Arnold Kling  

The Academic Job Market

Three P's of Growth... "Concentrated Poverty" Decline...

Two recent essays discuss the academic job market. Laura Vanderkam argues that students with good academic skills over-estimate their chances of landing a good job with a Ph.D.

Like actors, however, humanities graduate students have to realize that — except for a few jackpot cases — there is no market for their product. When you choose a career path with no market, you have to love it enough to do it for free. Chances are, you'll do it for close to that much of the time.

Robert E. Wright condemns the wage structure that rations academic positions.

The solution is clear. The salaries for new assistant professors should be lowered until the number of qualified job applicants (not the number of new Ph.D.'s, which is just a subset of that group) and the number of job openings become more equal.

For Discussion. In another industry, if there were an excess supply of workers, a competing firm might offer a lower wage in order to cut its costs. Why does this not happen at colleges and universities?

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The author at in a related article titled No Discipline for College writes:
    Arnold Kling (from the Econoblog at the Econlib) gives us a discussion question for today, referring to his post on the academic job market. In another industry, if there were an excess supply of workers, a competing firm might offer... [Tracked on May 31, 2003 8:36 PM]
The author at Invisible Adjunct in a related article titled Sweatshop U? writes:
    Stephen Karlson of Cold Spring Shops raises some interesting questions with reference to some recent discussions (here and also here) on the academic job market: ...but is the research calling really the type of market in which a tournament is... [Tracked on July 3, 2003 9:21 AM]
COMMENTS (13 to date)
Eric writes:

Is the economics profession that hard up finding aspiring economists? That's news to me. What's the problem? It couldn't be the MATH requirement, could it?

Nothing weeds out potential candidates like an integral or a differential equation.

There are a lot of non-economic factors that come into play with the humanities PhD glut. You have a lot of kids out there that have NO IDEA what the real world is like and what real people do for a living. However, they are VERY good at being students, having done it for 16 years or so. So what's the harm in putting off the real world for another 2 or 4 years?

The harm, of course, is that by being over educated, you have no market for your skills in Academia OR in the real world. And you are that much more in debt.

I don't think that starting salaries have anything to do with it. The non-economic factors are too strong. What is needed is PhD QUOTAS. If there are 400 some odd jobs opening per year, then there should be 400 openings for PhDs.

Brian writes:

The math requirement for econ Ph.D.'s is a work of genius. It's true that there are few occasions to do calculus as part of a career in economics, acadedmic or not. But if your goal is to keep only the cleverest fraction of your potential collegaues in the profession, requiring everyone to master multi-variable calculus and differential equations is a great tool.

But the problem is still the opposite. There are too many Ph.D. students and too many aspiring academics. Perhaps it's time to require economists to master linear passive circuits as a weeder the way engineering undergraduate schools do. It's no more irrelevant to economics than it is to 90% of engineering fields.

Eric writes:

So there is or there isn't a glut of economics PhD's? What's the truth?

Based on the economics papers I've seen linked to by this web site alone, calculus is pretty important to economics. Some of the equations were complicated enough to make this engineer's eyes glaze over.

What about statistics and design of experiments? Those subjects must cause a lot of attrition. I'd like to see a history student even spell EVOP, much less explain the statistical basis for it.

David Thomson writes:

"Most people who write their dissertations think they'll beat the odds," says Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. "They think 'I'm meant for this,' or 'I'll be one of the ones who makes it.' "

I am also reminded of college basketball players who display little ability. It is supposedly nothing unusual to hear many of these same individuals talk seriously about their imminent NBA career---even though they are second stringers on a mediocre college team! Human beings innately tend to delude themselves. However, there is paradoxical a silver lining which cannot be overlooked. Our society greatly benefits from those who take overwhelming risks. Playing it safe rarely results in greatness.

