The value of a doctorate

In their Christmas issue, The Economist included a special feature on PhDs, arguing that they may be a relatively poor choice for many people. The article contains some interesting nuggets:

  • “[U]niversities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009—higher than the average for judges and magistrates.”
  • “PhD students and contract staff known as “postdocs”, described by one student as “the ugly underbelly of academia”, do much of the research these days. There is a glut of postdocs too… Dr Freeman concluded from pre-2000 data that [I]f American faculty jobs in the life sciences were increasing at 5% a year, just 20% of students would land one. In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax—the average salary of a construction worker. The rise of the postdoc has created another obstacle on the way to an academic post. In some areas five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a secure full-time job.
  • “In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%.”
  • “Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.”
  • “In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.”
  • “Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else.”

All this relates to the earlier discussion here about the recession and the value of grad school.

I do personally see appeal in doing a doctorate, but much of the appeal comes from the possibility of 2-5 more years of student life. Working full time for more than three years has definitely given me more appreciation for the lifestyle of students – cash-strapped though it may be.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

75 thoughts on “The value of a doctorate”

  1. The article also states “Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.”

    I wonder how the relative percentage of Ph.D.s per population has changed. As the relative number of Ph.D.s increase (ie the supply increases), they will intrinsically have less value.

    It is an interesting approach taken by the Economist to compare the relative financial advantage of acquiring a Ph. D. At the Ph.D. level, I think the student basically is not so much teaching, but becoming self-taught. Therefore I suggest replacing she term “student” at that point with “candidate”.

    If the Ph.D. candidate is seeking a Ph.D. to improve her/his financial position, then she/he probably should seek to study something that would translate to a financial advantage. If the candidate chooses something that does not, then the candidate has probably accepted that the area of study will not result in financial advantage. I expect the candidate is aware of that before she/he embarks on that journey. I then do not see the basis of a complaint of being underpaid.

    Perhaps the construction work who enters a well-paid field because it is well-paid has a clearer perspective. That worker is also likely to work in an area that someone is prepared to compensate well for.

  2. I do think students entering doctoral programs are sometimes mislead about how easily they will be able to find desirable academic jobs afterward.

    The article describes that: “One female student spoke of being told of glowing opportunities at the outset, but after seven years of hard slog she was fobbed off with a joke about finding a rich husband.”

  3. To Oleh:

    Yes, PhDs involve independent research & are thus distinct from taught courses. However, supervision makes a vast difference, including often determining someone’s topic, their funding, and whether or not they graduate at all, so I think it’s inaccurate to describe a PhD as “self-taught”.

    “If the candidate chooses something that does not, then the candidate has probably accepted that the area of study will not result in financial advantage. I expect the candidate is aware of that before she/he embarks on that journey.” In my experience (with friends & colleagues in the UK, US and Canada) this is simply untrue. I’ve never yet met a PhD who was aware of this kind of data about their field before they started, and people considering a PhD rarely get neutral & informed advice from anyone around them – tenure-track academics provide a very positively biased picture (whether by accident or design), and friends & family don’t have the information. My suspicion is that significantly fewer people would embark on PhDs if they knew how low the probability is of graduating, or of getting an academic job, and just how little financial benefit the PhD would provide.

  4. From Milan “I do think students entering doctoral programs are sometimes mislead about how easily they will be able to find desirable academic jobs afterward.”

    From Sarah “I’ve never yet met a PhD who was aware of this kind of data about their field before they started, and people considering a PhD rarely get neutral & informed advice from anyone around them – tenure-track academics provide a very positively biased picture (whether by accident or design), and friends & family don’t have the information.”

    These related comments reflect an unfortunate situation. The academic world prides itself on intellectual honesty. I think the academic world should be forthright to those considering about embarking on a PhD about the post-doctoral prospects or lack of prospects.

    I wonder if one of the problems is that the tenured academic, who has a secure position, simply ignores the reality that there are few such positions fro PhD candidates at the end of their doctoral journey. It is certainly a great position if one can get a tenured academic position (clean work, limited working hours, good vacations, intellectual challenge, secured position, good pay). It just seems that many do not and then get frustrated.

    I hope it is not because the tenured academic, either consciously or unconsciously, wants the continued stream of labour that the PhD candidates provide.

