June 03, 2003

History PhDs, Ten Years Later

Fresh-faced graduate students begin their quest for a Ph.D. certain that they are on a path to academic glory. Along the way, reality sets in. Friends and neighbors warn them that no one ever gets a job. Mothers worry that offspring will be teaching as part-timers for years.

... At the University of Washington at Seattle, the graduate school has created a survey that tries to track the career paths of the more than 3,000 students who have received its Ph.D.'s in the past decade. The survey, done mostly recently in 2001, provides a glimpse of where those doctorates have gone. About a third are tenure-track faculty members, 10 percent have non-tenure-track jobs, and about 20 percent have jobs in industry. The survey also drills down to the departmental level -- showing, for instance, that 55 percent of the 77 history Ph.D.'s covered by the survey have tenure-track jobs. Just 3 of those 77 hold jobs entirely unrelated to their doctoral degrees.

-- Scott Smallwood, "The Path to a Ph.D. -- and Beyond"

Here's an interesting report on "how a group of historians has fared, 10 years after graduation." Presumably these people received their PhDs in 1991. The academic job market in history has considerably worsened since then (e.g., 1999 saw a record number of history PhDs produced, without anything near a corresponding increase in tenure-track jobs).

Yes, this blog is gloomy. I need to lighten up with some fluffier topics. How about, "How not to be victimized at the cosmetics counters at Bloomingdale's" (hint: bring your toddler, that's as good as shouting "Back off, Makeup Lady!")

In the meantime, what I want to know is: Has Scott Smallwood been talking to my mother?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 3, 2003 12:22 AM

As we've discussed on another thread, a more interesting and telling survey would include those who began the graduate program but did not complete their degrees. Looking at Chronicle articles linked recently by blogs, I get the impression that there is a certain upbeat bias: your chances of landing a tenure-track job are somewhere between 1 in 2 and 2 in 3 if you complete your degree -- but how many ABDs give it up once they get a real taste of the job market?

In this regard, at least in the part of the Chronicle piece available to non-subscribers, the piece starts with "fresh-faced graduate students" beginning their quest for a Ph.D., but it doesn't fulfill that part of the contract with the reader: where are the pie charts covering those freshly faced ones who don't get a Ph.D.? There's a bit of a bait-and-switch here: you may be worried, and your mother may be on your case, but cheer up, only a few who finish the program are dumpster diving.

This would be consistent with an editorial need to avoid excessive prompting toward self-examination by the members of the cartel who cheat on their quotas. Something's a little too glib here -- at least, based on what's available for free. The other text may clarify things.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 3, 2003 01:01 AM

Aaaaaaand as usual, somebody else saves me from having to say it, and says it better than I would have to boot. :)

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 3, 2003 01:15 AM

"As we've discussed on another thread, a more interesting and telling survey would include those who began the graduate program but did not complete their degrees."

It would also be interesting to compare and contrast graduate school attrition rates with attrition rates for law school, medical school, and other professional programs. While it is only to be expected that a certain percentage of people will drop out for any number of reasons, at what point do the figures suggest that something more is going on than the usual reasons for which people leave other fields? I have read several articles which suggest that grad school attrition rates are shockingly high, some describe it as "a dirty little secret" of graduate education.

Most of the Chronicle's employment-related material is available through a free URL, if not the week it is first published then a week or so later. I don't believe there is any difference in tone and content between the sub-only and the free material. I too find their treatment of academic labor issues a little too upbeat.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 3, 2003 01:22 AM

Such a study would indeed be more interesting. In my benighted field of Classics, out of the 5 graduate students who began the PhD program with me, 2 quit after the first week, one failed his MA exams, the other quit after the MA and one got his MA and started teaching at the high school level (which he has found to be more rewarding than grad school and with about 6 times the pay of the meager grad student stipend). I alone am left to tell the tale, for I, with monomaniacal fury, am still pursuing the white whale of the PhD.
I would bet that most humanities PhD programs have stats similar to those of my class. My ballpark figure would be 10-15% who start don't finish.

