Are we producing too many Ph.D.s?

Or are we producing too few opportunities for them?
By: | Issue: February, 2015
January 27, 2015

Each year, the market for tenure-eligible faculty positions becomes more and more competitive, and a greater number of newly minted Ph.D. graduates struggle to find a job.

The U.S. annually produces about 70,000 new doctoral graduates, representing a significant investment of time and money by both the students and their universities.

Considering that cost, and with little coordination among institutions to optimize the production of doctoral graduates, we must consider the question: Is 70,000 too many?

Maybe. The number of doctorates awarded annually has increased by 75 percent since 1992, compared to the 50 percent increase in overall college enrollment over that same time. On its face, this would suggest the answer is “yes.”

Hidden factors

About a quarter of all doctorates awarded in the U.S. are earned by international students—some of whom return to their native countries after their studies—while another, growing portion of graduates pursue research career opportunities outside of higher education. These graduates do not enter the academic job market, and their total numbers are not easy to capture for purposes of analysis.

One hidden factor that influences the academic job market is the increasing age of our faculty. In 1994, when the mandatory retirement age for these positions was eliminated, almost no university faculty were over 70, and only 13 percent of all faculty were 60 or older. Less than 10 years later, about 18 percent were over 60, with almost all of the additional 5 percent attributable to faculty over 70.

Why does this impact the job prospects of young Ph.D. recipients? Generally speaking, older tenured faculty command higher salaries than do younger faculty, often by a factor of two or more. If we apply information about compensation at various instructor ranks to model average compensation at different ages, we can estimate that the portion of the faculty payroll devoted to faculty over 60 increased from 18 percent in 1992 to 25 percent in 2003.

In an era of constrained budgets, this becomes a zero-sum game, and more money spent on older faculty means less available for adding younger faculty. New perspectives

In recent years, these trends likely have become only more accentuated. Since 1992, at both public and private universities, the portion of faculty who hold tenure has declined from 60 to 48 percent, with a corresponding growth in part-time adjuncts.

Ironically, while universities are striving to contain costs and maintain access for lower-income students by utilizing lower-cost instructors, there likely are unintended consequences that may undermine student success.

Research increasingly suggests that all students, but particularly lower-income and first-generation students, persist and graduate at higher rates when engaged by full-time faculty. With part-time instructors now accounting for half of the faculty workforce nationwide, current college completion rates and degree attainment in the U.S. may well be adversely affected by these changes in the makeup of who is teaching our undergraduates.

Additionally, it is important to make opportunities for tenure-eligible faculty positions available to new Ph.D. graduates as a means of injecting new perspectives into the academy—while also protecting academic freedom to engage in controversial and provocative areas of inquiry. Without those opportunities, we will diminish a generation of scholars and, I believe, discourage our brightest students from choosing scholarly careers.

While we collectively honor the ongoing contributions of our most senior faculty members, universities must develop new policies and incentives to address end-of-career transitions and post-retirement options to ensure that our faculty continue to reflect the best of each generation. If we fail to do so, then the inevitable conclusion will unfortunately be, yes, we are producing too many Ph.D.s.

John H. Frederick is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at San Antonio.