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Forget grad school!

Why the academic labour market may not be about to open up


For those taking the PhD plunge, the prospect of finding meaningful employment has always been a concern. Despite rosy predictions from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), the PhD job market may be heading into another tight period.

From the early 1990s to about 1998, the number of employed university professors (of all ranks) shrunk by 3,000, or close to 10 per cent. Many tenured positions were eliminated through retrenchment policies where universities calculated that paying out professors willing to retire early would lead to a more stable financial footing in the long run.Similar policies were implemented across the country and the average age of retirement for all Canadians dropped precipitously.

The trend eventually reversed, and between 1998 and 2006, about 22 per cent new faculty positions have been added, including a 37 per cent increase in tenured track appointments. The tight 1990s has, however, left the percentage of Canadian faculty aged 55 or older disproportionately higher than it otherwise would have been.

The AUCC assures us that at least 22,000 renewal faculty will be needed over the next 10 years. The lobby group is also certain that hordes of students supposedly entering university over the same period will further drive up the demand for university professors.Seems like a bright future for up and coming scholars everywhere, doesn’t it? I will set aside the claim that university enrolments will continue to increase, as Maclean’s has consistently challenged that assumption (see here and here).

The AUCC is working from the assumption that as the average retirement age normalizes, it will resettle to what it was before the 90s; that is, at 65. However, a number of trends suggest this might not be the case.For starters, mandatory retirement in the Ivory Tower is quickly becoming a thing of the past (see here, here and here).

What’s more, recent “corrections” in the market have threatened retirement savings and stock portfolios both in Canada and south of the border, further suggesting delayed retirement as faculty aim to recoup losses to ensure they will be as comfortable as they had planned.

As Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago philosophy professor, put it recently: “The catastrophic June in the stock markets means that a lot of faculty who might have been thinking about retirement in the coming year are going to postpone given the huge losses most will have suffered.”

Leiter estimates that demand for philosophy doctoral degree holders, the labour market is retracting to what it was about 15 years ago. In the early 1990s “there were 2.3 candidates per job,” and though that number slackened to 1.4 by the beginning of this decade, Leiter predicts that “we will be back at 2.3 before long, if we are not there already.”

While this is not necessarily representative of all disciplines, fields in the humanities such as philosophy are always hardest hit.It is true that even if the economy gets worse in the U.S., things could play out differently up here. However, Canadian and American PhDs compete in the same job market. If the academic labour market tightens in the U.S., that just means more American PhD holders competing for jobs up here.

Of course, none of this means that baby-boomer professors won’t have to be renewed. It simply means that the renewal will be rather flat, as opposed to the explosion the AUCC has apparently predicted. But as anyone scrounging around for a tenure-track position will tell you, there is a limited time frame after one first earns their PhD before their degree is considered “stale,” ultimately condemning them to a lifetime of hopping from one sessional appointment to another.

Add to this the fact that though a good deal of tenure-track positions have been added in recent years, many have been replaced permanently with sessional contract positionsas well as the reality that many who will retire in the coming years never earned tenure to begin withand the rosiness of the academic labour market vanishes. Never mind if universities feel the need to re-implement retrenchment policies.

In fact, a slacker and easier academic labour market might have already come and gone. We just missed it.

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  1. Carson assessment is completely out of wack. He knows nothing about university recruitment works. I am a retired professor who has also been in charge of departmental recruitments. First of all, never assume that statistics is everything. Secondly, never believe in the BS that you have to have tons of publications and cheesy teaching experience after obtaining a PhD. Objectively, what the academe looks for is someone who holds a PhD who will be able to offer courses the respective departments require. Carson, I advise you to talk to someone who knows the ins and outs of postsecondary education before you spread the dooms and glooms!!

  2. KL wrote: “Secondly, never believe in the BS that you have to have tons of publications and cheesy teaching experience after obtaining a PhD.”

    1) Where exactly do I make the point you appear to be challenging?

    2) you’re absolutely right, recruitment doesn’t just look at numbers of publications, but at a number of factors such as the one you identified. Again, not something I was discussing in this post.

    I did make a comment about PhDs becoming stale. But, is it not true that if someone earns a PhD but doesn’t find a tenure track position right within, say, 5 years, that their attractiveness to recruiters fades, even just a bit?

    However, the main point I was making was to question the AUCC’s predictions for the numbers of professors retiring. But interestingly, you don’t challenge this point, you’re just lobbing insults.

    3) You can suggest I speak to someone who knows the ins and outs, and I can tell you I have interviewed dozens of people over the years on this topic, but I doubt you will believe me. So ad hominen it is!

  3. I don’t even need Carson’s whole argument to address the problem in KL’s reply. I just have two simple questions.

    You state: “Objectively, what the academe looks for is someone who holds a PhD who will be able to offer courses the respective departments require.”

    My first question: “How many people do you believe (if you’ve ever even counted) apply for each position that meet this minimum qualification?”

    My second question: “What factors are used to determine who among these qualified candidates gets hired and who does not?”