Posted by: mike at June 3, 2003 01:27 AM

Here's a report on one study (note: the report emphasizes that there has been no national study, that the data is patchy, and etc):

The Path to the Ph.D. (National Academy Press) provides a roadmap of the studies being done to assess attrition rates in graduate programs by broad fields of discipline. The executive summary notes that deans and faculty in the 1960s estimated attrition rates of 20-40 percent for selected fields in science and the humanities. The percentage for humanities and social sciences by themselves has tended to be higher, however. Between 1967-1971 the attrition rate for graduate students enrolled in English, history, and political science programs together was 41.9 percent; from 1972-1976 it was 49.6 percent (the rates during this period for mathematics and physics together were only 33.1 percent and 35.4 percent, respectively) (3) . Today institutions are reporting rates of approximately 50 percent for selected fields in the sciences and humanities, and over 65 percent for some programs.

Imho, these rates are simply too high to be attributed to individual choices, preferences and abilities (e.g., marriage; geographical move; finding a more congenial career path; not being capable of completing the degree, and etc).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 3, 2003 01:34 AM

"About a third are tenure-track faculty members, 10 percent have non-tenure-track jobs, and about 20 percent have jobs in industry."

Okay, my math skills are not always reliable, but doesn't this add up to only 60%? What happened to the remaining one-third?

Somehow the idea that one in three PhDs is not employed -- or describable? -- is a bit disturbing!

Posted by: Rana at June 3, 2003 02:23 AM

Barbara Lovitts's dissertation study of nine graduate departments in each of two universities (one "public research university located in a small town," one "private research university located in a major city) turned up hugely variant attrition rates. Rural's ranged from 19 percent (Chemistry department) to 44 percent (Music department). Urban's ranged from 23 percent (Psychology) to *82 percent* (Economics). Averaged over departments, the attrition rates were 33 percent for Rural, 68 percent for Urban.

Said dissertation is now published by Rowman and Littlefield as _Leaving the Ivory Tower_. I'm getting my numbers from page 12 thereof, Table 1.1. What do I have to do to get you people to read this book, I ask you? :)

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 3, 2003 02:54 AM

So let's take something like 50 percent as a reasonable attrition rate of those who do not complete a Ph.D. within 6 years of beginning graduate study (actually, my memory of my fellow grad students in the early 1970s suggests the attrition rate is much higher, but we'll say 50, recognizing the rate will differ by year, by discipline, by region, etc.)

So the actual chances of getting a tenure track job after going through a Ph.D. program are somewhere around 25 or 33 percent. If you fall short, either as an adjunct with a Ph.D., or as an MA/ABD academic hanger-on at junior colleges, vocational schools, etc., you risk being stuck in a field where you are truly underpaid and, in comparison to the rest of the workforce, exploited.

Nevertheless, with this attrition rate, there's an enormous number of people who start graduate studies each year, and enough to finish the program to keep the real value of Ph.D. training at the level that adjuncts get. Indeed, the various discussions of the job market I've seen in links from this and other blogs suggests the number of applications vs the number of tenure track openings is such that selection committees really can't make rational choices, and the process simply is not meritocratic.

The only solution I can think of would be to eliminate the "first class" section of the tenure track, either via attrition or buyout, and then open all academic jobs insofar as practical to a market-based hiring process, at market-based rates. This, I fear would mean something in the $1-2000 per course range, simply because there would still apparently be a great many takers at this rate.

This says something about the value of a Ph.D., I'm afraid.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 3, 2003 03:28 AM

*Monetary* value. Let's keep our field of battle straight.

I suspect, however, that if the choice were really put in terms that stark, some things would change.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 3, 2003 03:57 AM

No question about it, the PhD has been greatly devalued. As evidenced by such articles as "The PhD as Temp." Can you imagine an article entitled "The JD as Paralegal Temp: A New Entry-Level Strategy for Aspiring Young Attorneys," or "The MD as Hospital Orderly: Take the Service Elevator and Follow Your Dreams of a Career in Medicine"?

Okay, I'm tired and cranky. I'd better stop...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 3, 2003 05:41 AM

"and the process simply is not meritocratic."

general comment for beyond the grove too
if there are more than x number of applications this is very true, personally the "white whales" of efficiency, productivity, and "world best practice" should be thrown out the window and replaced with a random selection from a reduced list. Of course it would put HR people out of work...

