Friday, December 7, 2012

So Many Ph.Ds...So Few Jobs

I'm going to read the whole thing this weekend and will probably have more to say about it in future posts, but the newest NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates is out, and the picture about jobs isn't a pretty one.

According to the IHE, the percentage of folks who graduate with Ph.D.s and have firm employment commitments on hand at graduation has fallen sharply ... across every discipline.

Here's the table from the IHE article, which is drawn directly from the report:

(Side note - I am really surprised to see that the percentage of new grads with job commitments is highest among social scientists. Though I suppose if you include economists and psychologists in that group, you may be catching a number of people who are moving into industry. But still...).

At any rate, these numbers are pretty scary. Note that the comparison year is 2006 - which is at least a year or two before the academic job market is perceived to have started its collapse.

And as everyone knows, the next few years were awful. Fewer schools had money to hire new faculty, and many schools cancelled their searches when they were already underway. Graduate programs (like mine) where students who graduated in 2004 or 2005 were often mulling over 2 or 3 job offers as ABDs were suddenly seeing students who got nothing more than a single VAP offer or (if they really got lucky), an offer from a school that was at the end of their desirability list.

But now, in 2011 and 2012, we keep hearing that the market across multiple disciplines is rebounding. There are more job listings than in previous years, and schools are finally getting the go-ahead to hire tenure-track faculty. Don't worry, Ph.D. students! Everything is back to normal! Just keep working hard, and it'll all work out!

But as these numbers suggest, everything isn't working out for everyone. Fewer new grads have job commitments than in the past, when the academic job market was supposedly in its heyday.

Now, it's important to note that I don't think anyone is lying when they post these articles about the job market. I believe that there are more new academic job postings coming out in 2011 and 2012 than there were in 2007 and 2008. I also believe the NSF's numbers - that many new Ph.Ds are graduating without jobs. So what's going on?

I have a feeling that the hiring numbers look particularly bad for new grads because people who graduated years ago are now looking to jump ship from their first (less desirable) jobs into better ones ... or to move from the temporary positions they were forced to take in 2008 into their first tenure-track jobs.

So when brand new Ph.Ds graduate, they simply can't compete with the assistant profs from Kinda Crappy University, who have several years of faculty-level publishing and grant-writing and teaching under their belt. It's nothing anyone is doing to anyone else on purpose, of course, and it doesn't mean that the new grads are not impressive scholars who will go onto great careers. It's just the way the market looks now.

But making excuses about why these patterns are happening does not change the reality that the job situation for new Ph.D grads is not good. The market has not "rebounded" for them. 3 or 4 of every 10 folks graduating with a Ph.D are looking with anxiety at that scary date in the summer where their health insurance will run out and their last academic paycheck will come in, and where they won't have the opportunity to hang back and stay in grad school for one more year.

They're facing unemployment ... after years and years of making barely five figures and without the possibility of being able to earn an unemployment check if they can't find work.

Because, as universities are all too happy to remind graduate students who have tried to unionize - the people who teach and do research at their university without the prefix "Dr." are not employees.

From the linked article:
New York University's brief challenges the idea that the unionization of research assistants should even be a consideration in the case, arguing that they do not provide services in exchange for compensation and are simply performing the research required by their academic programs.
Now, I don't want to derail this post with a discussion of labor economics and graduate education, but I do want to make the important - and often overlooked - point that since graduate students are not typically considered employees, their situation is particularly dire if they wind up unemployed after graduation.

If the company I work shuts its doors tomorrow, I could march down to the local unemployment office and file for benefits. The benefits wouldn't replace my entire salary, but they would likely make it so that my partner and I wouldn't lose our house and could afford food until something else comes up.

But graduating Ph.D. students with no employment prospects cannot go to the unemployment office and file a claim for part of the wages they earned while "working" for the university. Because the university would simply say that they hadn't been working, and therefore that they don't qualify for a couple hundred bucks a month in unemployment compensation.

(Then the university would undoubtedly continue construction on their multimillion dollar information technology building named after a wealthy donor, and on the hunt for a new Vice President of Student Informational Services who will earn in the mid six figures. But I digress.)

So what waits for these desperate new Ph.Ds who are about to lose their income and their health insurance and their institutional affiliation (which will, of course, affect their ability to do research and attend conferences and have an impressive CV)?

That's right ... adjuncthood. Or maybe if they're really really lucky, a one-year VAP position in some cow town hundreds of miles away from their family and friends. Just like every entering Ph.D student dreams of, right????

But what's the alternative when you have no chance to draw unemployment and no chance to further your academic career if you aren't affiliated with a university? There simply isn't one.


