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Higher Education Watch
The Professor Glut

America’s graduate programs are producing far too many aspiring professors for the market to handle, and it’s forcing an increasing number of newly minted PhDs to take underpaid jobs as adjuncts, or else seek employment outside of the Ivory Tower. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Production of doctorates in the U.S. climbed 28% in the decade ending in 2014 to an all-time high of 54,070. That surge has come as more Americans see a postgraduate degree as a hedge against stagnating wages and unemployment in an economy demanding increasingly specific skills and expertise.

Meanwhile, the academic job market—the largest employer of Ph.D.s—continues to wither as many universities move away from the model of only employing tenured professors and toward using greater numbers of relatively lowly paid adjunct teachers.

Part of the reason for the shortage of faculty positions is the academy’s continued adherence to the tenure-for-life model, which encourages professors to occupy their coveted positions until their last breath, and limits universities’ flexibility to move jobs and resources around. Professional academic life is increasingly unequal, with well-compensated tenure-track professors occupying the very top of the pyramid, and an army of instructors and adjuncts toiling below them.

Meanwhile, academics remain extraordinarily contemptuous of anyone who does not have those magic three letters after his name. As we reported earlier this month, indignant Northwestern faculty staged a rebellion when the University sought to name Karl Eikenberry—three-star general, former ambassador, holder of two master’s degrees—as head of a global studies institute on the grounds that he “lacks the intellectual and policy credentials” to execute the role adequately.

The professor glut does not reflect well on the academic model of governance, and its a grim sign for students already laboring to complete doctoral programs. But on the bright side, it means that more PhDs will end up working—in corporations, high schools, and government—which can perhaps make better use of their expertise.

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  • http://www.janetheactuary.blogspot.com Jane the Actuary

    Anyone who begins a Ph.D. program in the year 2016 ought to be well aware of the glut. This is not 1991 any longer — the year when I started my program, having been told that there would be countless jobs available as the older generation of professors retired. As you can see from my screen, I ultimately and happily found a different career.

  • johngbarker

    I would love to see PhD’s coming into high schools but I have seen little indication that many are moving in that direction despite the comparative advantage in wages and benefits. I hope some enterprising frustrated professors consider starting college prep charter schools; I believe that serious and hardworking students from non-affluent homes are being underserved.

    • GS

      You will not see it, unless in a setting of a highly selective school for the gifted. Cast not your pearls before swine… I am a doctoral holder, on occasion I even tutor or consult – but I absolutely refuse to deal with those whom I deem insufficiently bright.

      • Jim__L

        “Meanwhile, academics remain extraordinarily contemptuous of anyone who does not have those magic three letters after his name.”

        The author of this post basically nailed this part.

        • GS

          It depends, like everything else. And it depends on what you would expect that person to do – i.e. on the functional performance. If I need to fill a researcher slot in, say, some Big Pharma Research labs- why, I would insist on the applicant having a relevant doctorate, and preferably with some demonstrated experience and/or coming from a well-known research university group and with good references from some well-known scientists. Would I want to fill a lab technician slot – then it is a BS/MS slot, and no PhDs need to apply. And so on and so forth. Function dictates the form.

    • Fred

      I try not to be as butt hole-ish as GS, but I have a PhD, and I have to admit the thought of teaching Beavis and Butthead for thirty years, and worse, working for Beavis and Butthead (are you familiar at all with education majors?), makes me want to stand under an avalanche.

      • FriendlyGoat

        The “trick” in high schools is salesmanship skills where a few teachers are effective in luring Beavis and Butthead away from whatever causes them to be Beavis and Butthead—-and pointing them to other hopes, dreams, ideals and goals. I am not in education, but I perceive that “trick” to be harder and more elusive all the time. We can blame existing administrations, teachers, parents, “political correctness”, education-major training, inadequate funding, OVER-adequate funding, and any number of other things, but taking aimless students to “on fire” is an elusive talent—-maybe even an art—-and meanwhile the societal reasons the kids are “arriving aimless” tend to keep growing.

