Doctor, doctor … we’re suffering a glut of PhDs who can’t find academic jobs

Posted on May 12, 2015 by

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The Guardian by Jonathan Wolff (April 21, 2015) — Only a tiny minority of those with a doctorate manage to find a university post – yet the numbers enrolling for PhDs have never been greater.

If you are taking a PhD, especially in the sciences, look away now. It may be stale news but I’ve just seen a graph from a 2010 Royal Society report suggesting that of every 200 people completing a PhD, only seven will get a permanent academic post. Only one will become a professor.

Graduation-day-for-doctor

These figures may look too bad to be true, but who are we to question the Royal Society’s grasp of statistics? What, then, should we make of the calculation that so few people gaining PhDs in the sciences go on to academic careers?

Perhaps it is good news. Many will applaud the fact that there appears to be so much demand in this country for scientific researchers in the private, charity and government sectors.

The arts and humanities and the social sciences may be another matter. Other figures suggest that academic job prospects are a little better in these areas. Even so, the number of academic jobs each year in every subject is far fewer than the number of jobseekers.

In some parts of the social sciences, such as economics, the position is similar to the sciences, with clear employment paths for PhDs outside academia. The arts and humanities are rather different. True, many people with PhDs in Old Norse, the early novels of Disraeli, or the philosophy of time get first-rate jobs outside academia, but their subject training rarely prepares them for the work they end up doing.

It has been a concern for some time that many more PhDs are awarded than are needed in academia. And I mean “for some time”. When I applied to graduate school in the US 30 years ago, among my acceptance papers was a standard letter from the American Philosophical Association giving a bleak warning about the downturn in the academic job market.

The golden age in the UK was the period of rapid growth in the 1960s, with the foundation of the “white-tile” universities of Sussex, Warwick, York, East Anglia and others. Suddenly academics were needed everywhere but supply lines were thin. New talents were plucked from their Oxbridge colleges even before they started serious post-graduate research. David Lodge’s character Philip Swallow (MA) is a symbol of his age.

Expansion continues. There are five times as many students at UK universities than there were in the early 60s, and opportunities for academics have marched forward too, even if not quite in step. But the number of people taking PhDs has risen just as fast. Except for in the late 60s and early 70s, those seeking academic jobs have greatly outweighed the positions available.

This is a puzzle. In many areas, such as medicine, the number of training positions is regulated to match the expected number of jobs. On the other hand, there are mismatches. In law, for example, many people gaining LLBs will not become solicitors or barristers. Why do sectors differ?

Where an employer pays to train its staff it will make sure it doesn’t take on more than it needs. But when students have to fund themselves, employers are in a much better position, not having to worry about wasting their own resources. This is the position the universities are in, and we greatly benefit by being able to pick and choose those who have proved to be the best, rather than taking an early gamble.

Why then, doesn’t the market self-regulate, as Chicago economists assure us it must? Or, in other words, why do so many people continue to enrol for PhDs when the prospects are so uncertain?

Despite our moans about hours of work, pay, and pensions, being an academic is still the best job in the world for those of a particular temperament and talents. It can be worth the struggle and risk simply to have a decent shot.

* Jonathan Wolff is professor of philosophy at University College London and dean of arts and humanities.

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