There is no doubt that the academic job market is very tough. In a nutshell, PhD programs are producing more and more graduates, while permanent positions in academia are dwindling. More evidence of this imbalance emerges weekly. Here are a few examples:

Why So Many Ph.D.s Are On Food Stamps (NPR)

Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times (NYT)

The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time (The Economist)

Budget cuts in higher education are part of the problem. Administrative bloat is another, further shrinking the money left over to pay for lecturers and professors.  Often overlooked, however,  is the role that academics themselves play by training too many PhD students.

Too many PhD students?

I am currently supervising three PhD students. I share supervision for all three, so it’s the equivalent of supervising 1.5 PhD students by myself. Assuming that 75% of my PhD students finish in four years (and the other 25% drop out), over a 28 year career I will produce about 8 new PhDs.  Some of those will get jobs at universities and go on to supervise even more PhD students (and so on…). Many, if not most, of these people will want a job like mine at a college or university, teaching and researching the same things I do.

Will there be enough job growth in my field to accommodate all of these new PhDs? Of course not, and I’m in health research where things are relatively good. So what happens to these people? Maybe two or three will eventually find a long-term academic position at a university or teaching college. Others will be forced to take short-term contracts, with less pay and limited job security (or leave academia altogether). What will they do in these short term jobs? Teaching and research. Hold on…that’s what I do. But they will do it cheaper.  What do you think happens next, when the university has to decide how to produce research and teaching with fewer and fewer resources?

So in the end, by training so many PhD students, I’ve flooded the job market with people who are now qualified to do my job (or parts of it) , but will do it much cheaper that I do. Nuts.

So why would anyone do this?

It’s simple. PhD students are too often viewed as cheap labor. In fact, they actually pay tuition to work with you, or rather someone pays the university on their behalf. More PhD students means more peer-reviewed papers published, and counting up those little papers is still the number one way of evaluating academics, despite the glaring flaws in this approach. What a perverse little cycle – we train PhD students to help us publish more papers in order to keep our jobs, they then go off and offer to do parts of our job cheaper than we do it, which drives up the need to write even more papers to stay in our jobs, leading us to recruit even more PhD students…

For an illustration, see  The Profzi Scheme (PhD Comics).


I find it very hard to see solutions from our end until the publish or perish culture is eradicated from academia. Academics often point to administrators as the driver of this culture, but ultimately we are responsible. To that end, ask yourself the following:

Do you play a part in hiring and promotion?

Do you review grant applications?

Do you feed into this problem by encouraging junior academics to publish marginal work?

Do you sit on the editorial board of a journal that publishes that marginal work?

If these apply to you, then you likely have an opportunity to help academia rise above publication-based metrics of academic impact, even if just an inch at a time.

We can also work harder to help potential PhD students understand exactly what they are getting into, and hopefully avoid a dead-end career track. Here are some questions that I think anyone who wants to do a PhD should answer.

Are you aware of the job prospects in your academic field? Don’t assume that a PhD after your name means a guaranteed job for life. It doesn’t.

Have you thought about opportunity-costs? If a long-term career in academia doesn’t work out for you, could you have spent that time getting ahead in another career?

Do you really understand what being an academic is? Do you have a real intellectual curiosity? Are you self-motivated? Do you like teaching? Do you really understand what research is? If you just want letters after your name, a PhD is a very inefficient way to go about it.

Have you had a frank discussion with your potential PhD supervisor about your role in their research agenda? Don’t allow yourself to become cheap labor for someone else. Find a supervisor whose primary goal is to help you develop your academic potential, not just run experiments for them.

Have you spoken to your potential supervisor’s other PhD students? Happy PhD students will often gush about how fantastic their supervisor is. When it works, it can be a very special relationship. Unhappy students  might just smile politely and tell you things are fine. Don’t expect anyone to outright complain.

Where are your potential supervisor’s graduates now? Are they in the kinds of jobs that you eventually want?

As always, please feel free to add your own comments below (and see our full disclaimer here)


8 Responses to 5 questions every potential PhD student should ask.

  1. Tim Baird says:

    Thanks for this, Darren. I agree with much of it, especially the advice to prospective students – who ate really the vulnerable ones, not those currently sitting in tenured or tenure track positions. I think another onsideration here could be broadening the relevance of PhD training OUTSIDE the academy. I have a PhD and I am so grateful for the training I’ve acquired and the ways that it has helped me to see the world. I don’t think we should discourage this kind of deep, rigorous training because the academy can’t accommodate all of us. What we need to do is produce PhDs that can function outside the academy. I think I way forward is to broaden what a PhD is and what she is trained to do. Thanks, Darren, for bringing this up.

    • dldahly says:

      Thanks Tim. Part of me agrees, and I just want to see that all prospective PhD students really understand what they are getting into before making the jump. Part of me disagrees, in that I feel like higher ed is already diluting PhD training to accomdate a broader set of skills that can likely be imparted more efficiently via other routes.

  2. How much do you think grant writing has a role to play? If a project/programme grant proposes certain outputs, it’s cheaper to assign that work to PhD students

    As a current student who would like a research career I definitely feel the need to continually be doing all the things that we’re told one needs to do to make it in academia, while trying to be mindful of the fact that the odds are that I’ll not make it and thus I also need to accumulate skills and indicators that I’m of use to non-academic employers. Kind of like undertaking an apprenticeship but not knowing which job you’re actually being trained for!

    • Sorry that was supposed to read “cheaper to assign that work to PhD students than to postdocs, even if it’s less efficient. This also contributes to the lack of middle grade opportunities.”

    • dldahly says:

      I don’t see a problem with splitting off a bite of a grant for a PhD student to work on (and be funded by) – but it should be clear that a PhD student is training to be an academic, and that should take a lot more than just doing a bit of research at someone else’s direction.

      Of course it’s field dependent. For some disciplines, the student is going to have an extended fieldwork component where they will have signiciant responsilbities and independence. For data wonks like us (and lab based researchers), the danger is a little more accute I think.

  3. dldahly says:

    “At a time when so may PhDs fail to get academic jobs we should be limiting the numbers. But QMUL requires everyone to have a PhD student, not for the benefit of the student, but to increase its standing in league tables. That is deeply unethical.” From

  4. Shahenshah says:

    If you do your PhD or seek education (or do any kind of productive research) without greed, and putting your all trust in Allah (the God), then you need not worry about future. Future also belongs to God, and He has set a measure for everything. We can’t encompass His knowledge. If our intentions be true, He will open the ways for us. But, if we start to make negative assumptions, or negative predictions (many will be demotivated, and start living like animals – for basic necessities). Seeking higher education is a higher aim, for those who wish to go extra-mile. “Common thinking” can never understand it.

    If someone has problem with such jobs or such careers, plz don’t go for it. But, don’t say “grapes are sour”. Don’t demotivate or distract others.

    Dear serious researchers/students: Go on with the good hope, and God will help you. If your heart be true, God will open the ways for you!

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