An Academic Lottery or a Meritocracy?

Whichever one I’m working in as a Ph.D. student, I’d like some real data about how to improve my career chances, writes Andrew Jacob Cuff.

May 3, 2017
 
 
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You’ve heard this story -- or lived it. A young Ph.D. graduate goes on the job market. She’s worked hard, and with a great portfolio -- including peer-reviewed articles, presentations, teaching experience and references -- she should be a shoo-in. But she’s not. Twenty applications, two interviews, zero offers.

Yet her friend, a fellow graduate student from the same program, no less, reports that she has to choose between two or three offers. Besides specialty, there is no discernible difference between the two applications. Was there any point in going all those extra miles?

But you’ve also heard -- or lived -- another story. A veteran professor looks through some old research papers from grad school. She recalls confidently submitting them to journals, only to be harshly rejected by a nameless, faceless expert. She recalls feeling anger, shame, defeat. Yet all these years later, looking back at her early attempts, she has finally understood what earned her the disdain of that peer-review board. She knows the fatal writing mistakes that made her early papers unpublishable. She feels that she has tangibly “grown into” her current position. She perceives an order to things, a ladder of quality that she has finally climbed.

Those who write about academe go back and forth as to which scenario best describes the path to success in our profession. Both are clearly true in some cases. For myself, an almost-done Ph.D. student nervously staring down the job market (the abyss that stares back), this is more than an academic question. Were my educational choices worthwhile? How much unpaid work will I need to have done in pursuit of this career?

As a researcher, my first impulse is to seek hard data in answering such questions. The trouble is, only rarely is a study performed with any practical implications on this topic. Rather, the question of academic lottery or meritocracy is automatically translated into a question about racism, ageism, sexism or classism. The job market has been transformed into a venue for social-justice reform.

That is well intended but unhelpful to us graduate students who can’t change our race, age, sex or family history. We want to know: How much teaching experience is enough? How many articles should I strive to publish, or should I even bother publishing at all? Does conference participation give me a better chance at that elusive tenure-track job?

Many aspiring academics, including me, entered their degree programs like Han Solo. “Never tell me the odds,” we said. Then our job searches turned up adjunct positions that paid less than minimum wage, a consolation prize after seven or more years of graduate education.

Multiple studies have shown that depending on the discipline, as few as one-fourth and as many as one-half of Ph.D.s get hired in academic jobs at all and that only a third of these jobs are on the tenure track. Thus, the odds of any given Ph.D. getting a tenure-track job lie between 10 and 25 percent. For the sake of comparison, high school football players have a 6.5 percent chance of making it into college ball, and only 1.6 percent of these make the NFL draft, according to a 2013 study by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Of the roughly 20,000 working actors in Hollywood, about 1,000 attend the Oscars each year (a reasonable measure of the percentage that have “made it”). Tenured academe is not yet as exclusive as the celebrity professions, but we do need to wake up to how it is trending in that direction.

Just as judicious parents warn their children off the pipe dream of sports or pop music stardom, so should professors impart the hard truths to their “Ph.D. in Jane Austen or bust” undergraduates. But what about students who have already chosen that path? About 54,000 new doctors earned their cap and gown in arts or sciences in 2014, and that number is increasing yearly. It’s outrageous that we should persist in a data-driven analytical profession without bringing our tools to bear on one of its most fundamental questions: How do those outside it break in?

What we need are professional studies, not just anecdotal advice columns, about how hiring committees separate the frogs from the tadpoles. What was the average publication count of tenure-track hires by discipline? How did two Ph.D. graduates with the same references (a controlled variable) fare on the job market, and why? What percentage of tenure-track hires began with national conference interviews? These are testable unknowns, not divine mysteries.

From the age-old Jobtracks project (ended in 2001, archived here) to those 21st-century methods such as the American Historical Association’s jobs-to-Ph.D.s ratio report, many studies have examined the employment trajectory of Ph.D. students. Few, however, have cross-referenced the arc of tenure-track success with the qualifications of the students on the market. Instead, only two types of applicant data are typically deemed significant enough to gather in these and other job reports: (1) the prestige and affluence of their alma mater, and (2) their age, race or gender.

Thank you so much for the detailed information about all the things in my application that I can’t improve.

However, secondary data analysis of other studies that have been generously made public can reveal clues that the job reports don’t care to. For example, a 2016 study that measured the publications and impact of STEM Ph.D. students happened to simultaneously measure the average number of their publications while in grad school, cross-referenced to their later hireability. The average number of publications for each future tenure-track hire was 0.5, a surprisingly low number that would likely be higher in humanities disciplines.

Another study from 2014 measured similar survey data with similar results, but it added that publishing rates among graduate students have been steadily increasing over time, while hiring rates have been steadily decreasing. That study placed the average number of publications around 0.8. It is clear that standards are shifting, but how much? And how do those standards vary by field?

Once more data of this kind become available, it will be easier to tell whether the “merits” of tenure-track job applicants outstripped the bias and sheer luck that seems to currently haunt the process. If hard-and-fast quotas exist, we Ph.D. students must figure out how to meet them, or the inevitable result will be endless escalation and competitive burnout.

Let’s not become so focused on academic hiring as a “broken system” that incentivizes discrimination that we forget about the job seekers who are in the midst of it. Ph.D. students deserve a realistic picture of what to expect when they graduate and what’s expected of them along the way. In the hypercompetitive job market we currently have, and will likely have in perpetuity, job seekers need to know how much of an impact the extra work they do in grad school will have on their future career prospects.

Recall the earlier comparison of academe to NFL and Hollywood stardom. There will always be an element of both hiring paradigms in academe: the one in football, in which hiring is based on skills and statistics, and the one in film, in which acting skills are requisite but suitability for a role is everything. Different types of institutions will make their decisions in different ways. Some will run a strict numbers game controlled by the dean, the faculty and the human resources department. Others will want to take you out for drinks and shuffleboard to see if you fit the department culture.

Ultimately, though, we must develop quantitative guidelines, however invisible, that can help graduate students make the best use of their nebulous Ph.D. years. The goal of those who offer advice about the academic job market should be to uncover hard data about this broad spectrum of expectations so that future professorial hopefuls can have something to shoot for.

Bio

Andrew Jacob Cuff is a Ph.D. student at the Catholic University of America.

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