Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How Many Ph.D.'s Actually Get to Become College Professors? From The Atlantic.

Not every Ph.D. student aspires to a career as a tenured college professor. But in plenty of fields, particularly the humanities, spending your life buried up to your elbow patches in books and papers is the gold standard of success. So while breaking down the National Science Foundation's data for my last two pieces on the job market for doctorate holders, I took a bit of time to look at just what fraction of new graduates were landing jobs in the academy.

The good news? The numbers have only dropped a few percentage points in 20 years. The bad news? They were pretty low to begin with. 


  1. I can't get worked up about this. First, lots of academic jobs in the physical sciences and engineering require some post-doc experience. I doubt that category is included as an "academic job" in this post's graph.

    More generally, the author states that a tenure track is the gold standard for success. Bullshit. It is one standard. It is what the public at large might feel is the desire of all PhD candidates. Of course, a TT position is the goal for many graduates but why view this data solely through their eyes?

    In the article, the author points out that many people who enter academia don't stay to achieve a tenured position. Again, so what? They changed careers, got married and stayed home or took part time work while raising a family or they realized that academia was not the best place to be.

    To the author's credit, the author does point out that PhDs never did achieve (his version of) success all the time anyway so our current crisis is nothing of the sort. It would be interesting to know how the other PhDs who pursued other lines of work fared after graduation. Did they change jobs within 10 years as well?

    Overall, I'm not sure I see the misery that this article is trying to show. Interesting data and worth talking about, nonetheless.

    1. I think it varies by field, Ben. There really isn't much of a reason (at least none that has to do with employment aspirations, and 5-10 years of your 20s and/or 30s is a lot to invest in personal enrichment alone) to get a Ph.D. in English except as a credential for higher ed teaching. The sciences and social sciences (and, really, any field where there are clear non-higher-ed job alternatives for which the Ph.D. is a genuine qualification) are different.

    2. I agree with Cassandra. There might be as many as five, out of about 70, students in my large humanities grad program who are hoping to do something else than teach, or simply are willing not to teach after graduation because their spouse's job is tied to a certain place or something similar. I do kind of think humanities grad students today have very little excuse for not knowing how tough the job market is--it's not like The Atlantic is an esoteric academia publication, and if it were, we should be reading it anyway. But it bears repeating.

  2. When I started my PhD in 2002, my grad school advisors told me two things: "The PhD is the default for anyone who wants to teach at the university level," and "Despite all the hand-wringing, anyone with a PhD English who really wants a tenure track job can get one."

    I would have loved it if one of them would have also have said that 39% of PhDs in the humanities actually have TT jobs. I know it would have led me to reconsider what I was doing, or at least alter my expectations when I finished the degree.

  3. Like Ben, I'm wondering what they count as an "academic job" (if it includes part-time/adjunct work, we're really, really tea-partied).

    The closing line also strikes me as far too true:

    With tenure relatively rarer than it was 30 years ago, it's fair to assume that an even larger portion of tomorrow's full professors will come from the Ph.D.'s who land academic jobs off the bat. And as we've seen, that group is getting pretty small.

    I'm all too aware of the first part of the equation (even as I hope to be, and allot my "free" time in ways that I hope might make me, and exception -- which is probably a very, very stupid thing to do). There's no question that getting a TT job brings all sorts of support that considerably raises the odds of succeeding in such a job, and getting another if one needs or wants to, while landing off the TT (or outside the academy) makes it extremely difficult to move into the TT later.

    The part of which Ph.D. candidates need to be aware, of course, is the beginning, and the end -- the dwindling of tenure-track jobs (which, unfortunately, still tend to be the "good" jobs, in terms not only of job security, but also of pay, participation in governance, etc.).

  4. P.S. Anybody notice the anomaly -- inside-the-academy employment for Ph.D.s in education is growing (modestly, but nevertheless growing). And 40% of them are heading straight into the academy (not into K-12 institutions, though admittedly many of them may have prior experience in that sphere). This is understandable, given the need for people who understand assessment and similar edu-trends, but it doesn't strike me as good news.

  5. If this is U.S.-only, that's a huge problem with the stats, given how many people take jobs in countries different from where they got their Ph.D.'s. (Also, that should be specified.)

  6. This is inexcusably sloppy statistics. The real issue here isn't whether Ph.D.s get tenure-track jobs straight out of grad school: it's whether they get them ever at all, say, within 5-10 years after the Ph.D.