More PhDs, Fewer Jobs

Obtaining a tenure-track professorship has always been the ultimate goal of a Ph.D. program. In the past, that made sense. But now, not so much.

There was a time not long ago when being a college professor was a good job that paid well and offered a reasonable level of security. During that golden era of the university, grad programs started flooding with students hoping to land that dream job. And for about 40 years, everything worked just fine. Lots of students, lots of professors, lots of jobs.

Not surprisingly, the growth of Ph.D. degrees awarded in America corresponded directly with the post-WWII expansion of higher education. The chart below illustrates the rapid increase in the number of doctoral degrees awarded over the past several decades.

As the chart reflects, from 1950 to 2006, the number of Ph.D.s awarded each decade increased dramatically.

So did the number of students enrolled in American universities.

Between 1970 and 2009, the total number of students enrolled in college grew steadily from about 7.5 million to 17.5 million. Two years later, in 2011, that number had jumped to 20.6 million.

The past two years have both seen a slight decline in total enrollment (19.9 million in 2013), but the drop is not nearly enough to dramatically affect professor hiring practices nationally.

Therefore, it makes sense that colleges would need to increase the number of professors in order to meet their staffing needs as they responded to the growing student population. More students, more professors, more jobs, right? Not so fast.

Here’s the problem. Not all professor jobs are created equally.

The number of students enrolled in college has not waned, but the number of full-time teaching appointments has. Approximately the same number of teachers are needed, but those teaching positions are increasingly filled with low-paid, part-time contingent laborers rather than the tenure-track professors of decades past. More students, more Ph.D.s, fewer jobs.

The result of this growing supply and shrinking demand is a surplus labor problem that is facilitating the exploitation of these highly-skilled workers.

Graduate programs really only have two reasonable responses to this labor surplus and shift in hiring practices.

1) Stop accepting and graduating so many Ph.D.s.

But, as the Ph.D. chart above reveals, graduate programs have not yet begun to taper their acceptance rates. Shrinking the size of their programs would be one way to address the surplus labor problem.

2) Start training Ph.D.s for careers other than university professor.

Creating career tracks outside of the academy would diffuse the labor market and release the hiring bottleneck, thereby alleviating the downward pressure on wages.

Fewer candidates in the hiring pool would restore some leverage to applicants and, presumably, raise wages or at least incentivize colleges to reinstate full-time positions.

The American Historical Association (AHA) announced today that a $1.6 million dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation would be used to broaden career paths for Ph.D.s. Definitely a step in the right direction.

If new career paths can be created, the “problem” of the Ph.D. surplus will be solved. As AHA Executive Director James R. Grossman says, the problem is not so much overproduction as it is underutilization.