My major point, then, in looking at these numbers is that they are not just an interesting data point to ponder. Included in that 30-40% of new grads are people with families and bills to pay and who have spent the last 5-10 years of their lives working hard - incredibly hard - for a university that is all too happy to slam and lock the door behind them when they graduate without a job. "Didn't get anything this year? Oh well. Go find an adjunct position and then publish eight more papers and everything will be fine! Go on, now! Get out; we've done our duty to you!"

And then - then - on the front end? These programs are admitting full classes of new Ph.D. students, who are eager to study their beloved discipline and just "know" (and are repeatedly told) that "the job market will just work itself out."

And then by the time they get to the end of their graduate careers and see that nearly half of their cohort-mates are failing to land jobs upon graduation? Well, you should have worked harder.

It's gotten to the point where I weep for new Ph.D. students who have no idea what they're getting themselves into. If things look this bad now, how bad are they going to look in another ten years??

Something has to eventually give in higher education. Unfortunately, these numbers have me thinking that "something" already is. A class of desperate Ph.D. grads who can't find jobs and can't pay their bills are there, ready to snap up any temporary contract positions that a university will give them. The university saves money by not paying a fulltime faculty member, and the classes still get taught by someone who is eager to do a good job. From a university perspective, it's a win-win!

Unfortunately, it is not a "win" for those faculty, or for Ph.D students. But who cares about them, right? It's not like they're "employees" or something. Siiiiiiiiigh.


I'll have more later, once I have a chance to look through the entire report. 


  1. I feel like we (post-acers/bloggers) need to be doing more to help people floundering in this world. It seems like the academy is slow as molasses to respond and change, and I don't know about you but our stats are through the roof with googlers about quitting grad school (I guess finals does that to you). What aren't we doing that we could be doing?

    1. God, I don't know ... but it's something I've thought about quite a bit. I honestly don't have any idea how we could possibly reach out to people any more than we are already doing. I'd be open to any and all suggestions and would be happy to get involved, though.

      (And yeah ... even 18 months into blogging, I'm still pretty surprised by the amount of new traffic that the blog gets, and the search terms that bring people here. There's obviously a ready-made audience out there that is looking for some advice (or at least reassurance). It's depressing that they're not getting anything without a desperate late-night Google search.)

  2. I am so grateful for this blog and it has kept me sane this semester. I am a second year Ph.D student in social science (one of psychology subfields) and I am starting to feel really really unhappy and miserable. I am really sorry if I am venting, but I really wanted to talk to people who come to this blog. I am an international student who has been here for a couple of years, doing both clinical work and research, and I find myself a bit disgusted by whole academic people. Grad students are venting all the time, complaining about life, competing who is more busy..etc and I really feel uncomfortable around them. I am not saying it's easy for me, but just the environment that I am in, I don't feel it's intellectually stimulating nor emotionally supportive. I feel really lost and have been so disappointed with folks in the program. I believe I am not a bad person, but It has been so difficult to even "fake smile" in school. I feel I should be more political and present "nice", but it's just hard not to be transparent for me.

    Anyhow, I know it's not appropriate to vent here on comment box, but if anyone cares to comment on my situation, please feel free.

    I appreciate your time and I hope you are all well.

  3. The 2 Year Life of the MindDecember 7, 2012 at 4:34 PM

    JC and Lauren (and all other post-ac bloggers), even though you can't see it, the mere fact that you DO blog and have graciously and openly shared your experiences is an INCREDIBLE help to all of us. Just knowing that someone else out there has taken a different route, ventured out from behind ivy walls, and landed safely in the stream of the common working world is enough to motivate. Long after you've stopped blogging about this, others will find what you have written and take comfort in your words.

    I say this because you and the other bloggers have helped me so very much. I have taken all of the wonderful blog posts and put them together, "teaching" myself that it's OK to leave academia and life out there really has a lot to offer. Believe me, you're doing more good than you know.

    Thanks to ALL post-ac bloggers for sharing your knowledge and experience. We appreciate you.

  4. I'm glad you shared this. I'm about to finish my first semester of graduate school, but I'm just seeking a masters degree. Fortunately, at my university the terminal degree for my program is the Masters. There is a lot of pressure for me to go on and get a Ph.D, but not nearly as much if they actually offered it in my school.

    I think the masters will be useful for what I want to do, and after a few professors recommended getting a Ph.D, I started looking into it. Yet from lurking on your blog, I've been slowly swayed away from that.

    I have to admit, it really is a shame that graduate students are so miserable. Because honestly, I've not met a single grad student who says it's great, and they enjoy what they are doing the majority of the time. We push through it convinced we're going to have more economic and professional opportunities waiting for us...but are we really? It's not looking like it. Academia is not all it's cracked up to be.

