Bryan Caplan  

Self-Help: The Obvious Remedy for Academic Malemployment

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Megan McArdle surveys the harsh realities of academic malemployment, then despairs:
A substantial fraction -- maybe the majority -- of PhD programs really shouldn't exist.

But of course, this is saying that universities, and tenured professors, should do something that is radically against their own self-interest. That constant flow of grad students allows professors to teach interesting graduate seminars while pushing the grunt work of grading and tutoring and teaching intro classes to students and adjuncts. It provides a massive oversupply of adjunct professors who can be induced to teach the lower-level classes for very little, thus freeing up tenured professors for research.

It's hard to see any alternative to fix the problem, however. The fundamental issue in the academic job market is not that administrators are cheap and greedy, or that adjuncts lack a union. It's that there are many more people who want to be research professors than there are jobs for them...

Unfortunately, I'm essentially arguing that professors ought to, out of the goodness of their heart, get rid of their graduate programs and go back to teaching introductory classes to distracted freshman. Maybe they should do this. But they're not going to.

All true, but why would anyone look to the beneficiaries of the status quo to solve this - or any other - social ill?  The obvious agents of change - here and elsewhere - are the victims of the status quo.  And who are the victims of the academic Ponzi scheme?  Grad students in low-ranked departments in fields with few non-academic career options.

How on earth can a powerless grad student at a dead-end department remedy the problem of academic malemployment?  One career at a time.  If you can't get into a department that offers you good job prospects, find something else to do with your life.  This is precisely what the title of Megan's article ("Can't Get Tenure? Then Get a Real Job") suggests, even though her article strangely fails to follow through.

Of course, a hard-core paternalist could object, "Students are clearly too overconfident to effectively use this simplistic remedy."  And a hard-core neoclassical economist could sigh, "People make risky choices all the time.  Why should we single out dead-end Ph.D.s for persecution?"  But the wise response, as usual, is two-fold. 

First, stop using tax money to subsidize foolish decisions.  Whatever you think about government subsidies for education, there's no reason for taxpayers to pay to train students for nigh-mythical jobs in French poetry.

Second, show concerned tolerance.  Loudly identify the risks that many grad students fail to take seriously.  Point out the malcontent of earlier cohorts that took the road the next generation is contemplating.  Remind them that the economics Ph.D. is an atypically sweet deal, even at lower-ranked schools.  Then leave them alone.



COMMENTS (17 to date)
James Miller writes:

"economics Ph.D. is an atypically sweet deal"

I wonder if part of the reason is because we economics professors are brutally honest towards students who ask about getting a Ph.D. in econ. Whenever a student asks I ask her "Do you like math?" If she doesn't immediately say "yes" I advise her to not get an econ Ph.D.

jseliger writes:
The obvious agents of change - here and elsewhere - are the victims of the status quo. And who are the victims of the academic Ponzi scheme? Grad students in low-ranked departments in fields with few non-academic career options.

A couple people sent this article to them, and I observed that, at the University of Arizona's English Department, very few of peers at the start of grad school had held substantial non-academic jobs. Most of them either came straight through school or worked in bookstores or coffeeshops.

The university stipend worked out to about $20 / hour for teaching, and it was still possible to work at a bookstore or coffeeshop part time. I suspect many saw grad school as a smart-ish short-term decision relative to the alternatives, at least economically speaking.

The problem is that the music eventually stops, and adjuncts appeared to get paid even less on an hourly basis than grad students.

Gary Knapp writes:

I was a (poor) math grad student in an excellent deparment. I realized I would not have an academic career that I would enjoy. So I did do something else. It's worked out well and I am quite happy 28 years later. It would have been helpful back then to have someone - not necessarily a professor - who could help me understand non-academic job possibilities. But by now don't most programs have non-academic alumni? Or professors with non-academic business interests? Hard to imagine an econ PhD couldn't find SOME kind of job in finance. In the modern economy, the music doesn't ever stop, but it might change rooms.

Richard Besserer writes:

For North Americans, at least, lower-ranked North American econ PhD programs are only a sweet deal for the flexible (or desperate).

My lower-ranked program had few North American students, most grad students being East Asians who usually returned to their home countries after defending. Few graduates got job offers from top North American universities or research institutes. My advisor was stunned---and said so---when I got a permanent job at a North American central bank.

My only other job offer was at a university in Lebanon (three-year contract, no hope of tenure, salary in the USD30,000 range, out of which I would have had to repay my huge USD student loans---as it is I've only just finished repaying them).

And that was ten years ago. I'm quite sure my current employer wouldn't have even looked at me today.

I've wondered often since what would have become of me had I not had a lucky break. An untimely end in one of Lebanon's conflicts has come to mind far too often. Heaven knows a career in economics isn't worth anyone's life.

Guest2 writes:

According to a study released at the annual American Economic Association meeting on Friday, they are ending up in government and business more and more.

I thought it interesting that graduate programs were faulted generally for too little emphasis on “applying economic theory to real-world problems,” “understanding economic institutions and history” and “the history of economic ideas,” and an over-emphasis on mathematics.

geoih writes:

PhDs are the pro-athletes of academe. Just as being fast, strong or tall will not guarantee success in pro-sports, being smart, especially in one specific subject, will not guarantee success in academia. It's a crap shoot when it comes to making the big leagues.

