Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Am I a Disposable Academic?

Because I am on the job market, this article caught my attention:
The disposable academic:
Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time


…[U]niversities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009—higher than the average for judges and magistrates.

Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors.
The basics of supply and demand are definitely out of kilter: too many graduates for too many posts can only result in lower wages and, eventually, the best people pursuing more rewarding careers. After more than six years of graduate school that included summer courses, I have substantial student debt and, as of yet, no solid job prospects. The job listings with salary information indicate starting wages far below most other professions -- from $36,000 to $55,000 for a full-time, tenure-track professorship in the humanities.

A job listing for a California State University campus, for example, indicates a starting salary of $48,000. That's in Los Angeles, where I lived as an undergraduate. I can tell you that $48,000 isn't going to provide a very good life in L.A. when compared to the investment made.

The logical choice, then, is to consider alternatives to an academic career. However, my own experience has been that companies do not like the Ph.D — in fact, they dislike it intensely. Sure enough, The Economist article supports my personal finding:
Even graduates who find work outside universities may not fare all that well. PhD courses are so specialised that university careers offices struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to have little interest in students who are leaving academia. One OECD study shows that five years after receiving their degrees, more than 60% of PhDs in Slovakia and more than 45% in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and Spain were still on temporary contracts. Many were postdocs. About one-third of Austria’s PhD graduates take jobs unrelated to their degrees. In Germany 13% of all PhD graduates end up in lowly occupations. In the Netherlands the proportion is 21%.
I did not understand, and could not have anticipated, that my investment of time, energy, and money was a liability in the job market. The conclusion of the article was like a stake through my heart:
Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else. They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic. Someone should write a thesis about that.
As an undergraduate, I was an honors student. I complete my master's degree "with distinction" (perfect grades). My doctoral research was awarded three competitive grants, including fellowships. And now? All those awards don't mean anything to private employers and other applicants for academic jobs have similar qualifications.

The humanities are particularly prone to over-recruitment and over-production of Ph.D. candidates. The sciences offer more opportunities, as research is also common in private industry. While my degree has potential business applications, many of my peers are not so fortunate. What research is done in English, art history, or comparative religion in the private sector?

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