  5. I am glad that you are writing this and I wished people would actually do their research before committing to grad school. I am undergrad and yet when I look at those around me (although I love my dept and professors) I know that a good majority of my classmates will end up at in the service industry if they are lucky and don't make the mistake of continuing on with the "life of the mind" gig. And that is sad.

    These kids don't get it and they are already thousands in debt. I am not because my parents pay (and no, I am not rich or middle-class). Paying the few hundred every year is hard and a burden for my parents. If I didn't have aid, I don't know what I would do. But, back to my point, it seems easy for 18-20 yr olds to take out loans without any thought that they will be fucked later on, especially if you continue on in the social sciences and want to be an academic. Again, I see my classmates that can barely write good enough papers, even after the professors proofreads them, and they hate to read theory. Hello! Theoy is basically the bread and butter in the academy! They lack true critical thinking skills and yet they want to go to graduate school!


    As for me, I was stupid. I was taken in by the subject and actually believed that I would do something with it. My friends tried to take me out of it, but I was stubborn until I realized that besides my writing skills (good, but not great), love of theory and critical thinking skills (that high school helped developed), I had no practical skills what so ever. No real job besides service would ever hire me with these skills. I now have am a double major and trying get the chance to do two interships. And yet, I feel like a failure. I wasted my time and am keeping my parents back from leaving a job they hate, just that I can graduate. My parents that make $13/hr and work 7hrs a week are struggling and I feel so guilty about it. However, at least I realized my mistake now and am trying to fix. Imagine, had I still been naive and on my way to the PH.D!

    As for my classmates, I know they will continue and I blame my wonderful professors (or are they?) for not trying to warn and try to open their eyes. I even tried to tell my friend about what I learned and although she is unsure, looked at a website (guess what, a graduate school!)where it was clearly stated that funding was not always there and that there was a chance she would living from term to term and yet, she was still considering it! Even after, I told her to never go to a graduate school without funding because it was a polite rejection. If you aren't goog enough for funding, you are not good enough for a job!

    Again, thanks for writing this! You have made a difference and helped informed undergrads (or at least me) that are taken it by the lie that is academic life.

  6. Anonymous (above), You are very fortunate that your parents have paid for college for you. Most people must work and take out loans. With a college education you will, of the course of a lifetime, make apx. one million dollars more in income than people who only have a high school education. That is not something to be so down on.

    Of course, presumably, you are now a more intelligent person. Is that something to put a price tag on? If college was totally free because your parents paid the tuition for you then it was certainly the right decision. Grad. school will help with certain careers depending on what you decide to do. Your friend in the Marines, on the other hand, very likely would have returned without legs (His criminal record might be a blessing in desguise).

    You may feel like a failure, and may in fact be a failure, but that is not the fault of college and your professors (who did not tell you what you should do with your life?). Success or failure is entirely on you.

  7. With the current economic conditions and debt levels in many countries, I would wonder if publicly funded universities and other institutions can even sustain the academic positions they already have. In the near future I think it is highly likely that some universities or parts thereof will become financially untenable as costs and tuition continue to rise and fewer students can afford to attend (certainly not if there is no promise of a well-paying job at the end). As well, research funding from various sources (especially governments) is unlikely to be able to sustain the careers of many (if any) newcomers for long unless their work has a direct economic spin-off and is supported by industry or private organisations with deep pockets. Many doctoral recipients will end up holding positions well below their ideal job for much longer than they would ever like to imagine.

    Generally speaking, I believe the era when everyone was encouraged to attend university and study whatever was of interest to them regardless of outcome is coming to a rapid and catastrophic conclusion.

    It is obvious that far too many dead-end doctorates are being awarded these days, particularly in areas of expertise where job growth is stagnant if not negative. A lot of these doctoral students should never have been there in the first place. Many of the established practitioners/faculty in these fields have been shielded from the truth (by the strong post-World War 2 economy) that their area of intellectual endeavour is not vital to the welfare of the economy or nation as a whole, and therefore is expendable when times get tough. Too many continually give false advice and encouragement to their students about their academic futures that is at best naive and at worst, highly self-serving.

    Unfortunately for most, future Ph.D.s in many fields will have to be nothing less than stellar in their academic performance to get anywhere at all in terms of landing and keeping a real job.

    The sad truth is that most people pursing a Ph.D. today are doing themselves a great disservice. Even a Masters in not advisable right now unless it is directly applicable to a job for which there is a high demand. Whether universities and their faculty like to admit it or not, the good old days are long gone and are unlikely to return anytime soon no matter what any survey suggests.

  8. I wonder how this compares to new bachelor level graduates?