Are PhDs entitled to tenured jobs? A deliberately controversial post.

We have argued before that academia is just a job.

We have marveled at how willingness to do math opens up a world of opportunities.  (Though not necessarily with a math PhD… but if you’re willing to do the same math as say, an engineer, you’re in better shape.  And hey, you can always take actuarial exams or maybe work for the NSA with that math degree.)

So… does the fact that you’ve suffered for 5-7 (or more!) years in a PhD program and gotten your hood and your diploma mean that you are entitled a tenure-track job?  What about your debt?  Your lost opportunity costs?  Are you entitled to compensation for that?

The fact is, there’s an excess supply of PhDs compared to the demand for tenure-track professors in most fields.  In fields where industry can absorb those extra PhDs at salaries higher than their t-t counterparts, that’s not so bad.  You can cry about your industry job all the way to the bank, so to speak.  In fields where the PhD doesn’t provide many additional earnings opportunities, that leads to a lot of unemployed and underemployed people with doctorates.  We end up with a lot of people being exploited as adjuncts in the hope that if they put their time in they can get one of those elusive tenure-track jobs.  People are willing through their actions to accept very little pay and bad working conditions simply because they hope it will lead to better employment later, and there’s enough of these people that it drives the cost of adjuncts down.

Sometimes you work hard and you take risks and those risks don’t pan out.  It would be nice if there were exactly the number of jobs available for the people qualified for them who wanted them and they matched up perfectly and paid well.   But not only are there differing demands for different skill sets, but some sets at the same skill level seem to be more likable than others.  People like studying the humanities.  There’s not enough demand for PhD level humanities skills to ensure all humanities PhDs a living wage using those skills.

So… are PhDs entitled to tenured jobs?  Is anyone entitled to anything besides life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

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50 Responses to “Are PhDs entitled to tenured jobs? A deliberately controversial post.”

  1. SP Says:

    This isn’t too controversial to me. No one is entitled to any career they trained for, though it seems the tenure track turns away more than most professions. The questions I have (esp. for humanities PhDs) is 1) are the students well aware of their job opportunities when they enter a program 2) What responsibility do profs/universities have to their students who may or may not end up employable after 5-7 years?

    I wonder if they are aware of the risk, but the reward of a TT job in their field is large enough to justify?

    I’ve been pretty risk-adverse when it came to career choices, but I have to admit that the risk that have been taken panned out. Luck + grit, perhaps.

  2. delagar Says:

    “Entitled” is such a loaded word. I think it would be useful for us as a community / society if people who wanted work in their fields could have work in their fields.

    We (as a community) spend a ton of money and resources training people to do a certain sort of work. If that training ends up not being used — if the people with degrees in radiology or law or linguistics end up working as waiters or laundromat attendants, that just seems wasteful.

    How to solve this problem? Well, maybe law schools and radiology training programs and linguistic departments and so on should be more selective about how many people they train? (Is it useful for everyone to attend the university program of their choice?)

    • Liz Says:

      I hadn’t thought of this before: “We (as a community) spend a ton of money and resources training people to do a certain sort of work. If that training ends up not being used — if the people with degrees in radiology or law or linguistics end up working as waiters or laundromat attendants, that just seems wasteful.” Cool. :)

      But HE institutions (CCs and high-research alike) do study the needs of the community at regular intervals, and compare it to their “production” of prepared workers. So they might look at occupation projections, competition in the local/online market, and how their current programming either is redundant or useful to meet the identified needs in that context.

      A problem with being selective up front is that it assumes we can know how well a student will do in a program before s/he even gets in it. To some extent, things like GPA and standardized test scores *may* help that out. But pre-med students don’t always become doctors. The front-runners might opt out, and/or use their experiences in radically different ways than intended, and the ones we think will fail might find their passion and become best in the field. It’s a tough call.

      I’d rather us focus on changing the culture around service and labor jobs. We don’t necessarily need another history professor (spoken kindly, with an MA in history…), but chances are we could use some more carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, and related engineers who manage things like the internet, emergency services, waste disposal, etc. We have to value those roles more – literally ($$) and figuratively.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It is interesting to note that med schools do artificially limit supply to keep doctor salaries and employment up. (A reason that the complaining about (usually) women “wasting” their MDs by working part-time when their kids are young is ridiculous– if that’s really a problem, med schools can just accept more applicants.)

