Summary of results of a survey on the difficulties
facing PhDs without permanent academic jobs
Eleanor Dickey and friends, May 2014
A pilot and then a longer follow-up survey were distributed by e-mail and on blogs in March and April 2014, attempting to find out whether there is anything that could be done to alleviate the distressing conditions often experienced by PhDs who do not find permanent academic jobs. The results from the longer survey have been combined into a report of which this is the summary. There were 152 responses, including 52 from people with permanent academic jobs, 45 from people with non-permanent academic jobs, 17 from unemployed academics, and 15 from graduate students. Classicists produced 88 responses, philosophers 31, and people in other Humanities fields 22. (Nine responses were received late in the analysis process and are excluded from a few of the statistics given below.) Numerous respondents at all levels provided detailed and intelligent comments as well as ratings, and ten particularly helpful and experienced scholars (also at a range of academic levels) checked successive drafts of the results to make sure the conclusions were right. Conclusion: The responses represent a good cross-section of types of academic, though coverage by subject is uneven, and the conclusions presented herein follow accurately from the data. Academics with permanent jobs who had not experienced a period of unemployment themselves accounted for 43 responses: i.e., 29% of respondents answered purely because they care about other people’s suffering. 79% of those altruistic respondents were Classicists, and they included some of the biggest names in the field, from both sides of the Atlantic. Conclusion: Classicists can take heart in the knowledge that people in high places care about what is happening and want to help.
The high unemployment rates and poor working conditions of PhDs have been widely reported in the media (references are provided in the full report), and survey respondents generally agreed with that picture while providing additional nuances. The exact problems they reported differ greatly. For many questions UK respondents are slightly less unhappy than the average respondent, and Classicists are slightly more unhappy; for some questions the greatest unhappiness was reported by those who eventually did get permanent jobs. The worst problems, interestingly, are not practical ones such as poverty and constantly moving around but rather concern morale: uncertainty about the future (severe for all except those with primary employment outside academia), the anguish of not knowing whether to give up trying for an academic career, the demoralization of endless applications, giving up one’s intellectual identity, constant pressure (especially for the unemployed), the sense of failure (especially for Classicists), and the contradiction between the values professed by academia and how people are really treated (especially for those who eventually got permanent jobs). Conclusion: The morale problems should be taken seriously, since the respondents consider them to be worse than the more measurable and hence more widely reported practical difficulties facing PhDs.
The possible solutions (numbers refer to questions in the survey):
One set of possibilities involves changes in PhD programmes to reduce the oversupply of disappointed would-be academics. Although that will not address current problems, it could reduce future ones. These options are:
1 a) A reduction in the number of PhD places seems the obvious answer at first glance, but there was little appetite for this solution: not only was the enthusiasm very low among respondents (average rating 18/100, with no identifiable group showing significantly more enthusiasm), but many respondents commented that they did not regret having done a PhD despite their subsequent troubles. Questions 2e and 2h, asking whether respondents felt they had wasted the effort put into the PhD, generally received negative responses even from respondents in very difficult employment situations. An overall cut in the number of PhD places is not achievable (some programmes are cutting, but others happily take the excess applicants) and would seriously harm departments. Conclusion: The PhD itself does not appear to be the problem. Even when it does not lead to employment, people see it as worthwhile for its own sake, and there is no support for further restricting access to it.
1 d) Making it clearer at application stage that PhDs do not usually lead to academic jobs received much more support (64/100, including 80/100 from current graduate students; numerous established academics expressed strong support). Unrealistic expectations are a real problem: although some statistics suggest that only 20% of PhDs will get permanent academic jobs, 63% of respondents had expected such a job, and most of the rest had thought they might get one. The problem varies by region and by type of institution: 94% of respondents who did their PhDs in the US had thought they would get a permanent job (100% for respondents who did their PhDs at non-Ivy-League institutions). Only 52% of respondents who did their PhDs in the UK had expected a job (60% for Oxbridge PhDs, 46% for non-Oxbridge). Conclusion: Students (particularly in the US) are not aware how bad the job market is and would like to be better informed; academics agree that they ought to have that information, but delivering it effectively will be difficult.
