Where Knowledge is Produced

Cities where research PhD's were awarded in 2013
Cities where research PhD’s were awarded in 2013

A favorite interview question for PhD program applicants goes as follows: “How do you feel about the idea of transitioning from a knowledge consumer to a knowledge producer?”  Because when you strip research doctoral programs down to their core mission,  they exist to produce not only knowledge producers, but new knowledge itself.

Some applicants have thought about this before, and others have not.  Whether or not they’ve considered the question previously, good conversation generally flows, particularly when chatting with the better applicants.

There are several ways to quantify the level of knowledge production.  One way is to simply count the number of research PhD’s that are produced.  In 2013, over 60,000 research PhD’s were awarded in the US. The map above shows PhD production by city in the mainland US.  These cities, collectively, are where the engines of knowledge production operate in the country.

Generally, when you count things that happen in cities, the counts in larger cities are higher than in smaller cities simply because more things happen where more people live and work.

Careful inspection shows that isn’t necessarily the case here.  Yes, southern California and the New York city areas produce a lot of knowledge, and have a lot of people.  But as you move across the map there are smaller cities that produce the same or even more PhD’s then nearby large cities.  For example, Boulder CO just north of Denver; Columbia MO sandwiched between the larger Kansas City and St. Louis metro areas; Austin TX west of nearby Houston, and Gainesville FL north of Miami.  Many more PhD’s are awarded in Cambridge MA than in Boston.

But the city producing the most PhD’s is Minneapolis MN, where over 2400 research PhD’s awarded in 2013.  That number is roughly divisible in thirds by the non-profit University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, and two for-profit schools, Capella and Walden Universities.

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Bill Targets Wasteful Spending On For-Profit Universities

In Senate hearings, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) argued that congress is failing to provide needed oversight for $32 billion in taxpayer money “squandered” by companies that run for-profit universities.

“So, student comes in, gets a maximum Pell grant, gets a Stafford Loan. The school gets the Pell Gant, the school gets the loan, the student drops out a year later. The school has the loan, the school has the Pell grant, and the student has the debt around his or her neck. They can’t discharge for bankruptcy, and they don’t have a degree to show for it. And they are worse off then when they began.”

This dismal process affects up to half of the students who enroll in for-profit universities every year:

“Enrolling students, and getting their federal financial aid, is the heart of the business, and in 2010, the report found, the colleges studied had a total of 32,496 recruiters, compared with 3,512 career-services staff members.”

The pending legislation, supported by the Obama administration, will empower the Department of Education with new regulations linking federal dollars to a university’s ability to demonstrate acceptable graduation rates and gainful employment of their students. For these reasons and until these issues are sorted out, Gradschoolmatch.com will only accept subscriptions from accredited non-profit universities and colleges for the benefit of our student subscribers.

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Graduate School: Education, Not Job Training

We’re noticing a significant uptick lately of rendering of the garb over the diminishing value of a graduate education. The negative view, beginning here, pivots largely around the argument that grad school has become something of a career dead-end, with some fields (eg, academic positions) in dire straits. And then there is the additional argument, not one I necessarily agree with, that the rising cost of higher education reflects a growing economic bubble that is bound to burst.

I attribute much of this negativity to our current state of economic stagnation. In past cycles, one could bivouac in graduate school to wait out the downturns, emerging with freshly minted credentials just as the economic storm was clearing. I think the wide-spread carnage of the current mess has deepened the uncertainty compared to prior cycles. This one looks like it will transcend the typical time it takes to earn a doctorate. We aren’t confident the storm will clear when we are through.  But other than that, not much else has changed.

Because the best reason to attend graduate school is, was and will always be because you are deeply interested in continuing your education and/or performing new research in subject matter XYZ. In all likelihood, irrespective of the field you enter, you will emerge with better writing, public speaking, and analytical skills along with specialized knowledge. The marketplace has always placed a high value on these attributes (pdf) and there is no reason to think that won’t continue. I strongly agree with what Roger Whitson has to say about this. Things are not as bad as they appear, but can also be improved.

I would add one caution to his superb advice to grad students that they acquire additional transferable skills while in grad school: Don’t get so thin in your effort that it compromises your ability to fully excel in your primary mission. At the end of grad school, excellence in effort and performance will always open more doors and more career possibilities than something less well achieved.

I’d also like to mention something rarely discussed about the skill set of the typical graduate school professor. When they excel, it is in teaching and research, not in career training. Prospective students should understand that most professors are ultra-specialists with little experience outside of the academy. That fact has far-reaching implications about what they can reasonably be expected to deliver in terms of job advice for their students.

Still, one way to recognize a good graduate program is the level of energy placed into exposing their students to the world of career possibilities. For example, the programs I’ve been involved with sponsor a parade of outside speakers and visitors from non-academic fields for their students throughout the year. Their students acquire a broader career perspectives. Sometimes I worry that we do this too well, that we aren’t doing enough to nudge our outstanding students toward academic careers.

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Is There A Higher Education Bubble?

Does the increasing student loan debt load carried by college students today represent an economic bubble? Probably not.

There’s a big flaw in the bubble argument, though: things may look grim for college graduates, but they’re much grimmer for people without a college degree. Though recent college grads are having a hard time finding a job, it’s much harder for recent high-school graduates, who have an unemployment rate of nearly twenty-two per cent. And the over-all unemployment rate for college grads is still, at 4.4 per cent, very low. More striking, the college wage premium—how much more a college graduate makes than someone without a degree—is at an all-time high. In fact, the spiralling cost of education has to some degree tracked the rising wage premium; as college has, in relative terms, become more valuable economically, people have become willing to pay more for it. It’s telling, in this regard, that the one period in the past sixty years when college-tuition costs flatlined was during the seventies, which also happened to be the one period when the college wage premium fell.

To be sure these are difficult times where the future is far from certain. But even in this climate, higher education still holds economic value…..not to mention the intrinsic value of, you know, an education.

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