Monday, January 11, 2010


Remains to be Seen? A Response to Marketplace

As regular readers know, I listen to Marketplace podcasts faithfully. But this story nearly made me drive off the road.

It was ostensibly about the difficulty new liberal arts Ph.D.'s are having in finding tenure-track jobs, using the latest numbers from the American History Association as a starting point. Okay, fair enough; the AHA numbers indicate that a bleak situation is getting bleaker, and it's hardly news to some of us that tenure-track positions haven't grown on trees for a long, long time.

But the discussion goes badly off-track.

The bulk of the story consists of an interview with one Katharine Brooks, the director of the Liberal Arts Career Center at the University of Texas, Austin. A few excerpts:

Brooks: Back in 1960, about 75 percent of faculty were full-time tenure; now, it's only about 27 percent. So if you're getting a PhD in history this is a tough market.

Okay, fair enough. But she quickly follows that with:

I think what remains to be seen is if this sort of a temporary shift, due to the economic climate? Or is this more of a permanent trend?

Um, temporary since 1960? Temporary for fifty years and counting?

Bookending those sentences was this weird exchange:

What about schools? How are they responding to this? Are they cutting back on the number of -- just to keep picking on history for a second -- history courses and adding more mechanical engineering and you know, stock portfolio theory courses?
BROOKS: There are fewer tenure track positions available, certainly. In fact, I think the number of tenure track openings for history dropped about 24 percent this year and I believe at this conference, something like 15 percent of the interviews were canceled.

Wow. I almost don't know where to start.

First, no, the issue is not a sudden surge in mechanical engineering. (I wish!) In fact, at my cc and many others, the liberal arts are doing just fine. It's just that the "just fine" they're doing is with a significant cohort of adjunct faculty. (Astonishingly, the word 'adjunct' doesn't appear once in the entire story.)

Second, this year's drop -- as real and calamitous as it is -- isn't new. The shift from full-timers to adjuncts has been going on for decades, driven primarily by the cost difference. (I've read assertions on the blogosphere that it's about administrators wanting people they could bully. That may be the case somewhere, but in my near-decade in administration, I've never seen a dean or vp who believed that. If anything, we want more full-timers, both for quality and for predictability of staffing. The issue is cost.) This year's drop is as painful as it is because it comes from an already-low starting point. The Great Recession simply sped up the decline.

Third, there's a basic structural mismatch between short-term market fluctuations and the length of PhD training. In most of the liberal arts fields, five years would be considered pretty quick; seven or eight seems about average. That can encompass entire swings of the economic cycle. And it's not like someone in the late ABD stage can decide on the spur of the moment to switch from history to finance. It just doesn't work like that.

Fourth, as Marc Bousquet has made great hay of noting, there's a structural mismatch between the need for fewer Ph.D.'s and the constant demand for new graduate assistants. Graduate departments rarely reduce their admissions for any length of time, since they need the cheap labor. When that cheap labor graduates, the adjunct problem gets that much worse. Until the supply side gets addressed in some serious way, new PhD's will face a rough market.

And all of that is without noting the two-body problem, fashions and fads in scholarship and hiring, etc.

Mechanical engineering and "stock portfolio theory" courses aren't the issue. Neither is a turn away from the liberal arts, if you actually look at the number of classes taught. It's the shift to adjuncts, and that's driven by cost. New Ph.D.'s are up against it to an even greater degree than ever, and that's saying something, but the direction isn't new, and doesn't remain to be seen. It's painfully visible.

Here's an idea: Hire more faculty to cover the roles usually taken by graduate students. Yes, the R1's will howl, but the imbalances (no faculty jobs, lots of graduate assistants) would start to shift.

This idea has multiple heroic assumptions (that states actually support state post-secondary institutions, that the feds provide grants that cover the REAL costs of tuition, etc etc).

Having regular full-time faculty also helps with student retention, which gets a lot of "talk," but very little policy action in state capitols.
Calugg, it's not clear who gains from such a proposal aside from grad students. I'm prepared to accept on faith that a greater proportion of tenured faculty would improve the quality of instruction.