  5. Oleh, there’s an important distinction between tenure-track and tenured academics. Tenure-track academics generally have far higher workloads, because they won’t get tenure (i.e. they will likely be fired in a few years & have to start over in a new career) unless they publish a great deal and get good student evaluations, so there are very long working hours, minimal vacations, dubious job security, and lower pay. Tenured academics no longer have the pressure to publish and can’t be fired even if their teaching is lousy, so they do far less work in return for far more pay. I think it’s true that tenured academics have a great job, but often not true of tenure-track academics (especially the people with such a high teaching load that they don’t have time for research & won’t get tenure). So, yes, there are a large number of candidates competing for a few tenure-track jobs, but those tenure-track jobs still aren’t great for a good few years. When you take into account the pressures that tenure-track academics are under it’s easier to understand why they’re so keen to have bright PhDs taking some of their teaching & research load.

  6. The incentives are not aligned to provide prospective PhD candidates with accurate labour market information. The main source of information for these people is the existing faculty, who benefit tremendously from having PhD students around to:
    – reduce their teaching burden, in two ways: first, professors get as much credit for running a four-student graduate seminar as a 300-student first-year lecture. Second, PhD students carry much of the teaching and grading load.
    – provide them with intellectual stimulation.
    – increase their publication volume (doctoral students do a lot of the research scutwork for professors in exchange for credit towards their dissertation and/or co-authorship credits).

    I don’t think existing faculty are lying when they encourage new bright students to become PhD candidates; they just have no incentive to find out and broadcast the truth: in many fields, unless (or sometimes even) if you’re going to the very best schools, your chances of landing a tenure-track job are miniscule, and you may have to put in years in the low-paid part-time/sessional/adjunct/postdoc trenches teaching for almost nothing, none of which guarantees any further likelihood of success. Most people in my field who finished PhDs, including me, did not land an academic job, and now hold positions that don’t require them.

  7. Sarah, Thank you for pointing out that distinction. It is quite true taht those with tenure are in quite different positions than those without and seeking it.

    I generally do not agree with the present system where the universities focus on “publish or perish” for those seeking tenure. I would also prefer if the focus was on the ability to teach and inspire.

    Also I generally am not in favour if one of the consequences is complacency towards teaching, especially after you acquire tenure. I know of academics who quite frankly advise that they do not like to teach. Sorry but that this a big part of their job . Perhaps the universities could provide 5 year contracts instead and with ability to teach and inspire as a principal requirement for renewal.

    (I also have concerns that seniority determines security of employment for public school teachers. Good for the teachers, especially the 5-15% who are very ineffective. Bad for the students of those ineffective teachers.)

    (Milan, a potential subject for you in a future blog are the ideas of merit pay for teaching. I don’t think that is a big solution as I don’t think that will make as big a difference as having a mechanism for review through which ineffective teachers are culled out of the system).

    The exception might be where outside sources are prepared to fund research. I except that will apply more to government and corporate funding and therefore more toward health, the sciences and engineering,

    One of the original purposes of tenure (the protection of freedom of expression) is probably not so necessary.

  8. One other reason why doing a doctorate could be useful would be because of the people you would meet. That would be especially true at a school like MIT or Harvard.

  9. Two and a bit years into a PhD, I have no illusions about the job prospects. I am not doing a PhD to get a job or improve my pay. I am doing it because I would be obsessing over these questions wherever I was, and this way, I can turn my obsessions into something (hopefully) a little more useful and so might end up with a slightly larger soapbox to stand upon at the end.

  10. A doctoral thesis

    SIR – We would like to challenge many of the assertions and “research” presented as evidence in your argument that “doing a PhD is often a waste of time” (“The disposable academic”, December 18th). Although some poor practices still exist, monitoring and mentoring systems have swept away much of the abuse that did undoubtedly occur in the past. Most institutions now monitor submission times, career destinations and earnings. The lack of permanent contracts is a trend throughout the professional world, not just in academia.

    The PhD at research-intensive universities is a strong foundation for developing and managing the information society. Society needs highly trained critical thinkers to tackle complex problems with rigour and research skills. PhD graduates seek employment in academia, but also in research in the public, voluntary or private sectors and in a range of non-research jobs where they must analyse large amounts of evidence for complex decision-making. In Britain, less than 50% of researchers become academics. Hence there is no point in using manpower planning in the academic sector as the sole guide for PhD recruitment.

    Moreover, it has long been known that there is no premium for undertaking a PhD. Few undertake a doctoral programme for monetary gain.

    David Bogle
    University College London
    On behalf of the steering group of the League of European Research Universities Doctoral Studies Community

    SIR – Discouraging the pursuit of the PhD degree would have serious adverse impacts on our ability to advance as a society—economically, technologically and culturally. Indeed, your own newspaper regularly touts the importance of scientific and technological advances in medicine, agriculture, energy and more. Our higher-education system of “apprentices” working with faculty is an important factor behind these advances.