You can make as much with a bachelor's degree in engineering as most PhDs, and be far more portable.

mike davis writes:

I agree with Brian in opposing subsidies for foolish decisions and I’m in favor of loudly identifying risks. But that’s not enough. To see why, try this analogy.

You work for a full service financial service firm selling low cost exchange traded index funds to young, thrifty investors. You’re making a decent living performing a valuable service. But the guy in the next cube is selling options on penny stocks in diamond mines—or even worse, he’s the right hand man for the current Bernie Madoff. Sure, if you run into his clients at a cocktail party you’ll advise them to be careful but aren’t you going to screaming to management and try to get the guy fired? You should, for at least two reasons: (1) the scam artist is going to damage the reputation of your firm and hence your long term prospects, (2) you’re a decent guy and you have to live with yourself. The Impartial Spectator requires you to act.

Brian used the word “Ponzi scheme” and “victims” in the same sentence. I think they’re the right words. But not every department in the University is running a Ponzi scheme—some are providing high quality undergraduate education and others are turning out Ph.D.’s who will find meaningful work in their field. Is it too much to hope that these productive sectors will recognize the importance of stopping the fraud?

Hadur writes:

Our society clearly has a bias towards education. We raise kids from an early age to believe that education is the path to success and that one should stay in school and get more degrees. When we couple this with blind government subsidization of higher education and the propensity of young people to overestimate their shot at success, its clear why we're seeing a disaster here.

Floccina writes:
Of course, a hard-core paternalist could object, "Students are clearly too overconfident to effectively use this simplistic remedy." And a hard-core neoclassical economist could sigh, "People make risky choices all the time. Why should we single out dead-end Ph.D.s for persecution?" But the wise response, as usual, is two-fold.

The above reminds me of college football and basketball. Football and basketball are fun and yield huge lifelong status increases but so is/does grad school in interesting but not job useful subjects like history and sociology.

Jack PQ writes:

No one, I think, has mentioned PhD student debt, but it is crucial to the debate. The life of a PhD student in a non-marketable field is sweet if you can avoid debt. You basically spend 5-7 years studying what you love, and earning a living wage, and afterward you may get a great gig, or otherwise you'll be no worse off (just older).

The real problem is students who go into debt for non-marketable PhD degrees. That is foolish and the source of all the horror stories you see on the web.

Universities, and professors, have the responsibility to tell students not to incur debt for such PhD programs. If you cannot get a full ride in any program, forget about it. And students have the responsbility to think for a minute and realize that incurring debt for a PhD in Medieval Literature is foolish and possibly the source of a lifetime of woes.

MingoV writes:
... who are the victims of the academic Ponzi scheme? Grad students in low-ranked departments in fields with few non-academic career options.

Is someone a victim when he knowingly spends years mastering a discipline that will provide little chance of employment? Or is he a fool? Admittedly, universities take advantage of fools, but there would be no one to take advantage of if college grads had a smidgeon of wisdom or a modest amount of common sense. Young adults who have neither after four years of college do not deserve sympathy.

isomorphismes writes:
the economics Ph.D. is an atypically sweet deal

Bryan, why do you think econ. professors are paid so well?

Charlie writes:

Just about anything in the business school has a better job market than Economics.

Todd Kreider writes:

@James Miller:

But you aren't doing "math" yourself.

RS writes:

Perhaps my position as recent graduate and being friends with many recent graduates (some unlucky) can explain why some people make "foolish decisions." These decisions are often made emotionally, with high hopes, and little regard for the actual monetary outcome. Why?

The typical young student today grows up in a sheltered world and told that education is the one true path to success. School can be fun, and work often dull. His parents send him to college. He takes "interesting" classes, and avoids ones he perceives as "boring" or "too hard." He graduates with the major he "loves" and no prospects. Luckily he finds a temp job. He soon finds "real work" is dull and "not the right path" for him. He goes back to school, hoping to be his salvation. This time, he takes on massive debt, but it matters not because this "feels right". It's his calling, his passion, his "dream".

Econ PhDs have it lucky because we pursued both dreams and money. But that is the easy path. Not everyone is so lucky. We don't actually know what it's like to be forced to choose between dreams and money. People faced with that decision trick themselves into believing that if they just "follow their dreams", everything will work out, because who wants to live in a world where we can't even pursue our dreams? What else do we have to give life meaning? And why should Econ PhDs have a monopoly on academic dreams and money?

Cabell writes:

Those tax dollars aren't being used to train grad students for mythical jobs. They're being used to fill grad seminar seats, so that universities can actually have graduate seminars. If you think the research-teaching university can survive the elimination of graduate seminars, please say so and explain why you think this.

Mikhail writes:

Hi, grad student here!

What someone said up above about debt is a good point. Long story short? I don't get any debt, and I do get paid a decent amount, and I'm upping credentials that might lead to something. And if they don't, Plan B is high school education and Plan C is something in government or NGOs (I have languages and I know other countries).

Here's the really big thing though. The economy. It's not like I'm turning down lucrative jobs right now. Most of the other recent graduates I know, who have BAs, MAs... they're unemployed or underemployed or the like, a lot of them. I have a friend who finished Yale who's struggling to find a steady job, and stupid or lazy he is not.

So yeah. Pursuing a PhD in history is not a safe career choice. What is?

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