no jobs for them, if they don’t move up and become master craftsmen?” asks Paul Ortiz, a history graduate student at Duke. “It isn’t even a job market anymore. It’s more like a lottery.”
For Terni, that means bracing herself to take a job in the private sector. When she talks to undergraduates, she urges them to think hard before applying to graduate school. “I systematically discourage students from pursuing Ph.D.s,” she says. “It’s a bad business to get into.”
JENNIFER TERNI’S EXPERIENCE is part of a national debate over the structure and purpose of graduate education today. It’s a complex debate, but it ultimately boils down to the rationale behind the two main tasks graduate students perform: teaching and research. “At what point are you really furthering the educational enterprise?” asks David Steinmetz, director of graduate studies for Duke’s religion department. “And at what point are you making use of cheap labor?”
Until a couple of years ago, those questions were all but taboo. It was assumed students served both purposes. Low-wage employment was a small price to pay for a degree that would throw open career doors. But now that those doors aren’t opening so easily, the question is being asked on college campuses, at professional conferences, and even on picket lines around the country. “We were lured in by the notion of apprenticeship,” says Harvard student William Pannapacker, a leader in the Modern Language Association’s Graduate Student Caucus. “But as we went along, we realized the notion was bankrupt.”
When Pannapacker, who is working on his doctorate in American history, entered graduate school in 1991, he had every reason for optimism about the future. Experts were predicting a huge demand for professors in the late Nineties, as college enrollments rose and a generation of academics retired. “I became fully invested in the idea that I would pay my dues for however many years it took to get a Ph.D., and at the end of that time, there would be positions available,” he says. “But the market didn’t open up, and the positions that did open up got filled by part-time and adjunct faculty.” Now, with his dissertation almost complete, Pannapacker hopes to land a teaching position at a branch campus of a state university, paying less than he earned loading trucks as a member of the Teamsters union. “After eight years, I’m actually worse off than when I began.”
Desperate to gain a competitive advantage, some students are doing things that were unheard of even ten years ago. It used to be that “publish or perish” was the rallying cry for junior faculty seeking tenure; now it applies to graduate students, who scramble to get papers published in refereed journals before they enter the job market. “Nobody thought of that in my day,” says Steinmetz, who earned his doctorate in 1967. “You would have been told, ‘Forget it.'”
A December 1997 report by the Modern Language Association (MLA) highlighted why the situation is so dire, at least in the humanities. “Fewer than half the seven or eight thousand graduate students likely to earn Ph.D.s in English and foreign languages between 1996 and 2000 can expect to obtain full-time tenure-track positions within a year of receiving their degrees,” the report said. In the first half of the decade, 55 percent of Ph.D.s in these areas couldn’t find tenure-track jobs the year their degrees were awarded. Most of those found temporary teaching jobs.
But that’s not because these departments are shrinking, the MLA noted. “The slow growth of permanent faculties in English and foreign-language departments has been counterpointed by an increasing reliance on part-time lecturers—many of them ‘freeway flyers’ who can only achieve a living wage by putting together jobs at different institutions—and on often equally undercompensated cadres of graduate student teachers,” the report said. In 1991-93, when the number of full-time jobs advertised in the MLA’s Job Information List dropped by 29 percent in English and 14 percent in foreign languages, temporary and part-time jobs at four-year colleges rose by 17 percent, the report said. From 1970 to 1993, the proportion of part-timers at all colleges almost doubled, from 22 to 40 percent. The situation is the worst at public institutions, according to the report, because of political pressure to cut budgets. “We have, albeit unwittingly, become complicit in an economic system that does not serve our own best interests or those of our students,” says Texas A&M English professor J. Lawrence Mitchell, who served on the MLA committee that drafted the report.
Nor does the system serve doctoral candidates, who are being produced at record rates. From 1985 to 1995, annual Ph.D. production rose from 31,297 to 41,610, according to the National Research Council.
While the situation is the worst in the humanities and social sciences, the natural sciences haven’t been spared. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences said the United States is producing more than twice as many Ph.D.s in the life-sciences as our universities can absorb. Government and industry can’t make up the deficit, so many young scientists wander from post-doc to post-doc without finding permanent work. “Even so, the Ph.D. machine grinds on, sustained by government funds, the appeal of a scientific career, and youthful hopes, mainly to the benefit of the sovereign professors who harness the enthusiasm of graduate students for the conduct of their own research projects,” writes Daniel Greenberg, a visiting scholar in the history of science, medicine, and technology at Johns Hopkins University.
That imbalance has forced graduate students to rethink their role at the university. At about twenty schools, including Yale, Michigan, and Minnesota, students have been forming labor unions. At the University of California, teaching assistants affiliated with the United Auto Workers held brief strikes at eight campuses in December. Graduate students at those schools have, in effect, declared themselves employees rather than apprentices, thus deserving the rights afforded other workers, including collective bargaining.
