Bernie Burk points to some ominous parallels between institutional reactions to overproduction of JD and PhD degrees.
Burk’s target is a recent report from an MLA task force, which concluded that:
(1) The median time taken between entry into graduate school and receiving a humanities PhD is nine years.
(2) Only about 60% of recent PhD recipients in languages and literature are getting tenure-track jobs.
(3) (1) and (2) don’t lead to the conclusion that too many people are getting PhDs, because you can do a lot of things with a PhD besides teach in a tenure track position.
“The discourse of Ph.D. overproduction is wrong,” said Russell A. Berman, who led the task force that wrote the report and is a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. “What we need instead is a broadened understanding of career paths.”
Departments should be more clear with students from the start that tenure-track jobs are becoming harder to find, Mr. Berman said, and should also explain to students what else they could do with a language or literature Ph.D. Career options off the tenure track, he said, include teaching at community colleges and high schools, working at cultural institutions such as heritage museums and libraries, and putting skills to use in the private sector.
“The subject matter may, in fact, be far from literature,” Mr. Berman said, “but the rich professional formation acquired during the course of doctoral study can be put to good use.”
As Burk points out, this sounds very much like the “you can do so many things besides practice law” line that began to be pushed aggressively by legal academic administrators, when it started to become clear that large percentage of law graduates weren’t getting jobs as lawyers.
In law, there are a couple of big problems with that argument:
(1) While it’s true that there are some non-lawyer jobs for which a law degree provides an advantage to a candidate, there are also many jobs for which a law degree constitutes a disadvantage. Nobody to my knowledge has even attempted to estimate the net effect of the interplay of these two categories on the employment prospects of non-lawyer JDs.
(2) Even for non-lawyer jobs for which a JD provides an advantage, it’s implausible that the cost of getting a law degree justifies whatever advantage a law degree provides. From an ex ante perspective, somebody who ends up as a compliance officer or a landman or in an HR office or what have you probably wouldn’t have gone to law school if he or she could have foreseen that the investment in law school wouldn’t actually produce a career as a lawyer.
I know nothing about the non-academic job market for humanities PhDs, but even to my inexpert ears Berman’s examples sound more than a little problematic.
Spending an average of nine years (!) to get a PhD — 44% of the people in the MLA survey had spent ten years or more — in order to end up teaching high school sounds kind of nutty. As for teaching at community colleges, isn’t that market particularly saturated with adjunct positions?
I’m also under the impression that museum work is both extremely difficult to get and generally goes to people with specialized training in the field, while libraries are usually staffed by people trained as librarians.
Suggesting that people “put skills to use in the private sector” sounds suspiciously like a Stanford professor telling the kids to get off his lawn and go get a job doing job things.
Also, the 60% of recent humanities PhDs getting tenure track jobs figure quoted in the report seems more like an optimistic ballpark estimate than a rigorous conclusion, as it’s based on comparing the number of annual PhD recipients to the number of advertised tenure track jobs. That method seems to assume that advertised job positions are always filled, and that they’re filled by recent graduates of American PhD-granting institutions, as opposed to people who have trying to find a tenure-track job for several years, or graduates of non-American institutions.
In any case, it’s a morbidly interesting question as to whether on average it’s worse to be a new JD who can’t get a job as a lawyer, or a new PhD who can’t get an academic job. The new JD is probably going to have way more educational debt (the average educational debt of new JDs is around $150,000), but that has to be offset by the difference between three and nine years of opportunity costs. What neither of these people need are lectures from comfortably tenured academics about how, despite all appearances, the problem somehow isn’t that too many people are being trained at enormous expense for careers that don’t exist.