PhDs UP, jobs down


Hairdresser: “Didn’t you used to teach at that community college, about 10 years ago?”

Me: “Yep.”

Hairdresser: “I had a class with you there, even graduated. I hear it’s a scam now.”

Me: “Yep. I’d like it short in the back, please.”

–I had this conversation about a month ago. I hope she enjoyed her time at the community college but…please don’t tell me education is even remotely a path to riches.

We’re coming to a critical point in higher education: way too many of our college graduates are finding out that there simply isn’t a job waiting for them after they get that degree. Granted, it’s been that way for years, but the critical issue now is people are catching on to the rigged game.

One solution to the “no job for the recent college graduate” problem is to go back for more school. It should be obvious on the face of it that this is a sucker’s game—if education doesn’t get a you a job, more education isn’t likely to help, right? The only advantage is, since you’re going back to school, you don’t have to make payments on your previous student loans, payments you’d have to make if you keep looking for a job, a job you can’t find.

I imagine merely a tiny percentage of the population suspects that the situation described above is not a coincidence. I hope the percentage is growing, as I sure wish fewer people would double down on education by going to graduate school.

Before going further, allow me to talk about my own “getting into graduate school” experience:

My undergraduate GPA was just barely above 3.5 (that’s “below average” by today’s standards, but still respectable). My general GRE scores quite good (98th percentile or so, if memory serves), and I’d won a national award for mathematical research (2nd place was awarded to someone from a school called “MIT”). I always wanted to go to graduate school, and so naturally I applied after spending some time “in the real world” working as a stockbroker.

I was rejected from the majority of graduate schools I applied to. It wasn’t that I was all that weak an applicant, but the recent collapse of the USSR (at the risk of giving things away) meant the US was being flooded with high quality, famous (in their field) mathematicians, and this was going to continue for years…there weren’t going to be many jobs for new Ph.D.s anytime soon, and so grad schools did the right thing and cut back enrollments.

The point of this backstory? I didn’t have an easy time getting accepted to grad school, because the grad schools operated with integrity, responsibly only taking as many students as the job market could bear.

Higher education has changed quite a bit since then, especially in the less technical fields where you can easily get hundreds of kids with 4.0 GPAs looking to sign up for more debt. If schools were still run by people with integrity, then the graduate schools wouldn’t be bloated out with way too many students, looking for far too few jobs when they graduate.

Unfortunately, admissions, like most everything else on campus, is run by the administrative caste (on most campuses), and all they want is growth.

A recent article addresses in detail the incredible disparity between jobs and graduates going on here, but I’ll provide a few numbers highlighting the insanity:

English Ph.D.s Awarded in 2016: 1400

Faculty Positions in English Available in 2016: 900

Hmm, so over 35% of the Ph.D.s last year are mathematically excluded from getting a job in academia…the only place where a Ph.D. in English is worth anything. Isn’t it a little bit irresponsible to do this? I’m surprised there isn’t a lawsuit. It’s really worth pointing out that a Ph.D. in the social sciences, much like English, can easily take 6 to 10 years, so it’s a pretty huge investment considering the low chance of even minimal payoff, and it isn’t just this one subject.

This situation is only going to snowball: the 500 people that couldn’t possibly get a job in 2016 are going to try again in 2017, making the gap between “Ph.D.s looking for a job” and “jobs for Ph.D.s” more like 1,000 recent graduates in 2017…a year after that and you have more people unemployed for a year (a two) trying to get the job than you have recent graduates trying to get the job.

Because we’ve been running surpluses for years, getting the Ph.D. in English today sets you up for years of unemployment. Ok, English isn’t exactly a discipline known for doing the math, perhaps other departments are being responsible?

History Ph.D.s Awarded in 2016: 1000

Faculty Positions in History Available in 2016: 600

History is even more self-destructive, with 40% of the graduates mathematically guaranteed for unemployment. Again spending 6 to 10 years getting the degree (after the 4 to 6 years getting the undergraduate degree) is a disaster, right? It’s only going to be a few years of this before we hit a traffic jam of more Ph.D. Historians entering the job market than the market could possibly absorb even if there were no new graduates.

The chart lists a number of disciplines, but the trends are very clear: even as the number of jobs opening is stable, the number of graduates trying to get those jobs are increasing dramatically. I should mention, most of those positions accounted for above are sub-minimum wage adjunct jobs: our best and brightest in the humanities literally are spending 10 or more years of their life to qualify to wait several years to get a job paying less than minimum wage…and they’re going deep into debt for the privilege.

The number of Master’s Degrees being awarded is dropping, but this is more than absorbed by the Ph.D.s. I take this as a sign people are catching on: they at least realize the glut means a Master’s Degree is a terrible investment in time. Yes, they’re moving on to Ph.D.s but that’s the end of the rope, past that point reality has to set in.

Please, let reality set in.

It’s obnoxious how admin wins coming and going here. We’re talking big, big, student loan money pouring into administrative pockets in exchange for growing the graduate schools. After graduation, the flood of applicants for any job at all means admin can get another bonus for lowering faculty pay. Hey, I understand supply and demand well enough…but I also understand that it’s pure evil for admin to grow their graduate schools when they know they’re setting people up for financial ruin.

A number of comments show that the faculty, at least, know what’s happening:

The academy used the recssion excuse to double-down on “shedding” full-time faculty positions. That will NEVER stop. The shift to part-time labor among faculty is as permanent as outsourcing in the manufacturing sector. PERMANENT.

And yet institutions keep churning out new phd’s because they themselves are in the race: more head-counts among their doctoral students means more funding for their own dept’s. They won’t stop. They will never stop.

The adjunctification of higher ed has done no good for education, and is a big part of why the “real” jobs are drying up. I do believe, however, that at some point it has to stop.

When will it stop? When there’s a guy with the story “I’m 40 years old, have a list of degrees as long as your arm, and there literally is no place for me except serving coffee, which I can’t do because my student loan payments if I had a paycheck would be more than my paycheck” living on every block. We’re not there yet, I admit.

That said, we are at the stage where a kid with the story “I’m 24 years old with a degree in Psych, and work at Starbucks…” is basically on every block, and we’re already seeing considerable backlash against higher education for creating such commonplace victims. Granted, the response right now is to try to offer “free” college to everyone but…the degrees will still be worthless.

I can hardly conceive how people have such confusion of ideas to believe “We’ll start giving away degrees for free, then they’ll be worth something!”

Another commenter highlights the problem:

Right now, my English dept employees 45 adjuncts in composition, to whom it pays $2500 per course at 23-student cap classes, and another 20 adjuncts who teach Enlish classes of 35 students at $3000 per course. The ten tenure-track people make the typical $60-90k a year.

Meanwhile, there are two administrators here for every yenture-track (sic, should be “tenure-track”) faculty member, college-wide. Starting salary for those is $90k.


     This is the part that I find so disturbing about higher ed right now. Sure, supply and demand means we shouldn’t be paying faculty much, I accept that. But those savings should be passed on to the customers, giving them a better product (eg, smaller classes) and lower tuition.

Instead, the savings just goes to pay for ever more administrators. There are many eyewitness accounts in the article, again saying nothing I haven’t already said regarding what’s going on in higher ed.

The only thing the comments lack is a true solution. Allow me to provide one:

The legion of administrators and the glut of graduate students, are both paid for by the student loan scam. Destroy that, and there would be hope for integrity, and possibly even sanity, to return to higher ed.