The 1997 Presidential Address to the Association of
Myths and Realities of the Ph.D. Marketplace
by Janice F. Madden, Vice Provost for Graduate Education
The mass media has made many assertions about graduate programs in research
universities in recent years, including
- "Research universities do not train their students for employment
- "Research universities do not train their students for college
teaching jobs" (A criticism that is somewhat muted by another):
- "There are no university and college teaching jobs."
- "Postdoctoral positions are simply 'holding patterns' for Ph.D.s
unable to find permanent placements."
In short, these are all ways of coming to the conclusion that there
are research universities are producing too many Ph.D.s. Not one of these
statements is accurate, at least in reference to the Ph.D. in general.
Every one of them is accurate, at least in relation to some doctoral programs
at some universities.
Poor information abounds. Problems arise from the tendency to speak
of the Ph.D. as if all recipients had the same training. But, the Ph.D.
in Mechanical Engineering has as much in common with a BA in Fine Arts
or an MBA as she does with the Ph.D. in Art History when it comes to labor
market strategies and other outcomes. The state of the job market, currently
and relative to the past, varies a great deal by field. Also, the quality
of the program awarding the Ph.D. strongly influences the likelihood of
many desired outcomes.
Today, I review some of the evidence gathered by the AAU Committee on
Graduate Education to illustrate these issues. While I have developed the
graphical presentation, the initial data were produced in response to requests
by Yale President Richard Levin, another member of the committee.
1 shows the tremendous growth in Ph.D. production in the last decade.
The growth has occurred in both AAU and other institutions, but the
expansion has been greater in the other institutions.
Has this expansion been too great? Those who argue that it has not,
frequently point to the low and unchanging Ph.D. unemployment rates that
accompanied this expansion. Chart
2 shows that Ph.D.s have lower unemployment rates than any other
segment of the work force.
But, this is the wrong criteria. Obviously, persons with the ability
to earn a Ph.D. possess many more skills and talents than the average worker
or other segments of the workforce and would have lower unemployment regardless
of their Ph.D.s. Employment is not the criteria. Rather, what matters is
that the Ph.D. is being used on the job in a way that justifies the expense
of earning the degree. The costs of obtaining the degree in almost all,
if not all, cases is borne in large part by federal and state governments.
Even students educated in private universities with private fellowship
funds are educated at social expense in terms of foregone taxes and other
social uses to which the "donated" funds could have been used.
A few years ago, there was a very moving moment at the Council of Graduate
Schools meeting when the winner of the dissertation prize in Astronomy
said that he had found his training worth doing even if he never worked
as an astronomer again. He said that the chance to do astronomy for his
graduate career was sufficient reward for him. There was not a dry eye
in the audience of graduate deans.
While one has to admire the intellectual commitment that underlies those
remarks, we cannot and should not justify the social and public expenditures
on doctoral education with those sentiments. To convince governments and
universities of the need to continue their support of doctoral education,
we must show social returns to those expenditures. We must show that Ph.D.s
are employed in jobs that appropriately utilize their training.
If we cannot demonstrate this fact, then we must either change the training
or reduce production options which should be considered for a variety of
other reasons, as well.
Although Ph.D.s are employed, do the jobs they hold justify the investment
in their education?
3 shows unemployment and out-of-field employment rates by
field for Ph.D. recipients in 1989-91 and 1991-94. These data do show evidence
of employment problems in social sciences, physical sciences, engineering
and mathematics, while life sciences have a relatively strong market by
this standard. But note that even for the worse case here- anthropology
and sociology in 1993-more than 85% of Ph.D.s are employed in field-relevant
jobs within one to three years after graduation.
Other evidence that suggests a developing problem is the recent decline
in the proportion of new Ph.D.s who have definite plans at graduation.
4 shows that there have been noticeable declines since 1990. While
graduates of AAU institutions are both more likely to have definite plans
and have experienced less of a decline in the proportion with definite
plans, the downward trends for both AAU and nonAAU graduates is consistent
with growing dissatisfaction with job prospects.