      • Heidi S Says:

        In response to nicoleandmaggie’s comment about Med Schools- simply admitting more students does not solve the problem- because then you have students several years into an MD program who don’t have any rotation/training slots available to them. To me this would be a bigger waster – to have someone invest tons of $$$$ and several years of their life, just to find out there are no slots available for them to move into. Hospitals cannot simply just *make* tons more residency positions and such available (a few? Maybe yes. But not tons). By keeping the programs competitve via a limited number of slots, it allows for better training, and probably fewer burnouts. I’m in a PhD program in a Med School, which poses a different set of problems. Since Science PhDs (ie pharmacology or immunology) are paid for by the school and through grants ftom NIH, there is a limit on how many students the programs can accept since they have to support the students financially. So it’s in the school’s best interest to accept a smaller number of high quality applicants, which they can closely monitor and mentor to reduce the rate students who burn-out/drop out of the program- in which case the school essentially looses a TON of money that they had invested in that student.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        … and therefore we shouldn’t allow women into med school because they’re just going to work part-time once they have kids, and we shouldn’t allow women who have gone through their residencies to work part-time because…?

        Yeah, no, not buying the argument. Pretty sure the same pressures requiring more doctors are also going to allow more room for residencies too. Especially with legal limitations on how much residencies can require their residents to work (though I understand these hours rules are not being enforced).

        The MDs are artificially limiting spots so that they can keep unemployment low and wages high–that’s why it’s one of the few guilds left in the country. There’s still capacity in it. (That’s also why we have so many DOs practicing.) More power to them, except when they start bashing women for “wasting” spots that could have gone to a less-qualified man who would work full time forever.

      • Heidi S Says:

        I never claimed to support the idea that spots shouldn’t go to women or that women are “wasting” spots. I’m a female, and the MD classes at my school seem pretty evenly split between male and female. Women can become MDs, but they do HAVE to carefully plan when they are going to have a kid- doing it during certain years of school/residency would be physically impossible to safely undergo that much stress/sleepless nights while being pregnant .
        I was merely trying to rebut your claim that we could have more MD’s simply by increasing the number of applicants. To increase the number of MD’s, the entire medical system would have to change to respond to the increase, otherwise you would have plenty of people graduating with MD’s but nowhere to practice since if there were not enough training slots.
        Also, your understanding of an MD’s salary appears to be a bit off, since all MD’s are not rich. Assuming a person attended public high school ($0) and a public college (mine was about $25k/year x 4 years = $100K), add the cost of Med School Admissions (taking MCAT, going to interviews around the country, possibly MCAT prep classes – $2k??) add the cost of Med School ($35-40K/yr for public school, plus the cost of living, atleast $20K/yr = $240K). By the time you graduate with an MD, you are easily over $340K in debt with this debt acquiring interest, while you take a residency position that only pays $35-50K that you have to start paying off that massive debt with. You also might have to buy into or start up a practice, which could easily be $500K. So by the time MDs start actually earning a six figure salary, they are well into their 30s and more than $840K (+ years of interest) in debt.
        Most people already started saving for retirement 10+ years before an MD will. So you are pretty much unable to start paying off debt or saving for retirement until you are an age when most people are halfway through their careers working. The high salary later is absolutely needed to offset the debt from earlier. Before many MD’s are even paying off THEIR school loans, they may already be trying to pay for a house or their children’s school.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        No, I understand these things. I just disagree with you on the details. (For example, what is “rich” when the median salary in the country is $26,000 according to the last census.) PhDs have the same problem with having to defer saving, but for the most part without the large salaries that will eventually pay off the debt. (And that “most people save for retirement” thing… also not true. Look at that median income again.)

        I’m not saying there’s anything WRONG with MDs having a guild, just that if they didn’t, there would be a lot more unemployed doctors and wages would be lower. Just like with PhDs. Wages for doctors are lower in much of the world. (IIRC, of the developed world they’re lowest or close to lowest in Japan.) There’s a lot of humanities PhDs that wish they had a guild limiting access too.

        And I think it’s hilarious what you’re saying about babies and residency– there’s a whole lot of women on the mothers in medicine page who are doing exactly what you say is impossible http://www.mothersinmedicine.com/. (Also this post: http://www.mothersinmedicine.com/2014/02/stop-scaring-fresh-meat.html . Remember again that median wage number.)

