They walk into my office every spring, dressed in new suits (the men) or dressy pantsuits (the women). They are prospective graduate students, and they're nervous. We engage in a few pleasantries, and then I ask them what they want to do with their Ph.D.s. They all reply that they want a tenure-track job at a research university. I then ask them what they know of the academic job market in my discipline (social psychology). Smiles faltering a bit, some say they've heard it was rather bad at the moment; others say they don't know much about it. I explain to them that calling the job market "rather bad" was akin to calling Katrina "a bad storm" and that the market is as bad as I've seen in my 23 years as a professor. They gulp hard and then reply gamely that they are prepared to work hard to achieve their goals. I smile back at them and applaud their initiative. Inwardly I wonder if they truly know what they are getting into, that even if they work hard and amass an impressive vita, it still might not be enough to enable them to earn that coveted tenure-track job.
After a few years of watching the academic job market collapse into a seeming death spiral, I also started to wonder whether my "full disclosure" strategy of trying to scare off prospective graduate students was adequate. I started to entertain the possibility that if the problem was too many qualified applicants for too few jobs, then perhaps the responsible – even ethical – course of action would be for me to stop contributing to the oversupply of applicants.
So, a few weeks ago I revised my departmental web page to include the following statement: "Notice to prospective graduate students: I will not be accepting new students in my lab for the indefinite future."
Some of my colleagues voiced private support; others vigorously disputed the idea that there was an oversupply of psychology Ph.D.s. As one friend told me over coffee at Starbucks, "Sure, the market is bad, but our students always find jobs." While that was true, it was also true that their searches had grown increasingly desperate over the past couple of years and that our success was driven in part because graduate training in psychology opens up a large number of applied options – options that are also drying up disconcertingly in the current recession.
In our own recent faculty searches, the number of applications received and the strength of the candidates were staggering. Our latest hire had over 25 publications when he interviewed, many of them in the top journals in our field. We clearly benefited from the job market glut, but what would come of the countless others in the pool who had decent, even impressive, vitas but simply couldn’t vault to the top of a short list? And would the students I train be able to compete at such a level? At this stage of my career, I’m publishing steadily but not spectacularly. I feel I can offer students excellent training in research methodology and theory, but I am no longer confident that will be enough to propel them to the top of a short list for the kinds of jobs they came into graduate school wanting.
In short, I think academia shares many of the classic elements of a social trap: It is in most faculty members’ and departments’ best interests to recruit a lot of graduate students. Churning out Ph.D.s is one of the major metrics of departmental “success.” Departments need graduate students to teach their classes, and faculty members need them to run their labs. Yet, as in any social trap, when everybody acts in their self-interest, a negative collective outcome ensues. I have served as chair or co-chair of 13 Ph.D. students in my career, a number I’m guessing is typical of most research faculty. Population growth of that magnitude is a Malthusian melt-down in the making and simply isn’t sustainable. We’re not creating enough academic jobs to absorb all those Ph.D.s, and in today’s economy, applied jobs are disappearing as well.
Of course, it is possible, as my coffee buddy assures me, that the market will start improving in a couple of years and we will need all the Ph.D.s we’re churning out. Maybe so, and if it does, I can always start accepting students again. But I’m no longer willing to pin my students’ prospects for their futures on an ephemeral job market that shines in the distance like a mirage.
And I’ll be OK without new Ph.D. students, even after my current student finishes. I have access to bright honors students who can collect data for me, albeit with a lot more supervision and input on my part. I can collaborate with colleagues who have students of their own. Maybe I’ll explore other forms of scholarship that don’t require graduate students, such as working with archival data sets or writing that trade book that’s been rattling around in my head for a while.
I’m not arguing that graduate programs should stop admitting students entirely. There are, after all, some jobs out there, and graduate students play too important of a role in the modern research enterprise to phase out graduate training completely. But I think we need to reduce, and in some disciplines sharply, the number of Ph.D.s that are produced.
Knowing that prospective students apply to graduate school of their own free will, with hope in their hearts and stardust in their eyes, doesn’t absolve faculty of some portion of responsibility for the current crisis. As the bumper sticker says, if I’m not part of the solution, I’m part of the problem. I don’t want to be part of the problem any more, and I think I will sleep better knowing that I am no longer contributing to an academic job market that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a Ponzi scheme on the verge of falling apart.
Monica J. Harris is professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.