The Academic Job Market

Engineering and science account for roughly three quarters of all PhD graduates, with half of these degrees awarded to US students and the other half to international students. Many of these graduates aspire to tenure-track faculty positions at universities. However, the percentage of faculty openings that are tenure track has been steadily decreasing for quite some time. Universities have found that non-tenure track faculty members, as well as post-docs and adjuncts, are much less expensive, which helps to compensate for strong growth of administrative costs at many institutions.

With more PhD graduates chasing fewer tenure track positions, universities have steadily increased their criteria for hiring. This can include 10-20 published journal articles, extensive teaching performance with good teacher ratings, and professional thought leaders who will write letters extolling your intellectual and social virtues. A fresh PhD graduate cannot possibly satisfy these criteria.

Consequently, especially in the sciences, new PhD graduates seek post-doc positions. These positions pay roughly twice what PhD assistantships pay, i.e., $4,000 per month rather than $2,000 per month, but much less than the $8,000-$10,000 per month paid to tenure track assistant professors. With an average of seven years to earn a PhD and perhaps three years as a post-doc, the candidates are now in their mid 30s before they are ready to compete for coveted tenure track positions.

The competition is fierce. Each position draws hundreds of applications or more. Consequently, people may apply for 50 or more positions. If they win a tenure track position, they now have 7-10 years to earn tenure. During this time, they need to publish 2-4 journal articles per year in top journals as defined by their subdisciplines.  To hit these numbers, they focus on brief incremental contributions that comfortably fit in reigning paradigms. They often get really good at this and will continue in this mode for the rest of their careers. Any effort that is more complicated or takes considerably more time will be shunned, as it will slow them down on the path to full professor in their mid to late 40s.

The process is further complicated for international PhD students. The income they receive in graduate school may be greater than their income would have been in their home countries. Thus, the international student may gain a couple of hundred thousand dollars during the ten years of PhD study plus post-doc.  In contrast, an American PhD student may forgo up to a million dollars of income over the ten years.

The overwhelming problem for international PhD students is the likelihood of being deported immediately after graduation. Federal agencies and other sponsors will have invested perhaps three hundred thousand dollars in creating a top expert, and they then force this expert to leave, to go home and compete against us. It makes no sense.

International students are quite creative in identifying training opportunities and internships that enhance their credentials beyond their degrees. Hoards of lawyers specialize in helping these graduates jump immigration hurdles. A significant number make it and are increasingly filling the ranks of science and engineering faculties across the US. Tenure-track faculty members born in the US are disappearing with retirements, slowed by the Great Recession, but inevitable nonetheless.

Many of the grads from MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, etc. return to China, India, Korea, Singapore, and elsewhere to become faculty members at their best local institutions of science and engineering.  With their countries making much greater investments in these institutions, compared to trends in the US, the numbers of students applying to US institutions are declining, in some cases rather significantly, e.g., Korea.

Combining the inevitable decline in international PhD students at US institutions with the steadily decreasing value proposition for US born PhD students, the future looks rather bleak for US PhD programs.  However, we could choose to change the value proposition for US students.  We would need to (at least) triple PhD students’ stipends and waive tuition.  There is a variety of ways this could be approached.

When I spent a year at Delft University of Technology, all the PhD students were full-time staff members with regular research and teaching responsibilities.  They had reasonable salaries, paid no tuition, and progressed as part of the intellectual fabric of the institution.  This was great for them and great for the university. There are, of course, quite a few implications of this idea.

How would this be funded?  In the current system, the university receives overhead on student’s stipends plus tuition.  Of the $80-100,000 that it annually costs for a half-time graduate student in a private university, only roughly 25% goes to the student.  Tripling the stipend would increase overall costs by at least 50%.  Would research sponsors accept $160-180,000 as the cost of a half time student?

The central balancing factor is that these PhD students would be full-time employees and have substantial research and teaching responsibilities.  These PhD students would be US born with great English skills, reasonable compensation, and aspirations to become faculty members.  It would make enormous sense to invest in enhancing their research and teaching knowledge and skills, particularly since they would not be deported upon graduation.

The availability of these personnel would allow significant reductions in the numbers of tenure-track faculty members.  Decreasing the number of tenure-track faculty members would steepen the promotion pyramid, likely decreasing the chances of becoming full professor.  It would certainly decrease the annual rate of faculty hiring, potentially making the competition even fiercer.

PhD students as full-time professionals would substantially decrease the number of such students needed.  If we were to explore this in more detail, I expect we would find:

  • Decreased numbers of PhD students with substantially increased percentages of US born students
  • Decreased numbers of tenure-track faculty, particularly as inevitable retirements increase
  • Decreased university revenues, but also decreased costs, except perhaps for administrative overheads that seem immune to cost pressures
  • Decreased numbers of journal articles published by PhD students whose full-time responsibilities would not allow the traditional focus on publications

Regarding this last observation, the consequences include the journal article “Laminar Flow Over an Inclined Plate at 17.5 Degrees” never appearing. (17.4 and 17.6 degrees had been addressed in two papers in earlier issues of the journal.)  Is this a loss?  This is a quite complicated question with many implications.  I will return to this question at a later time.

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