David Thomson writes:

Instapundit linked to a most important commentary by Ralph Luker. The author pulls no punches:

“The dissertation suggested to me that the first line of defense in our peer review processes had simply collapsed. Despite the fact that its author is teaching young Americans in a prestigious liberal arts institution, there was little evidence that years in graduate school had taught him much of anything about putting together a coherent piece of research and writing. There were elemental problems, like: that a sentence should have a subject and a predicate, that a paragraph should be about a single something, and that a bibliography should be organized by coherent categories of sources. I labored over the dissertation much longer, I suspect, than any of its author's professors had ever labored over his work and returned to the publisher nearly 30 single spaced pages of corrections to the first half of the text. In doing so, I may have earned about $1 an hour and finally stopped half way through the manuscript, thinking that its author needed to become his own best editor. I had told him, many times over, what kinds of mistakes he was making. “

We must not overlook the cynical fact that the Liberal Arts Phd today is often the advance degree of the intellectual slut. While it is not inherently so, these candidates may very well have to compromise their ethics and become something of a whore.

Damien Smith writes:

Could the trouble in the humanities PhD market not be an insider-outsider problem, where the "insiders" (in this case, tenured faculty) exercise a form of market power over the wage? Tenure substantially increases the turnover costs for the university, and the resultant advantage this gives to the incumbents not only drives down the reservation wages of the entrants (adjunct faculty) but also creates involuntary unemployment among those with humanities PhDs.

The "problem" does not lend itself to easy solution. The British government in the 1980s abolished tenure at it universities, only to have the faculty union unofficially reestablish it de facto. The comments i've seen on some blogs say that universities have a responsiility to tell humanaities PhDs what the market is like. There is a conflict of interest there. From a pedagodical point of view universities would serve their students best by informing them of their prospects at the outset, while from an employer's prespective humanities departments gain from the status quo, leaving no incentive to change it. If universities has to respond more to market pressures and become more customer-oriented, then perhaps this will change.

Eric writes:

Why would anyone assume that academics know how to form a sentance or write a bibliography?

Exactly what class is that taught in? Back in the day, it was probably taught in high school. But these days, when the high school hours are consumed by such weighty subjects as how to properly put a condom on a bananna, just when is writing, or any real subject for that matter, taught?

Home schooling, anyone? Could it possibly be any worse than the government schools?

I live one town over from where that awful girls hazing incident occured. Our schools are churning out illiterate thugs, by all evidence.

No thanks, not my kids.

David Thomson writes:

The real question concerning the Liberal Arts degree is being ignored: why do employers outside their specialty rarely offer them a job? After all, presumably someone with a doctorate is a highly educated person possessing a vigorous work ethic---and more importantly, has achieved the ability to think abstractly at a very high level. Alas, the only logical answer is that at least subconsciously employers realize that often the doctorate is only awarded to the intellectual whore.

Bob Hawkins writes:

The Boston Globe recently had an article on the job market for this year's graduates. It included this priceless quote by a job seeker: "My degree in Philosophy will really help me."

The graduates in this article did sound like a bunch of five-foot-ten shooting guards talking about hooking up with an NBA team.

David Thomson writes:

The sad thing is that one should truly be able to claim "My degree in Philosophy will really help me." Unfortunately, someone with a doctorate in philosophy is often nothing more than a idiot undeserving of respect. Sadly, it shouldn't be this way. The advanced study of philosophy should guarantee that one is able to think and follow a logical argument at a very high level. Employers should eagerly be seeking out such candidates.

Mark writes:

The premise that there is an excess supply needs to be examined critically. An alternate explanation for the poor prospects of humanities PhD's is that demand is insufficient. 70% of all college faculty in the US work at public institutions, so demand for academic labor is primarily affected by political decisions about the levels of funding to provide public colleges.

Every public college I have taught at--and I've been doing so for the past nine years--has been heavily dependent on poorly-paid adjunct faculty, for the simple reason that they have tight budgets and they try to make them go as far as possible, in order to serve as many students as possible.

Mark writes:

"So there is or there isn't a glut of economics PhD's? What's the truth?"

I was on the academic job market as a PhD in economics for seven years before receiving a full-time offer in 2001. While my own case was a bit unusual--I ended up primarily pursuing community college positions, which is rare for a PhD--every indicator that I saw during those seven years pointed to a very tight job market.

Eric Krieg writes:

Mark, what is meant by a very tight job market? Multiple offers for recent grads?

One of the linked articles showed that for every opening for a historian, there were more than two grads. Is economics a more one to one ratio? Are colleges filling positions with H1-B visas?

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