Too many PhD’s

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.

Okay, more:

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.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Too many PhD’s

  1. Jon K says:

    Why would it take longer to get a social science, or especially an education, PhD compared to a scientific one?

    My dad and I are the only non-male members of our family to not be PhD. My uncle, grandpa, his sister, and his brother were all PhD in physics. My great grandfather was an astronomer of some note My grandad was actually in the class at MIT portrayed in the movie A Beautiful Mind where John Nash is teaching and his future wife shut the window. I guess I should have followed tradition and been a physics PhD, but it just had no appeal for me.

  2. Ben says:

    I know lots of successful (ie got excellent jobs and are now tenured) ones who took more than six years. Often, these are comparativists who had to do one or more years of fieldwork. In general, the more quantitative driven a dissertation, the less original data collection that has to be done, and the better the advising one has, the shorter the time to degree. I had little advising and essentially took 9 years (though as you suggest my situation was exceptional as no one wanted to advise my original dissertation project). But, I know many who are successful who took more than 6 years, in fact several of those I think as most successful took the longest (e.g., John Zaller was like 12 years).

    Why so many students and programs? This is more complex: First, schools that want to move up in the rankings and achieve membership in the AAU must “look like” other AAU schools and they produce and place graduate students. Second, Grad programs aren’t that good at figuring out who will be successful and not. Grades and test scores are not very good predictors in my experience, though this may be because of the students from the part of the distribution that I see–though I also saw this at UCLA. This leads some (like me) to push for admitting more students and seeing who is best. Third, labor. Sadly, graduate programs need students to take grad classes and to work as TAs and readers. Finally, there is a lot of randomness in the placement process. One of the best students we have ever had (6 pubs when on the market), ethnic minority, nice kid, great methods skills, struggled to get a job for several years, even while his classmates who are much less accomplished and promising, got jobs at R1 schools. Some of this has to do with the interest people have in different topics.

    Finally, I will push back a little on the theme of the difficulty getting jobs. We are a top 50ish department and we place about 90% of our students (who finish) in tenure track jobs (over the last ~10 years). Now some of these are community college jobs, and one could argue that you don’t need a PhD for those, but those jobs have become super competitive over the last few years and frankly they are good jobs for those who don’t want to do much research. But, we also increasingly place them at R1’s. In fact I can only think of one student in the last several years who I would call a “good” student (ie has pubs and is doing the right things) who has not gotten a position within 2 years of being on the market.

    The one problem I see lies in the field of political theory. We have in the least 10 years only placed one student in political theory, despite their making up about 25% of our admissions. And that placement was at a community college. And they disproportionately drop out of the program. But it is very difficult to get people to agree to not admit more theorists because the theory faculty want students to take their classes. And, the students insist on pursuing the field even though the prospects are so dim.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Wow– so much. First, I wanted to say I had no idea about Zaller. Easily one of the smartest people I’ve had the pleasure to have an intellectual conversation with. I do still suspect that, on average, those taking much more than 6 are less successful PhD students in social sciences.
      You mentioned AAU schools producing and placing graduate students. Is placing actually part of the rankings? From my perspective it has always struck me as Deans, etc., getting rewarded for the number of students enrolled the number of PhD programs, period.

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