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Carrie Welsh  00:01

This is the Ethics and Education podcast. I’m Carrie Welsh. Well, it’s late January, which means most grad school application deadlines are around now. And over the next few months, departments will be making admission decisions. But who really knows what they’re getting into when they apply to grad school? In this piece, we consider the question, What does informed consent look like when deciding on graduate school? We talked with Professor Bryan Warnick, a philosopher at the Ohio State University, about his paper, “The Ethics of Doctoral Admissions.” We also asked four PhD students their thoughts on grad school.

Bryan Warnick  00:55

I think we should think about informed consent in more specific ways more sophisticated ways, giving students a real, honest appraisal of what their future job prospects are, and also, what life will be like for them as graduate students. Will they have funding, how much work will be required? What is the dissertation like? What is the experience of being a graduate student like?

Grace Gecewicz  01:26

What do you know now that you wish you knew before entering your PhD program?

Garry Mitchell  01:33

I wish that I had known that not everyone in my program, and in my cohort was approaching their PhD journey as sort of an exploratory experience.

Pedro Monque  01:46

I wish I had known how emotionally difficult the first year would be.

Kathryn Joyce  01:51

I guess that I wish I knew more about the norms that govern seminars and what it means to be a really excellent philosopher.

Kirsten Welch  02:01

Something I wish I had known before I started my master’s program was the reality of imposter syndrome, and the extent to which I would feel that I was not prepared for graduate school.

Pedro Monque  02:18

My name is Pedro Monque. I’m a second year PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center in philosophy.

Garry Mitchell  02:24

My name is Garry Mitchell. I am a second year PhD student at the Ed School at Harvard.

Kathryn Joyce  02:30

My name is Katherine Joyce, and I’m a graduate student in philosophy at UC San Diego.

Kirsten Welch  02:37

My name is Kirsten Welch. I’m a first year doctoral student at Columbia Teachers College in  the philosophy and education program.

Bryan Warnick  02:45

My name is Bryan Warnick. I’m a professor of philosophy of education at the Ohio State University. I research questions in the ethics of education, the ethics of teaching, the ethics of educational policy, and the ethics of technology. My paper is titled, “The Ethics of Doctoral Admission.” So if you look at the data on graduate schools in the US–and worldwide, actually–universities are producing many more PhDs than there are available academic positions. And this is the cause of some concern across the country and across the world. Because it seems like we’re producing more PhDs than there is demand for, that many PhDs are entering the job market and finding the job market is closed for them. So I’m interested in thinking through the ethics of this issue from the perspective of graduate admissions faculty, how should we think about PhD admissions and graduate programs when we’re producing way too many PhDs than there are available academic positions?

Bryan Warnick  03:45

So I identify, in my paper, two major ethical problems that might be presented with this practice. First of all, it can be thought of as universities perpetuating a type of harm on students, universities are deceiving students, they are holding out false hope. They’re presenting students with a vision of opportunities that just aren’t there. Many PhD graduates have kind of voiced this concern; they’re angry that graduate programs have led them on to thinking they would get an academic position.

Bryan Warnick  04:16

The second ethical concern has to do with the allocation of resources, it’s often very expensive to operate a PhD program. So the objection to graduate admissions is we’re producing too many PhDs. And the resources would be better served if we reallocated those resources to undergraduate programs and made universities more accessible and open and cheaper by saving costs in this way. So those are the two ethical problems.

Bryan Warnick  04:40

And people said, Well, what we should do then is limit the size of graduate programs and the number of graduate programs. We don’t want to produce as many PhDs. This has been called academic birth control. We want to limit the birth of PhDs into the world and that’s kind of our ethical requirement in this situation. So that’s kind of one possibility, academic birth control. The other possibility is reformation of PhD programs. Make PhDs more responsive to the actual market demands. And that’s not always academic research positions, so it might be more teaching focused. Or it might be preparing PhDs to be better equipped to work for corporations or other businesses.

Bryan Warnick  05:21

The gist of my paper is arguing against the academic birth control argument, that, first of all, it can be paternalistic. If we’re saying to students that, ‘No, no, you can’t enter a PhD program, because you don’t know what’s good for you, you really won’t get a job, this is a bad decision,’ that seems paternalistic. And we tend to reject that and paternalism in our societies. PhD programs are not always oriented towards preparing students for academic positions. There’s a lot of different reasons for entering a PhD program. It could be personal or professional enrichment. So we should keep doctoral programs open for these sorts of students. But also the question, “So why should we subsidize PhD programs if it’s really just for personal enrichment?” and I think that’s because graduate programs, graduate students contribute to the university in sometimes unexpected ways, that they contribute to the teaching enterprise of universities. Graduate students are often very good teachers better so–and this is a dirty secret–better so than sometimes tenured faculty. And also, they contribute to the research enterprise of the university by engaging faculty with new ideas, new perspectives, new connections to the larger world. So I think there’s both paternalistic reasons to avoid academic birth control. And also, we don’t want to do that for the sake of the good of the university.

Bryan Warnick  06:48

But that doesn’t mean everything is okay. There’s still some reforms to graduate programs that we need to implement. I think that we need to borrow from bioethics and medicine and think through what informed consent means for entry into graduate programs. I think we should think about informed consent in more specific ways, more sophisticated ways, giving students a real, honest appraisal of what their future job prospects are, and also, what life will be like for them as graduate students, will they have funding? How much work will be required? What is the dissertation like? What is the experience of being a graduate student like?

