Field of Science

Caveat emptor: Is academia a pyramid scheme?

That's the question on the blogs this week (see here and here). The question arises because each professor will have some number of students during their career (10-20 is common among the faculty I know), whereas the number of professorships increases very slowly. So the number of PhDs being produced far exceeds the number of academic positions.

As pointed out elsewhere, this neglects the fact that many PhD students have no intention of going into academia. Even so, it's clear the system is set up to produce more graduates who want academic jobs than there are jobs available. Prodigal Academic wonders if that's any different from any profession -- generally, there are more people who want the best jobs than there are best jobs to go around. Unlike PA, who doesn't think there's a problem, Citation Needed thinks most people entering graduate school aren't aware of how unlikely it is that they will get a tenure-track job, partly because it isn't in the schools' interest to mention this.

It depends

I largely agree with these fine posts, but I think they overgeneralize. Not all PhD programs are the same. Different fields vary wildly in terms of number of students produced, the likelihood of getting an industry job, etc., and also in terms of the caliber of the program. For instance, nearly every graduate of the psych program at Harvard goes on to get a tenure-track job. A sizable percentage get tenure-track jobs at the top institutions (Harvard, Yale, UChicago, etc.).

On the other hand, at even highly-respected but lower-ranked schools, getting a tenure-track job seems to be the exception. Here I have less personal experience, but a friend from Harvard who is a post-doc at a well-known state school was surprised to discover basically none of the students in that program expected to get an academic job. I've heard similar stories from a few other places.

A common problem

This isn't unique to academia. Many people believe lawyers earn a lot of money. Much fuss is made in the New York Times about how starting salary at a major law first is around $170,000/year (or was, prior to the Great Recession). While basically anyone who graduates from the top three law schools who wants such a job can get one (some go into lower-paying public-interest or public-service work), at most law schools, few if any graduates land such jobs and most lawyers never earn anywhere near that money. As a first approximation, nobody who graduates from law school lands a big firm job, just as, as a first approximation, nobody with a PhD gets a tenure track job at a top research institution.

From my vantage point, the problem is that media (newspapers, movies, etc.) fixate on the prosperous tip of the iceberg. Newspapers do this because their target audience (rather, the target audience of many of the advertisers in newspapers) are people who themselves graduated from Harvard or Yale and for whom getting a tenure-track job or being partner at a major law firm is a reasonably common achievement. Movies and television shows do this for the same reason everyone is beautiful and rich on the screen -- nobody ever said Hollywood was realistic.

This is fine as it goes, but can get people into trouble when they don't realize (a) that the media is presenting the outliers, not the norm, and/or (b) just where their own school/program fits into the grand scheme of things. As Citation Needed points out, it's not necessarily in the interest of less successful schools to warn incoming students that their chances of a job are poor. And, particularly in the realm of undergraduate education, there are certainly there are schools who cynically accept students knowing that their degree is so worthless that the students will almost certainly default on their loans.

What to do

Obviously the real onus is on the student (caveat emptor) to make sure they know what their chances of getting the job they want are prior to matriculating -- and this is true for every degree, not just PhDs. For most schools -- undergraduate and particularly graduate -- you can get data on how graduates fare in the marketplace. This can help determine not only which school to go to but whether it's worth going to school at all (it may not be). But to the extent it is in society's interest that people aren't wasting time and money (often as not, taxpayer money), it is worth considering how, as a society, we can make sure that not only is the information available, but people know that it's available and where to get it.


Anonymous said...

But given the enormous selection bias that's in play here, does it really make sense to attach an absolute value to a degree from any given university? Obviously the higher ranked programs attract and admit more talented and more ambitious students, both in academia and in law schools.

GamesWithWords said...

It is true that we're looking at a confounded experiment. However, from the perspective of the prospective student, there's little difference. Suppose you get into a top program, most of whose graduates get good jobs. Then either (a) the program is very good and will help you out, or (b) you are the sort of student who, on graduation, will get a very good job -- or (c), both. If the best program you can get into doesn't produce students with the career prospects you want, that's bad news on either story.