    Barbara Knuth
    Dean of the Graduate School
    Cornell University
    Ithaca, New York

    SIR – Who better to comment on the uselessness of doctoral degrees than an American pursing a PhD in Canadian studies? Many articles are written suggesting that graduate school is a waste of time; there are web comics (such as Piled Higher and Deeper) devoted to the difficulties that doctoral candidates encounter with their advisers; and there are people who are stuck in an endless loop of proposals, grants, unsuccessful experiments, etc. But I love what I do. I have the opportunity to teach and lecture. My adviser is supportive. I can spend all day thinking and reading books, and that is OK as it is my job.

    A doctoral degree is a choice, just like any other career path. There are other people who have bad bosses and boring dead-end jobs with no clear means of escape. It might be more useful to direct advice towards those people, who are limited or constrained in some way, rather than doctoral candidates who can leave their programmes and do something else if they are dissatisfied with the process.

    Amanda Murphy

    SIR – Scholarly learning or academic training is useless without either market demand or real-life applicability. The self-willed existence of redundant PhD programmes mirrors academic isolationism, anachronism and narcissism. It’s time the academic world rethought the sustainability of the PhD system and reformed it in the best interest of both the gowns and the towns.

    Daan Pan
    Chino Hills, California

    SIR – I am reminded of my very wise professor’s words of wisdom: the PhD student is someone who forgoes current income in order to forgo future income. Years later, that sage insight seems to have been borne out by the more recent evidence.

    Paul Greenberg
    Managing principal
    Analysis Group

  11. Despite the many reasons to be skeptical about the amount of time and foregone wages associated with a doctorate, it is an option I am seriously considering. It would be really nice to get back into an academic environment, and I think useful work on climate can be done there.

  12. University degrees are still correlated with higher income in Canada:


    It would be interesting to see the data when controlled for other factors, such as parental income.

  13. It’s newer than the most recent data I had seen before this, and it is Canada-specific as well.

  14. THERE’S a debate going on (Sarah Lacy on Peter Thiel, William Deresiewicz, Annie Lowrey, Matthew Yglesias and even our own Schumpeter and Lexington) about whether the American higher-education market is failing, perhaps in the way the housing market failed (leaving average people with huge overhangs of debt for assets that turn out not to be worth what they thought they were worth), or perhaps in the way the health-care system is failing (sucking up an ever-bigger slice of the national income for services that don’t seem to be providing significantly higher value). Brad DeLong writes that he doesn’t understand why competition in higher education doesn’t seem to work to keep prices down: why doesn’t Yale cut tuition by $5,000 per year to suck top students away from Harvard, or why doesn’t Berkeley offer an out-of-state programme for an extra $3,000 per year to suck top students away from the Ivies?

  15. why doesn’t Yale cut tuition by $5,000 per year to suck top students away from Harvard
    Haven’t had a chance to read the linked article, but seems to me that this is pretty straightforward. I’m sure there’s a technical economic term for it, but the perceived value of university education (particularly at postgraduate level, I suspect) is intimately tied to the reputation of the institution, which in turn is affected by how much they charge. Put simply, if Yale were to drop their fees, prospective students would write down the value of a Yale degree.

  16. A somewhat perverse counterpoint to inferior goods can be found in Veblen goods. Named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, these are products for which the demand actually rises as the price does. This is essentially on account of their exclusivity. People buy Velben goods (such as Rolls Royce cars and $50,000 cell phones) precisely to demonstrate that they can. Of course, this makes them a godsend for those hoping to part status conscious rich suckers from some of their wealth.

  17. “If you want to get laid, go to college; if you want to get educated, go to the library.”

    -Frank Zappa

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  19. Schumpeter
    Angst for the educated
    A university degree no longer confers financial security

    Sep 3rd 2011 | from the print edition

    MILLIONS of school-leavers in the rich world are about to bid a tearful goodbye to their parents and start a new life at university. Some are inspired by a pure love of learning. But most also believe that spending three or four years at university—and accumulating huge debts in the process—will boost their chances of landing a well-paid and secure job.

    Their elders have always told them that education is the best way to equip themselves to thrive in a globalised world. Blue-collar workers will see their jobs offshored and automated, the familiar argument goes. School dropouts will have to cope with a life of cash-strapped insecurity. But the graduate elite will have the world at its feet. There is some evidence to support this view. A recent study from Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce argues that “obtaining a post-secondary credential is almost always worth it.” Educational qualifications are tightly correlated with earnings: an American with a professional degree can expect to pocket $3.6m over a lifetime; one with merely a high-school diploma can expect only $1.3m. The gap between more- and less-educated earners may be widening. A study in 2002 found that someone with a bachelor’s degree could expect to earn 75% more over a lifetime than someone with only a high-school diploma. Today the premium is even higher.