    I find your perspective, for a retired professor, to be bizarrely simplistic. We live in a competitive world. University level instruction (never mind research) is a highly coveted job. Of course it takes more than a newly minted PhD and a willingness to teach your 101 class to get hired. What it actually takes is being more (over) qualified than every other single person who applies for that same job.

    Your suggestion is insulting to the very many highly motivated PhD graduates I know who are scraping by on stipend jobs, are year-to-year on CLTA, or who are simply unemployed in their fields. The situation may not be as dire as Carson suggests, but at least he made some attempt to grapple with its complexity.

  4. Mr. Rybak,

    To answer your first question: Not as many as you think. Indeed a lot of people meet the requirement but have turned down offers due to better career prospects elsewhere. The second question to your answer is an excellent recommendation from people we know. I am sorry in stating this but the truth is referees we know are better than we don’t.

    By the way, to the “highly motivated PhD graduates I who are scraping by on stipend jobs, are year-to-year on CLTA, or who are simply unemployed in their fields”, there are many job openings in Asia (particularly in China, Korea and Taiwan) where there is an ever growing demand for postsecondary education in English. I don’t believe it is an INSULTING assessment that our “highly motivated PhD graduates in Canada” are less adventurous than our American and Australian counterparts!

  5. KL. I’ve referred your view for expert opinions. In other words, for the experiences of people who’ve actually been on the job market at some point in the last several decades. I’ll let them speak for themselves, rather than continue to make their case secondhand.

  6. I agree that the article is a bit doom and gloom, but I also think we have to be honest about the realities of the job market for PhDs. Yes, most PhDs can probably get a job somewhere, in the rural United States, perhaps, or a community college up North, but is this what most PhDs expect and want?

    The importance of publications and teaching experience really depends on the type of institution you apply to. Some undergrad focused schools are just looking for people who can teach certain classes, but at large research institutions, teaching becomes completely secondary, and the important qualification becomes publications in top tier peer-reviewed journals and the ability to attract research grants.

    Also, the competition for academic positions has grown and changed over time. A couple decades ago, universities were more likely to pick teachers. Now, universities pick academics able to publish and compete for grant money.

    I don’t know what the specific figures are for each discipline, but as the author says, in everything from physics, engineering, to political science and sociology, and english and philosophy, fewer PhD actually garner tenure-track academic positions. Some PhDs drop out before finishing, due to lack of funding and realization of the futility of getting a tenure track job, and find jobs in industry, research, or government, or go to law, med, or business school.

  7. For those interested in a less gloomy take on this topic, I wrote a feature for the 2007 rankings issue about where to do a PhD, and I touched a bit on some of the issues I raised in this post. As it was a feature and not an opinion piece or blog post, there are a range of views presented and my own views are somewhat muted. In fact my current position developed in the months after this piece was published. KL will note that I interviewed a number of people with direct knowledge of faculty recruitment…

    Here is the link:

    And here is a relevant sample:

    “A 2002 report by the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada(AUCC), the universities’ lobby group, estimated that by 2011, as many as 40,000 new faculty will be needed due to growing demand for higher education and the retirement of the baby boomers. If the AUCC is right, then it will be the 1960s all over again: even if every Canadian Ph.D. holder enters academia, Canadian doctoral program graduates will be too few to meet the demand.

    Others are skeptical. ‘Ph.D. students have been hearing that the market will open up for well over a decade now,” says Folkerth. And Archer notes that new academics still face fierce competition for jobs. “Because the job market was so tight in the late 1980s to the late 1990s, people really had to have exceptional CVs to get out and be successful, and that in itself led to a pattern where our Ph.D. students were really being pushed to be competitive with the best students globally.'”

  8. Carson’s historical/statistical analyis makes a lot of sense to me. Ten days ago Macleans published an article on the idea of “brain drain”: how the time is long gone when Canada was an exporter rather than an importer of PhD’s. (see

    This puts an interesting twist on KL’s comment about the relative lack of adventurousness of Canadians, and the fact that “there are many job openings in Asia (particularly in China, Korea and Taiwan).” It seems to me that the notion that PhD’s are in high demand in Canada continues to be prevailing inside and outside of Canada, even though this is no longer the case. Thus, doctorates from around the world converge here, just to find out that the needs of the academic job market in Canada have already been met, thank you, but that no one has yet bothered to take down the sign of “PhD’s wanted — apply within.”

    Is the solution for the 4,000 people who get their PhD’s in Canada every year and the other 3,200 doctorates who arrive here from abroad every year simply to start to think of other places in the world they could go instead? That’s an idea. But there is something about the idea of spending spent years of hard work in a country and then finding out that none of the fruits of that hard work can revert back to the country where the hard work was done that I find really sad, be the country Canada, India, China or Brazil.

    But it’s not as if I had a prognosis to match this diagnosis: at this point, any diagnosis that explains the painful symptons I see everywhere is already a big help. And here’s why I found Carson’s article so helpful (in the way that getting a second opinion on an unfavourable diagnosis can be called helpful: reassuring, but not exactly good news).

    (for another set of reflections on unemployed/unemployable PhD’s, check a post I wrote on my blog last week:

  9. Pingback: Here comes the new, improved job market for Ph.D.’s! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present