I read Marc Bousquet’s recent post on the academic labor market with chagrin and recognition:
Today, [only] 1/4 of faculty are tenured or in the tenure stream. Less if you address pervasive undercounting of nontenurable faculty, teaching by staff employees and graduate students. The trend line points steeply down.
All of the under- or un- employed scientists with doctorates could be employed overnight if more science, and more science education, was done by persons holding the PhD. Instead, we do science and science education with persons who are studying for the PhD, or who gave up on studying for the PhD simply because they can work cheaper than persons who actually hold the doctorate.
If the percentage of faculty working in the tenure stream were anywhere near what it was at the high point of US scientific and technical dominance, we’d actually have a vast, sucking undersupply of persons with the PhD. Hell, just one large state system could absorb most of the so-called surplus doctorates in a few years–and as I’ve already noted, taking students out of the workforce and working toward full employment for faculty would be an actual stimulus plan.
But what do we do to try to fix the system? Michael Drout maps some of the options (all bad):
This situation cannot be fixed as long as there exists the mismatch of the number of people who want to be professors with the number of paid positions to be a professor.
There is no solution that can solve this problem, just as there is no solution to solve the ‘problem’ of the number of people who want to be famous authors, movie actors, rock stars or professional athletes being far greater than the number of job openings for authors, actors, rock stars and athletes.
Making it easier to get tenure once hired does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision back from the tenure process (where the candidate is known and has a six-year track record) to the hiring process (where the candidate is less known and has only a grad school record).
The desire to make it easier to get tenure once someone is hired may seem kind to the particular person (whom you know as an individual), but it is unfair to the many, many other people who would like that job, who may be more qualified, but who haven’t had a chance, possibly because they were passed over in the hiring, possibly because they entered the job market a few years later, etc. So by reducing the requirements for tenure–whatever they are–you are doing an injustice to all of these people.
Reducing the number of Ph.D.s awarded, a proposal mooted frequently (usually by people who already have Ph.D.s; people applying to grad school who want to get Ph.D.s. are usually less keen on the idea) does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision process back from the hiring process to the graduate school entrance process, where the candidate has even less of a track record.
I began graduate school in 2001, during a global recession, and finished in 2009, in the middle of another one. I dangled on the job market twice (pre- and post-diss completion), with no luck. There’s clearly greater pressures than ever for undergraduates to complete their education, and pay more money to do it, but that has never (and it appears will never) translated to an increased demand for more non-casual faculty. I’m thirty years old — a husband and father. I barely survived a terrible accident this year. I can’t wait any more. It’s time to walk away.