Some have suggested that these general data understate the problem because
many of the graduates with definite plans are actually moving into postdoctoral
positions as "holding patterns" waiting for better jobs. Furthermore,
the "healthier" placements noted in the life sciences for recent
Ph.D.s in Chart
3 may reflect nothing more than the postdoc holding pattern being
more prevalent in this field. Among all Ph.D. graduates, Chart
5 shows that the proportion moving into postdocs has increased
over the decade. In fact, postdoctoral positions have been expanding for
the two prior decades, as well. But most of the growth in the recent decade
occurred in the earlier years, not after 1989 when the proportion with
definite plans started to decline. Also, the fact that a larger proportion
of AAU Ph.D.s go on to postdocs suggests that this pattern is a positive
choice of scholars, not a last resort of those with no jobs.
But, it is hard to tell anything about postdocs from the data on Ph.D.s
in all fields. The proportion of Ph.D.s undertaking postdoctoral study
varies tremendously by field of study: nationally, 80% of biochemists but
less than 10 percent of Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences undertake
postdoctoral study. Evidence suggests that the fields in which postdocs
are more prevalent are distinguished by their content not by their job
market "tightness." USC President Steven Sample's recent survey
of postdoctoral students and academic departments found general agreement
that, at least in biochemistry and physics, there is a consensus that the
postdoctoral training itself is necessary to obtaining the skills necessary
for careers in those fields.
Others have suggested that the market is declining because there are
fewer jobs in academe as a result of the uncapping of retirement age and
cutbacks in government support of higher education. Furthermore, it is
suggested that we, in the AAU institutions, are not training our students
for teaching-oriented jobs. Chart
6 shows the number of new Ph.D.s who report they have a job in
an educational institution. These data suggest that there has been no decrease
in the number of jobs in educational institutions. But these same data
show that nonAAU Ph.D.s are obtaining an increasing proportion of those
7). Due, however, to the overall growth in the number of Ph.D.s
that we are producing, the proportion of our new Ph.D.s that go on the
educational jobs is actually declining (and is less than the proportion
for nonAAU institutions).
But, I started my remarks today by saying that it was wrong to aggregate
all Ph.D.s in discussing the job market. There is tremendous variety by
field in "job market norms." Chart
8 shows that about three quarters of our humanities Ph.D.s go on
to employment in academe, and this proportion has been growing over
the last two decades. This pattern is true for both AAU and nonAAU Ph.D.s.
In the social sciences and the sciences, 60% of our Ph.D.s go on to academe,
far exceeding the proportions in nonAAU institutions. In both cases, after
slight declines in proportions in the 1980s, there have been increases
in the 1990s for AAU graduates and a decrease outside the AAU. About a
third of our engineers go on to academic employment, and AAU and non AAU
institutions have similar experiences in this field.
One possible interpretation of the AAU-nonAAU differences is that academe
is the preferred employment for Ph.D.s in all fields but engineering. While
AAU graduates may be less likely to be employed by educational institutions
(of all kinds) at graduation, they are more likely to be employed in academe
in years 1 to 3 after the degree.
While the labor market in academe for new Ph.D.s seems to be holding
up rather well as far as number of jobs, what is happening to the quality
of those jobs?
9 shows the probability that a job in academe is a tenure track
job has increased over the last two decades in the humanities, while
decreasing in other fields. It is the sciences that have less likelihood
of tenure track employment. In the sciences, engineering, and social sciences,
the prospects for tenure track positions have decreased since 1985, although
the most dramatic decreases are in engineering, where the academic market
accounts for a smaller share.
There were some surprises in these data relative to the popular discussion.
Most notably: The "recovery" of the humanities, especially
the growth in academic jobs and in tenure track jobs for AAU graduates,
has not been noted elsewhere, to my knowledge, and many contrary allegations
have been circulated in both popular and academic media.
Also, the significantly stronger performance of the AAU institutions
needs to be noted and understood. Legislative efforts to cast wider nets
in funding of doctoral education, at the same time as the magnitude of
those funds decrease, seem particularly ill-advised.
The message that the AAU institutions have to get out about our doctoral
programs and graduates is that:
- labor market prospects for graduates from our programs are very good
in general, certainly better than for those in lower quality programs;
- our graduates are overwhelmingly using their education in their jobs;
- Ph.D. graduates who are facing job market difficulties appear to be
in a small group of fields and in weaker programs.
Finally, the labor market problems that are evident today may well be
short term. A Ph.D. takes several years to train. Decisions about admissions
and program size today must not be based on short term conditions in the
labor market, but on longer term expectations of a broad range of national
needs that must consider needs by field and the role of quality of training.