1 e) Presenting the PhD as general education drew less enthusiasm (58/100 overall, lower for current students). The basic problem is that as it stands the PhD really is pre-professional training, or at least not training for any other profession, and although recipients find it personally satisfying to do a PhD, the degree is generally not perceived as an asset in the US/UK non-academic job market, individual examples to the contrary notwithstanding. There are serious difficulties with changing that situation, though one easy improvement that would do no harm would be to encourage and enable students to present their research to non-academic audiences. Moreover many institutions and funding bodies exacerbate the unemployment problem by preferring for admissions and/or funding candidates who declare a a desire for an academic career; there are some good reasons for doing that, but it does make the problem worse. Conclusion: At present we should admit that the PhD is not much of an asset in the non-academic job market and not try to change that, but we can nevertheless improve matters slightly by helping students present their research to non-academic audiences, and we may want to stop preferring for admissions or funding candidates who intend to follow an academic career.
1 kk) Among other ideas suggested by respondents was that universities could create more ‘honourable exits’ from the PhD programme (e.g. some type of master’s degree that could be given to students who after several years of work decide that it is not in their interests to continue). This might make it easier for those who are unlikely to get academic jobs to avoid investing excessive time in the PhD. Some universities already do this. Conclusion: This is worth exploring.
A second set of possibilities would reduce the current oversupply of disappointed would-be academics by facilitating their transition out of academia. This addresses the immediate problem, and many respondents thought this type of solution was the only viable kind, but it faces serious obstacles that must not be overlooked if such solutions are to work.
1 c) Considerable enthusiasm (83/100) was produced by the proposal not to brand people who leave academia as failures; enthusiasm was highest among those with permanent jobs, particularly prominent academics (100/100), and lowest from unemployed academics (66/100). Successful academics do not look down on people who leave academia, but struggling academics have little desire to leave: only 10% of the 92 people who answered the question ‘Do you want an academic job?’ said no. It was suggested that staying in touch with graduate alumni who go on to non-academic lives might help this process and could also have financial and other benefits for the departments who follow such a policy. Conclusion: We must de-stigmatize departure from academia, but this will be challenging; a first step might be for departments to stay in touch with graduate alumni who leave academia.
1 b) The proposal to achieve de-stigmatization by publicizing the role of luck in academic success received only moderate enthusiasm (60/100 overall; prominent academics gave this 44/100 and unemployed academics 75/100). It could do more harm than good if mismanaged, and arguably it was mismanaged in the original phrasing of the question, but it may be the only way to remove the intense feelings of failure and shame that appear to afflict those who do not get a permanent academic job. Conclusion: The fact that luck (like merit) is a necessary pre-requisite for academic success should be publicized as a way of reducing the sense of failure attendant upon lack of success, but with great care.
1 hh) The suggestion of offering support for the transition to a non-academic career was highly rated (82/100 overall, but only 70/100 from unemployed academics). There is disagreement about when and by whom this support should be provided, but agreement that it needs to be better (i.e. more informed about opportunities for people with particular skills, and more useful to PhDs) than it normally is at present. More visibility for existing resources (which are extensive: see full report) would help but is not sufficient. Conclusion: We can and should do more here, both institutionally and via professional associations, but given the reluctance of PhDs to leave academia we should not pretend that such action will solve the whole problem.
1 ii) For Classicists school teaching is an obvious alternative career, and support in this direction was rated even higher than general career support (86/100 overall, 73/100 from unemployed academics). Respondents pointed out, however, that it often involves training that can be expensive and in short supply (at least in the UK); also some subjects are not often taught in schools, and some people would not make good schoolteachers. Conclusion: School teaching will not work for everyone, but it is an area where some investment from the profession to faciliate training and increase opportunity could make a significant difference, so we should work on this.
