Too many Ph.Ds not enough jobs why academia needs to be more selective

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

As students receive in their acceptance letters and notifications for the upcoming academic year, and universities post a high number of applications and lower acceptance rates for undergraduate study, how do these trends affect graduate studies? For years already there have been reports on the oversupply of doctoral students while tenure-track university jobs shrink. Is it time for graduate studies to take a page from undergraduate trends and accept fewer students at the graduate level?

There are widespread problems with both the way these programs are run and with the students enrolled. Former Harvard University president Derek Bok lamented on the problems in doctoral study in the United States in a November 2013 article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “We Must Prepare Ph.D. Students for the Complicated Art of Teaching.” Bok described the worst offenses, “Graduate schools can justly be condemned as the worst-designed and worst-administered of any major academic program in our research universities. There are far too many Ph.D. programs, many of them of mediocre quality. Dropout rates are embarrassingly high. More than 40 percent of graduate students fail to earn doctorates within 10 years, a number far greater than in other advanced degree programs. Students take too long to finish, with almost 30 percent in the social sciences and 40 percent in the humanities lingering for more than seven years before earning their degrees.”

Doctoral students have a great dissatisfaction with the problems plaguing the Ph.D. process. An article in the Economist in 2010, entitled “Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time The disposable academic” claims, “Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread.”

The article claims that there is a problem with the research doctorate education that is creating an unneeded oversupply. Written in 2010, it claims that in the United States, 64,000 students graduated with doctorates. From 2005 to 2009, 100,000 received doctorates, but there were only 16,000 professorship positions open. The Economist writes, “an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.”

The article claims one of the reasons universities continue these programs is because they provide cheap labour in the university, in research and teaching. "Universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money." Money is the prime motivator for most universities when it comes their doctoral students, from tuition and the cheap labour they provide. The process is disheartening, especially among students that should not be in the programs to begin with.

One of the main problems is attrition, the longer students takes to complete the degree, the more likely they are to drop out. According to the Economist, “Only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrollment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%.” The Economist points out that of those that drop of their doctoral program, most do so early on, but in the humanities, they linger for years, before stopping their degree. The main reasons for stopping include, “Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.”

Leonard Cassuto also looked at the problem and reasons for attrition. In his Chronicle of Higher Education commentary published in July 2013, entitled, “Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is Too Much?” Cassuto points out that “A disturbing 50 percent of doctoral students leave graduate school without finishing.” Cassuto indicates there are three types of doctoral students. The first type is “those who can’t get it done because they’re not up to the demands of the task.” The second type is “those who have the ability to finish but choose not to,” while the third type completes their degree. Cassuto believes if an academic committee keeps up to standards very few would not complete their degree due to lack of ability, because those accepted would have the skills to do so. He also believes a “well run department” matters in admitting students that are up to the task. The problem is in many lower-tier schools the desperation for students often hinders committees and departments’ admission decisions.

The Economist also had solutions to the attrition problem, mostly incentives and penalties against the professors. According to the Economist, “Measurements and incentives might be changed, too. Some university departments and academics regard numbers of PhD graduates as an indicator of success and compete to produce more. For the students, a measure of how quickly those students get a permanent job, to what they earn, would be more useful. Where penalties are levied on academics who allow PhDs to overrun, the number of students who complete rises abruptly, suggesting that students were previously allowed to fester.”

Lowering the number of graduate student at lower-tier schools might also be an answer. While elite and top-tier universities only accept the students that would be the most successful for the rigors of graduate education, those at lower-tier schools are often not. Despite the overcrowding mostly from lower-ranked schools, they continue accepting too many under qualified students, because if they would not they would go out of business.

On a personal note, recently I had the chance to read the writings of a graduate student at a college whose Political Science department where they were studying did not even rank according to US News and World Report’s graduate school rankings. The writing was hardly graduate-level calibre, the essays were riddled with grammatical and sentence structure errors, and they did not even know the basics of constructing a thesis statement. The student’s work was not even up to the standards expectant of undergraduates at most top-tier colleges and universities. Why were they then in a masters program and had applied for doctoral study for the upcoming year? Why had nobody stopped their studies before? Because the college needed the students and tuition money to continue offering their program. The situation is not unique, it symptomatic of many lower-tier schools and graduate programs.

