Starving the Beast

“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

Field 2004 2009 2014
All 42,123 49,553 54,070
Life sciences 8,813 11,403 12,504
Physical sciences 6,047 8,324 9,859
Social sciences 7,043 7,829 8,657
Engineering 5,777 7,642 9,568
Education 6,635 6,528 4,793
Humanities 5,210 4,891 5,486

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

Field 2004 2009 2014
All 70.0% 69.5% 61.4%
Life sciences 71.2% 66.8% 57.9%
Physical sciences 71.5% 72.1% 63.8%
Social sciences 71.3% 72.9% 68.8%
Engineering 63.6% 66.8% 57.0%
Education 74.6% 71.6% 64.6%
Humanities 63.4% 63.3% 54.3%

And debt continues to increase.

Debt of New Doctoral Degree Graduates, 2014

Field Mean Cumulative Debt % With Debt > $70,000
All $22,392 12.6%
Life sciences $19,605 9.8%
Physical sciences $12,365 5.1%
Social sciences $34,999 22.6%
Engineering $11,645 5.1%
Education $36,260 23.3%
Humanities $29,953 17.4%

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.

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Starving the Beast — 31 Comments

  1. I have a PhD in the social sciences from an Ivy League university. I knew about the job market and left academic labor approximately 1 year after finishing my PhD. Since then, countless people who want to enter PhD programs have asked for my advice on what to do/how to get it. My advice has always been: don’t go. I state my reasons (the same as you have written). They react defensively. I suggest reading ‘the internet’ if they don’t believe me. They don’t do so. They spend 1-2 years trying to get into a program and eventually do. I have been so exasperated by these conversations that I won’t have them anymore.

    • Yep. William Pannapacker writes about this too, in his piece “Grad School In the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” and some others–i quote him in my book.

  2. Though we are classified as a doctoral high research university, my public university (not the state’s “flagship”) has not historically emphasized the production of PhD graduates. In the last couple of years, however, we are being pushed to follow the same conventional trajectory as every other research institution out there – more research dollars, thus more doctoral programs to support the research stars we’ve been hiring recently. Before this we emphasized the creation of interdisciplinary programs that explicitly prepared students for careers in applied fields, government agencies, NGO’s and the like. Now it’s as if somehow we will be transformed into a clone of a more elite institution. Some faculty, at least, seem happy to oblige by accepting more PhD students and aiming them at the academic job market. I wish that our public universities received more recognition (and state support!) for producing master’s students, who are actually more likely (and probably better prepared) to contribute to our state’s social and economic vitality.

    • YES, I KNOW! YOU’RE NOT ALONE! All kinds of places are turning themselves into quasi-R1s, CREATING new Ph.D. programs, etc. It’s just mind-boggling. And sickening.

      • I’m seeing the same at my own institution (on the R2/R1 cusp, with a longtime explicit goal of R1 designation).

        • And the institutional pressures also mean that individual faculty (and departments) find it hard to fight the tide: if one department doesn’t create a Ph.D., another will, and reap the rewards.

  3. Is the NSF survey only counting debt accumulated into PhD programs? Or is this including debt that students are carrying from undergraduate degrees? Both are concerning but need to be interpreted differently.

    • good question. I suspect only debt from grad school, because i’m pretty sure they calculate undergrad debt separately. but i’m not sure. My phd debt survey, while utterly unscientific, does separate out the two. it’s v. illuminating.

  4. Thank you thank you thank you. I don’t know how much more plainly we can say this. Academia needs (excuse the culturally loaded expression) a “come to Jesus moment.” It’s not a good idea to get a PhD. I am representative of the nightmare: 6 figures of debt, humanities doctorate(do i have skills? Yes. Are they obvious to anyone outside of the academy? No.) I’m a few months from defense bingo (too far along to responsibly quit, I’m stronger with the credential than without at this point). So I had the soul-sucking emotional breakup and am rehearing myself for secondary Ed (for me, a good choice). I say as loudly as possible to people do not go to graduate school unless the professional returns are as good as guaranteed. Go back later, sure. Go part time, sure. LET YOUR EMPLOYER FOOT THE BILL, great. They don’t listen. It’s like cattle running over a cliff.

  5. As a senior postdoc about to enter my second season on the job market for an academic TT position, I can say, wholeheartedly, that the lack of job opportunities for PhD’s is A THING. And, of course, incoming/prospective students need to have their eyes wide open to these realities. I also find the level of accumulated debt mind-boggling, and acknowledge this system is not sustainable.

