The PhD warning - Macleans.ca

The PhD warning

If you choose to pursue one, that’s your choice, but don’t say no one ever warned you

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My most recent post seems to have touched a nerve for at least a couple of career academics. So I though I’d follow it up with a post about the state of the employment market for those with PhDs. The market sucks. Now you know.

I’m aware that a PhD must seem impossibly remote for almost anyone who is struggling just to get through their first post-secondary degree (or to even commence it) but the machine can pull you in far easier than you’d imagine. After four years of education in any relatively esoteric field (I mean really, what do you do with your average Bachelor of Arts anyway?) any successful student casts around quite naturally for the follow up option. A one or two year Masters seems like a great idea, when compared with competing for entry-level jobs with all the thousands of students who are graduating each year. And from there, well, it’s a very short hop to the PhD program.

Many students follow this progression with surprisingly little awareness of the job market they face upon eventual graduation. Or maybe that’s not so surprising. Quite a lot of people may not know anyone personally who has a PhD. That means the only people students are exposed to who have this degree are professors – and they seem to be doing pretty well. Some students approach education as an exercise in collecting as many credentials as possible (sometimes aided by the perceptions of parents, for whom no amount of education is too much) and by that approach the PhD is the ultimate win. And some, I think, are simply influenced by their surroundings and aspire to academic life because it’s the norm in university. Just as many students wish to become teachers while they are in the public school system, in university it seems natural to gravitate to a professor’s life. And then PhDs are called doctors sometimes so that’s also readily seen as a measure of success and achievement.

Well, all of that aside, the fact is that not everyone gets employed as a professor just because they’ve graduated with a PhD. In fact, the job market for PhDs is uncertain at best. If you’re looking for reference points I’d have to say it’s a better bet than professional sports but a lot less certain than good qualifications in a trade. Like any employment market there are simply quite a lot of qualified people who are unemployed, underemployed, or can’t find work at the level they aspire to. And that’s especially frustrating for career academics because it’s a very limited market. Some PhDs are marketable outside of academia (science degrees, notably) but many are not. The alternative career paths open to a PhD in English or Philosophy are restricted, to put things mildly.

I’ve posted elsewhere about what employment looks like for those who can’t get full-time academic appointments. It’s probably what you’d expect of uncertain employment in any other field. It’s stressful to live with that uncertainty, there are problems associated with offloading work that used to belong to full-time employees on the cheaper part-timers (and thereby ghettoizing them on an ongoing basis), there are issues associated with professional respect and the interactions between those who are fortunate enough to have the good jobs and those who aren’t. But none of that is really surprising. It’s familiar in many other contexts.

What is unique about the academic employment market is that students really don’t have a clue how competitive it is out there. Less so than professional sports but more so than trades. If I had to lean towards one or the other I’d say it’s closer to pro sports. The competition is fierce. And that can be awfully disappointing to those who have invested five plus years of graduate education in the cause. In fact, studies have shown that the net return on the average PhD is negative. It just takes so long (opportunity cost) that the average increased earnings never make up the difference.

None of that is intended to discourage students from pursuing PhDs. People go into challenging and competitive fields all the time and if it’s a choice between doing that or living unfulfilled I’d hardly steer anyone towards the later option. But the degree does need a much bigger disclaimer than it currently receives and if this warning has contributed at all to that then I’m glad.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.