    But is the past a reliable guide to the future? Or are we at the beginning of a new phase in the relationship between jobs and education? There are good reasons for thinking that old patterns are about to change—and that the current recession-driven downturn in the demand for Western graduates will morph into something structural. The gale of creative destruction that has shaken so many blue-collar workers over the past few decades is beginning to shake the cognitive elite as well.

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  21. Technocrats and democracy

    Have PhD, will govern

    THE markets first welcomed, then worried about the appointment of academic economists as prime ministers of Greece and Italy. Much political commentary traced the same trajectory. But the technocratic response to the euro’s problems is only part of a wider reaction to the financial and economic crisis: in many countries, the crisis has paralysed significant parts of the political system, leading to innovations and improvisations that try to short-circuit or patch up the normal working of democracy.

    Perhaps the best example of this is the so-called “super committee” in the United States. Normally, all fiscal decisions are made by Congress, with the approval of the president. But by November 23rd, a special committee made up of three Democrats and three Republicans from each house of Congress, has to slice a mammoth $1.5 trillion off the budget deficit over ten years. Congress must then vote on whatever the super committee proposes—but may only accept or reject the plan as a whole. It may not amend the plan or vote on individual items, as is usual. And if Congress rejects the package, or the super-committee fails to come up with one, then the $1.5 trillion of cuts will be imposed automatically. American politicians, despairing of their inability to reduce the deficit in normal ways, have put a gun to their own heads. There have been partial precedents in American history but nothing quite like this.

  22. The way I see it, the most valuable thing about doing a doctorate is probably the opportunity to spend another five years in an academic environment.

    The academic world is a uniquely wonderful place, in that you are allowed to disagree with people there and you don’t need to worry excessively much about what third parties like voters or advertisers think of your ideas (unlike politics or journalism). You can simply do research and argue your position with the best evidence and reasoning you can muster, in an environment of open and energetic communication.

  23. It seems any time I lament the lousy employment prospects for today’s youth, I hear the same thing – that it’s the same for every generation. Except it’s not. Not only are today’s university graduates competing with each other for jobs, they’re competing with those who graduated ahead of them and who picked up a few years of experience before being laid off in the last recession. And they’re also fighting a relatively new phenomenon: the older worker.

    Canadians 60 and older have accounted for about one-third of all job gains since the economic recovery started in July, 2009. Beyond that, boomers are staying on their jobs beyond the age of 65 for a variety of reasons – some because they need the money, others because they can’t picture themselves retiring to some gated community like, well, old people.

    This would all be fine except being young and graduating during tough economic times can have long-time consequences.

    A 2006 Canadian study considered university-employer-employee data from 1982 to 1999 to evaluate the long-term impact of graduating in a recession. It was a period that covered two recessions, in fact, both as, or more, severe than the one we’ve just been through.

  24. Mr. Boldt, who now teaches freshman composition at the University of Georgia, fell into the adjunct ranks in 2011. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 2003, Mr. Boldt worked for five years as a manager of a Whole Foods store. Then, while he was earning his master’s degree in English at Eastern Kentucky University, he took a position as a graduate teaching assistant. He quickly discovered he enjoyed teaching, and was able to land an adjunct faculty position at Eastern Kentucky as soon as he completed his master’s program.

    But the disheartening economic reality soon set it in. Burdened by $30,000 in student-loan debt, Mr. Boldt says he realized that working as an adjunct professor would not be a sustainable career path. He recognized that many of his colleagues were in a similar position—that is, chasing after adjunct positions that paid less than the wages of the stock crew he had supervised at Whole Foods.

    Mr. Boldt says his desire to organize on behalf of adjuncts began with a simple bureaucratic inconvenience he encountered during his first year teaching at Eastern Kentucky: The last paycheck of the fall semester was issued on December 15 and the first paycheck of the spring did not arrive until February 15.

  25. Although non-tenure-track positions now constitute almost 70 percent of all faculty appointments, there is little comprehensive national data about their pay and benefits. As Mr. Boldt’s project illustrates, adjunct compensation varies widely, but it is often well below the pay of full professors. While full professors tend to have duties, like advising and research, that adjuncts often do not, many adjuncts nevertheless feel they embody a lower class in academe.

  26. Doctoral students at Canada’s universities seem to be displaying quite a bit of angst lately, judging by the general response to a number of items on our website over the past several months.

