Supply and Demand on the Academic Job Market: Thoughts on Obsolete Professions

On Tuesday I attended a card-signing event on campus that was the formal launch of the voting process for the University of Oregon faculty union.

The faculty union has been a long time coming, and this time it looks like it might actually happen. I had already signed my union card of course.  I attended the reception because I was curious to see the turnout. There is more resistance than I ever expect on college campuses to unionization efforts, even among ostensibly leftist or radical faculty. It pisses me off.

The turnout was pretty good.

While I was at the reception (where I got an earful about the shameful erosion of our health benefits this year—likely costing a typical family of four an additional $1600 annually just to start, not counting any catastrophic medical events) I found myself in conversation with a rep from the AAUP.  I told him all about the upcoming New Faculty Majority Summit, “Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education.” and its connections to faculty unionization efforts.

We got to talking about my business, The Professor Is In, and about the crisis of Ph.D. hiring. I spoke about the shame of Ph.D. departments and faculty that continue admitting graduate students all the while knowing the majority of them have no chance of work in their field. My AAUP friend demurred. “It’s not an issue of oversupply,” he said sternly. “Departments don’t have control over the size of their Ph.D. programs. That is determined at the Dean’s office.”

I told him he was wrong, of course. In my departments we certainly had control over the size of our graduate admissions each year. The Dean’s office didn’t dictate a minimum size! On the contrary, it dictated a maximum, by virtue of chronically inadequate TA and fellowship funding. We could easily have admitted fewer students each year, and funded the ones we did admit better. Did we choose to do that? Absolutely not. We continued to wheel and deal and finagle to leverage the maximum number of new Ph.D. admittees out of the circumscribed funds we controlled.

Never, ever, at any time, not even once, was there a discussion of the question: do these Ph.D. students we’re admitting have a reasonable chance of using their Ph.D.s for employment after leaving our program?

That question was entirely irrelevant to our deliberations. The ultimate professional fate of the graduate students had absolutely no significance in their value to us as faculty.

Instead, their value to us as faculty hinged on:

  • Our egos. The “best” (ie, most successful and famous) faculty members had the most students. The quantity of a faculty member’s Ph.D. students boosted the faculty member’s status vis-a-vis colleagues and conferred bragging rights.
  • Our teaching needs. The department quite literally could not run without the teaching labor of the graduate students. In one of my departments the entire first, second, and third year language programs in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (some 30,000 credit hours annually) were handled entirely by graduate students.
  • Our legitimacy. A department without a Ph.D. program is a second-class department nationally and on campus. A department with a smaller Ph.D. program is a “lesser” department than one with a larger Ph.D. program. No faculty member would willingly work to reduce the size of the department’s graduate program, because it would reduce the status of the program, and thus the status of the faculty members associated with it. Ultimately, it would reduce the standing of those faculty members for things like raises and research funding.

“You can’t blame individual faculty members for the crisis,” said the AAUP representative. Au contraire, my friend. You can. You should. Until individual faculty members individually and collectively confront the ways that their own economic self-interest and social capital is fundamentally tied to the recruitment of Ph.D. students who have little or no chance for meaningful, permanent academic careers, this exploitative system will not change.

Some people argue, of course, that the problem in academic hiring is not an oversupply of Ph.D.s, but an “under-demand” of tenure-track lines, given the wholesale shift from tenure-track to short-term adjunct labor.

It is true that demand has plummeted. But so has demand for blacksmiths and switchboard operators. Would anyone have sympathy for a system stubbornly determined to turn out thousands of blacksmiths and switchboard operators a year? Why this defense, then, of a system that turns out thousands of unemployable Ph.D.s?

The difference in the case of the academy is that apparently the evaporation of demand is hidden, even to the workers themselves, who have somehow let themselves be hoodwinked into believing that the academic workplace needs them, and will  provide them with permanent, meaningful, reasonably compensated work.

Nobody is facing or telling the truth here. Certainly not the self-interested faculty. They have no incentives to do so.

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Supply and Demand on the Academic Job Market: Thoughts on Obsolete Professions — 19 Comments

  1. Agreed that TT faculty, dept chairs, etc. will have to participate in the downsizing of the supply and in articulating the case for continued demand. Question: if fewer grad students are admitted, then won’t it be incumbent on those faculty to either teach lower division classes themselves or for depts to hire adjuncts or NTT faculty in greater numbers to staff those courses? Couldn’t this help make a case for creating a more permanent “teaching faculty” track for some of those PhDs who are currently in supply but not in demand? Why not more 2 and 3 year contracts for those folks rather than simply pumping more people into the system by admitting grad students as, essentially, apprentice blacksmiths in the age of the automobile?

  2. Thanks for the column. I did not know that department status was based on size (and who said size did not matter). It is really sad to think that this is a vicious circle that no one seems to be willing to break. There seems to be this push (at least in history) to make graduate school more relevant and help Ph.D.s prepare for careers outside academia, which is fine. But is this just diverting our attention from the issues you covered?

  3. I’m finishing a PhD in a big state U system, and I know that my department has been under pressure from admin to admit more PhD students in the past. If I remember correctly, not only would they not get additional funds, but there was some sort of a fine for the department if it failed to admit a minimum number of students to program.

