Recently 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.