    Last fall, for example, I wrote a blog post and accompanying news story that questioned whether the country was producing too many PhDs. The articles also raised the issue of whether graduate students were being adequately prepared for careers outside academia, considering that perhaps only one in four or five graduates will eventually land a full-time academic position. Judging from the tweets and comments, the articles seemed to hit a nerve, with many readers nodding in the affirmative.

    A recent opinion piece on times to completion in doctoral programs, by Dalhousie University associate dean of graduate studies Sunny Marche, also ramped up the angst meter. Dr. Marche observed that the longer it takes for students to complete their doctoral programs, the more detrimental it is to them and the greater the risk of them not finishing. He said his university is now taking a more proactive approach and at the five-year mark will “ring the bell” advising doctoral students to get a move on to complete their PhD program.

    That column, too, uncovered much underlying anxiety, in this case about the pressures of family commitments, the quality of supervision, the adequacy of funding and other resources, and so on. “How is this discourse,” asked one commenter, “promoting a healthy atmosphere for PhD students who are constantly scrambling to do everything they are expected of and still complete in a timely fashion?”

  27. Why I chose not to get a PhD

    Then, the proverbial last straws. I went to a AAA meeting and on the job board were four or five lonely looking position announcements for very low paying positions (as they usually are), seeking scholars of a few countries in Africa. The next factor was watching from a distance as the USC anthropology department was fielding applications for a new position. There were not dozens of applications – there were hundreds, and from people with long publishing histories, all from the top tier programs at the time.

    I realized quickly after that I could not justify continuing on with more graduate school. The math was fairly stark: Endure additional crushing debt load, to take that fairly small chance that I might get job I want, at a salary that would barely cover my debt, rent and food, in an environment that I really didn’t like all that much.

  28. So I’m a doctor – now what? Post-PhD career choices

    The road to a PhD is long and hard, and it’s natural that students’ goals for the future would change over the course of their education. Anecdotal evidence abounds – just ask anyone who’s been through it – and now a study published last week in PLoS ONE shows that students close to graduation are less interested in pursuing faculty careers than are their younger counterparts.

    The authors, Henry Sauermann from Georgia Institute of Technology and Michael Roach from University of North Carolina, investigated the attractiveness of different careers to over 4,000 PhD students at different stages in their training in the life sciences, chemistry, and physics at 39 different US tier-one research universities. Across the board, late stage students, defined as those who were looking for jobs or were planning to do so within a year, found faculty jobs less attractive than did early stage students, who had not yet completed their qualifying exam or similar milestones.

    There were some interesting distinctions between the responses from chemistry students and the biologists and physicists that caught my attention. My PhD is in chemistry, but I conducted my research in a biology lab, and I felt like the cultures were very different – a distinction that appears to be borne out in the numbers.

  29. It is well known that the academic labour market is in a bad state, but even in the good times there are too few jobs to go around.

    In a recent report in the journal Perspectives on History, titled “The Ecology of the History Job: Shifting Realities in a Fluid Market”, Robert B. Townsend notes that the number of PhD recipients has exceeded the number of academic jobs advertised for most of the past four decades. The gap in recent years has been as large as at any time since the late 1970s.

    The situation is not necessarily any better for those with postdoctoral positions. According to the Royal Society’s 2010 report The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity, in the UK, 30 per cent of science PhD graduates go on to postdoctoral positions, but only around 4 per cent find permanent academic research posts. Less than half of 1 per cent of those with science doctorates end up as professors.

    The gap between expectations and reality is most pronounced among scholars in the arts and humanities. A report published earlier this year by the UK research careers organisation Vitae, What Do Researchers Want to Do? The Career Intentions of Doctoral Researchers, says that three-quarters of students in the arts and humanities plan on pursuing a life of letters, yet this is the field where jobs are most scarce.

    Under these circumstances, graduate students and young scholars would be well advised to prepare for the possibility – indeed, the likelihood – of employment in non-academic fields. But this is not the advice we are given.

    It is rare for professors to talk honestly with their graduate students and postdocs about the uncomfortable realities of the academic labour market. Their reluctance is understandable, since preparing for other kinds of employment might distract students and detract from their research. Those who make such preparations might also be seen as signalling low confidence in their academic abilities.

