ScienceGrandma pointed me to this recent article in the Wall Street Journal. It’s titled “So You Want to Be a Professor?” but I think it should have been called “The Perils of a Ph.D.”
The article begins by citing some examples of graduate schools that are reducing admissions of PhD applicants for next year, in what may be a cost-cutting move. As we all know, graduate assistantships cost $25K or more per year, even if the grad student doesn’t see much of it and returns those costs to the university by teaching labs, grading papers, and doing other grunt work. Apparently, some universities are trying to justify the reduced admissions with some hand-waving about the dismal job market for PhDs, but this strikes me as disingenuous. The job market for PhDs has been dismal for many years, and universities are themselves contributing to the problem:
In an article called “Contingent Faculty and the New Academic Labor System” (2004), Gwen Bradley notes that an academic job shortage is rarely the result of some surprising lurch in supply-and-demand curves, since “the same institutions both manufacture and consume the Ph.D. product.
Even with more and more high school students going on to college (and therefore demand for college instructors ever increasing), there isn’t a call for more tenure-track faculty lines. Instead, universities are taking advantage of the surplus PhDs by teaching courses with part-time adjunct faculty who don’t get paid much better than graduate students (<5K per course, no benefits).
Marc Bousquet, the author of “How the University Works,” sees a couple of key ironies in the academic job market: Getting a Ph.D. now often means the end of an academic career rather than the beginning of one; and the American university, which claims to be an egalitarian institution, relies on people who can only afford to take badly paid adjunct teaching positions because they have another source of income, either from a spouse’s job or a second job of their own.
The WSJ author then adds that oh-so-WSJ mercenary spin…
One response may be: So what? Is there any compelling reason that universities — as self-interested as any institution — should reconsider their employment policies? Why not staff classes with adjunct labor? Why not give customers the same product at a lower cost? …The last question points to a bigger problem, though: Is it the same product? Who knows?
And that’s where the WSJ article leaves off. The data and ideas above may be interesting for those well outside the ivory tower, but it doesn’t contain much new or useful information for those trying to climb the walls. In particular, the article left me with at least two unanswered questions: “What’s an aspiring PhD to do?”; and “How does increasingly shifting undergraduate teaching responsibilities to part-time faculty affect educational outcomes?” I pretend to know more about the first question, so I’ll tackle that today, but maybe I’ll get back to the second question later.
So, let’s say you are an aspiring Ph.D., in love with your subject, excited about research, enthusiastic about teaching, planning for a tenure-track faculty member. Given the dismal news above, what should you be doing to beat the odds and avoid the fate of permanent adjunct status?
First, enter your program with your eyes as open as possible. Where are the Ph.D. graduates ending up for your program as a whole and for your advisor in particular? Are those the sort of jobs you aspire to?
Second, if you really want a tenure-track job focus in grad school and your post-doc on forging a CV that is impressively tailored to the sort of job you want. Want to be at an R1 and crank out tons of papers? Then get some papers published in high impact journals and once you start publishing, keep publishing on a consistent pace. Want to be at a SLAC? Then take advantage of opportunities to teach summer classes at your university or fill a sabbatical-replacement at a SLAC. Mentor undergraduate research projects.
Third, learn about alternative careers and find out what you’d need to do to adjust your resume to those employers. Maybe some of those alternative careers are actually more rewarding and better suited to your aspirations and life plans that staying on a trajectory toward the ivory tower. Looking at career options is one big thing that I think faculty should do a better job of encouraging in their grad students. The problem is, we’re the ones still trying to stay in the tower and we may have very little “real-world” perspective. So in your investigation of career options, go beyond your advisor and look to the university career center, professional organizations, and on-line resources like ScienceCareers.org or The Alternative Scientist.
Finally, rid yourself of the notion that if you don’t get that elusive tenure-track job at a R1 institution then you must be a failure, incapable of doing good research. That’s impostor syndrome combined with bad mentoring and absolutely no reflection of reality. There are lots of different ways to be a scientist.