        • Fred

          I agree with you. But I’m afraid I have neither the patience nor the sales skills for the job, and I suspect most PhDs do not. Most of us get PhDs because we are passionate about a subject and about discussing that subject with others who are both passionate and knowledgeable about it.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Yes. I worked for 20 years with a young man who was a son of a PhD. math professor. The son was brilliant, got certified as a teacher in math too, taught exactly one year in a high school and discovered he needed to spend his days talking mostly with people who were as smart as he really was. He moved to manufacturing and designed specialty equipment.
            I was only 22 when I saw that happen—-not so far out of high school myself, and I began to realize that some of my teachers back there had been more salesmen/women than theorists. My high-school math teacher, especially, was PASSIONATE to do whatever he had to do to help us “get it”. I had him four years and later appreciated what he did every day. It was not the same as just being brilliant like my friend in the manufacturing company.

        • stefanstackhouse

          If you could tutor them one-on-one for a while, I think you would be amazed at the transformation that is possible. Unfortunately, our mass-production paradigm doesn’t allow for that.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Yes, that’s true. Part of the “trick” is separating individuals from the herd that is pulling them down—-and then lifting them up one at a time. Through the years I watched my wife do it in several different settings—none of which were public high schools.
            If you have ever visited animal shelters, you know there are some nice, nice doggies in there who can be made into wonderful companions, but the business of running the shelter is the business of taking all comers and managing the pandemonium. This is a tough reality.

          • Anthony

            FG, what you write is accurate (and your wife is to be commended for doing God’s work) as the proper education of any pupil (child/adolescent) includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil as well as knowledge on the part of the teacher – if teacher/instructor has Ph.D. so much the better from instructional standpoint. Still, your “trick” requires more – knowledge of surroundings, background, purpose, history, etc. to facilitate contact (“lifting them up….”) between pupils and teacher/instructor. Your terminology applies.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Certainly. I would never argue that knowledge of subject matter is second place or that any sociological background training is useless.
            I would tell you from my own brief experience in social service and some of the people my wife worked with elsewhere along the way is that people who get over-trained in “counseling” are often “in need of their own services”.

          • Anthony

            We are in 100% agreement; now on another matter, take a look at this: https://baselinescenario.com/2016/06/13/yes-ill-vote-for-hrc-no-im-not-happy-about-it/

          • FriendlyGoat

            Thanks, good article. That author believes we need a movement. On my same old theme, I believe that when sufficient numbers of people learn that high-end tax cuts not only don’t create jobs but rather actually destroy them, we’ll have a movement (in many countries at once). I know this is boring repetition, but we can’t have any movement without a lot of repetition—–and—–you can’t have a movement built just around “the social issues”.
            As for Hillary being too hawkish, we cannot elect a woman perceived as weak on military and foreign affairs. China, Russia, DPRK and Islam are real.

          • Anthony

            Thanks, I thought you would appreciate authors premise (his hawkish criticism just aside to overall thrust on idea). By the way, Disqus just instituted blocking and I used it – and may utilize it further – and now you have option to preclude unwarranted commenters. Thank God for small miracles.

      • Boritz

        We didn’t appropriately appreciate Beavis and Butthead. Today it’s Terrance and Phillip.

      • johngbarker

        How is teaching in a community college or as adjunct in a mediocre university ( while living on food stamps and spousal charity) much different from teaching in high school. I am not a scholar but I read books in history and philosophy. It is my impression that the overwhelming majority of important scholarship is done at maybe 20 or 30 universities. Why work for decades so you can teach students with marginal academic skills and never produce any important scholarly work. And why pretend that the PhD is any more than the entry level of scholarship.

        • Fred

          I never had any delusions that I was going to work at one of those 20 or 30 universities, but when I started on my PhD, my chances looked pretty good for getting a job at a university similar to the one where I got my undergraduate degree, a small to mid-sized institution that offered a masters degree so that I would get to do some research and teach upper classmen and occasionally graduate students. Unfortunately, it never happened so I left the academy and got a job in the private sector. I do research and technical writing, for which my education well prepared me; my job pays very well, and I don’t have to deal with Beavis and Butthead (or Terence and Phillip).

          • johngbarker

            Thanks, I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comments and respect your honesty.

          • Fred

            Thank you. And I actually do love children, although I probably lack the requisite skills to be an elementary school teacher. Teenagers not so much.

    • Pete

      How does a Ph.D in, say science, math or engineering, get to teach in a public high school without some Mickey Mouse education degree or certificate?.

      • johngbarker

        Because of the shortage of STEM teachers, many states have fast tracked the credential process. More could be done. Education colleges can only be improved if applicants are selected on the basis of superior intellectual ability and human relations skill, since teaching means daily contact with young people and their parents in frequently stressful situations.

