This Just In . . . Again

WBNT NBCRecently I overhead a conversation between two students in which one of them stated “professor” as a post-graduation career plan. Soon afterward I found out that one of our seniors had been accepted to several doctoral programs and was trying to decide which one to enter.

I’ve written before about why graduate school in many humanities and social science fields is a losing proposition. Links to past posts on the subject are embedded in my 2014 note to prospective graduate students. Today I’ll repeat my message with some references to data that are indicative of broad trends in the academic labor market. 

Here is the U.S. labor market over the last decade, as of June 2014. Employment in private education, which includes private K12 schools, universities, and corporate training, has increased 23 percent since the beginning of 2004, though average salaries have dropped by 12 percent since the end of 2008. This looks good, but social science and humanities research jobs — highly concentrated in government and academia and for which a PhD is the preferred credential — are down from a high of 66,100 jobs in September 2006 to 59,100 jobs in mid-2014, a drop of 11 percent.

If we focus on seven humanities fields, the picture gets worse: the number of faculty jobs advertised by disciplinary societies has decreased from 14 to 30 percent since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008.

David Colander and Daisy Zhuo have produced an economic analysis of the academic job market in one of these fields — English. Their findings:

  • The United States “needs only about half the graduate English programs . . . that it currently has” (149). 
  • English graduate programs prepare their students “for jobs at research-focused universities, but most of their graduates do not get such jobs and cannot expect to” (145).
  • Over the last thirty-five years, “fewer than half of graduated PhD students have gotten tenure-track academic jobs upon graduation. The result is a large pool of residual job seekers, which places even more pressure on the job market for existing students” (139).

Colander and Zhuo also make the important point that none of the programs examined in their study provided “correlated placement data with full entering cohort information, together with detailed attrition data” (142). In other words, the rate at which people drop out of doctoral programs in English is unknown, and reported job placement rates are exercises in survivorship bias.

Graduate programs that train people for non-academic professions are of course a different matter, except for law, which has traditionally been touted as career option for political science majors. A recent study of over 1,200 law school graduates in Ohio, all of whom passed the bar exam after finishing law school in 2010, found that one-quarter have jobs for which a law license is not required. Many of those who did become attorneys were forced to open solo practices at significant financial risk. Additional information on debt loads and job placement for law school graduates in the USA can be found at Law School Transparency.

Despite these statistics, I still encounter colleagues who give advice to students as if the labor market in higher education, law, and other fields has not changed since they attended graduate school decades ago. They provide this advice while a nearby post-secondary technical training institute proceeds with the next phase of its $200,000,000 expansion. This expansion will more than double the instructional space on a campus that is less than five years old. I think the folks there have a much better idea of the labor market than many of the faculty who work at universities like mine.

3 thoughts on “This Just In . . . Again

  1. OK, the market for most academic disciplines isn’t very good.
    Problem = we’re coming out of a depression. No labor market (except petroleum engineering) is in very good shape, no matter what the skills are needed for it.
    Your students, should they choose to go for the Ph.D. will be sheltered from market conditions for 4 years at the minimum. A lot can change in that length of time, as looking at the last 5 years can show. My conclusion = you are piling this on a bit deep. Sure the young people who get their Ph.D.’s in English are going to have a hard time (unless they do the new quantitative stuff), but the social sciences and law will probably rebound within the time the students are hiding in grad school.
    So, I would warn the students who are thinking of grad school of the attendant risks, but I wouldn’t tell them not to do it.

    1. 1. The academic market has been terrible for a long time. It’s only gone from bad to worse, not good to bad. Furthermore, the decline isn’t the result of temporary market plummets – it’s the result of changes in the way the university and higher education is shaped. Tenure-track positions are being replaced with part-time contingent labor because it’s cheaper. Administrative positions are proliferating. Those changes will not be reversed in the 4-6 years a prospective social scientist will be in graduate school, or even the 6-8 years a humanist will spend.

      Saying that no labor market is good is disingenuous. Of course most are not doing well – although I would add tech and computer science to the list that are. But academia is doing worse than most others.

      2. PhD programs don’t shelter anyone from market conditions. To say that is to imply that universities operate outside of the normal labor market and are unaffected – but they’re not. Funding has been shrinking, particularly in fields that are funded by NSF and NIH research. Grants are more difficult to get. Students who enter now, particularly programs with shakier funding, might find their stipends cut or even eliminated by the time they get to their ABD years. Professors may leave, resources may flee, and/or there may be less money to travel to conferences or fieldwork. I’m saying these things because I saw them happen in my own PhD program.

      I don’t think anyone who gives the advice to MOST students not to go is piling on. Most students who want to get a PhD probably shouldn’t. It’s not that we don’t need PhD-educated humanists and social scientists; it’s that we don’t need nearly as many as we train right now. And the statistics bear that out.

  2. I’d say twenty-five percent of a 1,200-person sample employed in jobs not requiring a law degree is evidence that the job market for lawyers isn’t going to rebound anytime soon.

    Perhaps people who attend top-tier law schools like Columbia will eventually get a reasonable return on their investment, but the undergraduates where I work don’t get into top-tier law schools.

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