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A snapshot from a university department website with a field containing the automatically-generated message "There are no opportunities at this time"

From the mouth of algorithms comes truth- maybe a bit too much truth, in this case! A screenshot from the website of a Canadian university.

PhD students like to talk about the fact that there are far more new doctors of philosophy than positions as tenure-track faculty or researchers, so anyone who wants a job like that has to follow a series of very specific and demanding steps, with a high chance of finding themself stuck in a poorly paid, overworked position as a sessional instructor or post-doctoral researcher. Unfortunately, hard numbers are hard to come by, and naturally the people who are very successful or very unhappy have the loudest voices. The people who are most active in complaining about the problem tend to be Americans, and the situation in that country has some special features. Back in 2013, I estimated that about four people got a PhD in history in Canada for every tenured professor who retired, and made some choices accordingly.

Recently, the University of British Columbia published a survey of 3,805 students who graduated UBC with a PhD between 2003 and 2015. Through a combination of mail, email, and online searches, they were able to find some information about 91% of these students. A summary is posted at http://outcomes.grad.ubc.ca/

I am sure that some will criticize the report as being too positive, and argue that the graduates who did not reply are likely to be in the most difficult situations. On the other hand, I think it gives a good idea of the number of graduates who end up teaching at a university, and of how their careers vary from field to field. Academics more or less need a web presence (even if it is simply a page with their office and photograph put up by the university) so whatever the uncontacted 9% were doing, it was probably not teaching at a university.

I hope that other universities imitate UBC. In the age of social networks and online contacts pages, there is no need to pretend that it is hard to find students a few years after they graduate. While this might mean that some graduate programs have difficulty finding students, and that research in some fields becomes more expensive, it is hard to reconcile a commitment to academic rigour and open sharing of results with the idea that graduates should learn about their career prospects through the rumour mill and folk wisdom (and as long as people can still find editors willing to let them publish an essay about the “need to train more PhDs,” people will need to keep pushing back and asking for evidence).

Some people’s woeful lamentations about graduate school make me feel a little uncomfortable: most of the athletic and artistic people whom I know can’t make a living off their vocation, even if they won a series of prizes and grants and scholarships which let them hope that they could find a way. Many of my older friends were not able to spent many years at university studying something that they love, and people in graduate school tend to have more resources with which to defend their interests than, for example, most workers in restaurants. However, many aspects of academe are exploitative, whether the labs which depend on underpaid students and post-docs working 70-hour weeks to fund a handful of professors’ careers as managers and grant-writers, or the large companies which have bought up academic presses and squeeze all the money out of them that they can. And prospective students deserve to have evidence about their career prospects.

Further Reading: The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s JobTracker project took the reverse approach: given 2500 jobs as associate professor (ie. a full-time faculty member with a route to tenure) in mathematics, the humanities, and social sciences in the USA and Canada in 2013 and 2014, what kind of people took them? http://www.chronicle.com/article/On-the-Academic-Job-Market/233683

Edit 2018-09-04: Brodie Waddell has useful data from the UK, showing that the number of doctorates awarded in history in the UK doubled from 1994 to 2014 while the number of undergraduates increased 30%. Of 99 people who got a PhD in history at the University of Warwick between 2001 and 2013, about a third had permanent academic jobs by 2016.

Edit 2018-09-09: The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario has a study “Ontario’s PhD Graduates from 2009: Where Are They Now?” The number of PhD students in Ontario doubled from 2000 to 2013, while according to the AUCC the number of undergraduates increased about 40%; 29% of the people who received PhDs in 2009 were university professors in 2015. A Dutch study estimates that 32% of people who receive a PhD in the Netherlands get a long-term academic position (Van der Weijden, I.C.M., De Gelder, E.J., Teelken, C., & Thunnissen, M. (2017). Which grass is greener? Personal stories from PhDs about their careers within and outside of academia. phdcentre.eu/en/practices/portraits.html).

Edit 2018-10-17: The American Historical Association records that after a period from 1979/1980 to 2007/2008 when AHA job advertisements and history PhDs awarded at American universities were roughly equal in numbers, jobs collapsed while graduation increased, leading to 1150 graduates and 550 jobs in 2014/2015 (as they also note, prospects are very different depending on your field and your university). Henry Colburn collected Society of Classical Studies data implying that the ratio changed from 2:1 to 5:1 in the same period. Again, data from modern history in the United States is not directly applicable to ancient history in Canada or Europe, because of the different political economy in different countries, but the trend of awarding more and more graduate degrees regardless of the number of students or full-time jobs seems to apply in most fields and most countries.

There are now many resources online talking about the whole range of careers which people pursue after graduate school. One that I found helpful and healthy is Jennifer Polk’s From PhD to Life (and it is Canadian content, which does not hurt). If any current or prospective graduate students have not found that kind of resource, and would like other suggestions, please let me know in the comments. I try not to give unsolicited advice, because I find that such advice says more about the person giving it than the world.