Doctoral graduates from lower ranked schools face more employment setbacks that their peers at elite top schools and graduate departments. The problem is now years in the making. A December 2012 report proved that graduate of the top doctoral programs are there ones getting the bulk of the available tenure-track positions. The study conducted by Robert Oprisko of Butler University, and published in the Georgetown Public Policy Review entitled, “Superpowers: The American Academic Elite” looked specifically at doctoral graduates from political science programs using 2009 program rankings.

Oprisko determined that only students graduating from top 11 programs where benefiting career-wise after completing their doctorate. The study found that just 20 percent of those receiving tenure-track posts come from the top four schools Harvard, Princeton and Stanford and top public school and number four, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Oprisko points out in this study that even lower-ranked universities want to hire graduates of the top programs, which Oprisko says, “This practice reinforces the perceived inferiority of their current institution.”

Audrey Williams June writing in a December 2012, Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Ph.D.’s From Top Political-Science Programs Dominate Hiring, Research Finds” explained the findings. Williams June wrote, “The median institutional ranking of institutions in the study is 11, which Mr. Oprisko said implies that 11 institutions contributed half of the political scientists who filled tenured or tenure-track positions at research-intensive universities in the United States. That means that graduates of the more than 100 other political-science programs competed for the remaining 50 percent of job openings.” Oprisko finds "Students who come from less-prestigious institutions don’t really get a chance."

Oprisko notes, according to Diane Rubenstein of Cornell “the perception is that good students only come from a handful of schools.” Justice Clarence Thomas takes issue with this perception, holding that graduates from schools ranked lower are not “third-tier trash.” Sometimes, however, lower standards from these schools both at the school and program level fosters third-rate doctorate.

Leonard Cassuto also looked at the academic prestige of doctorate graduate at top-tier schools and program then questioned “What Are Low-Ranked Graduate Programs Good For?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2013. To Cassuto it is graduating from the top 40 ranked programs which matters, writing “Political scientists, like AM-radio disc jockeys of old, prize the top 40.” Cassuto indicates programs outside the elite are defensive and he had an email from a director at a regional school that argued, "As a Research I University, our students, for the most part, are very much interested in continuing to do research." At that point she blamed the economy for their graduates being overlooked in the job market.

Many graduates of lower-tier programs often end up in jobs outside of academia or as teachers in community colleges or other teaching-only institutions. The problem is most of the lower -tier schools are in denial as to the prospects of their students’ careers and do not emphasize teaching in their programs. Cassuto also notes that programs outside the top 40 who should be emphasizing teaching for their doctoral students but do not, instead they follow the top 40 model to the detriment to their doctoral students. Schools outside the top 100 are usually teaching intensive and realize it, favoring graduates, who are generalists focused on teaching as opposed to research. As Cassuto recounts one graduate director at a lower-ranked regional school confessed their programs emphasized teaching, "because we know our place."

Bok notes the problems undergraduate are having with learning basic skills and remaining engaged. Bok recounts “Among the recent discoveries, investigators have found that college students are not making as much progress as most people have assumed in mastering essential skills such as writing and critical thinking.” For Bok the problem could be solved by teaching doctoral students how to teach.

As academia and critics look to teaching as an answer to the overflow of doctorates, the question remains how can doctorates who barely were qualified at the onset teach the next generation of students in a field. If desperate universities populate their graduate programs with unqualified students, how can these same people after completing a doctorate rectify the writing and critical thinking problems undergraduates face.

Cassuto believes part of the solution involves accepting less doctoral students, but not so few that it again breeds elitism from the top universities and program as in the past. In his December 2012, Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “What If We Made Fewer Ph.D.’s?” he believes programs need to find the “right size” and altering their instruction for alternative jobs for doctorates outside academia.

Academia at any level is still a business, and they are operating as such ignoring the perpetual problem they are creating, so called experts, where many had inferior marks, writing and analytical skills as they entered their programs. The myriad of problems graduate students face during their doctoral could be eliminated if lower-tier graduate program filled their classes not just with students who fulfilled the basic requirements, but by having the same standards as top-tier students. They need to be either be more selective or eliminate their programs if they can not fill them with qualified students, that it’s the only way to end the oversupply of mediocre doctorates. A graduate degree needs to go back to being awarded to the best and brightest, because a degree at that level is not a right, but a privilege.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @

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