First, the good news. American universities cranked out 55,000 doctoral degrees last year, slightly more than the year before.
Now the bad news. American universities cranked out 55,000 doctoral degrees last year, slightly more than the year before.
Our nation's tired universities are investing some of their dwindling resources into ginning out more graduate degrees. Why? Because the population of undergraduate students is shrinking and graduate programs command higher tuition rates. For example, Baylor University has about 400 doctoral students in its Ph.D. program in curriculum studies, and it hopes to enroll more.
But do we need more Ph. D.s? Probably not. And why is that? Because many people will not get the salaries that they will need to justify the cost of their doctoral studies.
Maren Wood, who was interviewed by Inside Higher Ed, is a Ph.D. career advisor and founder of Beyond the Professoriate. She is troubled by the fact that doctorate recipients in fields with the highest median cumulative debt have the lowest median expected salaries. Less than half the recipients of doctoral degrees in education graduate without debt.
Traditionally, people with Ph.D.s could find jobs in academia, but that market is drying up--particularly in the soft disciplines--education, humanities, and social sciences. Colleges across the country are slashing positions in the liberal arts due to declining interest in those fields.
Ms. Woods advises doctoral graduates to consider private-sector careers outside the academic sector. But is that realistic? The University of Texas offers a Ph.D. in African and African Diaspora Studies. But what does that qualify a graduate to do other than get a job teaching African and African Diaspora Studies?
Woods' advice is similar to the reassurances that law-school students sometimes receive as they face the prospect of a crumbling job market. A law degree is a versatile degree, people say soothingly. I once gave this advice myself.
But Paul Campos, a law professor, poured cold water on this argument in Don't Go To Law School (Unless).
Far from being "versatile," a law degree can turn into a toxic asset for law school graduates who, by choice or necessity, look for work outside the legal profession. If you go to law school and end up not practicing law, there's a real risk that you'll find your law degree is actually worse than worthless, and that you would have been better off not getting it even if you could have gotten your degree for free.
Some law firms have an aversion to hiring J.D. graduates as paralegals, even though those individuals are exceptionally qualified for a paralegal's job. Why pay an attorney who could not get a job in his or her chosen field and take the risk that the lawyer will resent working in a legal support role?
And think about it. If you are applying for a job in the business sector, will your Ph.D. in medieval history help you or hurt you?
Speaking for myself, I believe my doctorate from Harvard actually had a negative impact in some settings. Some people associate Harvard with a certain snootiness or arrogance. Who wants to hire a snob when there is a congenial person with a Ph.D. from a respected state university?
Occasionally, I blurted out that my doctorate from Harvard is damned near worthless and that I wish I had never gone there. But that confession hardly helped my employment prospects. Basically, that admission just confirms in an employer's mind what I have long known to be true: I was smart enough to get into Harvard but not smart enough to avoid the damned place.
So, take the advice of an overeducated curmudgeon. If you don't have a firm idea about what you will do with a Ph.D., don't get one. And for God's sake, don't take out student loans to obtain a doctorate in gender studies.
On the other hand, if you are already a doctoral student in a field with dismal job prospects, don't delay your completion date to avoid a bad job market. I agree entirely with what Ms. Wood said about that strategy. "[R]un, don't walk, out of academia."