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Higher Education Watch
Dark Times for Doctorates

Aspiring scholars who are able to surrender the money, years, blood, and tears it takes to earn a Ph.D., and who make it through a grinding postdoc as well, may be greeted at the end of the whole process with a job that’s not as glamorous as what they had in mind. The current Weekly Standard cover story delves into the grim career outlook for newly minted Ph.D.’s, a growing number of whom are forced to take temporary teaching jobs as disposable adjuncts. One passage:

As human just-in-time inventory, most adjuncts are hired (or fired) on an as-needed (or as-not-needed) basis, and they usually don’t even require office space, because a typical adjunct’s job doesn’t come with an office. Cooley, with his shared office, is one of the lucky few. Many adjuncts are obliged to use their cars as their campus home base, with the trunk serving as filing cabinet. And they need those cars. Most colleges refuse to let their adjunct faculty shoulder more than two courses per semester so as not to trigger the Obamacare “employer mandate” that they be provided with health insurance. So most adjuncts who wish to earn even a barista-level income of, say, $25,000 a year from teaching have to shuttle among multiple campuses, enduring, thanks to the commuting, workdays that can stretch to 13 hours or more. Compare that with the $69,000 on average that brand-new assistant professors at the very bottom of the tenure ladder earn.

As the article notes, commentators on the left and the right have offered different explanations for why the landscape for Ph.D.’s is so brutal. Left-leaning observers tend to blame “corporatization“—the way modern universities increasingly function (in some ways, at least) like traditional businesses, eager to squeeze more labor out of their employees for less cost. Right-leaning observers tend to highlight the costly burdens imposed by federal regulations, as well as the American Association of University Professors’ stubborn resistance to any alterations to the tenure-for-life system that relegates many academics to second-class adjunct status.

Regardless of the cause, however, it’s clear that these are dark times for prospective Ph.D.’s. To paraphrase Dan Drezner, there are two reasons to to take the dive: Either you’re crazy or you’re crazy about your area of study. The Weekly Standard piece should be required reading for any student who is undecided.

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  • Andrew Allison

    “As the article notes, commentators on the left and the right have offered different explanations for why the landscape for Ph.D.’s is so brutal.” Duh! It’s called (artificially increased) supply and demand.

  • johngbarker

    I wonder how the employment prospects break down by discipline.

    • Fat_Man

      my son just started a PhD program in Applied Mathematics. He was making well into 6 figures before he started. He is not worried about his job prospects.

  • truthsojourner

    It’s not just the “newly minted,” says I, who has had a PhD for nearly 30 years and is an adjunct.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Exactly. I avoided that trap only by leaving my field, but my wife is still mired in it.

    • Fat_Man

      The linked article above reports on a man in that position.

  • TheCynical1

    Might be easier to become a professor of mass media in the University of Missouri communications department . . . candidates with muscles preferred.

  • Fat_Man

    Graduate programs (other than Law and MBA) are money wasters. They wouldn’t exist without heavy governmental and university subsidies. It is long past time to turn off the spigot.

    • Jim__L

      Law is a money-waster as well, for most students. In the hard sciences / engineering / math, grad programs can impart a great deal of useful information, so I wouldn’t discount those.

      (Which, reading your subsequent comment here, you seem to agree with. Hm.)

      • Fat_Man

        When I called programs money wasters, I was looking at them from the school’s viewpoint. Clearly, the student’s viewpoint is different. In many PhD -programs, the students do not pay tuition. My son has a teaching assistant position. He pays no tuition and receives a small stipend.

        Law and MBA students seldom receive tuition help and never get stipends. The schools are very inexpensive to run — no labs, no field work, lots of adjunct profs who are doing it for prestige or resume padding.

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