Monday, December 08, 2014


The Ecosystem Problem

People may or may not get what they pay for, but systems do.  A new report on the growing number of new Ph.D.’s hurtling into a market that doesn’t need them is a sign of a larger failure to look at higher education as a single system.

Despite a chronic underemployment problem for new Ph.D.’s, American higher education is producing more of them than ever.  The numbers of new doctorates are hitting all-time highs every year, even though there’s a large and increasing backlog of Ph.D.’s who would like, but are unable to find, the jobs for which they were trained.  

The physical sciences have adapted, to some degree, through the increased use of postdocs.  In the humanities and social sciences, for the most part, those remain the exception.  

The catastrophic and growing disconnect between graduate institutions and the larger academic job market is a function of the incentives to which graduate institutions are responding.  Given an ongoing and well-publicized (at least within the industry) employment problem, why do graduate programs keep growing?

The short answer: although the larger system doesn’t need more new grads, each individual research university needs a constant, and preferably growing, supply of graduate students.  The incentives at the institutional level are the opposite of the needs at the system level.  New graduates pay the price for the disconnect.

In a perfect world, of course, there would be vastly increased public support for teaching-intensive institutions, with a resulting increase in the demand for permanent faculty.  That would be all to the good, and would certainly help.  But if it were that easy, it would have happened by now.  Barring a sea change in our politics, what is there to do?

I’d start by taking a serious look at higher education as a larger ecosystem of institutions.  It’s currently run as a sort of Great Chain of Being, in which the institutions on top -- the Harvards and whatnot -- dictate the terms, and everyone else is judged and funded based on their proximity to the Harvard model.  The institutions with the wealthiest students get the most money, especially if you include the tax exemption for endowments.  The institutions with the neediest students get the least, and are judged on measures -- first-time, full-time graduation rates, most notably -- devised with elites in mind.  And the Ph.D. graduates of top-tier institutions are prepared in ways that ignore completely, when they don’t denigrate, the realities of roles at teaching-intensive places.  We speak of research “opportunities” and teaching “loads,” rather than the reverse.

The internal incentives for a graduate university involve keeping the freshman sections staffed with teaching assistants.  That requires a pipeline of graduate students.  And the faculty in graduate programs will fight to the end to preserve their programs, whether their grads get jobs or not.  It’s easy for any given university to acknowledge the problem, but to cast its own programs as exceptions.  Yes, there are too many Ph.D.’s, they might say; all the more reason for our competitors to get out of our way.  It’s the same idea behind the Onion article finding that 99 percent of American drivers support increased use of mass transit by other people.

In my own state, as an example, community colleges are subject to “performance funding,” but the flagship state university is not.  From a system perspective, that’s backwards.  Graduate programs are not held accountable for employment rates of their graduates, but they are held accountable for getting the freshman sections covered.  They respond accordingly.  If instead they were held accountable for the fates of their graduates -- which might entail, among other things, preparing them for the realities of teaching at community colleges -- we could finally get a handle on the labor imbalances.  Add to that some reasonable parity of per-student funding, and the community colleges could actually afford to hire some of them.

As long as each institutional sector can look only at its own needs, we’ll have gaps between them.  If we’re serious about bridging those gaps -- and reducing the human damage from hardworking scholars falling into an economic hole -- it’s time to tie the fates of the various sectors together.  Until then, we’ll keep seeing the same ridiculous graph, year after year.

Our department tracks its PhD and MS graduates as best we can ( )—I think we are doing a pretty good job of not graduating more students than there are jobs for.

The undergrad program in biomolecular engineering is more problematic, since those students are competing with MCD bio students for the same jobs, of which far too many are produced nationwide. I think that we prepare students a bit better, but I don't know how they fare in the job market (our campus doesn't track alumni very well—or maybe the fund-raisers do, but they hold that information very tightly, as more precious than gold).
I think it's too early to see in the number of graduates, but I have heard about significant cuts in the number of admitted students in humanities programs at major universities. I am not sure, but it was around 2010 or 2011 admissions. So in a few years, I expect that the numbers of new PhDs in the humanities will drop.
I thought the numbers had a pattern, and a quick calculation suggests that the number hired has been about constant. The fraction hired reflects supply, not demand!