1 kk) Respondents also suggested some new ideas in this category. The media paint a picture of rich, happy permanent academics, but reality is rather different: such people often face difficulties only slightly less severe than those of academics on temporary contracts. It may be that PhDs are reluctant to leave academia in part because they have a completely unrealistic view of what their lives would be like if they were to get permanent jobs. Some ideas were floated as to how objective facts in this area could best be disseminated. Also, some respondents think we could actually expand the number of academic jobs in our field, whether at the expense of other Humanities disciplines or by raising the profile of Humanities as a whole. My view is that this is not feasible, but I could be wrong. [Note: Maybe I really am wrong. There is a promising initiative to expand Humanities funding in the EU, and we can’t lose anything by signing the petition connected with it, at http://www.futureofhumanities.eu/] Another interesting idea was that certain non-academic industries, such as publishing, would arguably be benefitted by hiring PhDs for certain jobs where that type of expertise would be helpful, and that we could perhaps encourage them to do so. Conclusion: We should attempt to (gather and) spread objective information about the drawbacks of even a successful academic career, and to encourage non-academic employers to hire PhDs when that would be genuinely useful.
The third set of possibilities is to try to ameliorate the conditions to which the people without permanent academic jobs are subjected. As a general principle, improving the working conditions of academics with non-permanent jobs received the highest rating of any suggestion (86/100 overall, with every identifiable group agreeing that it is important: 1f). But some respondents argued that as long as there is an oversupply of desperate academics they will be mistreated: it took the Black Death to make agricultural labour valuable in medieval Europe, and it will take a mass exodus of academics to make the labour of those who remain valuable. Some respondents think that any action here might just make things worse by encouraging would-be academics to remain and continue the oversupply; these respondents are not necessarily unsympathetic or hard-hearted. Should we listen to them? Or should we listen to the majority who say that if we are to live with our consciences action is essential here?
There is also the issue of PhDs with no academic job at all, since such people often desire a continued connection to the profession. Some claim that helping unemployed PhDs maintain such a connection would encourage them to remain in the job market and thereby worsen the oversupply problem, but it could also be argued that having sharply-defined boundaries to academia makes it harder for anyone to leave: to get another job is to risk being completely cut off from the world one has known. Making it easier to maintain a connection to academia while not actually employed in it might therefore reduce the oversupply problem.
The most popular suggestions in this category were:
1 j) Persuading universities to let their PhDs remain affiliated after completion (rated 82/100); apparently many institutions already do this to some extent. Some respondents thought there should be a time limit, e.g. 3 years after the PhD. Conclusion: We should do this.
1 q-ff) Getting libraries to admit people without an academic affiliation also received 82/100; this problem is not widespread, however, so solving it will not help many people. Direct provision of (e-)library access got 80/100, with higher ratings from the UK, but it was pointed out that Classicists can already have this by joining either the Hellenic Society or the Roman Society, which provide a good library for UK residents and some small grants. Conclusion: We should gather a list of offending libraries and try to persuade them to change their policies. Unaffiliated Classicists in the UK should join the Hellenic or Roman society. [Note: an earlier version of this document stated that the Hellenic and Roman societies provided remote JSTOR access for members, but apparently that service has now been discontinued. In view of this change these conclusions need to be re-thought.]
1 x) Help with unionization also got 82/100, and indeed there are ongoing unionization drives in some US universities, but there were warning comments from respondents who had personal experience of belonging to academic unions: they can make problems worse rather than better. Conclusion: We should wait and see whether the ongoing unionization drives make things better or worse before deciding whether action is desirable on this point.
1 l) Making sure that blind refereeing is really blind received 79/100 overall, driven in part by a problem in Philosophy. There is no real evidence of a problem in Classics, though some journals are blinder than others and therefore those with concerns could factor that into account when choosing a journal to submit to. Some authors behave badly, and the whole refereeing system would work better if they did not do so. Conclusion: Is there a volunteer from Philosophy to tackle the problem there? In Classics the onus is on those who think there is a problem with discriminatory refereeing to provide evidence of it, and until such evidence is offered no action should be taken — but authors could help the whole situation by behaving better themselves.
1 y) Mentoring schemes got 77/100 and warnings about potential problems; it was unclear why more schemes are needed when several already exist. Mentoring relationships only work when both parties genuinely like and respect one another; when artificially created between people who do not see eye to eye they usually fizzle out. And when forcibly imposed they can become exploitative (in either direction): the freedom to quit is an important aspect of such relationships. Conclusion: We should try to understand why people feel the need for more mentoring schemes and whether anything could reasonably be done that would help; junior scholars should be encouraged to approach senior ones themselves (and vice versa), on the understanding that exploitation must be avoided.