    It just makes me uneasy (or sad?) to think that the only solution is ‘dont do a phd’. I think now, more than ever, we need educated, critical thinkers. Not only for the contributions this provides to society, but also to innoculate against the seemingly rising trend of pseudoscience and xenophobic attitudes.

    Shouldnt we be raging against the system that devalues the PhD, rather than raging against yet another “naive” undergraduate that wants to pursue further education??

    • yes to this!! It is harrowing and dehumanizing to be on the job market in the humanities. I was one of the lucky ones and got a good postdoc followed by a TT job at a well-endowed private R1 (not without getting kicked around a bit along the way). I believe wholeheartedly that there is an immense problem with respect to the ratio of ph.d.’s to jobs, but the constant stream of “no one should get a ph.d.” from TPII is so disheartening to me. Some people should get ph.d.’s! They should do it with their eyes open to the difficulties, they should feel deep in their bones that they’re called to do it, and they shouldn’t go to a school that doesn’t fully support them–but there are those of us that feel that this profession is a meaningful one that is worth fighting for.

  6. The thing is, the north American university system is totally dependent on cheap graduate student labour. Without loads of grad students there would be no one to teach all the tutorials needed in large courses, or mark all the essays, etc. The contrast with the UK-australia system highlights this, since the latter use grad fees to subsidise undergraduate teaching rather than grad students as cheap labour. So, if north American universities seek continual growth they’ll continue to need to feed the beast and doom grad students as a result. Maybe the only thing that can alter this situation is move to the fees model backed up studentships for the best students. That would probably cut the numbers down and free up time grad students usually spend on teaching for their actual research

    • I am afraid to say that the UK is adopting a similar system to the States (I am an American who has experience on both continents). We have grad students (post-grads) and associate lecturers (adjuncts) undertaking more teaching than full-time members of staff. They are paid wages that make it difficult to live and they do not get paid for extra hours of preparation, marking and meeting with students outside the classroom. Universities are being pushed into producing more PhD programmes and to take on students who are unlikely to finish, but we benefit from their fees. There are few positions available after graduation and there is no tenure. Everyone is now expected to apply for external grants (both post-grads and faculty) on a yearly basis to bring money into the universities, so the competition is, quite frankly, absurd. In essence, the system is unethical, and if I could, I would stop taking on PhD students.

  7. I wonder if the cheap-grad-student-labor line is really a strong argument. I mean I get paid 22k to TA one class a semester in the humanities at a public ivy. It would be cheaper to hire an adjunct, right? I think it’s a prestige thing, not purely about money.

    And incidentally, I went in with open eyes about the faculty market, but the socialization once you’re here is powerful. And it’s not as if the faculty are prepared to train me for anything other than what it is to be TT at an R1 (much preferred the faculty at my Generic State U undergrad institution who tended to be more down to earth).

  8. Your emphasis on “self-serving” advisors and obstinate students misses the big issue that many people are still really struggling to understand the global destruction of uni edu as a deliberate and done deal. Within and outside unis it is very hard for people to not be labeled catastrophists and conspiracy theorists if they worry/counsel others about the declining quality of an academic career.

    • This is true, I guess, although these are very intelligent people in the belly of the beast. If THEY don’t recognize the global destruction of uni edu, then who will? There is a willful blindness going on that is self-serving, I think.

  9. I was clueless until I started doing my own research and found your blog, but by then I was already well into my dissertation, had been adjuncting for years, and was behind on what I needed to get a job. No one at my grad school explained what the job market was like or what I needed to do to make myself competitive. I made all the mistakes it was possible to make; I missed opportunities just because I didn’t know the language or procedures of academia and no one–not a single person–ever told me. However, thanks to your wake-up call, I realized that I needed a job more than I needed some pie-in-the-sky tenure-track, research-centered position. While the adjuncting I had done got in the way of my research/diss in many ways, now I’m tenure track at a community college, financially stable, and visiting NYC with my sister just to spend spring break in museums and at the opera. It took a while to get over the guilt about “failing” as an academic, but there was no future there and now I can start living my life. Truthfully, I still pine at times for those upper division lit classes to teach and the time to research, but I know that that vision is false and isn’t even possible. I’ve been meaning to write and thank you for the wake-up call. And lest your readers should think of CC’s as their easy safety net, 200 people applied for my tenure-track community college position, among them a Ph.D. from Stanford, who obviously didn’t get the job. THANK YOU for telling people what they need to hear in the blunt language they need in order to hear it and fully realize the desperate nature of their position. My family and I definitely owe you.

