An oversupply of PhDs? Is that even possible?

I recently came across an article in Globe & Mail from 2013, titled “Who will hire all the PhDs? Not Canada’s Universities.”  While not especially deep, the article does raise some interesting questions that got me thinking about how the state of satisfaction of PhD-holders is a reflection on the society that contains them.  Or maybe, vice versa.

Update, 5 July 2014. I came across an article in The Economist (Dec 2010), that peddles the same tired and narrow arguments as the Globe & Mail piece.

The problem seems to be that Canada is generating more PhDs than it can use.  But one cannot simply lump all PhDs into one giant category.  Why this is so will become evident.

Part of the problem is that universities seem to be moving to a dependence on sessional instructors – these are not professors, though they usually have PhDs.  Sessional work is temporary, sporadic, and underpaid.  Sessional instructors get paid far less than professors do, so universities can save money by depending on them.  Of course, this raises the issue: Why do universities need to save money?  In Canada (and in many other countries), the answer is simple: because the importance of education for a successful society is paid only lip service by government.  Universities are not provided with the funds they need to provide decent education, yet are expected to provide decent education nonetheless.  And that’s because governments reflect the “will of the people,” which these days seems to be focused on matters other than education – though I cannot possibly imagine why.

Increasing tuition fees does nothing to alleviate the problem of creating an educated citizenry because it only limits access to university.  Education must not be based on “user fees” (which is really what tuition is) because it is a public good: the more educated the citizenry, the more successful that society will be.  Everyone benefits from good education, so everyone should contribute.  If the citizenry doesn’t support appropriate funding of education, then they’re just being stupid.  This is of course a vicious circle: the less informed and educated people are, the less likely they will understand the importance of education, the more likely they will vote for politicians who will divert funding for education to other areas.  This leads in the long-term to even less informed and educated people.  Wash, rinse, repeat, till we’re all just a bunch of ignoramuses.

Another point raised in the Globe & Mail piece regards what new PhD graduates do.  It seems that many of them end up not doing work commisurate with their expertise.  This isn’t about PhD holders who end up being sessional instructors; it’s about those who end up doing “regular work” somewhere in industry or business that might not even relate to the area of their doctoral studies.

Here’s where the nature of individual PhDs comes into play.  Consider one person who holds a PhD in engineering, and other who holds a PhD in medieval history.  Which one is more likely to find gainful employment requiring their level of expertise outside of academia?  (I will leave the answer as an exercise for the reader.)  Before we can decide the extent of the problem of PhD holders working below their level of expertise outside academia, we must be willing to distinguish between supply and demand of such work by discipline; we cannot just bundle all PhDs together because there are very clear trends in the availability of non-academic work according to those disciplines.  This is not at all evident in the Globe & Mail article, and this is a serious flaw in their reporting.  I do not have accurate information on these trends, but we can still consider a thought experiment. Consider two situations: (a) the per-capita availability of non-academic work for holders of PhDs in medieval history is roughly the same as that for holders of PhDs in engineering; and (b) the per-capita availability of non-academic work for the medieval historians is only 25% of that for the engineers.  Wouldn’t each situation result in substantially different conclusions, opinions, and policies? Of course it would.  It’s just stupid to lump all PhD holders together into a giant, undifferentiated vat of expertise, since the criteria by which such experts are attractive to employers outside academia will vary by discipline.

This also brings up the matter of a student’s goal in getting a PhD.  It does appear that most students get a PhD with the intention of becoming professors, but the rationale for this intention isn’t clear.  There is evidence that universities expect PhD graduates to become professors.  But if there just aren’t that many professorships available, then this expectation – by universities – is unrealistic.  Why would universities – clearly able to gather and analyze the pertinent data – be unable to recognize this?  I don’t know for sure, but I would wager that one partial explanation is that a university’s reputation and success is measured by the number of PhDs it generates; that is, that the universities are in part looking out for their own best interests over those of its students, perhaps more than they ought to.  That the universities have this expectation helps promulgate it in the public too, so this can explain (partially) why incoming PhD students expect to end up in academia.

It is true that a PhD is usually required for an academic post, especially these days.  (Whether that’s a good thing or not is another subject.)  So it may be that some students are motivated to get a PhD because it’s is a stepping stone to academia.  That’s not a bad reason, I think; it’s a question of qualifying for the requirements of academia by demonstrating an ability to do the things that academics do.  Of course, we PhD folk don’t get any real training in teaching, or in grantsmanship, or in organizational management (most admins in universities are themselves academics).  In most universities, at least in North America, there’s a general guideline that says the typical academic should do about 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% “service” (i.e., admin work, etc).  So the research training most PhD students get is necessary but not sufficient.  This undermines the notion that a PhD is the only real qualification (and it is) for an academic post.  Again, one cannot fault a PhD candidate for this reasoning because the academic culture is set up to promote it.

There’s one more point here.  One reason why someone might want a PhD is – and you may laugh here – just because they want to learn about something.  Education, remember, is a good thing.  The more you’ve got, ceteris paribus, the better you’ll be able to think.  Getting a doctorate isn’t (or, rather, shouldn’t be) just for specializing in a particular area; it gives one a chance to refine one’s thinking skills, to become a better reasoning agent, to make better decisions generally.  And this gets us back to the success of a society.  The better people can think, the better the decisions they make, and everyone will benefit. Some find this laughable because of the cost, time, and effort required to get a PhD.  What’s the point, they might argue, in getting a doctorate if you’re just going to be a tradesperson, or a shopkeeper, or an office worker?

What’s the point indeed.  Most people who would ask such questions haven’t got advanced education anyways.  Which rather proves my point.

This brings us finally back to the title of this post.  If getting a PhD improves your thinking skills, which leads to a more successful society, then how can we ever have too many of them?


3 thoughts on “An oversupply of PhDs? Is that even possible?

  1. Pingback: A useless pile of half-truths and sensationalistic linkbait | Alexandre Afonso
  2. “If getting a PhD improves your thinking skills, which leads to a more successful society, then how can we ever have too many of them?” Getting a PhD does not improve your thinking skills. The kind of person who can get a PhD already has advanced thinking skills, and would improve their skills regardless of doing a PhD if they really wanted to. No, the purpose of getting a PhD is to become an academic. This is the only thing it is needed for. Nearly all jobs in industry do not require a PhD. Therefore, universities should not be producing more PhD graduates than permanent jobs for people with PhDs. To do anything else is an insult to all the PhD graduates, and is very wasteful: it is a waste of tax-payers money to train people for jobs that they are not going to get. And don’t even get me started on the whole idea of a postdoc! God, what an insult that is!

    • Actually, I disagree very strongly Mr. Cabbage. Getting a PhD does improve your thinking skills just like any kind of intellectual training can do. I think you’re confusing raw talent – intelligence, drive, persistence, dedication, etc – with the refined skills that come from having to learn to think and communicate clearly and concisely. The refined skills that doctoral work can instill in people make them able to better analyze situations and elucidate insightful thinking.

      You say that few industry jobs require a PhD. I’m not talking about jobs. I’m talking about being as good as one can be as a contributing member of society, which goes far beyond just one’s job. It is never a waste of tax-payers money to educate the citizenry. Your reasoning would naturally lead to limiting education to only what a person needs for work, which will amount to lobotomization of the citizenry.

      The fact that you seem unable to get past the notion that education only serves one’s job tells me that you’re just another narrow-minded “cabbage head.”

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