Some hard numbers

[Note: if you are in the UK and have not yet seen our petition about the REF, please look at https://hortensii.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/our-petition-to-hefce/. Thank you!]

Our initial survey generated considerable discussion about what the survival rate of PhDs in academia actually is: how many of the people who earn a PhD end up with a permanent academic job? Some of our correspondents argued for percentages as low as ten, and others maintained that the winners number well over 50%, but hard figures and evidence were very hard to find. Recently, however, it has proved possible to calculate a reasonably well-founded figure for the UK, and it turns out to be 20%. In other words, 80% of those who get a PhD in the UK, four out of every five of them, do not end up with permanent academic jobs. This is not a reasonable attrition rate, suitable to weed out the PhDs who aren’t very good; it is preposterous to suggest that 80% of the people who receive PhDs from UK universities are not good enough to be academics. Instead, it is confirmation of what most of us have suspected for some time: there are now so few jobs and so many PhDs that even very good candidates often come up empty-handed.

The figure of 20% comes from Vitae’s ‘What do Researchers do 2013’ report (available at https://www.vitae.ac.uk/; if you cannot get it from that site, ask us for it), but interestingly a figure for the percentage of PhDs with permanent academic positions is not directly given in that report. Rather one can extract it from the following data:

1) 38.1% of those who had received a PhD in 2010 from a UK university were in an academic job in 2013 (figure of 38.1% reached by adding the 21.4% in ‘teaching in HE’ and the 16.7% in ‘HE research occupations’ given on p. 14; note that the figure of 43.9% employed in higher education, given on p. 13, includes people with non-academic jobs in higher education);

2) of that 38.1%, the researchers are stated (p. 24) to have open-ended contracts 16.5% of the time and the teachers 80.4% of the time, meaning that 2.8% of PhDs have an open-ended research contract and 17.2% have an open-ended teaching contract, for a total of 20%.

How good are these numbers? The survey is based on responses from 2505 PhDs, which is pretty good as surveys go, and the respondents seem to be reasonably representative in terms of gender, age, field of study, etc.: the only obvious bias in the sample is that it focusses on the UK, so it ought to be safe to use these figures for the UK but not necessarily for other countries. However, certain other objections to the figures could be made:

1) The measurement of contract status was ‘open-ended’ versus ‘fixed-term’, and ‘open-ended’ is not always the same as ‘permanent’. A permanent contract runs until retirement, subject to satisfactory performance, and cannot normally be terminated before that date without unsatisfactory performance or redundancy proceedings. An ‘open-ended’ contract can be used for positions funded by ‘soft money’ that run until the money dries up and can therefore end at any time through no fault of the employee. It looks as though the survey lumped these two types of contract together under the term ‘open-ended’, and that therefore the number of PhDs on truly permanent contracts may be less than 20%.

2) Inevitably, figures like these are out of date by the time they are compiled, for what is revealed here is the employment of the 2010 cohort of PhDs, which may not be an accurate guide to the prospects for today’s graduates. Over time there has been a largely consistent trend of more and more PhDs competing for about the same number of academic jobs, so it could well be that the percentage of today’s PhDs who have permanent jobs three years from now will be lower than 20%.

3) Some people who do not have permanent jobs three years after graduation may get such jobs later, meaning that if employment were to be measured after a longer period of time the percentage of PhDs with permanent jobs might be higher than 20%.

4) Not everyone who secures a ‘permanent’ job manages to keep it; in addition to those who do not pass their probationary periods, some lecturers and researchers lose apparently long-term positions when departments are closed or reduced in size. Several of Hortensii’s original respondents pointed out the horrors of finding oneself back on the job market through no fault of one’s own after securing a ‘permanent’ position in a department that did not survive. Therefore it is possible that if employment were to be measured after a longer period of time some of the respondents who had permanent jobs in 2013 would no longer have them, yielding a figure of less than 20%.

5) These figures cover all disciplines, and there are no doubt significant variations between disciplines, so the prospects for PhDs in specific subjects could be better or worse than the overall figures. In some fields the PhD is actively sought by people wanting a career outside academia (we gather that these fields are mostly sciences where there are industrial lab jobs requiring a PhD).