1 u-v) Making the job-search process less painful got 76/100 (80/100 for the UK); although some respondents said they had been well treated, many complained of not even being told when they were rejected. This is not a problem in the US, owing to an online resource that could probably be extended to other countries. Simplifying applications got 67/100, with higher results from the UK and a score of 100 from those with multiple part-time jobs. Some respondents had applied for very large numbers of jobs: although half the 50 respondents who specified a number had applied for fewer than 10 jobs, the half that had applied for more included eleven with 40 or more applications in the last 12 months, up to a high of 65. Interestingly these applicants do not have a greater preference for uniform applications, a suggestion that turned out to have many disadvantages. Conclusion: Uniform applications are not a good idea, but the CUCD should annually remind UK Classics departments of their excellent temporary-hire protocols, and UK/European jobseekers could be encouraged (perhaps by hiring institutions?) to use something like the US wiki site.
1 m-n-o-p) Subsidizing the conference attendance of those without regular jobs got 74/100, with all groups considering it a good idea; sometimes it is already done. Not asking for affiliation for conference abstracts got 73/100 overall, but with considerable diversity of views, e.g. 88/100 from the unemployed and 58/100 from high-profile academics; again this is already done for some conferences. Trying to make conferences cheaper and more local got 58/100 overall but drew strong protests from many, especially those at geographically remote institutions or in small specialisms. Not putting an affiliation on conference nametags got only 42/100, with many respondents saying that it is useful. Conclusion: Conference organizers might want to consider offering an ‘unwaged’ subsidy and blind-refereeing abstracts, and the profession as a whole might want to decide that one could always claim the affiliation of one’s PhD-granting institution — but we do need affiliations on our nametags and fees to fund the conferences.
1 s) Raising the profile of teaching got 72/100; many respondents think this would be a good thing just in itself. There are serious problems with implementation, however, and this issue may not be entirely relevant to the problem under discussion. Conclusion: no action as part of this project.
1 i-z-bb) Lobbying to make grants more available to scholars without a long-term affiliation got 71/100 (some grants already are open to those without such affiliation, but many are not, and it was disturbing how many respondents did not know this). But it turns out to be impractical and so has to be abandoned. Direct provision of small grants got 74/100 and the creation of an umbrella organization through which unaffiliated scholars could apply for larger grants 75/100, but many respondents thought it unlikely that these ideas would work, and the small grants are the ones most likely to be already open to everyone. Conclusion: no action should be taken now, but these ideas could be revived later if circumstances change.
1 dd) An umbrella organization to help the unaffiliated get invitations to review and referee academic work (and receive payment for this) received 69/100, with higher ratings from the unaffiliated and lower from prominent academics. Some established scholars expressed reservations about this idea, particularly as unaffiliated scholars might be on average harsher than other evaluators.Conclusion: no action should be taken unless better evidence that this is a good idea emerges.
1 g) The call for less of a hierarchical presentation of department members on web sites and notice boards received mixed ratings averaging 57/100 but some striking comments. Often part-time teachers are not included at all in such listings, and that not only makes them feel marginalised but also causes practical inconvenience for everyone who needs to contact them. A list in hierarchical order is rarely as useful as one in alphabetical order. At the same, there are practical reasons for making it clear what the hierarchy actually is. Conclusion: Lists of department members should include everyone who teaches for the department, but they should also include titles and information such as who is the head of the department.
1 kk) The other rated ideas were not well received and/or have serious problems; they should probably all be abandoned, at least for now. But some new ideas have emerged: the APA interview system, which is prohibitively expensive for some candidates, could be scrapped in favour of Skype interviews, departmental review committees should be encouraged to put pressure on institutions to treat temporary staff better, and this project could consider where funding to implement changes might come from. There were also other ideas that might be worth pursuing. Conclusion: We should work on at least some of these ideas, starting with the funding.