If you’re a grad student, it’s best to read the latest report from the National Science Foundation with a large glass of single-malt whiskey in hand. Scratch that: The top-shelf whiskey is probably out of your budget. Well, Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck” is good, too!
Liquid courage is a necessity when examining the data on Ph.D.s in the latest NSF report, “The Survey of Earned Doctorates,” which utilized figures from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. The report finds that many newly minted Ph.D.s complete school after nearly 10 years of studies with significant debt and without the promise of a job. Yet few people seem to be paying attention to these findings; graduate programs are producing more Ph.D.s than ever before.
Getting a Ph.D. has always been a long haul. Despite calls for reform, the time spent in graduate programs hasn’t declined significantly in the past decade. In 2014, students spent eight years on average in graduate school programs to earn a Ph.D. in the social sciences, for example. It takes nine years to get one in the humanities, seven for science fields and engineering, and 12 for education, according to NSF. In other words, Ph.D.s are typically nearing or in their 30s by the time they begin their careers. Many of their friends have probably already banked a decade’s worth of retirement money in a 401K account; some may have already put a down payment on a small town house.
While most doctoral students rely primarily on some combination of grants, teaching assistantships, and research positions to cover tuition and living expenses, they also often use personal savings, spouses’ earnings, and student loans. Consequently, more than 12 percent of all Ph.D.s complete their doctoral programs with over $70,000 of combined undergraduate and graduate student-loan debt. Rates are especially high in the social sciences and education. Those debt levels are alarming, especially because fewer students have jobs lined up immediately after graduation than was the case 10 years ago.
The job market for those with advanced degrees is clearly tightening, according to the NSF study, with many more Ph.D.s in all fields reporting no definite job commitments in 2014 compared to 2004. Nearly 40 percent of the Ph.D.s surveyed in 2014 hadn’t lined up a job—whether in the private industry or academia—at the time of graduation.
It may not be surprising that Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences are struggling to find tenure-track faculty jobs. After all, graduate schools produced two new history Ph.D.s for every tenure-track job opening in 2014. However, with the heavy push towards STEM at universities and opportunities for positions in the private industry, the employment woes for engineering and science Ph.D.s are puzzling.
Ph.D. graduates who reported that they had accepted positions found work in the private industry, academia, or as post-docs. Most Ph.D.s in the humanities, education, and social sciences who have secured plans will work in academia—but the report does not indicate whether they are employed in tenure-track positions, in non-tenure track jobs, or as temporary adjunct jobs, which have grown in popularity in recent years.
A Ph.D. who wins the rare job as a tenure-track professor earns on average about $60,000 per year, according to the NSF report. In contrast, post-doc positions—temporary research spots that are most common in the sciences and draw 39 percent of the Ph.D.s with post-graduation commitments at universities—pay a little over $40,000 per year. Incidentally, the median entrance-level salary for college graduates with a B.A. in 2014 was $45,478.
It’s unclear what happens to the 40 percent of Ph.D.s who don’t get a job of some sort—even of the post-doc variety—after graduation. Perhaps some move onto other professions after a year or so. Maybe some work for peanuts as adjuncts. Others may rely on their partner’s income. What’s more, as Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik notes, the tightening job market means increases in job-market competitiveness, as new Ph.D.s must compete for positions not only with their own cohort but also with the unemployed Ph.D.s. who graduated in previous years.
So, you would think that this kind of information, which has already been discussed in many news articles and books over the years, would dissuade universities from admitting more students. You might even think that super-smart students would try their hands at other careers. After all, when news about the bad employment market for lawyers came out, the number of applications to law schools plummeted. Wouldn’t the same thing happen to Ph.D. programs? Apparently not.
In 2014, doctoral programs in the United States awarded 54,070 Ph.D.s—12,000 more than 2004. All fields, except for education, saw an increase, with the biggest increases in science and engineering.
Why hasn’t all this information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors—why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic? Are people risking so much in the hopes of getting a cushy job with a six-figure salary and no teaching requirements? Is it because academia is a cult that makes otherwise sane people believe that there is no life outside of the university? Are graduate programs failing to inform their students about the realities of the job market? There are no answers to those questions in the charts and graphs from the NSF.
Without serious changes in higher education, such as higher pay for adjunct professors or decreasing the time spent in graduate school, chances are thousands of new Ph.D.s in their early 30s will be struggling this fall.