Despite these caveats, the Vitae figures seem to be at present the closest thing to hard evidence on the PhD employment situation that is available, so they should be taken seriously. And they have something important to tell new (and not-so-new) PhDs who are about to embark on the 2015 academic job market. Namely, no matter what anyone says to the contrary, that is one tough market out there, a market so tough that 80% of the possible candidates are not going to get that permanent job that most of them want. Most of those 80% are highly qualified: good researchers, good teachers, people who would make excellent academics — UK universities have a rigorous examination process and very rarely award a PhD to someone who would not be employable as an academic. Therefore the 20% figure also reveals that there should be no shame attached to being one of the 80% who do not get permanent academic jobs.

Of course, we at Hortensii wish everyone the best of luck for the 2015 job market: may you all find the position of your dreams! But realistically we know that that is not going to happen, and most applicants will end up bitterly disappointed, as usual. Nevertheless, something could be different in 2015: this could be the year when it is recognized that the 80% without permanent jobs are not the people to blame for their situation, and the crushing sense of deserved failure so eloquently described by our respondents could be lifted from those of the 80% who currently bear it. If someone you know ends up in the 80% this year, please try telling them that this is not their fault, but rather the normal situation and nothing to be ashamed of. One person saying this might not help, but if enough of us say it, there could be a culture change that, to judge by the results of our survey (see https://hortensii.wordpress.com/what-to-do-and-why/), would make a significant difference to many people’s experiences.

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Our petition to HEFCE

HEFCE: make the next REF an incentive for long-term employment, not short-term exploitation

Please sign Hortensii’s petition to HEFCE at http://www.thepetitionsite.com/894/968/678/make-the-next-ref-an-incentive-for-long-term-employment-not-short-term-exploitation/

More and more university lecturers and researchers are now employed on short-term contracts that force them to spend huge amounts of time looking for their next job and to move constantly from one place to another. The work of these long-suffering people has been instrumental in influencing the outcomes of REF 2014, the research ranking exercise that determines a substantial percentage of government research funding for the next five years. At this moment universities and departments all over the UK are celebrating the REF results, often without sparing a thought for the many temporary academics whose hard work made the good REF results possible but who have already lost their jobs at the institutions that now stand to reap rewards.

Short-term hires to boost REF results are a clever way of gaming the system, and there is no rule against them; as things stand now, a university would be foolish not to use them. But such hires not only harm the people who are thus exploited, but also distort the REF results, for the REF is supposed to give an indication of which departments are worth funding for five years, not which were worth funding for a few months in autumn 2013.

The REF could be a much more positive force in UK academia and could counter the growing insecurity of academic employment if it weighted staff according to the nature of their contracts. On such a system the same person would count more if on a long-term than if on a short-term contract, giving universities an incentive to make longer-term hires. This would also make the REF results a better reflection of reality. For example, since a lecturer on a permanent contract is likely to be at the institution concerned for the full five years of the funding period, whereas one on a one-year contract will be there for only 1/5 of that time, the former individual ought to count 5 times as much as the latter one. And therefore a department that submits 10 people on permanent contracts should have a greater return, for the same research quality, than one submitting 2 people on permanent contracts and 8 on contracts shorter than 5 years. The same principle should be applied to every type of contract: someone hired for 6 months should count for only 1/10 of a person on a contract of 5 years or longer, and someone hired for 3 years should count for 3/5 of a long-term staff member. This weighting would give universities an incentive to use the longest contracts they can, even if they cannot afford permanent ones.

We call upon HEFCE to implement a weighting of this nature in future REF exercises, in order to improve the employment conditions of UK academics and make the REF more accurately reflect the real, long-term situation in universities across the country.