Students have mobilized in other ways, too. Since 1995, the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus grew from twenty members to 6,000. The caucus has called on the MLA to use its muscle to fight the exploitation of graduate-student labor and the increase in part-time teaching positions. “Today, the future of the profession belongs to those who, at present, have no future,” Pannapacker said on the first day of the MLA’s annual convention in December, in an address titled “Enjoying Your Apprenticeship?” At the same convention, the caucus persuaded the MLA to gather and publish information on the working conditions faced by part-time teachers.
Thanks in part to this militancy, the academic world has taken note of the new economic realities of graduate student life. “As recently as three years ago, most people did not want to talk about it,” says Michael Tino, former president of Duke’s Graduate and Professional Student Council. “The recent attention it has received has forced people to start the conversation. There was a fierce denial of the benefits graduate students give the university for their cost.”
No longer. In its October 1998 report, the Association of American Universities called on its member schools to stop hiding behind the “apprenticeship” label when using low-wage student labor. “Financial support should be designed to assist students in their progress to a degree,” said the report. “To the extent possible, this support should not involve work that draws students away from their graduate programs. In particular, students should not be supported as teaching and research assistants without progressing to greater levels of responsibility and independence; students supported primarily to meet the teaching needs of departments or institutions, or the research needs of faculty research projects, should be reclassified and compensated appropriately.”
SOME STUDENTS ARE LUCKIER than others. In a sparkling clean laboratory at Duke’s Levine Science Research Center, filled with graduated cylinders, autoclaves, and round-bottomed flasks, Sherry Debenham has spent most of the past four years studying the interactions of proteins and carbohydrates. She arrives at the lab at 7 a.m. and often works ten-hour days, seven days a week, with ten-minute lunch breaks. “In the winter, there are times when I don’t see the sun,” she says.
But unlike students in other departments, Debenham has felt like a real apprentice, in that all her research relates directly to her career plans. In her first year, she worked under the supervision of upper-level graduate students and post-docs, who showed her how to produce certain chemical reactions, pointed her to library and human resources, and helped her move toward more complex lab work. As she took on more responsibility, she began consulting more with Eric Toone, the chemistry professor who runs her lab, about her own ideas for the project. “I’m not a peer to my boss,” she says. “But we work together.”
Most importantly, the job market has barely been a concern for Debenham. Like most Duke chemistry graduate students, she has intended all along to work for industry, not academia. “Chemical and pharmaceutical companies are dying for people to do organic synthesis,” she says. When she went on the job market, it was with a specific criterion: to find work in Kingsport, Tennessee, where her husband lives. She found it with no problem. Eastman Chemical Company interviewed her for four jobs, one of which it offered her, at a starting annual salary of more than $60,000.
It’s hard to believe Debenham is getting her degree from the same university as Ian Lekus, a sixth-year history student. Unlike Debenham, Lekus has no reason to feel confident his degree will lead to a job, at least not in the short term. According to The New York Times, the typical holder of a new Ph.D. in history in 1996 had a less than 50 percent chance of finding a university teaching job. “Staying in graduate school is an act of faith—both belief in my project and belief that it will work out career-wise,” Lekus says. “We try to stay in denial until we have to deal with it. You will never finish if you spend your time thinking about the market.”
Instead, Lekus has spent much of his time thinking about how to fund his dissertation research on anti-communism and homophobia in the early Cold War era. “I spend all my time writing grants for money rather than doing my research,” he says, and as a result, his project is behind schedule. Since all his financial support comes from on-campus work, he has trouble getting away for the out-of-town research required for his dissertation.
If Lekus were an apprentice, he could turn to his mentors for advice on how to finish his dissertation. But his adviser is also a dean, with little time to meet with students. Another committee member left Duke for Rutgers, and a third lives in Washington, D.C. He jokes about the “Lekus Diaspora,” but his point is more serious. “It doesn’t feel so much like an apprenticeship, as, ‘Go do a dissertation and come back in seven years,'” Lekus says. “I see my adviser four, maybe five times a year.” As a result, he says, “I feel like I’m missing instruction in the mechanics of shaping a dissertation. I can fend for myself intellectually. But decisions on how to organize a project, what goes in, what doesn’t go in-the nuts and bolts—I need more guidance than I’ve received.”
Lekus says his department’s “anarchic” approach to graduate studies has its upsides. No one has hassled him about his unconventional research topic, or about the time he lost when his father died. Still, he says, “the isolation and the lack of funding make it hard for me.”