  4. A number of major graduate departments (including my own: UVA), in a range of disciplines, have voluntarily cut back on the number of graduate students they are admitting and the number of Ph.D.s they are supporting through the complete degree program. Departments should only admit those Ph.D. candidates they can support (with grants and teaching) through the entire degree; being a Ph.D. student should be like having an apprenticeship job. Then graduate education would improve, the caliber of graduate students would go up, and the system would generate the number of doctorates it can employ. The large number of retirements of the expanded group of professors who were tenured in during the 1960s to teach the Baby Boomers (these retirements are starting now and will last for a decade or more) will provide the prefect opportunity for this effective and strategic shrinking. Tenure lines in graduate programs should not automatically be replaced. They should be funded only when they can be justified on academic–and financial–grounds.

  5. I would love love love to see tenure-stream faculty give more attention to the “demand” end of the equation. Wringing hands over the pitiful state of the job market and the hordes of floundering Ph.D.’s is all well and good, but how about getting more tenure-stream bodies out in front of those gen. ed. classes? How about making sure that every future tax-payer who graduates from a public institution of higher education has at least one semester-long encounter with a proven scholar in the humanities? What about finding better ways to make the case to the business community that grads in the traditional liberal arts have sorely needed analytical and communication skills? The fixation on the plight of Ph.D’s replicates the problem: it allows faculty energy to get diverted in the very ways that makes us SEEM like blacksmiths to the rest of the world.

  6. The comparison to blacksmiths and switchboard operators does not make sense here. We no longer ride horses or use switchboards, and so there is no more demand for professionals to service those needs. Universities, however, still exist and need to be staffed by teachers and scholars. Just because administrations and departments are cutting costs by filling those spots with continent rather than tt faculty, does not mean that there is no demand for tt faculty, just that we are not insisting on the actual faculty of a department to do its job and teach undergrads. I agree with Kristin above – students deserve actual teaching contact with the professors in their departments, not with overworked and underpaid grad students or adjuncts whose first priority – as Karen has pointed out – should be their own scholarship and job prospects.

  7. Dear Professor,
    I usually love your blog, but this time around I wanna recommend a deep breath and a little perspective. I’m a grad student at a small and underfunded institution, and realize that I will never have a tenure-track job. But right now, I get to spend my time doing stuff that I really love to do. I’m a late returner to grad school, and never had that kind of opportunity during the fifteen years I spent working outside of academia. (Oh, and PS–most of the jobs I could get with my GED, and then my undergrad degree, and then an MA didn’t offer health insurance, reasonable hours, or a living wage. But each degree brought new and better opportunities.) My partner is a humanities professor at an R1 institution. Does she deal with turf wars, crazy colleagues, and oversized classes? Yes, indeed. And how is this different than any other job?
    Unemployment among people with Ph.D.s is extremely low. Yes, many Ph.D.s are underemployed, adjuncts, or working outside of academia…this is the reality of the world in which we live. But this seems to me to be indicative of larger systemic problems that will not be solved by reducing the number of Ph.Ds on the market. When a person who applies to a Ph.D. program is not admitted, that person doesn’t evaporate–they still have to compete for opportunities within the context of a jenky, corrupt “free market” economy. They just have to do it with less education and fewer connections.

    • the problem is not being in grad school, my dear. It is what happens after. People who are currently in graduate programs are often happy to be doing what they’re doing, as you are. And indeed, graduate school can be fun and rewarding. The true stakes, the understanding of the opportunity costs, the disservice done by most graduate programs, and their attendant financial repercussions do not become clear until several years after the Ph.D. is finished. Come back and talk to me then.

      • Oh yes…there are indeed high costs. (Again, I’m older, and feel I have the perspective to see many of the costs as they are incurred.) The payoff, however, is getting to do what you love (if even for a few years) and being more employable (if not as an academic).
        I do agree that programs need to train their Ph.D. candidates to compete for non-academic jobs–not doing so is a disgrace. However, given the well-publicized odds against becoming an academic, I would argue that acquiring these skills is also partially the students’ responsibility.
        However, I will leave open the possibility that my perspective will change.

        • From the perspective of someone who obtained their PhD a few years ago and “fell into” starting my own very successful consulting business, I’d suggest that it isn’t necessary, or maybe even advisable, to get a doctorate unless you want to be an academic or an industry scientist or a very few other career choices.

        • I totally agree that it’s the students’ responsibility to master the skills this blog is dedicated to explaining. I devote a certain amount of judgment (if not hostility) to programs, departments, and advisors, but I am firm on the point that ultimate responsibility lies with the student/candidate. The signs are ALL THERE, and have been for decades, that a finished diss and some TA experience is not a competitive record for a t-t job. Just look at the folks who have gotten hired in your own Ph.D. departments. Take their CV, and add 2 more things, and that’s what you should aim for, by the time you’re on the market. (this ‘you’ is general, not directed at you personally, not-disgruntled).