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at June 3, 2003 11:54 AM

A few comments:

1) I'm willing to bet $20 that when digging deeply into Ph.D. attrition rates, it turns out that most programs hide some attrition in their master's program. In many Ph.D. programs, one route of entry is to start in the master's program, taking Ph.D. core courses. When the student completes those, and passes their first set of tests, he/she formally enters the Ph.D. program. This allows the initial cut to not be counted as Ph.D. attrition. In writing, these students came for and completed their master's degree, and chose not to enter/were not allowed to enter the Ph.D. program.

2) In the survey mentioned in the posting, there was no mention of response rate. If those who didn't get an academic job had a lower response rate (e.g., they ripped up the survey in disgust), this would bias things. If the survey could more easily contact a particular group, this could bias things. And the easiest group to contact would be those who left the Ph.D. program for a tenure-track position - they are still reachable at their first address after leaving their program. Somebody who bounced around several non tenure-track jobs might be harder to contact.

Posted by: Barry at June 3, 2003 12:52 PM

A few points/ questions.

So, what to do? I agree that the system would be much better off if fewer grad students were let in, particularly in low-demand fields like U.S. History. The place I got my degree was quite blunt about letting in way more people then they planned to graduate and then kicking them out after a couple years of TA-ing with a booby prize (M.A.) In their defense I will say that they were fairly upfront about what was happening. I was also told, correctly, that given my field (and advisor) I was basically outside that competition. They knew exactly how the system worked.
Unfortunately I think people here overestimate the power of the tenure-track people to actually do anything about the current system. I am on tenure track at a 2ed tier state college, and the power of the faculty to do anything about the employment system is very limited. Should my department suggest to the administrators that we should rely less on adjuncts and hire more tenure track faculty? Maybe in our dreams, but we don't even have the power to decide how many adjuncts to hire. We are currently planning on having some of the more senior people set themselves on fire on the steps of the Admin building to get our secretary a much-deserved bump in rank and prevent her from jumping to being a Dean's secretary. That's about the level of power faculty have.
Could the faculty at Big State U refuse to take in lots of TA fodder that will never graduate? I suppose they could, but then what would happen with the classes? Higher teaching loads or, more realistically, much larger class sizes. Or maybe dropping history out of whatever Gen. Ed. slots it is in. Would students flock to this remarkable department where famous historians were doing the grunt work of teaching U.S. to 1865? No, they would be, at best, indifferent. Even if they did flock in it would not translate into more tenure-track slots, just bigger class sizes.
Hiring and staffing decisions are driven by the consumer model at most places, and we have to find ways to convince students and parents and legislators i.e. people who matter, to demand more "real" faculty. I don't see this discussion helping much with that. Not that I have a lot of suggestions myself but it might be good if we did more to honestly put facts in front of people. Lots of parents dislike the fact that they are paying the big bucks to be taught by half-trained people when they figure that out, but they often don't. Schools are remarkably cagey about these things. Let's imagine that the AHA were to require each department to publish every year a report on what they teach and who teaches it. Leaving aside the backbone problems associated with this, what would such a report look like?

Posted by: Ssuma at June 3, 2003 02:14 PM

Arguing for fewer TA's and more adjuncts would probably be a good thing. This would result in more
highly trained and experienced instructors for the low-level classes, which would serve the undergraduates. Assuming that the prospects for a history Ph.D. from a 2nd tier school are dismal at best, graduating fewer Ph.D.'s each year would probably also be a good thing. I wouldn't be surprised if the faculty rejected this, as it might focus attention on the status of the department.

Posted by: Barry at June 3, 2003 02:27 PM

For better or worse, US News holds the ultimate power over the universities. If the percentage of tenure track faculty vs. adjuncts significantly affected a school's ranking, you can bet the system would change.

It seems like adjuncts and graduate students could interest the media in this story. Imagine the lead: "As tuition continues to climb at a rate faster than general inflation, colleges and universities increasingly rely on inexperienced graduate students and adjuncts to teach the most popular courses at campuses across the nation. Why are parents paying more for less-experienced teachers?"