For further information on the REF, see http://www.ref.ac.uk/

For further information on the use of short-term contracts in UK academia, see e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/feb/04/academic-casual-contracts-higher-education, http://www.ucu.org.uk/stampout

Professional associations do care

The problems facing PhDs without permanent academic jobs are receiving increasing attention from professional associations. In the US John Marincola, the President-Elect of the Society for Classical Studies (formerly the APA), has declared his intention to pursue these issues during his presidency and to make them the focus of his Presidential Panel at the society’s 2016 annual meeting in San Francisco. In Britain the Council of University Classics Departments recently held a discussion of the problem and invited Hortensii to write a piece for their Bulletin (https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/classics/cucd/bulletin.html#2014); they intend to take positive action on some of the issues raised.

UK funding bodies are also concerned. The AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council), which discussed the issue at its subject association meeting in September (see http://www.slideshare.net/AHRC/challenges-for-post-ph-d-career-development-dr-ian-lyne), and the British Academy have received the Oakleigh report (http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/News/Documents/Support%20for%20Arts%20and%20Humanities%20Researchers%20Post-PhD.pdf; a one-page summary can be found at http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/News/Pages/Support-for-researchers-in-the-Arts-and-Humanities-post-doctorate.aspx), a study of certain aspects of the problem, and are concerned by its findings.

The Oakleigh report includes an investigation of the extent to which improvements to the working conditions of early career researchers have been made as a result of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (about which you can learn more at https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/concordat-to-support-the-career-development-of-researchers). This is an agreement between funding bodies and universities; it is voluntary but the universities have more or less agreed to abide by it. It is not a very well-known document; in the entire Hortensii discussion since April no-one had mentioned it to me until the Oakleigh Report. Perhaps in consequence of that lack of visibility, it does not seem to have achieved the positive effect it aims at — but it contains some good recommendations, so if implementation could be achieved people would clearly be better off.

In a similar vein, it turns out that quite a few UK professional associations have codes of practice for the hiring of part-time and temporary academics: the Royal Historical Society’s code can be found here: http://royalhistsoc.org/early-career-historians/, the British Philosophical Association’s policy can be found here: http://www.bpa.ac.uk/policies (scroll to ‘Policy on casual and temporary staff’), and as previously noted the Council of University Classics Departments’ protocol (which is being revised) can be found here: http://www.rhul.ac.uk/classics/cucd/tempstaff.html. These policies are in general stronger than the Concordat, in terms of offering temporary staff better conditions: the historians even suggest that teaching staff should be paid the Living Wage when preparation time is taken into account. As far as I can ascertain, however, all these subject-endorsed policies remain completely unimplemented at universities.

The conclusion to draw from all this may be that voluntary agreements are not the solution. But it could also be that the policies might be implementable if more effort went into doing so; it certainly seems worth trying to see what would happen if the subject organizations and/or the funding bodies started complaining about specific instances of violations of their policies. One way this could be achieved would be for subject organizations and funding bodies to solicit information on such violations; if such a request were sent out periodically it might at least alert universities to the existence of the policies.

As we hoped when the Hortensii report was first published, numerous academics are now attempting to get their universities and departments to make changes based on our recommendations. Some attempts have been thwarted, but we know of four UK universities where Hortensii initiatives are currently moving through approval processes; probably there are others we do not know about. We look forward to publicizing successful initiatives once they are implemented!

Here is a small selection of other relevant pieces published since Hortensii last posted:

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/09/a_changing_view_of_alt_ac_jobs_in_which_ph_d_s_work_outside_of_academia.single.html

https://chroniclevitae.com/news/632-between-postdoc-and-job-a-whole-lot-of-questions

Some good news

We have four cheerful pieces of news for PhDs without permanent academic jobs. Well, they are small pieces of news, but we think they will benefit some people, and that’s a start. Please, folks, keep at it trying to improve things, as every little bit counts and the more little bits we improve, the more people will be better off. And please let us know when you achieve something!

1) A better deal for those without their own e-resources library access:

We spoke to JSTOR about the difficulties independent scholars face without regular access to an academic library. They expressed great sympathy for Hortensii’s aims and a desire to help, and to that end they are offering members of the Hortensii community a discount of 25% on JPASS subscriptions. A JPASS subscription is almost (but, unfortunately, not quite) like an individual version of a library’s JSTOR subscription; it provides unlimited access to more than 1,600 scholarly journals, the vast majority of the ones included in the library JSTOR packages. (There is a complete list of titles included at http://jpass.jstor.org/collections; we are actively working with JSTOR and certain publishers to get this list expanded.) Hortensii’s discounted JSTOR subscription costs $149 per year; you can also subscribe on a monthly basis for $19.50 per month. JSTOR has offered us a 10-day free trial (which you can access here: http://jpass.jstor.org/freetrial) and are happy to answer any questions if you e-mail support@jstor.org.