        I think the problem is that you have a very limited viewpoint, whereas I have lots of statistics and theory and have read research based evidence on these topics. Textbook knowledge, of course, except for the whole knowing a lot of women MDs who have had babies at all sorts of points of time in their careers.

      • Heidi S Says:

        I don’t think you completely understood my point, since you said I was wrong, but just send me links confirming my point. You CAN have babies in Med School, however doing it during residency when you have 120hr work -weeks, with 48hr shifts giving maybe 2 hour windows of sleep, cannot make mistakes but are not supposed to drink as much coffee due to being pregnant, is pretty unrealistic. That’s why ALL the MD and PhD’s that I have talked to (both currently in school and several decades out of school) have claimed the only way to have a healthy pregnancy is to *PLAN* to have a kid during the least stressful year of med school, or specialize into something that is more 9-5 than say surgery.
        Since you are into economics, I suggest you look at the hierarchy of how things work in hospitals- hiring more interns and residents costs a LOT more money, since you also have to hire the additional support staff, and more Attendings.
        If MD’s have such a strong guild, why is it that many MDs have had drastic decreases in their take-home salary in the last decade, due to increasing malpractice insurance and operating costs, as well as decreasing reimbursements from insurance companies. MDs also work more than a 40-hour work week, which is more than one normal job. The decrease in MD pay is to the point that many MDs are encouraging their kids to go into other fields so they can work less,
        Also, with decent money management you can start your retirement even on a PhD stipend- I’m 26, own a house on my own and have a retirement account. However, I chose a field that would allow me to graduate from school debt free.

    • jlp Says:

      This used to be the case in clinical psychology PhD programs. Available slots for students were limited so that the field would not be ‘overrun’ with people with doctorates.

      What happened next (and I don’t know the exact timing/history) was that “Professional Schools” of psychology started awarding people PsyDs (yes, you read that right, doctorates of psychology). There are now many more graduates in the general field than there are positions, including non-tt/clinical positions.

  3. bogart Says:

    I’m pretty sure that even that catchy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” stuff is just an inalienable right rather than an entitlement. … Wanders off to review U.S. Declaration of Independence and writings of John Locke …

    Clearly it’s silly to think that Ph.D.s have a “right” to a tenure-track job, a fact of which I often remind myself as I chuckle all the way to the credit union. My Ph.D. + other factors didn’t result in my ending up T’d (as I left a good SLAC TT job for personal reasons, principally a quaint desire to live with my spouse but relatedly a desire to live in what was then his geographic base rather than my own), but I’ve still been fortunate to have landed in a pretty good spot, and while I’m not rolling in money, I’m bringing in a decent income and enjoying lots of other things the academy has to offer (like the “right” to write lengthy comments on blog posts mid-morning), so I’m not going to complain.

    OTOH I do sometimes loose myself in paroxysms of laughter when I recall the articles (published shortly before I started grad school in such peer-reviewed establishment classics as, you know, Newsweek) about the tremendous HIRING BOOM that was about to hit ACADEMIA. You know, because of all the retirements (that didn’t happen or happened — heck, are happening — later than expected) and the need to replace the departing tenured faculty with new tenured faculty (NOT). That’s when I’m not drowning my irritation at my (R01 social science and, funnily enough, math) faculty/RA advisors who did not e.g. point out to me that my (oft-expressed!) belief that if I had a Ph.D. I’d be able to “work ANYWHERE! Because there are colleges and universities ALL OVER the US!” … was, in fact, clearly not only wrong but actually sort of backward, i.e., I’d have to be willing to MOVE anywhere (repeatedly!) just to secure a job.

    I don’t think Ph.D.s have a right to, or even “deserve” TT jobs. But I do think there is plenty of dysfunction in the academy (say it isn’t so!) relying on aspiring Ph.D.s to do much of both (particularly) the teaching and (even) the research work (often for a tiny pittance in both cases, particularly the teaching case) and with that creating incentives that, er, discourage faculty from being frank with their students and prospective students about what they’re getting themselves into. I think this is a problem at both the individual (faculty) and the institutional (department, division, university) levels.

