On a pretty regular basis, some academic or other pens a piece in the popular press talking about overproduction of PhDs. Take for example this 2015 Jonathan Wolff piece in the Guardian with a piece entitled “Doctor, doctor we’re suffering from a glut of PhDs who can’t find academic jobs” in which he obsesses about a figures in a 2010 Royal Society document suggesting that of 200 people who complete a PhD only seven will get a permanent academic post and one will become a professor (this is England, so “professor” means “full professor” here).
Now leave aside the fact that the text surrounding said figure in said report (fig. 1.6 here) makes it unclear whether the data actually refers to people who start a PhD or those who finish it. Also leave aside the fact that this is UK and not Canadian data; my friend Daniel Munro has put together excellent stats on Canadian PhDs (available here), and the numbers aren’t nearly that dreadful on our side of the pond.
Also, let’s try to ignore the obvious answer to this question, in some scientific disciplines at least: which is that there is a pretty large private-sector demand for PhDs, especially in the sciences. Indeed this piece could just as easily have been titled “Staggeringly high private-sector demand for PhDs”. Why wasn’t it? Well, my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that Wolff is from the humanities, where the purpose of a PhD is – to a much higher degree than elsewhere in the academy –seen as a qualification to join the professorial ranks and not much else. And so in the humanities large numbers of doctorates in the private sector is not interpreted as “strong private sector demand” but rather as “oh my God a glut of PhDs we can’t hire”.
But even still, the large excess of student demand for PhDs over university supply of professorial places is really not the mystery some seem to think it is. It’s not that students don’t know the odds: I’m pretty sure they all know them. But there’s two reasons the odds don’t matter. First, because most of them have been top of their class their whole lives and simply expect that they will rise to the top the way they have always done. But more importantly, they stick it out because the perceived rewards if they succeed are so high.
Put simply: people really want to be profs. I mean, who wouldn’t? People pay you to read, fool around in labs or just plain think. And once you get tenure, it’s basically for life. What a great gig! People will put up with a lot, including the prospect of “failure” (i.e. not getting an academic job), in order to get a job like that.
Now, academics – some of them anyway – have a hard time with this. There’s a strain in the professoriate (I believe it’s stronger in humanities than elsewhere, but could be wrong) which genuinely believes itself to be put upon. There’s the “need for martyrdom” strain identified by Stanley Fish in his classic “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos”. And of course there’s the organized labour discourse which portrays faculty as being put upon by pitiless admin-types and which results in universities having among the highest rates of work stoppages of any industry in Canada (Statscan does not disaggregate industries in sufficiently fine detail to examine this question directly but I challenge anyone to come up with a sector with fewer than 70 employers in Canada which has suffered an average of one strike or more over the past ten years).
That’s not to say everything’s rosy. No doubt working conditions are probably deteriorating for many under heavier teaching loads and increased demands for research, though the latter stem as much from disciplinary demands rather than administrative ones. But come on; if academia is such a terrible place presumably there would be an exodus of talent, people fleeing the academy for other parts of the labour market. And yet, this doesn’t happen that often apart from the obvious and natural occasions when another employer comes calling with a lot more money.
But if no one’s leaving, the only conclusion a rational person can draw is that whatever its flaws, academia is a lot better than the alternatives. Claiming it’s a terrible place whilst never ever contemplating leaving is pretty much the height of cognitive dissonance. The high levels of demand for PhDs, even in the humanities, also seem to suggest that from the outside it still like a pretty good gig.
Maybe there’s no glut at all. Just the market reacting to what still looks like an awfully good deal.