Bryan Warnick  07:27

My second suggestion is to reform the experience of the PhD program. We can give all the informed consent that we want, but our preferences will change throughout graduate programs, we might change, we might decide we want an academic position where we didn’t coming in, or we might decide we don’t, when we did coming in. What I think this implies is that graduate programs PhD programs specifically should apply should open up alternative pathways, multiple pathways for students. And that involves helping them see the how their skills that they develop in the PhD program might be transferable to a job market, to talk about their skills in market-sensitive ways, and also to actually give them more skills. We need to make the dissertation more of a valuable document, something that speaks to the larger public instead of four members of the dissertation committee. We need to just make graduate programs more humane, more public focused, and more sensitive to market realities outside of academia. And I think if we do that, that will go a long way to meeting some of the ethical concerns that drive us to worry about this overproduction of PhDs. One question that came up was about if we open up alternative pathways through PhD programs, have we introduced a element of tracking in our PhD programs? Will some students be relegated to less prestigious tracks? And I think that’s a that’s a wonderful question. I don’t think we really know what would happen in those sorts of circumstances. I will say, we do know what would sometimes happen, at least with the academic birth control, is that the admissions would become much more selective, there would be fewer opportunities for PhD studies. And when when PhD programs become more selective, they often rely on dubious measures of pseudo objectivity like the GRE. And that’s not good for diversity. And it’s not good for nontraditional students who might be entering the first of their families to enter graduate school, that sort of thing.

Kathryn Joyce  09:43

So I really liked Bryan’s paper. I think you’re often in a strange position when undergraduates come to you and tell you how much they love philosophy and you really want to encourage and nurture their interest. But at the same time, you feel a little guilty about doing that, if becoming a philosophy major and going on to grad school is really not a very promising path for them. In philosophy, I think we’re pretty bad at marketing the skills we have, as opposed to the actual work we do. And the specialties we have in philosophy, I think we’re often really good at communicating ideas and crafting arguments, analyzing arguments, analyzing very difficult texts. But that doesn’t, people don’t know that about philosophers. And so even though we might be qualified for some other jobs, nobody knows it. So that’s a way we could improve in philosophy. But at the same time, I just feel really lucky to be in philosophy grad school, I really love it. And even though it’s really hard sometimes and I worry about the job market, I think he’s right that it would be a real loss to cut off that possibility for people who want it despite the risks.

Kirsten Welch  11:05

So one of the questions that I left the discussion with was the extent to which the responsibility for informed consent and creating alternative pathways should be on graduate programs themselves. And to what extent those responsibilities should be geared towards undergraduate advisors and faculty who are mentoring undergraduates. In my experience, I know a lot of graduate students who go to graduate school just because they don’t know what else to do. And it seems to me there’s really important ethical questions that need to be addressed with the way that undergraduates think about the options that are open to them as a result of their humanities majors, or their study in the humanities, that don’t necessarily involve going to graduate school.

Pedro Monque  12:05

You know, surprisingly enough, I think my initial reaction to a question, “what’s the purpose of a PhD?” is not just producing professors. I think it’s symptomatic of how sort of misguided or perhaps how, how much emphasis has been put on placing people in the professoriate, the research itself and the transformational effect that that kind of research that, that research can have on your life, I think. As I think about why I actually did the PhD, and why I chose to enter it, it was not to become a professor. It was not really to gain professional skills that I could then use in fields other than academia. But I think I had and I still have this faith that through exploring these questions about justice, I thought it would give me direction in life. So the academic pursuit was not just something I would do to write a book, publish an article, or to eventually get a professor position, but something that I thought would better let me know what it is that I want to do with my life. And maybe that’s a lot to ask from a PhD program. But it’s what I’m going for, I think, and I’m optimistic.

Garry Mitchell  13:21

I think I, I had this idealized vision of what a PhD program was supposed to be. And so when I applied, I was coming to it with this backdrop that I sort of garnered in undergrad, studying African and African American Studies. And so I was thinking about, you know, like W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, and like all these other public intellectuals, and I was just like, I have all these ideas and thoughts and a PhD. program will provide me the space and the time to really critically analyze what it is that I’ve been wondering about. So I thought that the purpose of a PhD program really was to gain sharper, deeper, and more nuanced understanding around the questions that I had. And I also thought that it was about community building and to have the opportunity to be in conversation with professors and other students who had all the same burning questions or adjacent burning questions. I think now I think differently about the purpose of a PhD program, and I think about it in terms of preparing people to enter the professoriate and become academics. And while I appreciate that, I think that there is a missed opportunity for preparing people to be public intellectuals. I think that that’s a tradition that we’ve lost as a society and one that desperately needs to be revitalized, in my opinion. And so I wish that when we talked about ‘publish or perish,’ and we talked about sort of the products that were expected to, to produce as graduate students, there was more of a focus and emphasis on ways that you are going to contribute to the thinking of the public.

Grace Gecewicz  15:27

We’ll do one quick, final question so you can get back. What do you think the purpose of a PhD program is?

Bryan Warnick  15:36

Well, I just said that imposing meaning on the PhD would be paternalistic in some sense. So now I’m a bit reluctant to answer that question. I think it is to prepare students for advanced…to immerse them in advanced study. And there will often be a rigorous research component to that, you know, that’s not necessarily to prepare them for research oriented jobs. But it will, I think, the meaning it’s one of the important meanings of the PhD is you are a creator of ideas. You’re a creator of knowledge, you’re not just a receiver of what other people have thought. And I think that’s what makes that underlying value of the PhD is a creator of ideas, is what gives it its potent potential to transform the world not only by reproducing professors, but by having a larger impact on the world.

Carrie Welsh  16:42

Thanks for listening. And thanks especially to Bryan, Pedro, Gary, Kathryn and Kirsten for sharing their perspectives. We make these audio pieces to help think better about ethical questions. For more information, visit the Center for Ethics and Education website. This piece was mixed and edited by Kellen Sharp and produced by me, Carrie Welsh, and Grace Gecewicz.