    As a perhaps extreme case study example (N=1), I got an NSF fellowship after starting grad school, and bluntly it seems pretty obvious that the single best piece of advice the faculty in my department could have given me was to go ahead and finish my Master’s there (on the university stipend, safeguarding the NSF funds) while exploring and applying to better (not necessarily inherently, although …, but better suited to me, again, in retrospect, and in ways that should have been obvious to someone with more awareness than I had at the time) Ph.D. programs. Unsurprisingly, none did.

    OTOH, (the I-can-live-anywhere and fellowship examples above notwithstanding), in many smaller ways it is also not clear to what extent my failure to pursue TT career-maximizing strategies was bad advice (or an absence of good advice), to what extent it was me putting my fingers in my ears while singing “lalalala,” and to what extent it simply reflected my (IMHO reasonable) unwillingness to endure what’s involved in getting T, i.e. (for me) a willingness to live anywhere and a complete inability to solve the two-body problem, which — ugh.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      A student came to me to talk about grad school and the areas she was interested in. She asked, “What field will guarantee me a job when I graduate?” I said, “None. That was easy. Next question?”

    • Contingent Cassandra Says:

      I’m from the same grad school generation (which of course has left me highly skeptical of job opening projections of all sorts). In fact, I went to grad school on a fellowship explicitly targeted toward filling that “need.” The good news is that I didn’t go into debt to get my degree (though opportunity costs still apply, and I did also use up parts of a modest inheritance for living costs, both while I was actively in grad school and to buy writing time while I was A.B.D and adjuncting). The bad news is that, as delagar points out below, though I have never wanted for teaching work, I have also never been on the tenure track (though at least I’ve been full-time for over a decade now).

      • bogart Says:

        Oh, right. I have to admit, the thought of taking on debt to get a Ph.D. strikes me, just at a gut level, as nuts, and I tend to forget that many people do this (clearly this says something, too, about what I think a Ph.D. is worth!). But then, back when I was pursuing mine, the thought of living on a $10K/year stipend seemed — lavish (as compared to what I had lived on in undergrad, which was parent-provided, but modest). I was still at a stage of living very simply, and actually, that’s something I’m very good at, when I’m solo. I wasn’t, however, partnered or parenting in those days, and of course I realize many students are (and should absolutely be able to be).

      • plantingourpennies Says:

        Bogart, I have the complete same reaction when I hear about people paying for PhDs. In my discipline it was generally accepted that if you weren’t offered full funding with stipend for your offer, the institution didn’t have a lot of faith in your ability to complete the coursework successfully.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, that’s what we say in econ too. And in #2’s social science. I think we even have a post on this in the archives.

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        Definitely the case in the humanities; no grad school offer is considered serious unless it includes funding. Or at least that was the case when I was in school; it may have changed; if so, that’s all the more reason to approach grad school in the humanities with extreme caution/skepticism. I had a generous funding offer from my university, which was to some extent superseded by, and to some extent combined with, the outside fellowship. And I should say that I had a fairly generous stipend; the drain for living expenses occurred toward the end of the process, when I had exceeded the school’s estimate of how long it should take to write a dissertation, which would have been unrealistic even if faculty in my particular field hadn’t been going, coming, and going again at an alarming rate. On top of everything else, my department happened to be going through a rough patch just as I was trying to write a dissertation.

      • Liz Says:

        Will this experience change at all, given extreme de-funding of HE? Just curious. (I was offered a “stipend” position for my [terminal] master’s degree, but I declined it since I’d make $20/hr to work PT through my constant employer as opposed to $8/hr through the stipend position.)

      • gwinne Says:

        I didn’t have funding my first year in grad school (in the humanities, mid-90s). I gambled on the promise that I’d be able to have (competitive) funding for the remainder of my time there. I did. Also managed to live on that $10K stipend and, with another job and my grandparents’ support (that first year), graduated without debt.

        And that was absolutely a serious school; r1, top 15 in the field. I’m one of a very few of my cohort who has gone on to teach at an R1 institution.

        That said,yes, most of the time I agree that paying for phD is ridiculous.

  4. delagar Says:

    Also — a side issue — the lack of TT positions in the current university system has not been caused by a lack of need for the labor.

    It’s been caused (at least in part) by the unwillingness to pay for TT lines, preferring to exploit adjunct labor instead.

