academia and inequality

I am one of those people who thinks that we should not encourage people to enter the academic profession unless they are extremely committed to scholarship and they show exceptional promise. This advice often triggers a reaction that is summarized as: “You are evil! You want to exclude poor people/minorities/women/others from academia!”

My response: encouraging an expansion of graduate education does not address most aspects of inequality and might make it worse in many cases. For example, there is a large scale gap between whites and blacks in terms of education, income, and wealth. Sending people to graduate school will not address this gap. There are many reasons: lots of people don’t finish the degree; huge opportunity costs; low paid adjunct work after graduation; accumulation of burdensome of debt; and the tenure track pays modestly compared to other professionals with similar qualifications. These trends suppress mobility.

In contrast, there lots of other professions that are much more likely to lead to good income and mobility. If we want to genuinely shrink the income gap between people of color and whites, for example, we are much wiser to encourage engineering and health science careers. You’ll get the degree in a few years and almost immediately jump higher in the income distribution. Way, way, way easier than going for that anthropology  PhD and hoping for a tenure track job 12 years later.

If we want to address inequality within academia (ie., increasing representation on the faculty), we should reserve our efforts for getting people through the PhD pipeline and into jobs. We shouldn’t cram more graduate students into the pipeline. We should actually ask the logical question: What can we do to ensure that students acquire the right skills in academia? How can we make sure that they develop the right networks, that lead to publication in the “right” journals, and thus lead to the “right” jobs?

Sadly, very little effort goes into this side of things. It’s easier to count minorities and women and yell, “not fair! we need more!” It’s much harder to confront tenured faculty (like myself), and say: “Why haven’t you co-authored with women (or minorities) so that they may have a shot at a good tenure track job?” Let’s put the brakes on enrolling more students into doctoral programs and take up the less glamorous, but more important task, of making sure that the ones in the system will actually have the best careers possible.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 2, 2013 at 12:02 am

21 Responses

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  1. Sometimes I think your posts on this should be accompanied by the graph of average salaries by degree. When you see how earnings for professional degrees dwarf earnings for PhDs and Masters the argument makes more sense.

    Alternately, you could get a bunch of us fifth-year graduate students to contribute posts about how many members of our cohorts dropped out after the first, week, month, etc. and how we’re confident those smart people have many fewer wrinkles, less gray hair, and fewer concerns about “marketability”.

    Here’s a link to a mean earnings graph from the Census, though I can’t recall if links work in your comments:


    Emily Kennedy

    May 2, 2013 at 12:29 am

  2. Thank you, Fabio! Now is the time when all of us who actually do the hard work of administrating departments as chairs and directors of graduate studies are dealing with this issue at a terminal level. No matter what the characteristics—over the last two decades, most of my problem students have been white heterosexual males. But, some minority students also don’t make the cut to justify continuing in a PhD program—even a rather humble one like our at SIU. Maybe I’m just a little butthurt by dealing with this several times this week, but for fuck’s sake, there is a life out there beyond sociology. If you basically are sucking at sociology, you are not going to do well, yet you may be a bust ass coordinator for a state institution, or a municipal government, or a political movement. It is frustrating that people don’t realize that they’d be happier if they got on with their lives in other arenas of work which suit them better.



    May 2, 2013 at 12:39 am

  3. I agree, but I think even your solution would only go so far. In the words of Liam Neeson, social science requires a very particular set of skills. Even for those of us who really knew what we were getting into, it is difficult to tell if we can actually “do research” until fairly late in the game. (Can I? Who knows?) Because of this, I think there will always be a regrettable amount of attrition, disappointment, and heartache involved in the enterprise.

    I think this is also the source of a lot of graduate student discontent with respect to perceived faculty support, or lack thereof. If Podolny is to be believed, then status is very much about one’s exchange partners. Faculty who are concerned with their academic reputation – which is to say, all of them – may be understandably hesitant to throw their full endorsement behind a graduate student until it is very clear that they are going to “make it.”



