Graduate school in a New Ice Age





At the end of the 1960s, large parts of the academic economy collapsed. For a decade or more, universities had enjoyed prosperity: Fellowships and salaries rose, new libraries and labs provided decent working space, and those who finished their Ph.D.s often chose among multiple job offers.
Suddenly all occasions conspired against us. The economy turned sour. The anti war movement and everything that went with it made students and faculty less popular in many respectable circles. Foundations that had poured money into higher education turned to new causes. Private universities that had been rapidly expanding faculty and programs stopped; and cut; and cut again.

In 1972, The New York Times reported on thousands of historians fighting for the jobs — fewer than 200 of them — on offer at the American Historical Association. Young scholars competed bitterly, while senior scholars echoed Andrew Mellon as they called for the liquidation of lesser graduate programs.

Graduate programs in the humanities had traditionally offered only modest support, economic or professional. Life was cheap: In those days, Princeton’s grad students told the University not to bother building extra housing since they had access to plenty of modest-rent apartments. Many students worked their way through at least part of graduate school, pouring beer, driving taxis or washing glassware in a lab. Others borrowed money — in very modest amounts, by today’s standards. When it came time to write a thesis or go on the job market, the student simply did so, often with very little detailed guidance. The system gave its inhabitants a certain freedom — and not much else. So long as jobs awaited, it seemed to work.

But as prices rose, wages fell and jobs vanished, the old assumptions became more and more detached from lived reality. ...

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