  30. Higher education

    Not what it used to be
    American universities represent declining value for money to their students

    Concern springs from a number of things: steep rises in fees, increases in the levels of debt of both students and universities, and the declining quality of graduates. Start with the fees. The cost of university per student has risen by almost five times the rate of inflation since 1983 (see chart 1), making it less affordable and increasing the amount of debt a student must take on. Between 2001 and 2010 the cost of a university education soared from 23% of median annual earnings to 38%; in consequence, debt per student has doubled in the past 15 years. Two-thirds of graduates now take out loans. Those who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2011 graduated with an average of $26,000 in debt, according to the Project on Student Debt, a non-profit group.

  31. Who will hire all the PhDs? Not Canada’s universities

    A persistent theme in current discussions about graduate education and its outcomes is the question of whether Canada is “producing too many PhDs.” While enrollments (and numbers of PhD graduates) have increased with the encouragement of policy, more of these grads now struggle to find employment that matches the level and nature of their education – particularly employment in universities, as tenure-track faculty. The situation in Canada is not as dire as in the States where just this week it was reported that three quarters of faculty work as adjuncts, but accounts of under-employed PhDs working as waiters and cab drivers have become more common.

  32. In response to the last comment, it is interesting how universities keep touting the value of critical thinking. The truth is, once you leave your doctoral program, nobody wants to hire you precisely because are seen as a critical thinker and therefore, a threat (read “you don’t have enough experience.) Even the universities who graduate these people do not want to hire them to do the simplest administrative positions which really brings up the question of why they are pushing so many people through. So while the government might hope that this tactic of graduating so many bright people would stimulate innovation in the economy, in reality, all it creates is student indebtedness to the banks. Since the person is broke and nobody wants to hire them, there really isn’t the money to create the touted “start-ups” that come from this experience. That’s why so many of these poor sobs are forced to join adjunct hell. If the government really does want to have new products and new ideas, they would be better off addressing these doctoral students/adjuncts by funding them directly before the bloated bureaucracy at universities saps all their creative energies and financial reserves and dumps that at the curve once they are through with them. If you want scholars to start businesses, give them venture capital. Don’t indebt them by giving money to a broken system.

  33. Making college pay

    SIR – In the 18th century, ship captains were paid just for taking convicts on board in England, not for their safe arrival in Australia. Around 10% of the prisoners died along the way. So the government switched to paying the captains a bonus for each man that walked off the boat alive, and mortality fell to virtually zero.

    Universities are paid on input—for taking students on board—and your article highlighted the perverse effects that this brings (“The price of success”, March 15th). Universities should instead be paid for their output, for helping their graduates get into high-paying careers. As Milton Friedman once suggested, in place of debt-funded tuition fees universities should instead receive a percentage of their graduates’ earnings. This would properly align the interests of the university with the student over the long term.

    Peter Ainsworth

  34. The elite schools are producing so many job-seekers on the faculty market that they can’t hire them all themselves, so the vast majority end up at less elite schools. That means that even if you manage to be admitted to a Ph.D. program at a prestigious university, the chances are slim that you’ll stay at that university, or even a similar university, when it’s time to get a faculty job. In fact, after graduating with Ph.D.s, only about 10 percent of faculty move “up” the academic prestige hierarchy as defined by the Science Advances study (with “prestige” being determined by the university’s ability to place faculty at the widest variety of other institutions). Most faculty instead slide 25 percent down the scale.

  35. Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks

    The faculty job market plays a fundamental role in shaping research priorities, educational outcomes, and career trajectories among scientists and institutions. However, a quantitative understanding of faculty hiring as a system is lacking. Using a simple technique to extract the institutional prestige ranking that best explains an observed faculty hiring network—who hires whose graduates as faculty—we present and analyze comprehensive placement data on nearly 19,000 regular faculty in three disparate disciplines. Across disciplines, we find that faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality. Furthermore, doctoral prestige alone better predicts ultimate placement than a U.S. News & World Report rank, women generally place worse than men, and increased institutional prestige leads to increased faculty production, better faculty placement, and a more influential position within the discipline. These results advance our ability to quantify the influence of prestige in academia and shed new light on the academic system.

  36. It isn’t just the evaporation of tenure-track lines and the scandal of adjunctification. It’s the systematic debt that is now part of the graduate school experience. Graduate school debt is the fastest-growing form of student debt. According to the National Science Foundation, the average grad student debt is almost $60,000, and 20 percent of graduate students owe over $100,000. This is not in law and medicine. This is in the humanities, where there isn’t the faintest hope of a salary sufficient to pay off those amounts, even in the unlikely event that the student gets a tenure-track offer.

  37. So you want to give a good job talk in political science…

    This has been, and always shall be, a capricious process.

