Why Aren't More Ph.D.s Teaching in Public Schools?

They're highly qualified, and they need jobs. And yet fewer than one percent of all teachers have doctorates.

Scott Eisen/AP Photo

American universities award more than 60,000 doctoral degrees every year. However, there are not enough academic jobs for all those graduates. One study asserts that only 41 percent of Ph.D.s will find tenure-track positions. Some studies are slightly more optimistic.  In a report for the academic journal PS, Jennifer Seagal Diascro reported that 49 percent of the 816 Ph.D.s who graduated from political science programs between 2009 and 2010 found permanent academic positions.

As universities increase the number of adjunct and non-tenure track lines at the expense of tenure positions, the number of Ph.D.s without permanent positions is unlikely to change.

So, what happens to the 60-ish percent of Ph.D.s who can’t find a tenure track-position? Until recently, the answer to this question had been elusive. But for a ground-breaking study described this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, sociologist Dean Savage created a database of 471 Ph.D. graduates from the sociology program at CUNY Graduate Center dating back to 1971. Using LinkedIn and Google searches, he mapped out the career outcomes of these students.

Savage found that less than half of the students who completed their sociology Ph.D. at CUNY Grad Center found full-time, tenure-track positions. Just over 30 percent of the students who graduated between 2000 and 2004 found tenure positions. Things look better for more recent grads: 44 percent of the 2005-2009 graduates were now employed as tenure or tenure-track faculty.

And what about the rest of the graduates, the ones who didn’t make the tenure track? Savage found that 80 percent of recent graduates had stable, full-time positions, even if they were not working as professors. He said that many graduates later found work as administrators within the CUNY system. Some found jobs in research fields, thanks to the quantitative skills gained in graduate school. Others were writers, librarians, and social workers. One is now a Buddhist monk.

Of the 471 Ph.D.s that Savage tracked, though, only two were employed as teachers in private or public schools. It’s surprising that so few scholars are transitioning to K-12 education when unable to find work within academia. Nation-wide, fewer than one percent of all public elementary and secondary school teachers have Ph.Ds.

Why isn’t public-school teaching a viable Plan B for Ph.D.s?

Marjorie Gursky received her Ph.D. from New York University in Ancient History in 2001. Due to geographic limitations and family demands, she was unable to participate in a nation-wide search for a tenure position. She considered teaching social studies at a public school and called the New York State Board of Education to inquire about teaching certification. She was told that she needed to complete additional coursework and work as a student teacher, which would amount to a two-year commitment.

Gursky said, “I thought I had enough school. If I could have done a one-year program, I would have done it, but two years was too long. I already spent ten years in school. It was also going to cost a lot of money.”

Gursky now teaches Hebrew school, does telemarketing, and edits college essays.

Matthew McIntire graduated in 2003 with a degree in History from CUNY Graduate Center. Like Gursky, he was unable to participate in a nation-wide search for job. After working as an adjunct at Cleveland State University, he tried to find work in the suburban public schools around Cleveland. Unlike most Ph.D.s, McIntire had his teaching certificate. He’d been a sixth-grade teacher in California before beginning his graduate program.

Even with his teaching certificate in hand, as well as years of classroom experience, McIntire could not find a public-school teaching position. He applied to a dozen positions, had two interviews, but got no offers. One administrator told him that his Ph.D. was a hindrance to employment. The Ph.D. put him on top of the union pay scale, which priced him out of an entry-level position.

McIntire added that in some areas, the K-12 job market is just as tough as the academic job market. “There are too many teachers right now,” he said.

Recent reports confirm McIntire’s observations: Earlier this year USA Today wrote that there are twice as many people trained to be elementary school teachers than available positions.

Despite this surplus of teachers, though, individuals with years of graduate school education and years of college classroom experience should be snapped up by public schools. They have far more classroom experience and deeper knowledge of their content than most graduates from education programs.

This spring, Stanford announced an innovative program that would fully fund their humanities Ph.D. students who are admitted in their education school. This is a fantastic first step in helping Ph.D.s make the transition to K-12 education. Hopefully school districts will follow Stanford's lead in encouraging these scholars to become teachers.