The PhD glut

Really interesting article in the Economist about the absurd over-supply of PhD’s and the incentives throughout the university system that make it so.  For anyone intending to get a PhD in the hopes of becoming a college professor, this article is very sobering, to say the least:

Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships…

In research the story is similar. 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 if American faculty jobs in the life sciences were increasing at 5% a year, just 20% of students would land one.

Lots of reasons for this problem, but the article did not really note the one I notice most prominently.  Quite simply, university administrators have huge incentives to create PhD programs, regardless of whether they are actually any good or successfully place their graduates.  Our dean will be considered to be doing a great job if he expands the PhD programs in our college even if none of them are any good.  Even though there are two top-20 Political Science departments (who cannot place all their new PhD’s) within 20 miles (UNC and Duke) talk still comes up from time to time simply because the incentive is always there for more.   Furthermore, for NC State to be grouped among the most prestigious universities, it simply needs more PhD programs.  Again, regardless of whether these programs are any good.  Short version: university administrators are rewarded for creating PhD programs, so they do.  They are not actually rewarded for creating quality PhD programs, so there’s far too many PhD’s being produced and far too many PhD programs that are not high quality.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to The PhD glut

  1. Word. I have refused to apply for positions in departments that promise to start PhD programs now or just started recently. Shows a poor grip on reality and perverse incentives gone awry.

  2. Dear Dr. Green: Your observation is something we’ve seen all over the country: growth for its own sake.

    Best, Claudia Dreifus

  3. Tom LaMar says:

    sounds like somebody(s) wants to have their pick of you guys for “other purposes”, or just how much did you spend in error to get where you think you are? Very sad and wishing you all better times, like when the super-rich that “did-us-all” finally inflate the dollar to the point where American goods are cheap again, and labor has been brow beaten into more 3rd-wordly expectation levels, accepting low pay, as TPTB return to “rescue” the country with new industrialization, claiming to be the new heroes of the country, when they actually caused the whole mess to begin with starting with Reaganomics… all that was stopping them before that was fear of the ruskies anyway, sorta like all the other stuff the “service econcomic” types do anyway…from fear…or greed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: