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Staff Box

The 1997 Presidential Address to the Association of Graduate Schools

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 in industry."
    "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.

Chart 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?

Chart 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.

Chart 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 jobs (Chart 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?

Chart 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; and
  • 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.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, January 20, 1998, Volume 44, Number 18