    Unions or more stringent accreditation rules are probably the answer there.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      YER DARN TOOTIN!
      (I agree heartily)

      The OTHER answer is to stop de-funding higher ed, and education in general. When the state legislature cuts your funds by 20% but enrollment is up… well, adjuncts help.

    • bogart Says:

      Right, I completely agree with this — there are institutional-level problems (department, university, etc.) but it’s equally true that these are themselves augmented and/or caused by higher-level problems still: those institutions are responding to the pressures they’re facing!

    • chacha1 Says:

      That’s what I think, but I’m a rank outsider and fled academia decades ago. :-) My advisors were pretty blunt about the challenges facing a History Ph.D.

    • Contingent Cassandra Says:

      Basically, state legislatures (or, in the case of private institutions, those who control the purse strings on income from endowments) need to be willing to re-fund at least one of undergraduate teaching *or* research (especially non-grant-funded research, though even grant-funded research costs institutions money). At the moment (at least at my institution, and I’m pretty sure this is pretty usual, at least at institutions with any research focus or pretensions), they’re trying to get undergrad teaching done as cheaply as possible, so that tuition dollars can be funneled elsewhere (partly to research/more advanced teaching, partly, I suspect, to ever-growing administrative/support roles, some of which are useful, some of which are not, but all of which are expensive). At this point, the two sponges universities have been squeezing to try to make up the deficit caused by decreasing state subsidies — tuition-payers and instructors in intro. courses — are pretty much wrung dry. Of the two, the tuition-payers have the more political clout, which results in proliferating schemes for teaching intro courses even more cheaply — e.g. some incarnations of MOOCs. Instructors in intro courses (adjuncts, graduate students) have less leverage, except by simply saying “no” to their labor conditions (and/or to degree programs which seem unlikely to lead to the jobs for which they are designed to be a qualification), which I suspect that, if we ever get an economy that is improving from employees’ perspective, they/we will.

  5. Flavia Says:

    I agree with several of the above commenters: the job market is dysfunctional, there are seriously wasted costs in training so many PhDs, and there’s much more actual need (by colleges and universities) for TT jobs than there are jobs. There should be many more tenure-line jobs.

    That said, I still agree with your premise that no one — even a highly-trained, highly talented academic who would be an excellent teacher and researcher is entitled to a tenure-line job. As my spouse (who has an MFA in fiction writing as well as a PhD in literature) has been saying for years, TT jobs in the humanities are the new arts jobs. We all know amazing musicians, writers, and actors who can’t make a living off their art. It’s depressing and demoralizing that more can’t make it. But we understand the brutally competitive nature of those fields, and that talent isn’t rewarded in a straightforward way. We still resist seeing the academic job market that way, though it has been that way for decades.

  6. Cloud Says:

    I don’t think anyone is entitled to a particular career path… but I do think that PhD granting institutions should help their students with the mechanics of a non-academic job search. Based on the popularity of the posts I write on the basics of non-academic job searching, the comments those posts get, and the quality of the applications I get from people fresh out of academia, I’d say that most academic institutions are doing a very poor job of this. I also think that academic institutions should work to make the non-tenure track jobs in their institutions better. Just because people WILL try to piece together a living from a bunch of adjunct positions or a string of post docs, that doesn’t mean that the institutions that benefit from that underpaid labor are acting in a moral fashion. But perhaps the most efficient solution for that problem is for the people doing the labor to see that they have other options, and for someone to provide them with help in the mechanics of making a transition to one of those other options.

    BTW, by complete coincidence, today’s post on my blog is about how to turn your academic CV into an industry resume!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Outside options using skills are more obvious in biotech (and engineering and economics) than in some of the humanities (have I mentioned that in industry DH makes literally 2x his TT salary? pretty sure I have)…

      What would you suggest for a history PhD program given that curator jobs are also hard to come by given the supply vs. demand? Or an English PhD program? What kind of jobs are there that make use of the PhD at a living salary but aren’t already saturated with applicants?

      • chacha1 Says:

        I’m betting I’ve made more money as a legal assistant with my history M.A. than most history Ph.D.s make. And with a helluva lot less job insecurity, mandated moves, and general entanglement in red tape.