    Political Science Jobs Down

    Political news was plentiful last year but political science jobs were down significantly year-over-year, and to their lowest point since 2010, according to the American Political Science Association’s annual jobs report.

    The report, released earlier this month, presents data on subfields, positions type and location of colleges, universities and institutions advertising jobs with the political science association’s jobs platform. While many jobs in the field may not be listed there, the trends in the association’s job board tend to match those in the profession, experts say.

    In 2016-17, there were 1,141 just postings — some 7 percent lower than the 2010-17 annual average of 1,230 jobs. In 2015-16, there were 1,260 available jobs in political science.

  38. Ph.D. students face significant mental health challenges

    According to their survey, 51% of respondents had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health in recent weeks, indicating psychological distress. Moreover, 32% reported at least four symptoms, indicating a risk for common psychiatric disorders, which was more than twice the prevalence among highly educated comparison groups. The most commonly reported symptoms included feeling under constant strain, being unhappy and depressed, losing sleep because of worry, and not being able to overcome difficulties or enjoy day-to-day activities. The greatest predictor for experiencing mental health challenges was having difficulty taking care of family needs due to conflicting work commitments. High job demands and low job control were also associated with increased symptoms.

  39. Hale is 51 years old, and a single mother with two kids. She is what her university calls a CAS (contract academic staff). Other schools use titles such as sessional lecturers and adjunct faculty.

    That means that despite her 16 years of service, she has no job security. She still needs to apply to teach her courses every semester. She gets none of the perks that a full time professor gets; generous benefits and pension, sabbaticals, money for travel and research, and job security in the form of tenure that most workers can only dream about.

    And then there’s the money.

    A full course load for professors teaching at most Canadian universities is four courses a year. Depending on the faculty, their salary will range between $80,000 and $150,000 a year. A contract faculty person teaching those same four courses will earn about $28,000.

    Full time faculty are also required to research, publish, and serve on committees, but many contract staff do that as well in the hope of one day moving up the academic ladder. The difference is they have to do it on their own time and on their own dime.

  40. Tracing the steps of nearly 10,000 U of T PhDs after graduation

    About 60 per cent of graduates across all disciplines found work in academia, and roughly a third hold tenure-stream positions. However, the data suggest PhD graduates are increasingly ending up outside the academy. Comparing the cohorts of 2015 to 2000, nearly twice the proportion of PhDs were employed in the private sector (23 per cent as opposed to 13 per cent).

  41. My job description stipulates that I should spend 60 percent of my time on research, 30 percent on teaching, and 10 percent on service. The duties I describe above should have taken only 40 percent of my time but in reality took nearly all of my time. Yet the research component of my job is the main ingredient that affects promotions in academe. So on top of my overload of teaching and service duties, I was supposed to work on multiple research papers, present at national and international conferences, and pursue external funding in grants.

    Many recent Ph.D.s are unable to find tenure-track jobs because colleges and universities in the United States have shifted, slowly but surely, to a model in which a large segment of the teaching force is made up of nontenure-track instructors, adjuncts, and visiting professors. To them my complaints may seem unreasonable. After all, I have been lucky to get a tenure-line job (and later, tenure).

  42. “For me, the answer to the “Why now?” question is work. Over the years, the expectations for faculty work have grown exponentially. A tenured professorship has always been my dream job, because it provides freedom and flexibility. You teach what you care about; you decide what to research. But the benefits of such freedom and flexibility in academe come at the cost of disappearing boundaries between work and life. We are so free to work whenever we want that many of us end up working all the time, not having full weekends and rarely taking off more than just a few days, despite popular perceptions to the contrary. We bring our work home or anywhere we go — on flights or long drives, to vacations or family reunions. We are constantly checking email, responding to colleagues and students. What Richard Swenson wrote about in his 2004 book, Margin, has become reality: We live our lives without a margin.”

  43. Two-Thirds of American Employees Regret Their College Degrees

    “Those with science, technology, engineering and math majors, who are typically more likely to enjoy higher salaries, reported more satisfaction with their degrees,” the report adds. “About 42% of engineering grads and 35% of computer science grads said they had no regrets.”

    Those with the most regrets include humanities majors, who are least likely to earn higher pay post-graduation. “About 75% of humanities majors said they regretted their college education,” report says. “About 73% of graduates who studied social sciences, physical and life sciences, and art also said the same.” Somewhere in the middle were 66% of business graduates, 67% of health sciences graduates and 68% of math graduates who said they regretted their education.

