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:
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?
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