          In the end, if you can do grad school and find some kind of work afterward without bankrupting yourself or going into crushing debt, then more power to you. What I’d caution against is assuming you’ll be more employable. That is field-specific, and the fields in which a Ph.D. makes you more employable for anything but evaporating t-t jobs are a small minority.

  8. Another wrinkle (at least here in Canada) is the pressure from funding agencies to require evidence of “producing High Quality Personnel” (i.e., graduate students and post-docs) for successful grant applications. There does not seem to have been any examination of the sustainability of funding policies that encourage professors to recruit doctoral students continuously.

  9. I am a PhD candidate and I do agree with your analysis of the situation. I have been doing my best to explain that for some time to colleagues with more or less success. Some colleagues are so desperate and anxious about the situation that they don’t want to hear anything about it. Other are so blinded by their self-confidence that they cannot conceive that it will happen to them (I certainly hope they are right but I seriously doubt it). Unfortunately, many faculty members are informed by their experience with the job market, which was very different 25-30 years ago. Even reducing the number of PhD candidates is unfortunately not enough (although our department did that, going from 35 to 25). However, our disciple have stop growing 25-30 years ago and the number of graduates far exceed the number of available positions (it is not rare to received 300+ CVs, all PhDs, when we open a new position).
    So here an idea: What about creating additional demand for PhD graduates in the public and private sectors? That would require departments to develop seminars and courses to help develop the professional skills of their PhD students and be more attuned to the demands of the job-market outside academia. Some department administrators to whom I have talked about the idea are very resistant. Their basic argument is to say that PhD programs are not professional programs and should be reserved to train academics and thinkers. I do agree… although I have a preference to be an employed thinker rather than an unemployed one.
    Finally, we (PhD students) have decided to organize our own professional development seminars, recruiting PhD program graduates that are now working in the public sector or as consultants. Other students in the program (and that is political science, not computer science!) have developed their own business venture that is quite successful.
    At some point, PhD students must show entrepreneurship and create their own demand. The world is filled with complex problems that have to be addressed and we have to show why and how we are in a better position to do that as PhD graduates. Of course, it can be seen as an intergenerational inequity as many faculty members faced a very different job market when they graduated, which still inform their attitudes about it. However, complaining will not improve our situation.
    Anyway, thanks for your blog!

    • Thanks for this spirited comment, David! I love your attitude. “At some point, PhD students must show entrepreneurship and create their own demand. The world is filled with complex problems that have to be addressed and we have to show why and how we are in a better position to do that as PhD graduates.” That is absolutely true. In some ways that is what I was forced to do when I voluntarily left a tenured position, and then realized that I did still have skills that were of value to serve a need. (Granted that need is still aligned with the traditional academy, but nevertheless….)

      Training in this entrepeneurship would, as you say, “require departments to develop seminars and courses to help develop the professional skills of their PhD students and be more attuned to the demands of the job-market outside academia. Some department administrators to whom I have talked about the idea are very resistant. Their basic argument is to say that PhD programs are not professional programs and should be reserved to train academics and thinkers.”

      That is the crux of the matter that infuriates me more than anything else. How dare Ph.D faculty ignore the plight of their own students and continue to sell a bill of goods that the “life of the mind” is a plausible career path? The fact is, the life of the mind was always supported by financial investments and opportunities—these just happened to be so abundant in the growth years of the university system that individuals did not have to think about them or question them. But their career trajectories were as much a product of an economy and a set of financial priorities as today’s are. To believe otherwise is to be mystified by capital. And aren’t they supposed to be smarter than that?

  10. Pingback: Supply and Demand on the Academic Job Market: Thoughts on Obsolete Professions | The Professor Is In « msponheimer

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  12. Got my Ph.D. in a nearly-dead part of the social sciences in ’83, and a year later made it onto a tenure track…that lasted 2 years. Little knowledge of how to teach, no understanding of college politics, a complete misfit with the culture of the school, and a chairperson who had totally different political beliefs quickly ended that effort. After that it was 7 horrible years of unemployment–many potential employers are scared by doctorates (although I did get a better class of rejection letters).
    Eventually I ended up at a dinky for-profit “college” which sort of worked for 18 years. Now that has ended because the parent corporation is doing so badly they cut costs by ended most vacations, raised everyone’s workload by6 30% without paying any more, and instead of 10 week terms created unworkable double-time 5 week ones. Predictably, the place is dying as all the student leave, and when they took away my courses and gave me canned programs to teach I walked.
    So if it’s of any use to this discussion I’ll say the following:
    1. Unless you’re in a really high demand field accept that the Ph.D. may lead to nothing in your area except maybe some “rent-a-prof” adjunct work.
    2. Get some marketable skills outside of your area. You may have to be flexible than you realize.
    3. Know how to teach before you start being an educator.
    4. Learn something about networking in your field and through your school before you graduate.
    From what I’ve seen it’s not pleasant that education, both in America and abroad, seems to be focusing more on immediate practical areas–business degrees, technical training, and the like–at the expense of a more broadly educated population. But that seems to be the reality right now, but that seems to be the reality and we’re all poorer for it. Getting a doctorate in a field you love may be very satisfying, but don’t expect to change the world with it. Just have a good support network, take care of your health, and be ready for disappointment.

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