“I’m glad it’s sunny out today. Because it sure is dark in here.”
So said a grad student during the Q and A following my talk last week at the University of Oregon. The talk, “Hacking the Academic Job Market,” is a talk that I’ve given at almost 50 universities and disciplinary association meetings over the past three years.
The talk starts by pointing to the “crisis” in academic hiring, and then immediately repudiates the term “crisis.”
Because “crisis” means an immediate or short-term moment of emergency or calamity, and/or a turning point, or a watershed moment. But the current moment in academic hiring is none of these things. It is merely the latest point in a perfectly consistent, predictable, and totally transparent 40-year trend replacing tenure line and tenured faculty members with contingent instructors. In 1980 75% of university instructors were tenure stream and 25% contingent. Now 25% are tenure stream and 75% are contingent.
This is not news. Every single source of data confirms it. The depredations of the adjunct population have burst onto national consciousness. New stories of adjunct debt and poverty, and the efforts of NTT faculty to unionize, come across Twitter and Facebook daily. If this were merely an outcome of economics, it would be improving with the so-called improvement of the economy. It is not. It is a systematic POLITICAL disinvestment in the idea of higher education as a public good. Learn more from the new documentary, Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Universities.
And yet, talk after talk, campus after campus, grad student after grad student, my message—that only a tiny minority of Ph.D.s get tenure track jobs, that the tenure track job is the “alternative” job in virtually all fields, that the financial costs of the Ph.D. in terms of debt and opportunity cost (ie, payment into social security or another job retirement fund, for example) are skyrocketing, and ivory tower idealism, perpetrated by self-serving advisors, departments, and graduate colleges, mystifies the actual existing price tag of graduate school — comes as a total shock to the majority of the audience, who turn pale, slump in their seats, and look around anxiously.
I speak not to brand new first year grad students, mind you, but almost exclusively to advanced ABDs, new Ph.D.s, and postdocs. How is it possible that I am the first person to deliver this message to these audiences of highly intelligent adults who have been working in the academy for 5 or 10 years or more?
Well, a combination of denial, self-interest, and deliberate misinformation.
Grad students remain enmeshed in denial. Why, I do not know.
Faculty, meanwhile, are motivated by self-interest; they will almost never voluntarily give up the prestige of their own Ph.D. students and Ph.D. programs in their departments. (There are exceptions to this, I’m glad to say. But they are rare). Indeed, I continually hear of departments that are CREATING — incredibly, unbelievably — new Ph.D. programs.
And there is deliberate obfuscation by administrators, who know that their campus will lose essential teaching staff, tuition dollars, and AAU ranking and prestige, if the supply of naive, manipulable new graduate students ever dries up.
Where will it stop? When will people face the truth? In almost all fields jobs are disappearing. Debt is increasing. When I did the Ph.D. Debt Survey two years ago, many contributors from the humanities and social science had six figure debt–some as high as $200,000 or even $400,000.
Now, the National Science Foundation provides the latest data:
More people are pursuing Ph.D.s than ever. American universities awarded 54,070 research doctorates in 2014, the highest total in the 58 years that the National Science Foundation has sponsored the Survey of Earned Doctorates, a new edition of which was released Friday.
Number of Doctorate Recipients by Field of Study
The number of those Ph.D.s leaving with jobs is down. Note that the figures below are NOT figures for secure tenure track placement! “Job commitment” means only a job of some kind, including contingent, visiting, instructorship, postdoc, etc.
Percent of Doctorate Recipients With Job or Postdoc Commitments, by Field of Study
And debt continues to increase.
Debt of New Doctoral Degree Graduates, 2014
|Field||Mean Cumulative Debt||% With Debt > $70,000|
Almost a quarter of those finishing Ph.D.s in Education and the Social Sciences carry debt of more than $70,000.
Please. Stop the madness. Faculty: stop admitting new Ph.D. students. Students: stop going into Ph.D. programs. If you’re in one, calculate the real likely ROI, in terms of your years out of the job market, the financial cost, the opportunity costs in terms of lost wages and lost payments into social security/retirement, and the debt accrued. Face reality.