If you would like to take advantage of the discounted JPASS subscription send an e-mail to E.Dickey@reading.ac.uk and just ask for the link to the discount; it would be unkind to JSTOR to post that link on an open site, but it is free for the asking to any member of the Hortensii community.

 

2) An opportunity for recent PhDs (especially in the US) to get their views across and make money doing so:

Vitae (https://chroniclevitae.com/), The Chronicle of Higher Education’s new online career-development community, is looking for writers. The site produces daily news, analysis, and advice for young academics exploring and planning their career paths (in and out of academia) and working to make their academic lives more rewarding.

Vitae’s editorial team is PARTICULARLY INTERESTED IN THE VIEWS OF GRADUATE STUDENTS AND POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWS, and they’re seeking writers to become “Vitae Voices,” one-time or occasional PAID columnists who provide insightful, specific analysis, drawn from personal experience on a range of issues facing young scholars. There’s an interest in having content about the academic job market, career management and professional development, grad-student and postdoc life, mentoring, labor issues, work-life and health and wellness issues, among others. Submissions should be in the range of 800-1,300 words and written in a conversational style. If you’re interested or have questions, Vitae editors can be reached by e-mail at editorial@chroniclevitae.com.

 

3) An opportunity for UK Classicists considering going into school teaching to find out more about what the opportunities available and the various training routes:

There will be a Teaching Classics Day on 18th October 2014 in Abingdon (near Reading). See http://www.shsk.org.uk/Home/Book-Event.aspx?ID=485&ReturnURL=Main-event-booking.aspx

 

4) A career fair in Paris especially for PhDs, on September 12 (the advertisement is in English, and there is no suggestion that only the French are welcome):
http://phdtalent.org/the-phdtalent-career-fair-2014/

 

Lastly, some more news stories have come to our attention. Note that links get posted faster on the Hortensii Twitter and Facebook pages, owing to the awesome and efficient people who run those pages, so for the latest links to discussion it’s always a good idea to check https://twitter.com/Hortensii and/or https://www.facebook.com/Hortensii

News of a project to improve the situation in Massachusetts, with some important general thoughts:
https://chroniclevitae.com/news/591-ph-d-s-adjuncts-and-the-teacher-training-conundrum

Some really depressing insights into how some faculty members are not being helpful and need us to help them understand what the problems are:
https://chroniclevitae.com/news/598-the-conferencegoer-what-some-faculty-really-think-about-nonacademic-careers

News of a unionization effort for adjuncts in Florida:
http://www.philly.com/philly/jobs/Adjunct_professors_pushing_for_better_pay_benefits.html

Philosophers who work outside of academia (June 2014):
Part 1: http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/06/philosophers-who-work-outside-of-academia-part-1-how-and-why-do-they-end-up-there.html
Part 2: http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/06/philosophers-who-work-outside-of-academia-part-2-whats-it-like-to-have-a-nonacademic-job.html
Part 3: http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/06/philosophers-who-work-outside-of-academia-part-3-transferrable-skills-and-concrete-advice.html

Not just a problem for the humanities, but poor job prospects for scientists as well:
http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2014/07/employment_rates_for_stem_ph_d_s_it_s_a_stagnant_job_market_for_young_scientists.html

And science PhDs are not very happy with the solution of ‘alt’ careers, either:
http://sicknessisfascinating.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/alt-careers-arent-answer.html?spref=tw

‘How to secure a job after your PhD’: excerpts from videos with useful advice. The focus is on non-academic jobs:
http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLGuX0rO-DritW75XmoLtuhcgJFbmV0OCo

Another response to the MLA report:
http://chronicle.com/article/Restructure-the-Humanities/147203/

‘How I got out’ at Vitae, highlighting routes out of academia:
https://chroniclevitae.com/news/575-how-i-got-out-one-adjunct-s-journey-from-freeway-flyer-to-e-learning-director

Grad students and transferable skills: a storytelling approach:
http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2014/06/27/transferable-skills-and-storytelling

Grad students and academic careers:
http://thegradgrind.com/2014/05/30/is-academia-really-in-such-a-mess/

Yes, we CAN do something!

