The Disequilibrium of PhDs


Photo by Monika Kozub on Unsplash

Zak Yudhishthu, Staff Writer

Earning a Ph.D. is no easy task. For an average of eight years — the average length of a U.S. marriage, as Assistant Professor of Philosophy Sam Asarnow points out — students work through a grueling process of learning to complete research and produce papers in their respective field. They teach classes at the same time, earning slim pay. Close to half don’t complete their doctoral programs.

Increasingly, Ph.D.s enter the job market to find that there is little employment to match their hard-earned credential, instead finding that they are 30 years old and have yet to begin a professional career. Roughly 30% have education-related debt. 

“The job market for those with advanced degrees is clearly tightening,” education writer Laura Mckenna reported a few years ago. Indeed, 31% of doctorate recipients in 2019 had no job lined up after graduation, whether in academia or private industry.

Universities face monetary incentives to exacerbate this problem: hiring non-tenure-track professors is cheaper than hiring tenure-track professors, and hiring Ph.D. students to teach classes is cheaper still. The share of professors who are tenured and tenure-track has declined from 45% in 1975 to 29% in 2015.

Nevertheless, students are still earning Ph.D.s. The Survey of Earned Doctorates finds that in seven of the nine years from 2011-2019, including 2018 and 2019, the number of Ph.D. recipients in the United States increased. In that timespan, the annual quantity of Ph.D. recipients grew by more than 10%.

Students pursue Ph.D.s because they’re truly passionate about the field that they’re studying, a passion deep enough that they’re willing to spend eight demanding, low-paid years learning how to publish within that field. 

“A Ph.D. is as much a labor of love as it is an investment for a career,” economics Professor Gabriel Lade said. 

In addition to the value of the Ph.D. itself, many find academia to be an attractive career. 

“People choose to go into academia, to be professors, because of non-pecuniary compensation,” Asarnow said. “There’s travel opportunities, working with young people is fun, people like teaching, they like mentorship and then getting to do research.”

For Lade, academia’s offer of freedom and independence is especially valuable.

“In terms of my research, no one tells me what to do,” Lade said. “I dictate my whole research agenda. Whatever I want to study, I study. That part gives me a lot of utility.”

In some disciplines, a career in academia is a realistic goal to pursue. Lade is an assistant professor at Macalester, meaning that he is tenure-track but has not yet received tenure. He described a relatively favorable job market within his field. 

“Everyone gets a job with an economics Ph.D., and everyone usually gets a job that they’re happy with,” Lade said. 

In economics and fields such as applied math, finance and the hard sciences, job applicants are not confined to academia. With more options in private industry, Ph.D.s face manageable job prospects. Many other fields, however, have few options in industry, constricting career choices to a thin job market in academia. 

According to Oliver Lee Bateman, a former history professor who quit his job at the University of Texas after becoming deeply frustrated with academia, students don’t always understand the degree of competitive adversity that they’ll face upon entering the academic job market. 

“Many promising young people make rash decisions with an inadequate understanding of their long-term implications,” Bateman wrote in an article on his decision to leave.

“You don’t know it’s that bad, so you go forward,” Associate Professor of Religious Studies Ahoo Najafian said. 

Lisa Naples is a visiting assistant professor of mathematics at Macalester. She obtained her Ph.D. in the spring of 2020 and spent her final year in school applying, interviewing and visiting campuses for jobs.

 “My undergraduate professors tried to warn me that it was going to be hard, but that I should still do [a Ph.D. program] anyways,” Naples said. 

She applied for 120 jobs; each had hundreds of applicants. As a visiting assistant professor, she was hired on a one-year contract at Macalester, which was then extended for a second year. Next year, she will again have to face this job market as her contract expires, and she will spend her summer preparing to reapply for jobs before returning to teach three courses in the fall. Somewhere in between, she’ll find time to work on research.

In a job market as cutthroat as academia, there are no guarantees. Even the most adept researchers and teachers may be unable to attain the security of a tenure-track position.

“It’s just false that you make your own luck; it’s false that the cream rises to the top.” Asarnow said. “There is an enormous number of extremely talented and highly exceptional people, and there’s a very small number of jobs.” 

As students navigate the path towards attaining a Ph.D. and then fight through an unwelcoming job market, gender, race and class skew the already-low odds of success. 

Racial representation is also poor throughout academia, as Adam Harris writes in The Atlantic. In 2017, more than a dozen subfields did not have a single Black Ph.D. recipient, which remained true in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available. More broadly, Black students only went from 5.8% of 7.1% of Ph.D. recipients from 1999 to 2019, and Native American and Latinx underrepresentation has persisted among Ph.D. recipients. Harris writes that direct discrimination and cost burdens — problems that occur at every step of the path to earning a doctorate — compound to reinforce this issue.

Naples recalls attending networking events as a graduate student and finding herself attending post-conference dinners in unfamiliar cities with groups of unknown men. In 2019, just 29.08% of Ph.D. recipients in mathematics were women. For Naples, these networking events brought forth difficult decisions. 

“I should go to this social event, because building these connections is important for the job market, but is it safe?” Naples said she remembers thinking.

Additionally, it becomes a considerable advantage to have parents who understand how to navigate the trying experience of graduate schools. Ph.D. students are committing years to difficult studies without much pay, or much promise of a long-term payoff, and enduring such a challenge is much easier with the support of parents familiar with the processes of publishing research or networking. In 2019, 12% of Ph.D. recipients also had a parent with a doctorate. The rate of Ph.D.-holders in the general population is 1.2%.

Yet despite the harsh realities of the job market, none of these professors said that students shouldn’t pursue a Ph.D. in their field.

“There are certainly days that I still question whether this is the career path that I want to be in, especially knowing that I have to reapply for jobs,” Naples said. “And there are other days that I’m like, this is the best thing ever, and I get all this flexibility, and I get to try a new part of the country and meet this very diverse group of people.” 

Naples, Najafian and Asarnow — mathematics, religious studies and philosophy professors, respectively — did caution that students must be realistic when considering a Ph.D. in their respective fields, and they agreed that professors have a responsibility to relay the complete truth about the difficulties involved.

“I hate it that the university has turned into this market, but it really is a market, and the fact that you have to sell yourself on this job market is quite disgusting,” Najafian said. “Some people don’t even care about your intellectual quality, and you just have to know how to play the game.”

Ultimately, the disequilibrium between the supply and demand of Ph.D.s spans beyond the scope of individuals’ choices and actions.

“Students are going to make the decisions that they want to make,” Asarnow said. “I made the decision to go to graduate school against the advice of my mentors, who were trying to coach me to make decisions more rationally. They did everything they could to coach me to make decisions more rationally, and it didn’t work. And I fully expect the advice I give to my students to be treated in the same way.”

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