Ph.D. Oversupply: The System Is the Problem

The jobs crisis is built into institutional structures, and to push past the logjam, universities must improve communication, information and incentives, argue Jonathan Malloy, Lisa Young and Loleen Berdahl.

June 22, 2021
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Every year, in almost every discipline, newly minted Ph.D.s outnumber tenure-track job postings by a substantial margin. While that trend has gone on for decades, most Ph.D. programs continue to maintain or even increase student enrollments and remain structured as a form of academic career training. Thus, growing numbers of Ph.D. graduates are trained for, and often expect, an academic career that’s not available to them.

North American graduate schools have made some progress to better prepare students for nonacademic careers. They have led significant innovations in professional development training, and some faculty members in both the United States and Canada have joined the discussion over Ph.D. career futures. Yet for all the talk and innovation, we hear little discussion of the underlying structural forces that maintain and perpetuate this decades-long overproduction of Ph.D.s.

Some people argue that the overproduction of Ph.D.s can be blamed on clueless faculty members unaware of “how bad it is out there.” But the available data do not support that conclusion. Our research on Canadian political science (to our knowledge, the only published study of its kind) found the vast majority of faculty were aware of the tight academic job market and were open to seeing the Ph.D. as preparation for academic and nonacademic careers. Only 15 percent felt less motivated to supervise students not planning to pursue an academic career.

In other words, the problem is not out-of-touch faculty. The problem is the system itself.

Why Ph.D. Admissions Remain High

If we graduate too many Ph.D.s, the obvious response is to admit fewer doctoral students. But which university or program will move first? Several programs froze their 2021 enrollments in the wake of COVID-19, but that is a short-term solution unlikely to signal a broader trend.

Rather, we face a classic collective action problem: we might all be better off if overall doctoral enrollments decline, but each institution, department and even faculty member benefits from maintaining or increasing their own doctoral student enrollments. The reasons are numerous, but to put it most simply, the modern university system requires Ph.D. students to keep everything else going.

In addition, the rising importance of international rankings for establishing institutional reputations and attracting students prompts research universities to try to maximize how high they rate according to various component measures. Those measures often include the number of doctoral students as a proportion of all students or the number of doctoral graduates relative to faculty members. That also creates a clear incentive to grow doctoral numbers.

And doctoral students are not just beans to be counted for international rankings. The grants that fuel the research enterprise at these institutions are structured to fund trainees (graduate students and postdoctoral scholars). Without evidence of employing and training doctoral students in past grants, a faculty member is at a disadvantage in future grant competitions.

The teaching enterprise of the modern research university is similarly fueled by armies of graduate teaching assistants grading papers, conducting labs and interacting with undergraduate students. Without them, faculty members would struggle to find time for research.

In some cases, Ph.D. students represent increased institutional revenue, as well. For public universities, that may be built into government enrollment funding formulas that reward institutions for taking in more students -- with Ph.D.s typically bringing in the most per head. Departments and programs also face incentives to sustain or grow the numbers of Ph.D.s in their discipline relative to others in order to increase the status of the unit within the institution and sometimes to maintain revenue, depending on the budget model.

Beyond those imperatives, any conversations about reducing doctoral numbers run into very real concerns about diversity and inclusion. More restrictive admissions policies can further empower graduate admissions committees to restrict the composition of the discipline in the future. As Julie Posselt demonstrated in her groundbreaking Inside Graduate Admissions, this gatekeeper function favors applicants who more closely resemble the current discipline. Reducing doctoral numbers is likely to limit efforts to achieve diversity within disciplines.

Why Program Change Is Slow

What about the other solution: Adapting programs to better align Ph.D. professional training with the realities of Ph.D. career outcomes? Ph.D. programs are increasingly tinkering to add more nonacademic professional development. Graduate faculties have led the way with more full-time professional development staff, programs for nonacademic careers and innovative ideas like the public scholars’ programs that many universities have started.

But most of those changes are Band-Aid solutions rather than effective interventions -- small ideas bolted onto programs and delivered by outside specialists rather than fundamental overhauls of those programs. The number of players also presents coordination problems. Our study of department chairs found widespread support for nonacademic professional programming but also frustration about the duplications and gaps that often result from having many different people on the campus involved.

Ideally, nonacademic employers’ needs would inform program changes. But, in fairness, it’s not clear who these nonacademic employers are: while most Ph.D.s are finding jobs eventually, little evidence suggests that employers are actively seeking Ph.D.s except in certain applied fields. For most Ph.D.s, the search for nonacademic jobs will always involve fighting against the current rather than riding with it.

How to Move Forward

The challenge of the "Ph.D. jobs crisis" is deeply structural and built into the systems of modern research universities with no simple solutions or clear consensus going forward. To push past this logjam, universities must improve communication, information and incentivization.

First, institutions need to improve internal communication about and coordination of Ph.D. career programming and placement. Graduate career development is a haphazard and disjointed affair at many universities. Graduate faculties, units and individual supervisors often operate in silos, leaving it up to students to filter and manage different messages and options.

Second, universities need to collect more information about Ph.D. job outcomes outside academe and, crucially, graduates’ satisfaction with those outcomes, and then share those data with programs and students. Programs would benefit from nuanced, discipline-specific information from employers about where and when Ph.D.-level expertise is valued and how programs can adjust and adapt. Students, especially prospective applicants, need clarity about the realities of the Ph.D. job market. Ideally, Ph.D. outcome data would be standardized and collected across institutions, allowing for consistency, comparison and transparency -- rather than letting each institution construct its own methodology and spin the data to present itself in a favorable light.

That brings us to the third response: incentivization. Universities need to establish stronger rewards for everyone to invest further in the coordination and information that we’ve described. Admittedly, much of that incentivization will come at a real cost to already cash-strapped institutions -- someone has to pay. But the university sector must recognize the reputational costs of this ongoing problem. The Ph.D. jobs crisis is not going away. And as it becomes more visible and acute, it is attracting the attention of those who would seek to slash entire programs and areas of higher education.

Those of us who work at universities and in governments, funding agencies and other organizations must all recognize and acknowledge that we are the problem. We must confront the corrosive effect of the systems we have established that depend on ever-larger intakes of Ph.D.s and make tough choices about where to draw the line or how to change programs if those graduates do not find satisfying careers when they leave. The responses required are not about simply changing attitudes. They demand we change the entire way we operate.


Jonathan Malloy is the former chair of the department of political science at Carleton University. Lisa Young is the former vice provost and dean of graduate studies and current director of graduate programs at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. Loleen Berdahl is the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina. Malloy and Berdahl are authors of Work Your Career; Get What You Want From Your Social Sciences and Humanities Ph.D. (University of Toronto Press).

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