The Future for PhDs

Megan McArdle:

The last few days have seen the eruption, among academic bloggers, of a tense discussion over tenure. These discussions have been going on for a while, of course, as the situation for newly minted PhDs keeps getting more dire, and the reaction of people with tenure is to tut-tut about how awful it is and say that someone should do something.

The proximate cause of the most recent explosion is a letter that University of California at Riverside sent to applicants for tenure-track positions in the English department, informing them that five days hence, they would have the opportunity to interview at the annual meeting of the Modern Languages Association. Rebecca Schulman reasonably,if somewhat intemperately, pointed out that for people living on the paltry wages of a grad student, a last-minute plane ticket is a pretty expensive entry fee for a slim chance of a tenure-track job.

Karen at The Professor Is In blog followed up with a long, angry post about the blind eye that tenured faculty turn to the travails of adjuncts and grad students. The title, “How the Tenured are to the Job Market as White People are to Racism” drew more than a little anger, understandably. But her broader point is sound: academia is now one of the most exploitative labor markets in the world. It’s not quite up there with Hollywood and Broadway in taking kids with a dream and encouraging them to waste the formative decade(s) of their work life chasing after a brass ring that they’re vanishingly unlikely to get, then dumping them on the job market with fewer employment prospects than they had at 22. But it certainly seems to be trying to catch up.

WRM commented:

The problem as we see it is that the post-World War 2 university system was built on the assumption of an ever expanding population of students needing more and more higher ed. Therefore there was a need for each generation to produce more professors than the last. (This is not all that dissimilar, by the way, to the way many pension systems and social programs like Medicaid were built on the assumption that a bigger generation would roll around to pay the bills for the current enrollees.)

For a long time, each generation did need more than the last. More professors were needed for rising enrollments, so more grad schools were needed—which also raised the demand for professors, because more professors were needed to train new professors.

As McArdle notes, add to that the fact that a lot of people would like to be research professors: no boring students, job security, lots of conferences, prestige, research! (This is what the profession looks like to 22 year olds who have spent all their lives in school environments and have been trained to see professors as authority figures and mentors.) Sprinkle in student loan programs, the natural ambition of colleges to become universities and small universities to become big ones, and there are a lot of forces pushing academia to expand. The result is one of the more cruel and exploitative workplaces in the United States today. While the lot of day laborers and poultry plant employees is worse still, they at least haven’t spent a decade of their lives preparing for jobs that they are then denied.

This system is now coming undone. There aren’t many jobs for entry level doctoral grads, and even fewer for tenure track. Oversupply pushes wages down and keeps desperate hangers-on thronging around looking for adjunct positions. Older professors who were once obliged to retire at 65 now keep teaching. The result is a huge jobs crush.