        • Andrew Allison

          Seems to me the discussion is missing the point. Teaching high school doesn’t require advanced degrees, just the ability and desire to teach. The issue, as is made clear by the outcomes, is that those characteristics are absent in many high school teachers. The Ph.D glut is more-or-less irrelevant to secondary and post-secondary education.

          • johngbarker

            I almost agree but the ability to teach involves domain knowledge. I love to read history and would love to teach it but I lack the depth of knowledge that would make my teaching more than superficial. The doctoral degree may not be the answer but selecting teachers with both knowledge and desire is essential. PhD is just shortha and perhaps not good shorthand for depth of knowledge.

          • Andrew Allison

            I beg to differ. I think that you would do a better job of teaching history than many of the incompetent hacks currently pretending to do so, and would argue that Ph.D. is shorthand for very narrowly specialized knowledge.

    • stefanstackhouse

      Hate to pour cold water, but I can’t imagine a PhD being a good background for high school teaching. Indeed, I suspect that it is a recipe for frustration and career burnout. It just isn’t a good match.

      What IS needed is for more HS teachers to obtain a much more substantial background in their subject beyond the cursory studies that are minimal requirements for their degree and license. That doesn’t require a PhD, but a master’s degree in their subject area (and not just in “Education”) would be quite helpful. I’m sure many HS teachers do this, but it should be the standard expectation for all of them. Maybe they shouldn’t even be hired to teach until they have gotten this level of education first.

      Of course, with this higher expectation needs to come higher compensation. It is just incredible how much money it is costing to develop one’s “intellectual capital”, and how low the rate of return is on that investment.

      • phwest

        The best teacher I had in high school had a PhD (history). Taught my AP American History class and helped me to significantly improve my writing style. He’d been there a while, and was still there well after I left, so it seemed to work for him. I doubt you want even 10% of your staff to have PhDs, but there is a place for a few.

        For reference, the school was a suburban, diocesan Catholic high school – not an elite school by any means. Class size of around 400, with typically 25 or so AP kids in a year. This was in the 70s, before the mass proliferation of AP classes,

  • GS

    Unless each professor trains (on average) only one doctorate holder (his or her own replacement) over that professor’s career, the majority of doctoral degree holders will have to find niches in industrial and government-sponsored research and in other fields.

    • Pete

      Some of the biggest goofballs I ever encountered were Ph.Ds. Working at McDonalds would task them.

  • Anthony

    Historically (from Carnegie Foundation originating grants for colleges and professors’ salaries and pensions) the PH.D. had been a degree sought by people committed to research scholarship. But, pressures on colleges (Universities) to have Departments chaired by PH.D.s brought about our current Procrustean situation – only now perhaps the graduates have hit a career dead end (no more simple routine post graduate job position nor bureaucratic academic administrative slots to be filled by the numerous bearers of Doctor).

    Yet, there is nothing wrong with the basic idea of the PH. D. even if it may no longer be indicative of a true scholarly interest as inferred in Post.

  • LarryD

    I think the real substance of the faculty’s complaint was that Eikenberry wasn’t part of their tribe.

  • Hugh Everett

    Arizona State University is now offering online degrees. Massively Open Online Courses are the future of education. Students can rack up college credits cheaply, and finish their last couple of semesters at the university. The academic glut will become much worse, because huge college debt no longer makes any sense from a return on investment point of view.

    • Jim__L

      So… find a job outside academia!

      How hard is this to understand??

  • Andrew Allison

    Apparently, doctoral studies don’t include the Law of Supply and Demand. It would be interesting to know just how many candidates are there because borrowing money beats working for a living.

  • stefanstackhouse

    The truth is that this has really been something of a pyramid scheme, and it is finally running out of suckers at the bottom of the pyramid. As Herb Stein famously said, “when something can’t go on forever, then it won’t.”

    The PhD is designed to train researchers – including some researchers who will train the next generation of researchers. The whole enterprise is by nature and necessity elitist. Only a very limited number of truly top tier institutions need to be granting PhDs at all, and only a limited number of the very best students should be entering into such programs. We have way too many universities thinking that they are better than they are, and thus offering second-rate PhDs to second rate students

  • Greg Olsen

    Oxford has forced retirement. Retiring out the septuagenarians and octogenarians would free up positions for younger faculty.

  • Ivar Ivarson

    I hear Starbucks is hiring.

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