Every year, right around the time the tuition comes due, this story would be timely. With US News owning such a lucrative franchise, I'm sure other publications wouldn't mind taking pot shots at the way they rank the schools.

Of course, part of this approach requires us to denigrate the work of adjuncts and graduate students.

Posted by: A Frolic of My Own at June 3, 2003 02:36 PM

I agree that real courses taught by adjuncts would be better for students, but that would usually involve restructuring the intro-level classes, as they are set up for T.A. section leaders, who are cheaper than adjuncts. What makes you think that even if the faculty wanted this, and I agree they probably would not, the administration would go along? The key issue here is not how moral the faculty are, it is how well they can sell what they want to do to the people who actually control the money.

Posted by: Ssuma at June 3, 2003 02:41 PM

A follow-up to my comment about this survey:

"The survey also drills down to the departmental level -- showing, for instance, that 55 percent of the 77 history Ph.D.'s covered by the survey have tenure-track jobs. "

Does this sound reasoable? 55% of the history Ph.D.'s from a non-top 10 department getting tenure track jobs? Does this jibe with anybody's experience?

Posted by: Barry at June 3, 2003 02:41 PM

The relative absence of a fall-back job for PhD's is another factor. Unsuccessful science people I've known ended up in tech jobs that were often somewhat interesting and always paid OK. Theoretically unsuccessful PhD's could teach English or History in H.S., but educationists really seem biased against humanists. Tyhere's the belief that teachers have these high-powered technical skills ("methods"), which I think is by and large not true, and that PhD types don't relate well to kids or have a good presence (probably a little more often true.) One result is that you OFTEN get teachers, especially in middle school, who are only moderately bright, not trained in what they're teaching, and basically are reading one chapter ahead of the students. (Many sharp people go into teaching for good reasons, but some go into ed becaus eit's the easiest program that is at all practical.)

Agreed, no one starts grad school in the hope of teaching H.S., but a large part of the problem we're talking about would be solved if there was, indeed, a backup.

A friend of mine with a PhD in Anthropology with a linguistics emphasis and extensive foreign language study enrolled in a MAT in ESL program. The director more than once gave him a clear message that his PhD didn't cut any ice with her.

Cut to the chase, though: students, their parents, the government, TA's, and adjuncts have all been economically subsidizing research being done by the tenure track people. (The tenure track dude who is NOT really doing any research has to be one of the big villains here). Humanities research and the humanities in general have always been a "cost" or an item of luxury consumption, since they don't really pay off in a practical sense (no cure for polio, no new weaponry). In the premodern era the subsidy often came from church sinecures, the landowning nobility, or sinecures in the state bureaucracy. (Swift seems to have been an extraordinarily mediocre churchman in an area where almost no one belonged to his "Church of Ireland".)

So the present arrangement is a different expedient for getting the job done. It seems to be facing a restructuring at least, if not a collapse. Perhaps the market (parents, taxpayers, voters) just doesn't want that much research. My own biggest concern is the future generation of scholars, who seem to be stymied by the already-tenured people in a classic two-tier job structure in a declining market.

P.S. Bruce's term "cartel" is apt.

Posted by: zizka at June 3, 2003 03:33 PM

Or at least the research that they've been getting. Recall one of IA's earlier posts about academic overspecialization.

Posted by: Rana at June 3, 2003 05:28 PM

I don't know if this ties in, but think about it...high school counselors are pushing more and more kids into college. I read somewhere that high school counselors now adivse twice as many people to attend college than they did 20 years ago. Wow, how democratic! But wait...do these same "reach for your dreams" kind of people also mention that only 20% of jobs available out there require a 4-year degree? Most of the "growth" area jobs are in the service industry. Are we excited yet?! One third of graduates of 4-year colleges will not find work requiring a college degree. (Worse still, two-thirds of those who enroll in college will not even finish). Think of the debt, people. Now, think of where all of those with 4 year degrees are going when they can't find that promised better paying job. You got it. Grad school.

Posted by: Cat at June 12, 2003 01:09 PM