Susan's comment above reminded me of the spike in physics degrees when the faculty market dried up circa 1970. There appeared to be a "get out while the getting was bad" pattern (followed by a collapse in the number of PhD students). However, in that case the reason was that they could grab the available industry jobs, which did not require polishing your research/academic skills.
At least in the sciences, this whole this is also propped up by the constant assertion by the media and government that we have a shortage of STEM majors graduating. I have no idea how they reconcile these numbers.
I can certainly see some of the reasons for the current PhD glut, at least in the sciences. All of those high-cost tenured faculty members at R1 universities need cheap labor to actually perform their research for them. The primary job of tenured faculty members at R1 universities isn’t really to teach or to publish papers—it is to bring in external grant support money. They must keep bringing in that overhead money to the university, lest they be deemed “dead wood” and get a lousy raise next time or even have their job put at risk during their next post-tenure review. When not writing new research proposals, they must write reports to funding agencies on the grants that they already have. This consumes so much of their time that they have little time left over to do any actual research. This means that they must depend on lower forms of life such as graduate students, postdocs, and assistant professors to do much of the actual research for them. So, in order to keep the research mills running, more and more graduate students are required, eventually leading to an vast oversupply of PhDs, many of whom have difficulty in finding any sort of gainful employment at all.

When I was a graduate student, my thesis advisor, who was principal investigator on a fistful of grants, was also department chairman. Consequently, he was almost never seen in his own laboratory, and added little more than his name to the papers written by his students. But as a friend of mine pointed out, the graduate students do all the work but the principal investigator on the grant gets all of the credit. He is the one who has the fancy office, he is the one who gets the big salary, he is the one with lifetime job security, and he is the one who gets invitations to all of those fancy conferences and symposiums held in exotic locales.

Anonymous: 7:23 AM got me to thinking. I agree that the constant propaganda from government and industry about the supposed shortage in STEM graduates is almost entirely bogus. This is true only in certain specialized fields or in certain locales. When Bill Gates complains about a shortage of qualified computer engineers, he is talking through his hat. The few ads that I see for science and engineering positions all seem to require much more experience than any single mortal could have. The few employers who are actually hiring anyone are *extremely* fussy—they want someone with extensive experience in the programs that the company is actually working on, not wanting to spend any time or money in training. I think that a lot of this talk about a “STEM shortage” is designed to justify shipping a whole bunch of technology jobs offshore or to justify bringing in more H-1B visa holders.

Here’s a thought. Why not apply all of those “gainful employment” regulations to the graduate programs of R1 universities? After all, the government is paying for much of the graduate education system through research grants and the payment of overhead. How many of their graduates actually end up working in the fields for which they spent so much time in training, and how many end up tending bars or driving taxicabs?

As ArtMathProf explains, graduate school resembles a pyramid scheme in some ways. The people at the top don't have much interest in restructuring.
GRRRRRR!!!! This is one of the subjects that makes me more mad in life!!

I don't really know if what Susan said about them cutting admission for humanities PhD students! I don't see HOW they can cut them if the need to have them as cheap labor continues!!! :-( I'd be curious to know if my graduate institution has cut positions. My current experience as an adjunct in TWO institutions (One an R1 with 50 grad students in my department alone) indicates that this problem is still huge and growing.

Now, my husband has a PhD in physics I have a feeling that the problem is WAY worse and deeper in the humanities. Although more recently there is a relative equivalent to the postdoc (from science) in the humanities: the full-time lecturer. The difference is that lecturers end up staying a the same institution for longer, if not permanently, and postocs only do it for a few years (which would be a visiting professorship in the humanities).

I don't see a solution for this problem any time soon and it upsets me a lot! :-(
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