  10. It would be nice, then, for there to be alternative ways for people to pursue knowledge, and to pursue the skills that they want to acquire without going into 6-figure debt. It’s pretty hard to see another path through, for someone who (like me) wanted to be a composer.

    I was from a small town, with no musical community or resources to pursue my goal. ALL the professional resources for classical musicians are located in universities. Every competition requires that you be a student to enter it. Every conference is hosted at a university. I defy anyone to find a working composer today whose bio features no college (or indeed, just an undergraduate degree).

    This is why some people do PhD’s: Universities have a virtual monopoly on the information, skills, and accreditation they need to pursue their goals. So it’s either university, or give up and let your dreams and your brain die. This is an additional thing that (American) graduate students factor into their cost-benefit analyses: whether they feel like they can have an ok life if they don’t do what they need to do to pursue goals that are part of their very identity. You can say that isn’t wise – and it probably isn’t in a manner – but good luck trying to change that. Graduate students are *desperate* to pursue their life goals.

    The obvious problem here is American vulture capitalism. You might as well blame cancer patients for foolishly demanding treatments that they can’t afford. Well here in India – where I moved to get a job – hospital care is a fraction of the cost it is in America. You could pay an entire year’s tuition for some schools here with an equivalent amount of money it costs to pay UIUC’s Student Health Services Fee for the year.

    As one commenter also pointed out: we are blaming the wrong people. The problem is neo-liberalism. It’s ultimately the cause of all the problems the US is currently experiencing (or at least, it’s the thing that makes solving those problems so “politically impossible”). The consequences of failing to put the blame in the right place are serious.

    * No one gets to be an artist if they aren’t rich.
    * No one gets access to knowledge if they aren’t rich.
    * People who are poor get strong armed into “careers” that serve the interests of the wealthy classes.
    * The professions that don’t directly serve the financial interests of the 1% disappear, or are filled with the children of members of the 1%.

    What kinds of things will sociologists teach us about the world when it’s filled with the kids of the 1%? What kinds of sharp, penetrating critique will come out of the arts when they are finally taken over by scions of the 1%?

    I’ve got America fatigue. Everyday I think about by British friends, who don’t even have to make a student loan payment until they cross a certain income threshold. Even though their system is exploitative also (and patterned in part, on the American system), the public ethos has still so far protected them from the claws of the 1%. My French friends, My Canadian friends, my German friends, my Icelandic friends all get a FAR superior deal out of their citizenship. Americans are getting screwed. Grad school is just one more place where that is happening.

    We spent a trillion dollars bailing out giant banks from their debt, and the tax payers aren’t getting any of that back. Did you get a big refund check? I didn’t. Why can’t there be an academic bailout?

    The answer is obvious.

  11. I completely agree with your prognosis on the death of the higher ed job market.

    I disagree with your lying the blame at the “political disinvestment” of higher education.

    I blame administrators. They are growing and multiplying on university campuses like malignant cells, sucking up university dollars. For every Vice Dean of Nice Feelings that commands a $150,000 salary, you see the death of five tenure lines.

    Is it convenient to blame Republicans in state governments for the problems of higher education? Of course. Does it get at the root of the problem? No.

  12. So, what do we do about outright deception? I entered a program I was told would take 3 years. The star student took four, and it looks like it’s going to take me six.

  13. truth. as a first-generation college student, this is the kind of advisement i desperately needed. every aspiring grad student should be required to read this post and Jessica Langer’s 3 Ways In Which Academia Is Your Abuser.

  14. I am one of the lucky few in the social sciences who did land a TT in my field, and even now, I’m still wondering about lost-opportunity costs. One thing to keep in mind is that even in the event that you DO land a TT, for all but the top schools, the game has changed and the TT isn’t what it used to be. Higher teaching loads (I have a 3/4), increased administrative service, average pay (at best), and increased tenure expectations. I chatted with a colleague who says her tenure expectations are 2 books and 6 articles at a small liberal arts college with a heavy teaching emphasis! Finally, one thing I wish I would have considered when applying for a Ph.D. 10 years ago is that with the difficult market, you’ll be geographically stuck if you land a TT. If a partner has a job opportunity elsewhere, or you want to be closer to family, you may have to leave your job!