    May 2, 2013 at 12:57 am

  4. I think something that needs to be made very clearly to students is how hard it is to do research. I myself failed at completing a Senior Honors Thesis during my undergrad years (that looks real good on my transcript!) because I did not know how to ask a proper research question, and how to put data collection, methodology, and theory all together.

    I finally put it all together during my M.A. program and am very proud of my thesis because it actually manages to do things like asking a research question, performing a careful and appropriate data collection methodology, etc.

    I found that a lot of the other students in my M.A. program, for all the reading they had done, were unable to ask a research question – unfortunately, many people find it difficult to get past the stage where they are just repeating what they read, and graduate to “So-and-so claim X, but this claim seems very problematic in light of Y. I intend to address this problem by gathering data from Z and applying an alternative theoretic perspective A”

    Also, too many students just try to replicate the relatively fun-to-read ethnographies they read in undergrad classes even though they are not anywhere near ready to undertake such a task – nor have they become good enough writers to be another Howard Becker, nor have they found a good field site, nor, finally, have they asked a good research question.



    May 2, 2013 at 1:32 am

  5. …Except STEM majors don’t actually work out so well in reality:



    May 2, 2013 at 1:44 am

  6. … except that you’re kinda wrong. STEM is no golden ticket, but relative to other sectors, it clearly leads to more income and higher employment rates:



    May 2, 2013 at 2:21 am

  7. The point is that there IS no golden ticket. If there were, perhaps it would make sense to encourage students to pursue it. And it certainly does make sense to ensure that students have their eyes open about the likely outcomes of any path they may wish to pursue. But the idea that we should encourage students to study things they are not interested in so they can pursue careers they may not find fulfilling simply because the average salary is higher–without even asking them how important a higher salary is to them–misconceives our role as educators, advisers, and human being.



    May 2, 2013 at 2:29 am

  8. Mikalia: If one of our goals is to reduce inequality, then people should seriously consider career paths that would actually lead to higher income and employment … which reduces inequality! To do otherwise is contradictory.

    While we shouldn’t urge people to go into life courses that they would hate, we should definitely try to expand their imagination and see if they are suited for STEM fields. Maybe more people would enjoy STEM if they had better teachers. Maybe more low SES people could do better if we reached out better. A hell of a lot of promising students drop out of STEM after only a semester or two. And it’s usually women, people of color, and low SES/first generation college students. We need to do better.



    May 2, 2013 at 2:40 am

  9. Why are we defining inequality as resources and wealth only. Couldn’t Ph.D. programs for those on the lower rungs of a status hierarchy lead to lessening inequality in social, cultural, and human capital? And why wouldn’t that be enough?

    (Just playing devil’s advocate, as I mostly agree that the Ph.D. shouldn’t be seen as a vehicle of social mobility unlike, say, a M.B.A.



    May 2, 2013 at 5:19 am

  10. Reblogged this on Fathisaffar.



    May 2, 2013 at 5:46 am

  11. When I was talking with people about this a few years ago, it was my impression that there are at least two senses in which inequality is an issue in academia. One is that academia offers a desirable desirable lifestyle for many people and no one should be barred from its rewards because of their gender and ethnicity. As Fabio rightly points out, there are many other careers that can bring comparable rewards, and we should not present academia as a path from the margins of culture to the mainstream. Universities can be (and are) used as sites for the redistribution of privilege (by the redistribution of social capital) but they must not be confined to that function. That would lose site of the higher purpose of academia, namely, to increase the store of human knowledge, which is the primary purpose of academia.

    But the other reason to encourage greater equality in academia is to transform academia itself and our sense of what it means to “know” something along with it. This is the problem of those “dead, white males” who are used as models (exemplars) of “extremely committed” scholarship, and therefore define what “exceptional promise” means. I’ve heard this argument made very explicitly in regards to getting more women into top professorships: it would affect our sense of what counts as a high-quality research. For some that’s disturbing. For others it’s just obvious that knowledge can’t remain what white, European men have reinforced each other into thinking knowledge is for centuries.