      • Cloud Says:

        I actually think the most important “transferable skills” someone learns in doing a PhD are the ability to think clearly/critically, the ability to learn new things on your own, and the ability to express your arguments. Those skills would be great in any number of industries, even though the person would not be directly using the subject he or she studied. I think people have to change their mindset from PhD as direct preparation for a job to PhD as something interesting they did that gave them some valuable experience.

        FWIW, about 50% of the jobs I’ve held since getting my PhD would not have required a PhD, and the vast majority of my most marketable skills are things I have learned after getting the PhD. The PhD gave me the confidence and a skillset for going out to learn those things. I think this could be true of non-STEM PhDs, too, but obviously I don’t have any direct experience there.

      • Cloud Says:

        Oh, and I guess I should make it clear: to enter an industry, even with a PhD, you’ll probably have to go in at an entry level job, even though a lot of your peers will have only a college degree. That entry level job will probably pay better than adjuncting, though, and sometimes you can advance pretty quickly once your skills become obvious.

        As you say, I know the most about this in biotech/tech- but even there, I have seen PhDs make dramatic career transitions to other roles (regulatory affairs, project management, IT) where they basically go back to square one and retrain. The initial job is perhaps more junior than seems right, but the people I’ve watched usually then advance pretty quickly.

      • Mike Says:

        Some of my History PhD friends took jobs with corporations, e.g., HCA and Lockheed Martin. These were pretty highly compensated jobs. At least a couple took positions teaching at elite private secondary schools.

      • Miriam Says:

        I’m late to this party, but this is one of my soap box issues, so I’m going to comment late. I can’t speak for all Humanities, but I know that burned out English PhDs can leap to Technical Communications and end up doing well. It won’t really be using the PhD, but once you let that fact go, it’s decently paid work that can be very interesting in the correct setting. When I left academia, I looked into commercial publishing, academic publishing, and technical communications. Tech comm gave me the best salary as well as the best job security and work/life balance.

        I agree with Cloud that my critical thinking skills and ability to do independent research are the most valuable components of my PhD training. I use those every day. It’s not necessarily obvious to my employers what benefits they’re gaining from my training, but it’s obvious to me. I remember as a grad student going to a panel on alternative careers and hearing people say that. I thought it was hokey and probably B.S. at the time. But now I buy it.

        Although I paid my way in grad school being a faux English doctoral candidate (tutoring and TAing writing), my actual PhD was in Anthropology, and I think it is shameful that many Anthropology programs (including mine) don’t encourage and support non-academic careers. There are both public sector applications and, for those of us who got burned out on low wages in grad school, highly paid corporate anthropology work. User experience research is cultural anthropology. When I compare my experience to my Computer Science husband’s, it’s ridiculous. In my department, I almost had a professor withdraw from my committee when I let slip that I was considering a public-sector Anthropology career instead of an academic one. In my husband’s, the department used the amount of graduates placed with companies like Google as a selling point. More than that, the department actively built corporate links to help with placement.

        Given the job market in Anthropology, it is cruel to pressure candidates to value and look for academic careers. Yes, one person from a grad cohort occasionally ended up in a tenure-track job. The overwhelming majority ended up with post-docs or one-year lectureships leading to more lectureships or adjunct positions. I will never understand why professors would expect intelligent people to look at the amount of tenure-track jobs available and not figure out that the odds are heavily against us. I also don’t really understand the bias against public-sector or corporate research. Yes, the research is more constrained, but it’s also more practical. Perhaps one sign that I was always a bad fit for my particular program is that I valued the idea of doing ethnographic research in service of a specific application more than doing it to publish an article or book that would probably only be read by other academic anthropologists.

  7. Alyssa Says:

    Definitely don’t think PhDs should be entitled to a TT position, or any job for that matter. They have to “sack up” and find jobs that work for them and with their skill set, either in or outside academia.

    I whole-heartedly agree that far too many PhDs are being trained, with the idea that a TT job is the be-all-and-end-all job to acquire. I know far too many PIs who have a boat load of graduate student, working on research that will get them absolutely nowhere. There are just no (or very ver few) jobs in those areas, and it’s a bit heartbreaking to watch.

    I think PIs/departments/universities need to do a better job of preparing graduate students for that reality. On the other hand (as mentioned above) I think the student/PhD still needs to accept responsibility for finding work, regardless of job prospects.