Hortensii, the group dedicated to improving the situation for PhDs without permanent academic jobs, has registered its first success: the University of Manchester held a conference at which the organizer produced name tags without institutional affiliations out of consideration for the feelings of unaffiliated attendees. He informs us that he did this as a result of our survey. No-one reported having difficulties with those name tags, perhaps in part because a complete list of attendees’ e-mail addresses was included in the conference pack and therefore affiliations were not necessary for contact purposes. Thank you Nigel Vincent!

Now we would be the first to admit that as successes go this one is small. But it’s a step in the right direction, and every step counts: the only way we can make big changes is via lots of little changes. So we look forward to hearing about the next success: when you change something about academia, even a little thing, do tell us, so we can tell the world that change is possible and thereby encourage others to make more changes.

In other news, we have two more documents on this site, one a list of things employed academics can do to help and one an information sheet for prospective PhD students. We know the latter document is appalling, and we apologize for that, but we felt we had to do it because of the strong support for making sure that prospective PhD students know the truth about the job market. We also, ahem, have made some corrections to the original documents, which contained a few mistakes. Many apologies to all about those mistakes, and MANY thanks to the people who pointed them out! Please keep the corrections coming if you spot more mistakes: we know that having incorrect information on this site is highly undesirable, and we’ve made a big effort to get things right, so we really welcome help in that direction.

And we have lots of volunteers, which is great — but we could definitely use more! If you have volunteered and not yet heard from us with a specific assignment, don’t worry: we’ll be in touch soon with a possibility that we hope will match who and where you are. If you haven’t yet volunteered, please do! And if you have a good idea, please put it on our ‘Discussion and new ideas’ page for everyone to see — thank you!

We’ve also found a site that you might want to check out if you are having feelings of failure and/or considering leaving academia but worried that this might look like failure. It’s www.jobsontoast.com and has some good posts confronting the ‘failure narrative’ and suggesting what we can do about it, as well as practical advice for getting non-academic jobs. In the latter area, of course, we still also recommend http://versatilephd.com/.

In less cheerful news, we have heard from a significant number of people in the ‘precariat’ who support the Hortensii initiative but are afraid to say so in public because they fear being fired for speaking up. Is this really what academia should be like? Can we do anything to restore basic freedom of speech to our disciplines?

Keep up the good work, everyone! And on behalf of all the people who are afraid to say anything, let me say thank you to those who are not afraid to do something — we’re looking forward to the next success!

Let’s do something!

Hortensii is a group of people inside and outside academia who want to alleviate the difficulties facing PhDs without permanent academic jobs. We take our name from the Roman Quintus Hortensius, who in c. 287 BC sponsored the Lex Hortensia giving civil rights to Roman plebeians.

We think that despite the current unpleasant realities facing academia many positive steps could be taken; see ‘What to do and why’ (or, if you are really brave, ‘Full report’) for exactly what these are, but to oversimplify grossly our goals are both to reduce the oversupply of disappointed would-be academics by making it easier to leave academia, and to make life better for PhDs who choose to remain in academia without a permanent job. We welcome anyone who shares these goals and is in broad agreement with our proposed actions to join us and help implement them (see ‘Please join us’ and leave an endorsement on this page if you can), and we ask people with other agendas to respect ours and leave us to it.

We are not fighting against anyone or anything and are not affiliated with any movement, political party, or country. Nor are we trying to help individuals gain employment or to interfere in any way with decisions on who should get the limited number of academic jobs available; as we have different subjects and different views on what constitutes good academic work in our fields, we wish to avoid internal dissension by remaining strictly neutral in such matters so we can work together to make life better for a group that badly needs such help.