How the doctorate the job crisis is integrated into the system and what can be done about it (opinion)

Newly created doctorates outnumber tenure-track jobs every year in almost all disciplines. Although this trend has been going on for decades, most doctoral students. the programs continue to maintain or even increase student enrollment and remain structured as a form of university vocational training. Thus, a growing number of doctoral students. graduates are trained for, and often expect, an academic career that is not accessible to them.

North American graduate schools have made strides in better preparing students for non-university careers. They have led important innovations in professional development training, and some faculty members in the United States and Canada have joined the discussion on the doctorate. career future. Yet despite all the talk and innovation, we hear little talk about the underlying structural forces that have maintained and perpetuated this overproduction of doctorates for decades.

Some people argue that the overproduction of doctorates can be blamed on distraught faculty members unaware “how bad it is out there.” But the available data do not support this conclusion. Our research on Canadian political science (to our knowledge, the only published study of its kind) found that the vast majority of faculty were aware of the tight university job market and were open to seeing the doctorate. as preparation for academic and non-academic careers. Only 15 percent felt less motivated to supervise students who did not consider pursuing an academic career.

In other words, the problem is not a disconnected faculty. The problem is the system itself.

Why Ph.D. admissions remain high

If we get too many PhDs, the obvious answer is to admit fewer PhD students. But which university or program will move first? Several programs have frozen their enrollments in 2021 in the wake of COVID-19, but this is a short-term fix unlikely to signal a broader trend.

Rather, we are faced with a classic collective action problem: We might all be better off if overall doctoral enrollments decline, but every institution, department, and even faculty member benefits from maintaining or increasing their own enrollments. at the doctorate level. There are many reasons, but to put it more simply, the modern university system requires a doctorate. students to keep everything else going.

In addition, the growing importance of international rankings in establishing the reputation of institutions and attracting students prompts research universities to try to maximize their rankings according to various component measures. These measures often include the number of doctoral students as a proportion of all students or the number of doctoral graduates in relation to faculty members. It also creates a clear incentive to increase the number of doctoral students.

And doctoral students are not just beans to count for international rankings. The grants that fuel the research enterprise in these institutions are structured to fund interns (graduate students and postdoctoral researchers). Without proof of employment and training of doctoral students under previous scholarships, a faculty member is at a disadvantage in future scholarship competitions.

The modern research university’s teaching business is also fueled by armies of graduate teaching assistants who grade papers, run labs, and interact with undergraduates. Without them, faculty members would have a hard time finding time for research.

In some cases, Ph.D. students also represent an increase in institutional income. For public universities, this can be incorporated into government enrollment funding formulas that reward institutions that have more students – with doctorates typically earning the most per capita. Departments and programs are also encouraged to maintain or increase the number of doctorates in their discipline relative to others in order to increase the status of the unit within the institution and sometimes to maintain income, depending on the model. budgetary.

Beyond these imperatives, any conversation about reducing the number of doctoral students comes up against very real concerns about diversity and inclusion. More restrictive admissions policies may allow graduate admissions committees to restrict discipline makeup in the future. As Julie Posselt demonstrated in her revolutionary work Internal admissions to graduates, this guardian function favors candidates who are closer to the current discipline. The reduction in the number of doctoral students is likely to limit efforts to achieve diversity within disciplines.

Why the program change is slow

What about the other solution: adapt the programs to better align the doctorate. professional training with the realities of the doctorate. career results? PhD programs are increasingly being tinkered with to add more non-academic professional development. Graduate faculties have led the way with more full-time professional development staff, programs for non-university careers, and innovative ideas like public scholarship programs that many universities have pioneered.

But most of these changes are quick fixes rather than effective interventions – little ideas bolted to programs and delivered by outside specialists rather than fundamental overhauls of those programs. The number of players also poses coordination problems. Our study of department heads revealed broad support for non-university professional programs, but also frustration with the duplication and gaps that often result from the participation of many different people on campus.

Ideally, the needs of non-university employers would inform program changes. But, in all fairness, it’s not clear who these non-university employers are: While most doctoral students end up finding jobs, little evidence to suggest that employers are actively seeking doctorates except in certain applied fields. For most doctoral students, finding non-academic jobs will always mean going against the grain rather than riding with it.

How to move forward

The challenge of the “doctoral student employment crisis” is deeply structural and integrated into the systems of modern research universities without simple solutions or a clear consensus for the future. To overcome this deadlock, universities need to improve communication, information and incentives.

First, institutions need to improve internal communication and coordination of doctorates. career programming and placement. The career development of graduates is a haphazard and rambling affair at many universities. Graduate faculties, units, and individual supervisors often operate in silos, leaving students to filter and manage different messages and options.

Second, universities need to collect more information about the doctorate. employment outcomes outside academia and, most importantly, graduates Satisfaction with those results, then share that data with programs and students. Programs would benefit from nuanced, discipline-specific information provided by employers on where and when doctoral level expertise is valued and how programs can adjust and adapt. Students, especially potential applicants, need clarity on the realities of the doctorate. the job market. Ideally, with a PhD outcome data would be standardized and collected across institutions, allowing consistency, comparison, and transparency – rather than having each institution build its own methodology and transform the data to present itself in a favorable light.

This brings us to the third answer: inducement. Universities need to establish stronger rewards for everyone to invest more in the coordination and information we have described. Certainly, much of this incentive will come at a real cost to already cash-strapped institutions – someone has to pay. But academia must recognize the reputational costs of this persistent problem. The doctorate job crisis will not go away. And as it becomes more visible and acute, it attracts the attention of those who would seek to slash entire programs and areas of higher education.

Those of us who work in universities and in governments, funding agencies and other organizations must all recognize and recognize that we are the problem. We have to deal with the corrosive effect of the systems we have put in place which depend on an ever increasing number of doctoral students and make difficult choices about where to draw the line or how to change programs if these graduates cannot find the right place. no satisfying career when they leave. The answers required are not just about changing attitudes. They demand that we completely change the way we operate.


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