However, ATF's own numbers suggest we're talking about increasing labor costs by $75 million per year:

Aside from PhD's looking for jobs and adjunct faculty who'd like the benefits, does anybody benefit enough to justify such an outlay? That $75 million multiplied by hundreds or thousands of institutions is a massive outlay. Unless there's a countervailing benefit of equal or greater magnitude, more tenure is little more than a wealth transfer to people with doctorates. I feel compassion for somebody with an unmarketable degree they worked hard for, but not so much that I want to subsidize their poor decision/fortune. Indeed, it might simply encourage more people to enter grad school, and more liberal arts doctorates is about the last thing we need.

A low-cost solution is to attack the problem at the supply end: If, as a condition of financial aid, graduate programs were forced to publish anonymized job placement statistics audited by an independent firm, the supply of grad applicants should dry up fairly quickly.
Well even in mechanical engineering I'd bet you'd find similar statistics, with an increase in adjuncts. If anything, I've seen a larger reliance on grad students. I noticed a TA I've had before, who is still a PhD student, was teaching an entire class. While I think he's perfectly capable of teaching this class (he was a great TA, easy to understand and good lecture style) I'm sure the university loves it because they are getting him at a bargain, even compared to the adjuncts.

Anonymous has a good idea about posting job statistics, but once again if schools are making money off of grad students, or benefitting from their oversupply, they're not going to be motivated to restrct that supply.
You've estimated that a Ph.D. takes seven or eight years before, but I wonder if that number is out of date. I just got my master's (which is to say that I've applied to a ton of Ph.D. programs at this point), and most of the programs seemed to fall in the four- to six-year timeframe. (I'm not just going by the amount of time that's covered by financial aid, I'm also adding in the times-to-completion of various students/graduates I know.)

It could just be my field, but my field is East Asian Studies - known for requiring language knowledge that can take a decade or more to accrue. I've also noticed that the "ten year grad student" that I've heard so much about just doesn't exist. Perhaps schools have been quietly shortening the time to degree over the past twenty years.
Frautech, the idea isn't that the schools will be shamed into doing the right thing; universities are a business, and we should expect them to act as such. However, if it's known that Mediocre State U only places 20% of its history doctorates in academia, and only 5% of those are on the tenure track within the first five years, the applicants may well dry up. It is worth a shot.
Reports like these drive me crazy – and we have them in the sciences too. There is a "shortage" of scientists and engineers!!! Quick - more H1-B visas! The idea that salaries should rise to get more people to do the long hours required for R&D jobs, or that companies should allow folks in the 50's the opportunity to retrain so that they can be useful in the current economy is conveniently ignored.

Much is said about the fact that domestic students choose not to pursue Ph.Ds in hard science and engineering disciplines but I have a different interpretation. You see, those folks are VERY GOOD AT MATH and the pathetic salaries you can get with a Ph.D in engineering in the academy (compared to what you can make in industry) along with the opportunity cost of parking your butt in grad school for half a decade or more are enough to scare off most of the smart ones. Of course, folks coming from third world countries or communist regimes are happy to come to the US to study. That doesn't mean there's a shortage of scientists.

Only 25% of the people from my grad school ended up in academic positions – and that was from a reasonably prestigious school. Every time we got a new training grant from the NIH I would cringe – when 75% of your students are doing something other than the thing you are training them for, that’s embarrassing. What’s happening in the liberal arts is unconscionable. I wonder when folks are going to wake up and figure out what’s going on.
I think we're looking at a bit of survivor's bias in Brooks' case, here. Surprisingly, a lot of academics simply don't stay in touch with former colleagues who leave the academy, and they don't keep track of relative success rates of people in the cohorts following theirs. After all, everyone they know made it, so things can't be that bad, right?

The only thing that gets their attention is sudden bumps, like what we're experiencing now. If the best student your department has had in 15 years is coming up empty on the job search, it will make an impact. If your stars make it, but most of the students just graduate and drift away, it's easier to ignore.
Quote from Anonymous, 7:26 am:
I feel compassion for somebody with an unmarketable degree they worked hard for, but not so much that I want to subsidize their poor decision/fortune. Indeed, it might simply encourage more people to enter grad school, and more liberal arts doctorates is about the last thing we need.