    In my view, it makes sense to say that universities should populated (at all levels) in “representative” ways, and that knowledge is the conversation that emerges from this composition of the faulty and student body. The alternative is to believe that there is some unambiguous definition of knowledge, not attributable to entrenched gender and ethnic biases about what “intelligence” (as well as precocity and commitment) looks like, and that we should just keep selecting people who fit that bill.



    May 2, 2013 at 7:05 am

  12. I am interested in understanding more on this ,

    ” How can we make sure that they develop the right networks, that lead to publication in the “right”
    journals, and thus lead to the “right” jobs?” ..

    I would love to read more articles, elaboration, with examples specifically on this. People talk about what/why – but they don’t even mention about “how” of this. Now as you have taken up the torch in your hand to light up the way for academic. It will be great help to all those – who are pursuing or willing to pursue this path.



    May 2, 2013 at 10:46 am

  13. what’s the greater good? An aggregate of minorities pursuing what they love (e.g., non-STEM fields or academia) and not putting a large dent in economic inequalities, OR, tinkering with the statistical income distributions by strategically pushing more minorities into the fields with more payoff?

    I think the former is to be preferred. Sociologists love to look at summary statistics and make claims based on average differences across groups, but well-being and happiness is ultimately a phenomenon best-measured at the individual level. Arguments about population-level inequality often over-estimate its meaning for actual men and women on the ground. It’s your basic case of an ecological fallacy.



    May 2, 2013 at 3:33 pm

  14. I have got to say that I am not really comfortable taking in upon myself to discourage students from pursuing graduate work in sociology because I “know what is best for them.” Definitely important for students to make the decision with complete information, of course. I think a lot of the sorting out happens before the students get to us. I don’t think it is safe to assume that any kid who chooses graduate school would have been a smashing success in some other more lucrative field. At the same time, I don’t see graduate work sociology as an option for weaker students who are unlikely to succeed in other fields. Instead, I think most of the students who are considering graduate work in sociology are doing so because they are more passionate about it than they are for other things and/or they are better at sociology than they are at other things. My oldest kid is heading off to college in the fall to study music—and she is well aware of how tough that can be when it comes to guaranteed high income after her education is complete. But given her talent and passion for music, the last thing I would do is try to discourage her from achieving her dream. If all you are saying is that we should not encourage weak students who don’t have passion for academic work to go to graduate school, I am with you. But that kind of seems like a no-brainer to me.



    May 2, 2013 at 4:48 pm

  15. Rory – Respectfully, I couldn’t disagree more. I think it is absolutely imperative for you to paint an extremely realistic – and therefore somewhat bleak – picture of what an academic career entails for any student that asks. In other words, “discourage” them. If they fully grasp the implications and are still on board, great. That’s probably a really promising sign. Because I actually see very little informed self-sorting among students, as you have described it. I think what you get instead is a lot of “I’m not sure what to do with my life” and “I’ve always been good at school, so I’ll just keep doing that” mixed with a HEAVY dose of sampling on the dependent variable, since students are disproportionately more likely to observe, interact with, and seek advice from successful professors.

    I understand your apprehension about discouraging students. Nobody wants to be a dream crusher. But it is precisely this sentiment that contributes to students making serious life decisions with incomplete or inaccurate information. And I imagine that accurate information about the academic endeavor is even more difficult for some minority and low-SES folks to come by, since they may have fewer ties to that world (first in the family to go to college, for example).



    May 2, 2013 at 5:48 pm

  16. I think what you are suggesting is consistent with what I am saying. We should be providing students with full information and should not be encouraging students who don’t have the passsion or the skills. I just don’t want to see this pessimism about acadmic life taken so far that we are steering away people who might find this life as rewarding as I find it to be.