    I do consider Delager’s idea of not having everyone able to study their major of choice. Maybe universities just need to be more selective, and reduce the number of students they train. I just applied to a teaching program and they cut their # of students they’ll admit in 1/2 this year because of an excess of teachers. We’ll see how it works for the,

  8. Rosa Says:

    Nobody’s enttitled to a tenure track position, but I think as a society it’s fair to say that all jobs should pay a living wage. Jobs that require an advanced degree should include student loan payments in that living wage calculation – or else they should fund/stipend PhD students up front.

    When employers can’t find skilled labor at wages they want to pay, they go crying to legislatures and school systems to put the programs for their industry in place – that’s why my hometown has a wind turbine program, it’s why the community college where I live now has an airline tech program. But that puts all the risk on the individual potential employee (and the taxpayer), instead of asking the employers to invest in training. It’s the same thing in reverse – all of the risk & investment comes from individuals, not from institutions.

    • delagar Says:

      “But that puts all the risk on the individual potential employee (and the taxpayer), instead of asking the employers to invest in training. It’s the same thing in reverse – all of the risk & investment comes from individuals, not from institutions.”

      Such an excellent point, I just wanted to repeat it.

  9. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    I, too, would say that nobody is “entitled” to a tenure-track job (besides, how would one enforce that, especially given the strong — and well-founded — bias against hiring one’s own Ph.D.s?). However, especially coming from the perspective of the humanities (no “industry” jobs for which the Ph.D. is a necessary or precise qualification), I would like to see far, far more transparency, with departments disclosing how many grad students they admit each year, the status of each of those cohorts (left without degree, degree still in progress, hired and to what sort of job, not employed, lost track of) yearly for a decade, and then perhaps at 5-year intervals after that, actual time to degree for each graduate each year (I took 15 years, for reasons that were partly personal but also significantly connected to structural problems in my department; however, I’m pretty sure I’m not included in any statistics, because I was an “outlier”), and, perhaps, also some data that makes it clear what labor the grad students performed for the department while affiliated with it (number of sections and/or students taught, whether that work was as a TA or an independent syllabus/assignment-creator, etc.) and the levels of compensation they received (with tuition remission and stipend/salary dis-aggregated). Such information would give prospective graduate students more information to work with, and it would also lower the level of denial that I suspect is operating among many (though by no means all) tenured/tenure-track faculty, who may still be thinking that their department has just had a bad year or two (the follow-up data would also be useful for the relatively-rare grad departments, including my own, that have very short official times to degree, which tend to produce Ph.D.s who either aren’t hireable onto the tenure track, or — much more rare these days — aren’t tenurable 6 years after being hired as A.B.D.s or very recent Ph.D.s).

    Somebody who styles himself “Adjunct Nate Silver” has been trying to do this sort of work with placement statistics in German (a relatively small field, with a tradition of listing certain sorts of information — e.g. who has recently defended — in central places, which makes it easier to track down placement statistics, though it doesn’t do much for beginning- and during-degree stats), and has been publishing them over at Pan Kisses Kafka (http://pankisseskafka.com/ ). I can think of two ways for similar (and wider) information to be made available for larger fields: some sort of self-reporting effort spearheaded by professional societies (with everybody no doubt furiously cooking the books to look as good as possible), or a crowd-sourcing effort, a la the adjunct project. The best solution would probably be to do both, since the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches might balance each other.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The interesting thing is that this information is available for economics PhDs– it was on the advertising they sent out prior to application and it’s available online every year for the field as a whole (new grads fill out several surveys on the topic). But, that’s a selling point for econ PhDs. And I’ve seen it online for other social sciences.

      One of the reasons I chose econ over math or history is because of a Newsweek article (or maybe it was Time) that published the average unemployment rates and years to degree for several disciplines. 5 years and a 1% unemployment rate looked a lot better than 7 years and an 8% unemployment rate (this was back when US unemployment was at record lows). I wonder where they got that information for all the disciplines.

    • Flavia Says:

      I totally agree with this. It’s the rare English department that provides placement statistics. If they have a “placement” section on their webpage at all, it says something like, “We have had great success placing our graduates in teaching jobs. Recent PhDs have accepted positions at institutions such as X, Y, and Z.”