As DD has repeatedly pointed out, the liberal arts are thriving in the community colleges. We need lots and lots of liberal arts doctorates to teach our popular liberal arts courses (e.g., Philosophy, Music, Psychology, History). In fact, Anonymous has it backwards: Given the enrollment increases we're seeing in our liberal arts courses and the need for well-qualified instructors, more liberal arts doctorates is exactly what we need!
There is also a fundamental confusion between the PhD job market and the BA job market, at least as I read Ryssdal's question "what is it that's going on that's making history majors and political science majors less attractive than calculus majors?" and the nonsensical answer about shifts in undergrad majors. (As you note, the shift from social science to business took place over 30 years ago, and I am unaware of any increase in "calculus majors".)

Most history classes are not taught to History Majors. The number of actual persons taking history continues to increase as the number of students increases.

The market problem is supply and demand, as you point out, and the problem is not a new one. It is also compounded by students who are likely unaware that the bulk of jobs for PhD historians are at schools that do not advertise through the AHA. Like ours.

BTW, my niece has a BA in history and got a great job working for an insurance company. She is probably doing much better than the freeway flyer with a PhD.
Milo -- sure, we need plenty more liberal arts Ph.D's. Starting with your kids.
"adjunct faculty who'd like the benefits" ... how frivolous of us when we could have cake instead.
What is it going to take for universities to stop crying poverty and start hiring more full-timers? I don't see too many college administrators foregoing their 6 figure to million dollar salaries for the good of the school.

60% of faculty are adjuncts at my 4-year state college - a fact! And it is really bad for the students and retention.

I also wonder this and would love some feedback:

I plan on applying for a Ph.D. and financially do not need an assistance. Is it a detriment to my application if I can afford the degree and do not have to teach undergrad courses for free? Many fellowships require teaching, but I would not want to apply for it because I would rather forego teaching undergrad and focus on the doctorate.
"I plan on applying for a Ph.D. and financially do not need an assistance. Is it a detriment to my application if I can afford the degree and do not have to teach undergrad courses for free? Many fellowships require teaching, but I would not want to apply for it because I would rather forego teaching undergrad and focus on the doctorate."

One problem with this plan is that coming out of a PhD program without any teaching experience can be detrimental in the hiring process. Why take a chance on someone who hasn't taught at all, if there are alternatives who have?
It is probably too late, but here is a good topic for tomorrow. In today's IHE article about a jobs forum at the AHA convention, I read the following observation from the reporter:

At several events during the meeting, professors at research universities say something to the effect of "well, I know there are jobs at community colleges, but I have no idea what the hiring process is like there or what they care about."

This statement appeared within a broader discussion making it clear that many grad students were being taught to write job application letters in a way that would be fatal at most teaching-oriented universities and ALL community colleges.

They clearly need your help, Dean Dad!

In my Ph.D. program (English) at a midrange University, the average (average!) completion for a Ph.D. student is 10 years. The grad faculty is working hard to minimize that number, but aside from students who get lost after the ABD stage, a lot of times the classes just aren't there. I know many students who add years to their studies because their area is only covered once a year or even every other year. The field has become so specialized that there just isn't enough room each semester to hit everyone's area. I don't know if that is a concern in your field, but it is definitely a problem here.
The mismatch between Ryssdal's question about interests of undergrad majors and Brooks's answer with hiring of tenure-trac faculty is striking. Shifting the number of interested students is a cultural effect. Colleagues across (my R1) campus report that a forensic chemistry minor motivated by CSI etc has boosted upper level class enrollments immensely. The courses didn't create the interest though; they were a response to it. Simply offering more mechanical engineering courses won't create more mechanical engineers if there aren't interested students coming in the door.

My grad program placement ratio was similar to Ivory's, in that a vast majority went to industry instead of academia. That's (fortunately) still considered very successful in an engineering dept, even at a top school.

Fortunately there are articles elsewhere that are discussing the issue, such as Baseline Scenario and Felix Salmon.

@TakingItOutside, if you add the time for your masters to the estimated PhD time, you reach DD's estimate. That's consistent with English Adjunct's report.

Perhaps it's time for Marketplace to contact DD for an interview?
I should have mentioned that I have been teaching college for ten years and see no point in teaching for free while getting a Ph.D.
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