Pointless Ph.D. Proliferation

A recent New York Times piece caught my eye, as it hit upon a topic—alas!—so close to my heart. I’m talking about the enormous glut of people who have earned their PhDs. but cannot find secure, decent-paying academic work. 

The article was about a group of disillusioned Ph.Ds. who have joined an organization called “Versatile Ph.D.” The organization was formed to help Ph.Ds. who cannot find, or don’t want, tenure-track teaching positions to network with others and share their experiences. 

It appears to be something like an alcoholics anonymous program for recovering professors-manqué. 

One member of the organization, for example, has a doctorate from Princeton in ancient religion who now works for a financial website. Anther who has a doctorate in history now works at an elite prep school. They offer advice to people such as a young man with a doctoral degree in American studies who applied to 60 advertised teaching positions and wasn’t invited to even one interview, much less offered a professorship. The advice includes tips on how others can find out about job openings outside academe and better present themselves.

All of this highlights what I call the first dirty little secret of graduate schools: fewer than half of all Ph.Ds. cranked out every year ever land tenure-track positions. (I am one who didn’t.)

This problem has existed for decades, but is growing ever worse as tenure jobs become scarcer. What is new, as the New York Times piece notes, is the growth of organizations like Versatile Ph.D., and support blogs such as “Chronicles of a Recovering Academic” and the scatological but hilarious “Dr. Outta Here.”

Of course, this problem of the pointless Ph.D. is more severe among the humanities doctorates (43 percent of whom have no offer of employment when they get their degrees), but even STEM majors face the problem—35 percent of them likewise have no academic job offer when they complete their doctorates. (However, there are far more opportunities for STEM Ph.Ds. in private industry than for humanities ones).

What can be done about this?

There are commendable efforts to find other areas of employment for humanities Ph.Ds. who cannot find professorships. For example, the Scholarly Communication Institute headed by Katina Rogers recently released a report aimed at helping Humanities scholars find meaningful work. Entitled “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship beyond the Tenure Track,” it elaborates the notion of alternative academic work (or “alt-ac”). Alt-ac careers for humanities scholars include such occupations as museum curator, government historian, or—naturally—college administrator (quite a burgeoning area of work, indeed!)

Then there is the work by a group of Stanford profs to reform curricula for Humanities Ph.Ds. They wrote a report, “The Future of the Humanities Ph.D. at Stanford,” which advocates reform of humanities doctoral programs.  Among other ideas, they calls for redesigning programs so that doctoral students could routinely finish in 5 (rather than 7 to 9) years, and for the programs to prep students for non-academic careers (such as speakers discussing alt-ac employment and offering internships in alt-ac venues).

None of those ideas, however, gets at the root of the problem.

Graduate departments deliberately entice students into their programs by presenting the prospect of highly paid, enjoyable, meaningful, prestigious, and low-stress jobs guaranteed for life. But they use the students as low-paid teaching assistants, and most of the grads end up as adjuncts or perpetual temporary visiting professors who rarely have a shot at the cozy tenured slots. 

This system allows the privileged, tenured professors to teach fewer courses and do esoteric research that appeals to them. But for many of the students, it’s like a bait-and-switch scheme.

While many grad schools have Ph.D. programs, they differ greatly in the percentage of their grads who ever get tenure-track positions. Of the diminishing number of tenure-track positions open to newly-minted Ph.Ds. only graduates from a relatively small number of elite institutions will have any real chance of getting those jobs. 

Consider my own field, philosophy. There are about 172 departments in American universities that award Ph.Ds. in philosophy. Yet a relative handful of them (mainly schools ranked in the top 30) place the lion’s share of new tenure-track hires in any given year. 

The cost to the taxpayer for this overproduction of doctorates is huge, naturally. But the cost to the hapless Ph.Ds. is tragic, especially when we keep in mind the economists’ dictum that in the final analysis, all costs are opportunity costs. The five to ten years it takes for a grad student to get a pointless Ph.D. are taken form the most productive period of that person’s life, a period in which he or she could have been establishing a lifetime career in an existing business or starting a new business.

Whenever I teach business ethics, I am always amused at how often business ethics texts dwell on the market failures cause by for-profit businesses, and push for increased regulation to control them, yet never mention the market failures caused by non-profit businesses (such as private colleges) and the government failures caused by government enterprises (such as public colleges). 

Considering the social and personal harm caused by the deliberate over-production of Ph.Ds. you would think that ethicists in particular would be the first to suggest common-sense regulations to control this egregious higher education market failure.  Since no other ethicists seem to be offering any, let me suggest a simple market-oriented remedy.

We should have a regulation—either voluntarily adopted, or pushed by academic NGOs (such as the American Philosophical Association), or perhaps passed into law, requiring every department that confers Ph.Ds. to keep track of its grads to see how many of them get tenure-track appointments—not temp or adjunct positions, much less jobs requiring no graduate training—over the next year, as well as over the next decade. 

If a student asking for an application to study in the Ph.D. program at University X were informed that only one of the ten Ph.Ds. it graduated last year has a tenure-track position and only 6 the 78 it graduated over the last decade have landed tenure-track positions, and he or she still wishes to apply, well, at least that is informed consent. But it is likely that many prospective students, upon learning how slight their chances really are, wouldn’t even apply.

Something like this is already being done voluntarily by the American Bar Association, which has been publishing appropriate post-graduation employment data—data that exclude jobs for which no legal training is required. Law schools have subsequently witnessed a significant drop in enrollments.

If the legal profession can do this, why can’t all other graduate programs do so as well—especially those, such as philosophy programs, that pride themselves on teaching ethics?

My suggestion is not likely to be adopted voluntarily because the professoriate is united in supporting the existing system of the overproduction of Ph.Ds. It’s in their self-interest.

That is another dirty little secret. Even those who teach lofty, other-regarding ethical systems—such as virtue ethics, Kantianism, and utilitarianism—are themselves typically motivated by simple egoism.

Ecce, Homo Academicus!