Duke students are better off than most. Even in the most frustrating disciplines, the job placement rate is higher than the national average. “That anyone gets a job from the English department or the literature department or the history department says a lot about the university, because there are schools where nobody is getting jobs,” says Michael Tino, the former student leader. Still, Duke has two of the same problems as many top-ranked graduate schools: too many students without enough funding and too many teaching and research jobs that don’t educate the student.
The university’s administration is well aware of the problems. Graduate School Dean Lewis Siegel says it’s been one of his top priorities to increase funding while enriching the students’ educational experience. In the early Nineties, “in far too many cases, students were brought in with no support, and they had to prove themselves the first year. There was no guarantee of future support,” Siegel says. Students were often expected to teach two sections per semester, generally the most elementary language and writing courses. “Essentially, it was cheap teaching,” he says. “It wasn’t a good or beneficial experience for the student.”
Even with all their work, humanities and social-science students earned an average of $7,580 in 1992-93, placing Duke second from the bottom among fifteen leading private universities. Natural-science students ranked second-last, too, with an average stipend of $10,710. “The attrition rates were enormous,” Siegel says. “We were graduating only half the people who entered in the humanities and social sciences. This was a tremendous waste of human talents.”
Acknowledging the problems, the Graduate School developed a plan to support all incoming students for five years, provided they make a good-faith effort to obtain external support. Students still have to teach, but workloads have been reduced, and students are supposed to be given incrementally more challenging teaching responsibilities. On top of that, stipends were increased enough to place Duke in the middle of its peer universities. Next year, humanities and social-science students are expected to average $12,100, while their colleagues in the natural sciences will earn an estimated $17,000. The increase has already made a difference, Siegel says: Attrition has been cut in half.
To improve funding, the university has cut the number of arts-and-sciences doctoral students it admits. There are currently 1,100, down from a high of 1,250. Siegel expects the number to level out at about 1,000.
On top of this, some departments have been making special efforts to restore the best of the apprenticeship system. The political science department, for example, has implemented a Teaching Politics Certificate program, which allows students to pair up with faculty mentors who provide advice, criticism, and support during weekly meetings. Students in the program also attend workshops on such pedagogic issues as stimulating classroom discussion and respecting racial differences. “We regard our graduate students as junior colleagues rather than peons,” says John Brehm, the department’s director of graduate studies.
All the department’s students are fully funded at the same level, which fosters cooperation rather than competition. And the faculty works with students to make sure their research experience is relevant to their studies. “I haven’t had to do photocopying. I have had to get some books in the library. But for the most part, my research-assistant work has led to co-authored conference papers,” says Mark Berger, who worked with Brehm on a paper about the Watergate era and public trust in government. “I see what I’m doing now as totally the first step toward being a professor. It doesn’t pay much, which is unfair. But I’m not doing it for the pay.”
Berger is about to earn his Ph.D. Like many of his colleagues, he was anxious about the job market. “I had all the backup plans prepared,” he says. “I was going to go to New York and work on Wall Street.” But Berger never had to put Plan B into effect: He received three offers and accepted a tenure-track position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, teaching American politics. Now, looking back, he considers his experience at Duke nothing but positive. “When other schools have talked about unionization, and you heard what their situation was, they truly weren’t well-treated. Why shouldn’t they unionize?” By contrast, “it’s disgusting how well we’re treated here. There’s no reason why we should do it.”
But the Duke campus hasn’t been completely silent on the issue of graduate-student union organizing. Each year, the issue comes up among students who are frustrated by their funding levels and overwork. “Among the students in the humanities and social sciences—who have had the most legitimate complaints—there has been quite a lot of talking about it, and an overall realization that with labor laws in North Carolina and the amount of energy that people had to devote to organizations like that, it wasn’t going to happen right away,” says Michael Tino. “It really needed to be an effort that went past a small subset of graduate students.” Duke students have been in touch, however, with union leaders at other campuses.
And there have been less formal efforts at organizing. Several years back, University Writing Course instructors formed an alliance to push for higher salaries and compensation for their training time. More recently, a group of humanities and social-science students has been meeting to discuss labor and apprenticeship issues. There have been interdepartmental efforts, too. When it became known, for example, that some history professors were hiring students to do private work for $6.50 an hour, the department’s graduate students posted a sign inside their lounge, announcing they would refuse to work for less than $10.
Ultimately, many students and professors agree, change won’t come at a department level, or even a university level. There must be a recognition across the academy that the system needs an overhaul. Universities must reverse the practice of hiring adjunct teachers at the expense of tenure-track positions. And they must stop accepting Ph.D. students at a rate the market can’t support. If every graduate school in the country started mentoring students, and if graduate students everywhere formed unions, and if every professor helped students get published in refereed journals, it would still not correct the fundamental trend toward more doctorates and fewer jobs.
“Enough has been said about finding lifeboats,” says William Pannapacker of the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus. “Now let’s work together to save the ship.”