By now, almost everyone knows that a Ph.D. is not a sure route to a middle-class career, unless you’re at a top-ranked program. However, the exact figures on job prospects are often hard to acquire, even if you have the will (and many prospective and current grad students would rather not know). Unsurprisingly, universities often don’t track their graduates or compare their outcomes to those of other programs.
Inside Higher Ed alerts us to a useful new study on outcomes in the field of English, where only about 50 percent of all graduates end up finding tenure track positions, and another 20 percent find some sort of teaching job (over the years 2008–11). However, few professors wind up tenured at the sort of research-based universities they are almost all trained for, and nearly no graduates of low-ranked programs do. (Meanwhile, the researchers couldn’t find data on nearly 20 percent of graduates from the lowest-ranked schools, or on about 15 percent of those of the middle ranks.) Here are some of the figures the study uncovered:
Of those in the top six programs, 12.4 percent land jobs at universities whose graduate programs are ranked among the top 28. For those in the bottom half of all doctoral programs (who collectively make up nearly half of new English Ph.D.s), only 0.21 percent land jobs at those same 28 universities.
“The data are pretty straightforward,” the paper says. “While students in top-10 programs might have a reasonable chance of getting tenure-track jobs at a national research university or national research liberal arts colleges, the chances for such placements are essentially nil for students graduating from lower ranked programs. If students from lower ranked programs do get tenure-track jobs, they will most likely be at schools where the primary focus is on undergraduate teaching to students with weak academic backgrounds.”
Not only are we overproducing Ph.Ds, we’re also preparing them for the wrong jobs. The authors of this study have some advice for Ph.D. programs, which includes providing their job placement numbers on their websites and emphasizing skills like editing or proofreading. As well meant as this advice obviously is, however, much of it isn’t realistic. Few if any need a Ph.D. to work as an editor. If we are overstocked with doctors, the solution is to stop producing them. Many of the jobs these professors do now, like teaching at the community college or high school level, could be accomplished equally well by people with master’s degrees or even BAs.
We’d like to say that English departments will soon start warning students away from unpromising futures as an untenured academics. Don’t count on it, though. Doctoral programs bring prestige to universities, cut-price teachers in the form of graduate students, and a labor glut that keeps wages for adjunct faculty very low. Harsh, but often true: a Ph.D. student is more important to the university before she graduates. After that, though a graduate with a starry career reflects well on her former university, a struggling one won’t damage its reputation or reduce its legion of applicants.
If anyone is going to turn away from this crapshoot, it will have to be those invited to play. The universities will keep running the game as long as they can.