  44. “Cassuto and Weisbuch acknowledge that the current system is unsustainable. Yet they also celebrate an embryonic movement towards “career diversity,” which aims to alter the doctorate, so it prepares students for jobs that actually exist. Seeded by some big grants from foundations like Mellon (which, it should be noted, also funded this book), the reform campaign is revising coursework, advising, and research requirements to ready graduates for positions in museums, journalism, government agencies, and industry. When the transformation is complete, Cassuto and Weisbuch predict, my future students will once again obtain good jobs. It’s just that most of these jobs won’t be in academia.

    I hope they’re right. But I wonder how many employers in the so-called real world are just itching to hire young PhD’s in English or history, even those who have learned how to teach (a longstanding deficiency in doctoral training) and to write for public audiences (ditto). And, most of all, I wonder whether—and why—the faculty will get with the new program. As Cassuto and Weisbuch admit, the old system served us rather well. We wrote long dissertations that turned into equally turgid books; we worked our way up the tenure ladder; and our own students got academic jobs, too, until schools stopped hiring. But Cassuto and Weisbuch are convinced that you can teach an old dog new tricks, provided that you also pay for lunch. Their book is replete with descriptions of catered seminars and conferences where administrators, faculty, and students dine together and reframe doctoral training for the world as it is, not as it was. Everyone walks away happy, or at least not hungry.”

  45. History professor here. +1 to job in environmental sustainability/green tech/anything other than graduate school in history and political science. You’re getting good advice here and I’ll try not to repeat it too much, but please don’t (1) underestimate the opportunity cost of going in to a doctoral program in order to enter a career that is, in a deep, lasting, decades-long crisis and is probably, frankly, going the way of the dodo and (2) underestimate how time consuming graduate school is. There is no time for any side hustle. Graduate school will kill your hobbies or alternate interests, I guarantee it, and it’s not just that there’s no guarantee of a job, it’s more like you’re almost guaranteed *not* to find a job, or if you do, it will be beyond precarious. Go look at the latest stats from the American Historical Association. They’re … sobering. If this sounds dire and alarmist, that’s because the situation is dire and alarming.

    I am a dinosaur, and the meteor is clearly visible. Do not go to dinosaur school.

  46. Many undergraduate students drift towards graduate school out of a degree of inertia. They have been proceeding from one grade to the next all of their lives and have been very good at school and so graduate school seems the logical ‘next thing.’ Moreover, they really liked the college experience and graduate school looks like ‘more college.’ This is a terrible reason to go to graduate school, both as long-term life planning but also because graduate school is not actually very much like undergraduate college education at all. Let’s talk about why.

  47. “Step 3: The iron law of academic hiring is that no one works at an institution more prestigious than where they got their PhDs. There are exceptions, but they are fairly few. The current pressures on the job market have also tended to mean that a PhD from outside the top-20 programs in your field is practically worthless. Select graduate programs accordingly.”

  48. “And so at the end of all of this I am afraid to say my best advice is “don’t go” or at least “don’t go if you are not already wealthy.” I’d like to say that there are wonderful alternative avenues for exploring the humanities which have the same level of rigor as the graduate school process such that you could learn the trade without putting up with the system, but I don’t actually think that is true, by and large. There are some exceptional individuals who can self-teach themselves to that level, but looking at the bulk of, for instance, history ‘scholarship’ produced by the self-taught is not encouraging. Perhaps that will begin to change as more of the products of this system are forced to make careers outside of it and create more public spaces for really rigorous humanities discussion. But for now, at least, this is not a collapse without costs; if you wanted to make a living doing rigorous, path-breaking work in the study of the humanities, I’m sorry. That future was stolen from you and squandered. It is gone.”

  49. More than anything else, what I’m frustrated by is the visible (audible?) disconnect between the following two things that doctoral students in the liberal arts now know to be true:

    We must all consider “alt-ac” our mostly likely employment option; and
    Your doctoral program will prepare you for a TT position, which you won’t get.
    In order to fully realize an alt-ac career, we need to be trained to do things other than teach (and, in a moment of praise, I will say that one of the things that my specific program and department does do is mandate a pedagogical training seminar for graduate students).

  50. “That, ultimately, is the basis of my unhappiness.

    It’s not that I didn’t get an interview for any of the jobs I applied to that each had hundreds of applicants.

    It’s not that I will be unemployed come August 31.

    It’s that no one has guidance on how to do anything else.”

  51. The various skills that PhDs develop in research, analysis, communication and creativity appear to be perceived as irrelevant to the job market. Canada has a skills shortage, and yet its PhD programs cannot transmit the skills necessary to enter a professional career within the six years, on average, that it takes for a student to complete doctoral studies. This mismatch represents a costly problem for Canadian society.

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