      Even the ones that give names and degree dates often cook the figures by excluding anyone who’s left the profession (or including just a few selected people who have jobs in immediately related areas — HS teaching, librarianship, publishing — but not those who’ve found success in radically unrelated fields).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The place I ended up (this is the econ one again) had bar charts of starting salary of the previous year’s graduates by the different types of academic institutions and by industry positions. Most of the institutions didn’t give that level of detail, probably because they didn’t have quite as amazing numbers.

  10. becca Says:

    In an inalienable rights sense? Nope. In a I, personally, expected one sense? Nope. But in a how should we structure societity sense? Universities are entitled to public funding (direct for public institutions, and indirect through financial aid and research money for all). Workers, including at universities, are entitled to a living wage. Students are entitled to protection from discrimination, and institutional support for their studies. Taxpayers are entitled to public accessibility of publically funded research. Universities and NIH are entitled to gain monetary benefits from their IP, to be funneled back to research. Taxpayers are entitled to see some of the benefits from training people in all these subjects. People are entitled to live longer, healthier lives than they can currently expect to. And yes, workers are entitled to apply skill sets taught in PhD programs to things that matter, deeply, to humans as important problems, whether those problems can be solved in a fashion that pays a quarterly dividend or not. That is what I believe, and what I believe is worth fighting for.
    To the degree we have an existential crisis facing PhDs, I think it has much more to do with the problems of most Americans in finding work worth doing, than about peoples insatiable desires to get to pretend to be taken seriously in funny floppy academic regalia hats.

  11. Rented life Says:

    Several have mentioned schools needing to be more selective about admittance but what about advisors and others pushing undergrads to go in the first place? I’ve heard the argument time and again that we “need more [fill in the blank] with PhDs” so then these people file in because it’s supposed to be better, equalizing to have more women or whatever with these degrees. Except then we can’t get the jobs we went to school for so while we are balancing things out on the education sense, women and other minorities still make less, despite the “benefit” of the degree. I’m thinking of this because I’ve taught for a long time at a school that recruits to these populations arguing that they all 1) need degrees and 2) they can only improve their lives with these degrees. Then I watch the majority of my students graduate and find the same damn work they would have had without the degree. So they decide to go to grad school. And they still can’t find work so they attempt another degree. All while accruing loads of debt. I don’t have any answers, I just feel frustrated.

    I still adjunct but only one course and only because I LOVE the subject and not for the money. When I finally left and got an industry job I found I could work part time and make more than double my ft teaching gig.

    • Contingent Cassandra Says:

      I don’t have an answer to this problem/pattern, but I agree it exists. In fact, over the past few months, I think I’ve noticed the public rhetoric around the need to get a B.A. moving from an emphasis on the B.A. as an investment to an emphasis on the B.A. as a minimal qualification to get a decent-paying job (even if it will take a very long time for the loan-funded “investment” to pay off).

      And yes, the whole question of how we keep the academy from becoming even whiter and more privileged than it already is, while not sending people with less family support to fall back on off in fruitless pursuit of Ph.D.s (or, rather, jobs for which Ph.D.s are a necessary qualification) is a serious one. Maybe it’s because I’m in the humanities, but I’m somewhat less worried about gender balance, since I suspect that humanities professor-ing is becoming something of a pink-collar ghetto (deaning, on the other hand. . . .).

  12. jack Says:

    So do we owe those with masters degrees anything?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Do people with masters degrees expect anything?

      They actually do, on average, tend to do better in terms of overall earnings than those with PhDs or with BA/BSs. I don’t know how that breaks down by degree though.

  13. good enough professor Says:

    As Flavia points out upthread, full disclosure is hard for would-be Ph.D’s to come by. There’s a Ponzi-scheme quality to much Ph.D education that exacerbates the mismatch between supply and demand, as I discuss here: http://goodenoughprofessor.blogspot.com/2014/03/exploitation-is-problem-not-entitlement.html

  14. undinenotofgeneralinterest Says:

    The view from 30,000 feet: “Entitled” suggests that the world is run on a just and equitable system, with enforcement and penalties for unfairness. So the short answer would be “no.” The view from closer up: As everyone above has said, we still need to do all we can to make employment conditions and the numbers of jobs better.

  15. CASA weekly news 04/14 | CASA Says:

    […] US about overproduction of PhDs, especially in the Humanities, and tackled head on the question of whether completing a PhD entitles anyone to a job. This isn’t a comfortable read, but as ever the comments give you a sense of how polarising […]


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