Megan McArdle has an excellent essay up at Bloomberg about the sorry state of the job market for PhDs that’s very much worth your time. The crux of her argument:
The fundamental issue in the academic job market is not that administrators are cheap and greedy, or that adjuncts lack a union. It’s that there are many more people who want to be research professors than there are jobs for them. And since all those people have invested the better part of a decade in earning their job qualifications, they will hang around on the edges of academia rather than trying to start over. Such a gigantic glut of labor is bound to push down wages and working conditions.
The business model for PhDs is functionally off. Graduate schools are minting far more PhDs than the market can absorb.
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.
To resolve the oversupply, we’re going to have to close down many PhD-generating graduate programs and shrink most others. The result will be that demand for professors in the affected field will shrink even more. With fewer grad students to teach, most schools will not need the large tenured faculties they have today, and tenure positions will shrink more still. That in turn should lead to another round of grad school shrinking—even fewer openings as more universities cut department size to adjust to the shrinkage of grad school programs—until at some point the process reaches an equilibrium.
US schools could fight this process in several ways. They could continue to produce PhDs for export, so that foreign and US students educated in US grad programs can get tenure track jobs overseas. In some subjects, PhD programs can be overhauled to make the degree more attractive to employers: natural science and economics degrees, for example, could focus more on practicalities than on preparation for a life in the academy. The biggest opportunity could be the promotion of Master’s degrees, either for avocational students (the retiree who now has the chance to read great books, or who was always curious about astronomy but never really had the time to follow up), or to provide additional education that really helps people get better jobs because they can do more complex things.
Smart schools are already thinking about these things and making preparations for change.