Woe to the PhD Student

A good friend of mine who is interested in going to law school sent me this link a few days ago comparing the job market prospects of law students and PhD students.

Almost everyone going into academia pretty much knows that finding a tenure-track job will take a great deal of determination, good luck, good timing, and a downpour of fairy dust. With all things being equal, a select few get the job and many other qualified candidates don’t. My departmental honors advisor told me (paraphrased), “You should go to grad school because you want to learn, you want to enrich your mind. Don’t expect to find a job at the end of it. If you’re OK with simply immersing yourself in a passion that you love with no expectation that your degree will be worth anything, then go to graduate school.” (Tangent: which, of course, is why it perplexes me when fellow undergrads say, “Oh the job market sucks. I can’t find a job. I guess I’ll just go to grad school.” I’m going to grad school because I’m willing to be worked like a slave and live around the poverty line for love of literature. You want to go to grad school because you have nothing better lined up? Don’t insult me.)

I get mixed feelings when people tell me they want to go to graduate school too. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that someone is considering a career in academia not only because I personally can’t imagine doing anything else with my life but also because it’s such a great feeling to find someone who feels such enormous passion for their field. And yet, on the other hand, I worry that they don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into. They don’t know what’s involved with grad school; they don’t know the difference between an MA and a PhD; they don’t know the job market or even what the job entails and they don’t know how high the bar is set. I feel an urge to warn them, as my parents vigorously warned me, but I also don’t want to dismiss their hopes when my own are so high as well.

Sometimes, however, it does an aspiring scholar good to humble himself with the facts.

This article is not a comprehensive study, but it does give an indication of the state of the field.

In a humanities graduate program, this is what is required of you:

These programs almost always take at least six years, but often upwards of a decade, to complete. It’s common that students learn two foreign languages, though students are required to learn as many as four (e.g. Classic programs frequently require two modern and two ancient languages). By their graduation, it’s expected that students will have a distinguished record of presenting papers in professional conferences and publishing articles in professional journals, in addition, of course, to writing a dissertation which is supposed to be an original contribution to their field. These expectations are part of the reason that so few students actually complete their programs. Whereas almost everyone who enters a top-tier law school graduates, top Ph.D. programs in the humanities often have attrition rates of 50% or more. And again, among these noble few, 92% will fail to find tenure-track jobs. It’s fully expected that a Ph.D. candidate who has any hope of gaining employment anywhere should have a command of her subject that will rival junior professors in her department.

It’s not uncommon for applications for entry level, tenure-track positions to include five or more published articles and a dissertation published by a noted press (such as Cambridge or Oxford) that’s been reviewed by the leading scholars in the field. And we’re talking about hundreds of these applications for a single job that might pay $40,000 to $60,000.

Here’s what the job market looks like:

The market for Ph.D.s in philosophy of the mid 1990s was far better than it is currently, but still was farworse that the legal market of today. One widely reported study (from the Review of Metaphysics, September of 1996) showed that of 341 Ph.D.s granted in 1995-1996, only 6 had secured tenure track jobs in top 15 ranked philosophy departments by 1998 and only 11 more had landed jobs anywhere in the top 50 departments. So, of 341 Ph.D.s, only 26 found tenure-track positions within two years of graduation, or a whopping 7.6% placement rate. Put another way, 92% of Ph.D.s in philosophy failed to find tenure-track positions during this period.

Let’s all just agree that if only 7.6% of law graduates had found associate level employment within 2 years of graduation, there would be rioting in the streets. Moreover, those Ph.D. numbers are from the mid-1990’s days of wine and roses. Today it’s far worse. Duke University, a top-30 philosophy department, announced that they’re not accepting students into their Ph.D. program next year (presumably because of the current economic climate). Indiana University of Pennsylvania is requiring its faculty to explain why they shouldn’t eliminate their philosophy major altogether. Anecdotally, I know quite a few recent Ph.D.s from top 15 schools, and the vast majority of them are either severely underemployed or have left the job market all together.

And this isn’t restricted to philosophy either. In History, English and other disciplines in the humanities, the market for tenure-track posts has been extremely constrained for years. With dramatic cuts in government educational spending and corresponding cutbacks in private institutions, market conditions have become downright harrowing. Graduates of institutions outside the top twenty are likely to never find a tenure-track position at all, and even graduates from top 10 schools are likely to spend years on the market taking adjunct and terminal positions as they wait for a tenure-track position to open. Even when you get one, jobs are apparently never safe in academia. Kings College (London) is forcing all of its humanities professors to reapply for their jobs in the coming year, and the same is being required by a small university in Texas.

Whereas everyone else is so excited to graduate and be done with school, we’ve signed ourselves up for another decade’s worth. Whereas everyone else is competing for the big bucks, we content ourselves with poverty-level paychecks. Secretly, I think all grad students are just a little bit masochistic. :]

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One thought on “Woe to the PhD Student

  1. Well said. Have you seen PhD Comics Piled Higher and Deeper: http://www.phdcomics.com/ ?

    I can’t help but pointing out that no noted press will publish “a dissertation.” It has to be an innovative monograph. There is a huge difference between a dissertation (essentially a school assignment) and a scholarly monograph. And the publication process involves double-blind peer reviews by more than 2 leading scholars in the field. In addition, one may have to secure a book subvention grant thanks to the crisis of publications in the humanities.

    Also, the imprint of Cambridge represents a certain level of cachet and prestige, but their prices for monographs are prohibitive (in the range of $ 90-120) and can potentially limit their circulation and impact.

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