  15. I just find your conclusion unfathomably bizarre Karen. I am a doctoral candidate. I have no delusions that a job is waiting for me on the other side of this degree, and I remind myself of this reality *every single* day that I do this (even if my department has been placing students well, and my friends and colleagues are getting jobs). I also ask myself the following question *every single* day: would you still be doing this if you were guaranteed NOT to get a job. And, you know what, the answer is yes. I have been fortunate to get a lot of outside funding through grants, and I will graduate with no debt. So, full transparency on that front. But, if I were to not get a job, and struggle to find other work and look back on my 20s and early 30s and realize I had used them to acquire a skill set that gained me nothing on the job market, I would be honest with prospective graduate students, but I likely would NEVER tell them categorically not to pursue a PhD. It has been the single most stimulating experience of my life; it has offered me opportunities (living in foreign countries for research just one of them, for example) that I never could have dreamed of; it has been tremendously rewarding both professionally and personally. From reading your many pieces, I know you experienced the same thing. How could you not want that for someone?
    And on a completely different note: how could we as a society not want to be producing people trained to the highest degree of intellectual achievement and rigor? How is that good for the future? When I travel in Europe I am struck by the fact that when I tell people I am doing a PhD, they don’t bat an eye; it is a completely normal thing to do, it does not mean you will necessarily enter the academy, and the experience gained seems a benefit to the individual, future employers and to the society more generally. How does the US get there by deciding the answer is: have no more PhD students. I know…structural problems, structural differences. But really…that’s not something we aspire to as a community of intellectuals?

    • Rebecca Schuman calls this kind of response “life boating”: when a particular individual who has achieved some success defends and rationalizes a system that is fundamentally exploitative. You may get a tenure track job, you may not, but I fear that if you do, you are likely to become part of the problem, not part of the solution, continuing to feed a mythology that attracts naive students into a structurally untenable system.

      • That feels like an ungenerous response to genuine engagement. We have an impossibly broken system. It is unjust, exploitative, and I watch the way this has huge effects for friends and loved ones on a DAILY basis, people who are not able to get jobs, struggle with debt they naively acquired, blunder on with the blind hope they will escape the vicious cycle. I’m just not sure the way out of that is to say: don’t get a PhD. I would hope that we could have honest conversations with students from the beginning–and certainly NO ONE said such things to me. There are realistic expectations to explain: “chances are you won’t get a job, really very likely outcome. And you will have no skills that employers readily accept as useful.” Choices to be made based on real cost/benefit calculation: not of the mythical “it’s fine to pay 3,000 in image rights now for the job this article will land you” variety, but instead “maybe you can’t move to Germany next year because the euro is insane right now, and our first priority needs to be to keep you out of debt, so let’s figure out how the research can change to fit that goal.” Hard counseling that could happen at the end: “ok, it hasn’t worked out in 3 years since graduating. You are immensely talented, I respect your mind, and your work. But maybe it’s time to move on. How can I help you do that?” I was lucky enough to have friends FAR ahead of me who were facing those types of situations without counsel when I was deciding whether or not to go to grad school. And I still decided that I would. I find it naive of you to suggest this is a silly choice, and to condemn me as part of the problem for feeling that way.

  16. I know–it’s craziness. I left a position at a major state flagship after 18 years, in part because the coming destruction of tenure was clear (it happened), and in part because I was sick of the pressure to produce more and more PhD students who would get fewer and fewer jobs. I moved to a engineering-focused state university with strong funding for research and little focus on PhD education. But now we’re now being pressured to create new PhD programs and bring in lots of PhD students to build our national rankings. What are they thinking?

  17. What happened to you Karen? You used to be the constructive voice of cautious reason…. a tell-it-how-it-is, brass tacks advisor on getting it done. But recently your “advice” has just resembled the bitter apocalyptic whining of Chicken Little.

    You are no longer being constructive…. as other commenters have noted, this country (world!) needs smart, well-trained PhDs. People should not go blindly into it and they should know the statistics and process, etc. But they can be happy and they can be successful in and after graduate school, so telling everyone to pull the emergency break on the whole thing because SOME people shouldn’t be there is myopic.

  18. We need a movement to reform and fund “public” universities. Led by people in those jobs, perhaps?? I don’t get why faculty in my department (English) at Big State U. aren’t fighting to increase TT professorships, decrease grad student enrollments and TA-taught classes, modify publication vs. teaching standards for tenure, etc.–things that would strengthen their position in the U and truly help grad students n undergrad education. They write passionately about exploitation n violence n race n class n gender equality etc., they work “out in the community” with prisoners and other embattled groups, and I know some of them care about the fortunes of PhD students….but somehow all of that doesn’t seem to be represented in their own work loads, contracts, and relations with the university.

  19. Pingback: What really happens to new CS PhDs? A glut of PhDs, even in Engineering. | Computing Education Blog

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