Why Are There So Many Marginally Employed PhDs in English?

By guest author Richard Vedder
November 3, 2019

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran two articles recently on growing unhappiness about a problem Ph.D. students in English at Columbia University face: most of them are not getting jobs, at least not the type they expected to get when starting graduate school. Not a single student finishing the degree in the 2018-19 year received a prompt offer for a tenure track collegiate teaching position. The school asserts that later one of the students got a tenure track position, and a few others got halfway decent opportunities (non tenure track jobs or post-doctoral fellowships), but the “underemployment” rate among these Ph.D. students was extremely high. And this is at an Ivy League school. What about the PhDs at lesser reputation schools say, Indiana University?

Let’s compare the academic world to the Real World—job markets outside of academia in the competitive free enterprise economy. In the Real World, if the price of oil falls from $75 to $35 a barrel because of the fracking revolution, the demand for petroleum engineers will dry up, and kids previously getting $100,000 a year with a bachelor’s degree will suddenly be fighting for a job. Enrollments in petroleum engineering will, perhaps after a couple years lag, fall precipitously. In a few more years, assuming oil prices are still pretty low, the starting salary of new petroleum engineers will have fallen significantly, perhaps to $65,000 a year, and what us economists call a “new equilibrium” will be reached. Markets adjust to handle changing needs for petroleum engineers—and most other occupations.

But the supply of new PhDs in English and other humanities has dramatically exceeded demand at prevailing academic market prices for many years. The market adjustment normally occurring does not seem to be happening. Why? First of all, it typically takes six or more years to get a Ph.D. in English, far more than the typical length period in most disciplines a couple generations ago (it took me less than three years, not extraordinarily unusual in the 1960’s). Students receive support as teaching assistants or fellows and are able to live modestly but comfortably well into their late 20’s. Some borrow tons of money from the federal government, which tends to prolong their stay in graduate school, as professors ask them to stay around an extra year or two to make trivially important revisions to a dissertation that nearly no one is going to read anyway. The typical finishing Ph.D. has literally been in academia for over 20 years and knows no other life—he or she has truly been sheltered, usually with considerable public subsidy, from the real world.

The biggest problem is that schools like Columbia keep taking big new Ph.D. classes—Columbia admitted 19 new Ph.D. candidates right after the relatively disastrous hiring year described above. Why? The faculty want lots of graduates students to keep those annoying undergraduates from bothering them, and also need them to help do research on obscure authors to allow publication of articles in even more obscure journals that no one reads. Federal loan subsidies help fund keeping the students around—and some politician of the Elizabeth Warren genre may successfully get all those loans forgiven soon anyhow.

Things will get worse before they get better, and hit other disciplines equally hard, as enrollments tumble and outside support from governments and private donors shrink as the public grows increasingly fed up with higher education—its inefficiencies, its increasing capitulation to the interests of radical left students who are more ideologically than academically oriented. Ph.D. enrollments in the humanities, social sciences and related disciplines (e.g., music, communications) SHOULD decline, sharply, and probably some marginal Ph.D. programs should close, a move bitterly resisted by faculty wanting the prestige of teaching in graduate programs and the perks associated with having glorified serfs doing their dirty work (teaching beginning survey courses, for example). State governments should review their funding of many graduate programs not receiving strong external research funding (those in the hard sciences or engineering.)

What will happen? As the Bard once said, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” English departments seem determined to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Republished from Independent.org. Originally published in Forbes.