Monday, May 31, 2004

Graduate education as a labor supply decision 

My blogchild John Bruce hits the nail on the head with this post on why people go to graduate school when the odds of a tenured professorship are low.
Economic decisions aren't necessarily conscious to the actors at the time they make them, but it seems to me that there's a rational basis for deciding to go to graduate school even in the face of poor academic career prospects. First, the time factor: if you're right out of college, this time is "cheap" insofar as you've got a lot of time left in your life, and you won't be sacrificing major earnings. Others, as some bloggers report they've done, find themselves out of work in bad times and may also see a period spent in graduate school re-tooling as "cheap" time if the alternative is unemployment or underemployment.

The other factor is risk. Measured against the chance of a tenure-track offer at a top-5 research school, the risk of graduate school is extremely high. But the Burkean "intensely bourgeois" tradeoff doesn't necessarily apply. Many bright and creative people go to graduate school and find, being creative, non-conformist, and non-bourgeois types themselves, that this economic goal doesn't suit them. That doesn't devalue the use of the training, especially the course work and other experience that lead to an ABD. Taking the purely anecdotal sample of my schoolmates who decided to take up writing careers at one or another time, it looks like the probability they could use their skills was fairly high -- and I believe they were making rational decisions in their choice to stay in grad school as long as they did, and to leave when they did.

Reflecting on my own history -- I blasted straight through from college (1979) to grad school, leaving in 1984 when the Reagan expansion was in full swing and academic jobs were easier to come by -- I note one consistent pattern. Those that left grad school for a non-academic post never came back. Those that came to grad school from the non-academic stayed, along with a few like me who came straight through. There is certainly an opportunity cost story at play within all this. Anyone who leaves a non-academic job for grad school probably has high demand for a graduate education. Since salaries in academia are not a secret (Oh they are? Pssssst! They're low!), those coming later in life reveal a preference for the academic life and its values -- whether they're bourgeois or not.

In my case 1979 was not a particularly good year to look for jobs, and having decided in my last semester not to go to law school it was the most attractive alternative. I did not think as a college senior that I would ever be an academic. I just wanted additional training in forecasting to go work at at a bank doing something other than sales. After bank deregulation in the early '80s, those research shops in banks closed up in order to reduce costs, and the rest is history...

The point being, none of those decisions were inspired by more than a cost-benefit analysis. If academia is a noble pursuit -- and if you read this site, you know the heap of doubt I have about this -- its nobility isn't what got me here.