On Campus

The Homeless Doctor

We have more PhDs than we need. And that's okay.

There seems to be a lot of anxiety these days about the state of PhD graduates, especially in the humanities. My energetic colleague Carson Jerema says plainly that there are too many PhDs in the humanities which is why we poor saps get paid less than our colleagues in business schools, and should be paid even less since there is a lineup down the street of docs just like us. Others suggest we must do more to train these poor, lost PhDs for careers outside the academy since they are not likely to find jobs in the big cruel world otherwise.

The first problem — that there is no point producing more PhDs than there are academic jobs to fill — is not a problem at all.  We should produce more PhDs than jobs, because, pace Jerema, not every PhD is equal. It is easy to imagine that every person who has gone through the rigours of the doctoral process must emerge as a brilliant teacher and scholar, but it is not so. Many PhDs are merely competent scholars: smart people to be sure, but not luminous. A few are really quite average. How can this be? Well, for one thing, getting a PhD is more about commitment to one’s field than pure intelligence. For another, pure intelligence is not always easily applied or expressed. For still another, the PhD, at least in certain disciplines, is very specialized and so a detailed knowledge of a tiny corner of, say, organic chemistry, might be all you need to carry you through.

So the top ranks of the academy are a bit like the starting line-up of a major league baseball team. There are only a few spots and only the best — or those who fit best with a particular team — make it onto the lineup card. Meanwhile, there are more sitting on the bench, and then there are the thousands of minor league players competing for those spots. Most of them will never make it. Some will be good enough for back-up roles. Only a few will be everyday players and only a few of those will be stars.

My point, of course, is not that we should train thousands of PhDs for only dozens of jobs, but rather more generally, tenured professors should not just be barely qualified; they should be the very best. Of course, even now, this doesn’t always work out. Some very good scholars languish in part-time, sessional jobs, while others less brilliant get a lucky break. Such is the academy. Such is baseball. Such is life. But the larger point remains valid: a superabundance of talent overall allows for excellence at the very top. That’s also why tenured humanities professors deserve to be well paid. Not because they can’t be replaced, but because to replace them would be to replace them with somebody worse. Derek Jeter doesn’t command his millions because the Yankees can’t find someone else to play the infield. They could find a hundred decent players tomorrow. But they don’t want decent. They want the best, or as close as they can get. I’ve sat on plenty of academic hiring committees and when you look at all the applications, it’s clear that not everyone can hit the inside fastball.

But what about all those PhDs who don’t make to the highest ranks of scholarship? Setting aside the fact that not all doctoral students even intend on an academic career in the first place, those that do and don’t quite make it tend, in fact, to land on their feet. One close friend of mine with a PhD in English is happy to work part-time in the academy while pursuing other interests and eschewing the drudgery of university committees. Another old friend with a doctorate in biology works for Parks Canada. In any case, the doctorate is an impressive credential where ever you go and, while we often assume that only engineers and business grads can work in business, it’s just not so. When I first graduated with my PhD in English, I couldn’t find a full-time academic gig and the part time ones wouldn’t pay the bills. So I found a job in publishing. My knowledge of literature in particular, and books in general, served me well, and I was quickly climbing the corporate ladder when, by chance, an academic job came along and I got back into that game. And I was not the only English PhD who worked there.

My point is, we don’t have to worry too much about having too many PhDs.  According to Statistics Canada, two years after graduation, 84 per cent of PhDs are employed full time, which is higher than for college graduates, and yet there is no concern that we have too many of those. And doctoral graduates make more than other university graduates, too. To be fair, that 84 per cent is only as good as for bachelor’s grads and actually a bit worse than for Master’s. But that only shows that a PhD, in the short run, may not always be cost effective. I never said it was. My point is this: the notion that there are legions of unemployed, overeducated, aimless PhDs is just not a reality.

In short, the kids are alright. While they are doctoral students they serve as teaching and research assistants and researchers in their own right. After they graduate, they find a way to contribute to society. For particular individuals, that might mean some big changes of plans, and a lot of soul-searching, and that can be tough. I’ve been there. But it’s not unique to my profession. And when it comes to the big wide world of people getting educated and being prepared for what’s next, those getting PhDs  are the least of my worries.