I really enjoyed this Atlantic Post from PhD and former Political Science professor (I had a great conversation with her about blogging after a panel at a PS conference many years ago), Laura McKenna. Short version: colleges and universities are producing way more PhD’s than there are appropriate jobs for:
Getting a Ph.D. has always been a long haul. Despite calls for reform, the time spent in graduate programs hasn’t declined significantly in the past decade. In 2014, students spent eight years on average in graduate school programs to earn a Ph.D. in the social sciences, for example. It takes nine years to get one in the humanities, seven for science fields and engineering, and 12 for education, according to NSF. In other words, Ph.D.s are typically nearing or in their 30s by the time they begin their careers. Many of their friends have probably already banked a decade’s worth of retirement money in a 401K account; some may have already put a down payment on a small town house.
First, I trust the data on this, and it tells us that there’s a lot of people pursuing PhD’s who should be. Speaking on behalf of the social sciences– if you are taking 8 years, you are doing something wrong and this is not the path for you. Virtually every single professor I know has taken 6 years or less to get a PhD, most in 5. I knew plenty of people in grad school who took 7 and longer. They were not generally on a path to success. Fair to say, more of these should be weeded out before hitting the job market. Now, of course, I’m sure there’s the high-qualified individual who take 8 years due to exceptional circumstances, but that’s definitely the anomaly.
It may not be surprising that Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences are struggling to find tenure-track faculty jobs. After all, graduate schools producedtwo new history Ph.D.s for every tenure-track job opening in 2014…
So, you would think that this kind of information, which has already been discussed in many news articles and books over the years, would dissuade universities from admitting more students. You might even think that super-smart students would try their hands at other careers. [emphasis mine] After all, when news about the bad employment market for lawyers came out, the number of applications to law schools plummeted. Wouldn’t the same thing happen to Ph.D. programs? Apparently not.
In 2014, doctoral programs in the United States awarded 54,070 Ph.D.s—12,000 more than 2004. All fields, except for education, saw an increase, with the biggest increases in science and engineering…
Why hasn’t all this information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors—why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic? Are people risking so much in the hopes of getting a cushy job with a six-figure salary and no teaching requirements? Is it because academia is a cult that makes otherwise sane people believe that there is no life outside of the university? Are graduate programs failing to inform their students about the realities of the job market? There are no answers to those questions in the charts and graphs from the NSF.
Good questions. Short answer on the demand side… yes, being a professor is clearly such an awesome job that many are willing to go for it even though the odds are against them. Furthermore, it’s also pretty clear to me that lots of PhD students have no idea what they are getting into. I blame their advisers for that. I’ve sent students on to a PhD who have dropped out, but I guarantee you they would not tell you I failed to sufficiently warn them.
Anyway, I really think this is very much a supply-side issue. Build it and they will come. Universities create way more PhD programs than are actually needed. Why? Administrators are rewarded for creating new PhD programs. From what I can tell, there’s little incentive for creating high-quality new PhD programs were the graduates will get jobs. And as long as there is the incentive to create these programs, they will be created and entice students into them (due to the demand side issues) even if there’s little chance of a good job from a mediocre PhD program.
I’m sure there’s more to it than this, but I do think these factors, especially the supply-side ones, go a long way in explaining our glut of PhD’s.