The Academic Job Market Is Tottering, But Nobody’s Telling Graduate Students

Back in 2003, Thomas Benton—“the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal arts college”—wrote a brutally honest article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about graduate programs in the humanities. Citing dismal job prospects for Ph.D. holders, the author’s advice to would-be students was simple: don’t go.

Since that article was published, the academic job market for many master’s and Ph.D. candidates has worsened. Recent headlines, such as “A Glut of Ph.D.s Means Long Odds of Getting Jobs” and “The Ph.D. Bubble Has Burst: Graduating ‘Doctors’ Are Having Trouble Finding Work,” suggest how bad things have gotten.

Unfortunately, while many within academia are aware of these grim realities, prospective students are often left in the dark about the potential perils of attending graduate school and the fact that tenure-track jobs are by no means guaranteed. Such ignorance is due in part to the fact that the information students receive from graduate programs is often incomplete or designed to present a rosy picture.

It’s past time for university officials and department leaders to actively encourage students to fully consider the pros and cons of graduate school, and to provide detailed information about the academic job market, warts and all.

Today, for example, those with doctoral degrees in the humanities are often underemployed or unable to find work in their fields. In 2014, 45.7 percent of all humanities Ph.D. recipients had no definite commitment for employment or postdoctoral study upon graduation. And despite the conventional wisdom pushed by politicians and administrators, prospects for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates aren’t much better.

While the number of STEM Ph.D. recipients increased 57 percent from 1995 to 2014, there was little change in faculty appointment rates. As a result, in 2014, 42.1 percent of life science Ph.D.s, 36.2 percent of physical science Ph.D.s, and 43 percent of engineering Ph.D.s had no definite employment offers at graduation. And STEM Ph.D.s have as little as a 15 percent chance of obtaining a tenure-track faculty position. So after 5-6 years in grad school, and often the same amount of time in postdoc positions, many graduates find themselves underemployed as lab technicians or managers or adjunct professors.

In the University of North Carolina system, it’s difficult to tell how master’s and Ph.D. graduates—in any field—stack up to the national scene because most departments do not have a formal system to track their alumni., a website that reports employment outcomes for UNC system graduates, only offers data for bachelor’s degree recipients. Because of this information shortage, future graduate students must base their decisions regarding which programs to attend on faculty reputations and department rankings (if one exists for their program of choice).

For example, UNC-Chapel Hill’s graduate school boasts of its impressive track record on “assessments and rankings centered on national academic leadership within research funding, excellence of programs, affordability and diversity.” According to the graduate school’s website, “more than 20 degree programs or specialty areas…appear prominently in the 2012 U.S. News & World Report’s ‘America’s Best Graduate Schools’ issue.” That sounds good, but there is no mention of graduates’ employment outcomes.

For the most part, UNC system graduate programs do not report statistics on their alumni outcomes on their webpages; there is no way to tell how many individuals have job offers at the time of graduation, how many years graduates spend in additional training programs, or how many graduates eventually find tenure-track positions. Considering that roughly 50 percent of surveyed graduate students indicate that they intend to go into academia, more information is necessary to help guide their decision-making.

One program that does report results is the Ph.D. classics program at UNC-Chapel Hill. The information is revealing—and very useful for prospective students. The most noticeable trend is that many students who begin the program leave after receiving a master’s degree (despite the fact that the program does not accept students seeking a terminal master’s). Those students often move on to teach high school. Of those who finish the Ph.D. program, most seem to have earned tenure-track jobs, although a few are visiting or non-tenure track teachers.

The English and comparative literature department at UNC-Chapel Hill also reports useful data. Each year, the department lists the total number of Ph.D. graduates and the number of academic jobs procured. (For 2016, the placement rate was 45 percent.)

But the best data, by far, is offered by North Carolina State University’s Institute for Advanced Analytics. The program reports extensive employment outcome data for its master of science in analytics graduates, including the number of candidates placed at the time of graduation, average annual salaries, and a list of employers making offers. The Institute’s data could be used as a model for other graduate programs in the system.

The UNC system’s Board of Governors should work to ensure that more graduate programs are providing more useful information to prospective students. And as it did with, the UNC General Administration can help by gathering and distributing data about graduate student outcomes.

Ultimately, providing this information will help North Carolina students make better decisions and help UNC schools use their scare resources on degrees and programs that match the evolving job market.