Of course, there are exceptions on both sides. A few people from weaker programs go on to do very well, and some people who get into the top programs don't pan out. But it's information worth considering when making what is a major life choice.

Bashir said...

In my experience a lot of the sentiment of academia is a pyramid scheme is that many new students have no idea what they've gotten into.

Not in terms of the research, but academia as a profession. The many different types of jobs, who gets them, who doesn't, etc.

prodigal academic said...

Nice post. I agree to some extent, although I think the influence of the top-10 ranked schools (at least in my field) is oversold. I declined a spot as a PhD student at the "top" school in my field because I preferred the research opportunities at Top-20 Large State U. From my cohort of 40 who started the PhD program, I'd guess around 20 to 25 finished up with PhDs. I can think of 5 off the top of my head (and without using Google) who are tenured or on the TT (not all at R1 schools, of course). The vast majority of my cohort had no interest in an academic career, anyway.

Even the most naive incoming PhD student will know the TT score by the end of 1 year, and 1 year in a science program has very little practical cost.

I think law school, med school, and business school are way more of a scam than science PhD programs, since students rack up huge debt loads and then some (many?) of them can't get decent jobs in their fields. At least PhD skills transfer well to many fields, and most people can live on their stipends without going deep into debt.

GamesWithWords said...

Prodigal Academic: It would be interesting to know what the numbers for a top-10 program in your field are like. In my field, top-10 programs have very low drop-out rates (I'm guessing ~5%) and nearly all those who graduate get TT jobs (excluding ~5% who choose the mega-bucks offered by consulting and one UPenn grad who went on to be a world-famous poker player). Whereas the program you mentioned has a 40% drop-out rate and maybe a 10% TT rate.

I hope that doesn't come across as dissing your program, which I'm sure was very good, since it produced you! My point is simply that there are schools at which students don't worry about whether they'll get a TT job -- that's basically assured -- they worry about where.

The professional schools are both better and worse. I can tell you from knowing a lot of people who went through Harvard Law that it makes academia look like a scam: they earn as much during their summer internships as many of us earn after graduation. Something like 100% of graduates get the kind of job they're looking for. HLS is so sure of it's students prospects that it has an income protection program and will help pay off loans of people who take "low-paying" public interest jobs, where "low-paying" is under $80,000/year. I'd love to make $80,000/year.

But that's if you go to a top law program. At other law schools, summer internships are hard to get and don't pay nearly so well, and you're lucky to get a job that starts at $80,000/year.

So the analogy to PhDs seems pretty straight-forward, but all the numbers are bigger: the salaries you can earn if things go well, and the debt you accumulate if they don't.

Anonymous said...

"Suppose you get into a top program, most of whose graduates get good jobs. Then either (a) the program is very good and will help you out, or (b) you are the sort of student who, on graduation, will get a very good job -- or (c), both."

So it's possible that being offered admission into a top-ranked program is almost as good a predictor of getting a job as actually going to one.

prodigal academic said...

Games, I think this is strongly field dependent. In my field, there are many good job opportunities that require a PhD outside academia. I'd say even at a top-10 school, less than half of the incoming students plan an academic career (I have many friends who went top 10).

A 30-40% attrition rate is not abnormal, even at a top school. In fact, the top program when I was deciding where to go for my PhD was known for its 50%+ attrition rate. At lower tier schools, the attrition rate is 60-70%! We are a service department, so we need TAs. Most departments in my field (even top 10) require everyone to TA for a year, usually the first one (even with a fellowship), most departments will take flyers on uncommitted but qualified students. It is not uncommon for someone with undergrad loans to do a year in grad school (to stop the interest clock) while they job search/decide what to do in life.

That said, even coming from a top 3 school, PhDs are not guaranteed a TT job, even at a "lower tier" school. My field requires a postdoc, and that shuffles things around. There are many people with PhDs from low prestige schools that find a postdoc at a top ranked school (or with a top name advisor) who are then competitive with PhDs from top-10 schools (who also had to do postdocs somewhere). Granted, it is easier to land a prestigious postdoc coming from Harvard, but effective networking or awesome publications will open doors for anyone.