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Doctoral Dystopia

The subtitle summed it up pretty well: “How our best and brightest can work tirelessly for eight years only to receive food stamps, debt, and no career.” 

September 12, 2013

I saw an interesting info graphic, The Growing Adjunct Crisis, the other day that made me wonder why so many people pursue a doctoral degree.  The subtitle summed it up succinctly: “How our best and brightest can work tirelessly for eight years only to receive food stamps, debt, and no career.”  According to the piece, there were about 11 doctoral degrees awarded for every professorship opening listed in the past year.

Many people earning doctorates end up with great jobs in labs, in university administration, in government positions, with think tanks, in consulting firms, and on Wall Street, but a very large number of them seem to end up in low-pay, low-advancement-opportunity adjunct positions. Perhaps more Ph.D. grads don’t want to pursue a career in academia – or perhaps they don’t pursue an academic career because there are no jobs there. 

Yet interest in Ph.D. programs – and the number of doctoral degrees conferred – continues to rise.  According to a recent Council of Graduate Schools report, for Fall 2012 there were over 650,000 applications for doctoral admissions received by the 675 institutions reporting data.  These institutions awarded 67,200 doctoral degrees that year, approximately 6% higher than the number of degrees awarded the previous year.  Almost 8% of these doctoral degrees awarded in 2012 were in the arts and humanities.  As a recent article, “More Humanities Ph.Ds.,” points out, “in the fall of 2012, arts and humanities doctoral programs saw a 7.7 percent increase – a surprising jump given the difficulty many new Ph.Ds. in those fields have in finding jobs.  Such an increase could add to the glut of humanities Ph.Ds. that has grown as the economic downturn has left so many who have been unable to find tenure-track jobs.”

Another recent article, "Once-Flourishing Economics Ph.D. Program Prepares to Die," suggests that an increasing number of doctoral programs may be contenders for closure, mentioning the defunding of University of Florida’s Ph.D. program in economics, and the closure of economics Ph.D. programs at Emory and Case Western Reserve.  However, the article notes, “the job market for new economics Ph.Ds. is relatively healthy.  In 2010-11, almost 89 percent of all economics graduates who sought employment got jobs, and 62 percent of those landed academic positions.”  Interesting. 

Pursuing a doctorate seems like a risky professional strategy for those wanting to enter the professorate – it comes with a high opportunity cost and a very uncertain outcome for job prospects.  I suspect that the rise of MOOCs and the flipped classroom will accelerate this trend toward fewer tenure track positions, thus compounding the problem. So why are applications and degrees conferred continuing to rise?


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