    May 2, 2013 at 6:00 pm

  17. this same topic seems to re-surface on this blog about once a week – same issue each time, but with a slightly different headline and a slightly different framing of the issue. aren`t there other topics for us orgheads to discuss? whatever we say this time will pop its head back up next week in slightly altered verbiage.



    May 2, 2013 at 6:04 pm

  18. Fabio, you need to remember that the students at different types of colleges are very different. I have tons of students who tell me they want to go to graduate school because they don’t know what to do with their lives, but not one of these students has ever mentioned getting a PhD. Those types want to get a masters in criminal justice or an MSW or a paralegal certificate or a nursing degree or something. The students who come talk to me about PhDs are passionate about research and are wondering what it is they can do to build a career in which research is what they get to do. Maybe your advice is the right advice for institutions with many adequate but directionless students–but the students who I work with have already dropped out of institutions like yours long before you’d have the chance to talk to them about graduate school (see Armstrong and Hamilton’s new “Paying for the Party”). But my students are very different–at colleges like mine, we enroll more transfer students, older students, veterans, and many more first-generation college students. More of my students attend part-time and work full-time. If our students are uninformed, it’s because they’ve never heard of a Ph.D., not because they think it’s a reasonable thing to do when you don’t know what to do with their lives. Anyway, reasonable information about the academic endeavor is not too hard to come by–I tell prospective PhD to read the Grad School Rulz and then we talk about their options.



    May 2, 2013 at 6:17 pm

  19. What Fabio’s argument misses is that given educational inequality in the U.S., STEM is precisely the sort of thing that minority students are ill-prepared to embark on. It is no coincidence that minority students gather to the humanities and social sciences. STEM is one of the toughest paths for ANYONE to pursue, let alone students at subpar, underfunded, abandoned elementary, high school, and sometimes undergraduate institutions. Discouraging the minority students who actually manage to navigate the minefield of education in the U.S. from pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology ignores all of the structural issues the “solution” is trying to fix in the first place. You can’t just fix the numbers (i.e. average income) by pushing students away from something they usually feel quite passionate about (i.e. majors that seem oriented towards challenging toe status quo) and is an improvement mobility wise on where many of them have come from, towards a set of fields (i.e STEM) that many have had poor preparation for given the educational inequality they’ve faced over the life course.



    May 2, 2013 at 6:51 pm

  20. For Hispanic men, Hispanic women, and African American women, the estimated lifetime earnings of a PhD are greater than the estimated lifetime earnings of professional degree holder. The much-touted professional-to-PhD earnings drop is limited to whites, Asian Americans, and African American men. See here:, Table A2

    If — and, taking Rory and others’ points, it’s a big if — the goal is to increase the earnings potential of students of color, using group averages as your sole predictor, it still doesn’t make sense to discourage all students of color from getting a PhD.

    That being said, I completely agree that the solution isn’t admitting additional PhD students. (And, at my university, students of color are not “add-ons:” they count against the department’s allocation of both slots and funding packages, just like any other student.)



    May 2, 2013 at 10:00 pm

  21. I agree with what others have said about not necessarily discouraging students who are passionate about sociology and want to get a PhD, but making sure that they have accurate information about what grad school and the job market and the profession are really like. In many cases, when I have had these conversations with students, they have decided they want to think more carefully about their career options, and I think that’s good. As much as I think it’s important to diversify sociology, I also think there are too many PhD programs, too much competition for low-paying tenure-track jobs, and too little information about non-academic career options. However, my experience so far with undergraduate students of color (I teach at a flagship public R1) is that they are much less interested in PhD programs – they tend to go for what they see as more pragmatic graduate programs in public policy, business, education, etc. So, I don’t know that there is really that much of an issue with dissuading students of color from going to social sciences/humanities PhD programs, as many have already dissuaded themselves.



    May 2, 2013 at 11:32 pm

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