Colloquial wisdom says that during economic recessions, more people turn to graduate school as a way out of the battle over fewer and less savory jobs. It's not clear whether this is actually happening during our current downturn; some reports show applications on the rise, while others suggest decreased interest in accumulating debt or losing out on years of earning potential.
For those who pursue graduate school--and especially doctoral study--in the hopes of one day securing an academic or research position in their field, the question hinges more on what effect the current downturn is having and will continue to have on the academic environment. The news, grim as it is, isn't all bad.
First, it's no surprise to anybody that universities have been trending away from tenure-track positions for years. Recent studies show that up to 70 percent of faculty at public and private universities are either adjunct instructors or non-tenure track full-timers, and this was before the recession led to faculty hiring freezes at major colleges and universities nationwide.
It's still too early to tell what long-term impact this will have on academia, though even in times of plenty there are more superbly qualified newly minted academics than there are available positions. Institutional reaction to the recession is likely to widen the disparity. As William Pannapacker, an Associate English professor at Hope College, explains,
Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members.
May the Fates forgive and protect me for saying this, but it's possible a more "austere" academic environment will have a positive impact, if not on emerging academics, then on the pursuit of scholarly research and the progress of Big Ideas. Academics who want a secure place in the ivory tower will increasingly need to rely on their ability to network and, more importantly, collaborate with other researchers. They will need--and want--to provide regular evidence of valuable scholarly work, and they may work to present themselves as innovators and crafters of important work. It's even possible that the days of the ivory tower are over, for good, for real this time.
At the same time, there will be a new crew of public intellectuals and entrepreneurs built out of those who choose (or, all right, are forced) to leave academia; these people, we can hope, may find ways to parlay their research into innovative and useful products across a variety of disciplines.
There is, of course, a real danger that this need for academics to present themselves as creative and resourceful--and able to produce--could lead to a corporate mindset across research environments; that researchers would be pushed even harder to produce results instead of ideas; that instead of risking their careers with a shift in focus or research interests they stick with the more familiar path. During times of recession, however--and this recession in particular--there is a sense that the CEO mindset isn't working. A real sentiment exists that whatever we did to keep America on top for so long, led by production-oriented CEOs in almost every corporate domain, led to our economic downfall.
The political climate does seem prepared to support a pro-intellectual move. I was recently discussing the inauguration of President Obama with a friend from the UK who came to America after completing his own doctoral work at Oxford University. "It's going to take years," he said, "to undo the damage Bush did to your country. You can see the effect he had on businesses, on schools...in almost every area.
"But this is the 'new America'," he continued, trailing off as he looked off into the distance. The new America! I think he's right, though I suppose only time will tell.