The Economist explains why universities admit enormously more students to doctorate programs than will ever find jobs in their fields.
[U]niversities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009â€”higher than the average for judges and magistrates.
Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.
In research the story is similar. PhD students and contract staff known as â€œpostdocsâ€, described by one student as â€œthe ugly underbelly of academiaâ€, do much of the research these days. There is a glut of postdocs too. Dr Freeman concluded from pre-2000 data that if American faculty jobs in the life sciences were increasing at 5% a year, just 20% of students would land one. In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before taxâ€”the average salary of a construction worker. The rise of the postdoc has created another obstacle on the way to an academic post. In some areas five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a secure full-time job.
These armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs boost universitiesâ€™, and therefore countriesâ€™, research capacity. Yet that is not always a good thing. Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions change. The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD physicists that came to an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained the science budget. Brian Schwartz, a professor of physics at the City University of New York, says that in the 1970s as many as 5,000 physicists had to find jobs in other areas.
My old Philosophy professor, John Niemeyer Findlay, as a young man became infatuated with Buddhism, and wanted to take his doctorate in Sanskrit and go on to work on Buddhist sutras. His advisor at Balliol (Findlay was a Rhodes Scholar from South Africa) listened patiently, as Findlay described his career ambitions, looked at him coldly, and observed: “Mr. Findlay, there is but one single chair in Sanskrit in Great Britain, and I occupy it.” Findlay changed his subject to Philosophy.
At places like Yale, it is all but impossible to move from the junior faculty to the senior faculty. Full professors hired by Yale are all big names. You would have a better chance simply sitting at home and devoting your energy to writing the Great Big Book. If you pull it off, major universities will beat a path to your door. If you are not going to be able to write the Great Big Book, you will, at best, wind up teaching a rudimentary version of your subject at some dreadfully obscure facility in a remote fly-over location.