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PhD Problems: Wannabe Professors Need Not Apply

PhD students are in serious trouble, and not only because the job market for professors is shrinking more every day. Over at the Daily Beast Megan McArdle offers some penetrating insights about the attempt of PhD programs to prepare their students for jobs outside academia (called “alt-ac” jobs, alternative to academic):

Unfortunately, in many cases a PhD sends a negative rather than a positive signal.  Some employers are suspicious of people they figure will be a smartypants pain in the ass with no real skills (I’m not endorsing this view, just reporting it). But a bigger problem is that employers know why people get a PhD in Comp Lit or Religious Studies: so they can be a professor. If you go on the job market with that degree, they know that it’s almost certainly because you failed to get a job as a professor.

Now, most potential employers don’t know about the state of the academic job market: that there were only two jobs even offered in anything close to your specialty last year and one of them went to the son of a famous professor and the other went to the top candidate from Harvard. Many will just think of you as someone who couldn’t cut it in academia.

What makes things worse is that PhD programs train you in a very narrow range of skills really only suited for academia. PhD students are trained to write, but only as professors write, which doesn’t usually translate well into journalism. They’re trained to teach, but usually in the specialized context of large research universities, so the degree wouldn’t really prepare you to teach at the high school level, nor would it give you much of an edge in the brave new world of MOOCs.

People with PhDs will have a very hard time getting jobs outside academia, just as they will have a very hard time getting jobs inside academia. For many PhD students, the long years they spent in the program added up, from a career point of view, to a terrible waste of time. MacArdle writes: “I happen to think it’s the most cruel, abusive labor market in America, doing terrible things to bright and idealistic kids who want to be scholars.”

It’s hard not to see her point. PhD programs  keep students poor for as much as ten years, taking their time and their money and leaving them with very few prospects on the other end. There are encouraging signs that reform is coming to higher ed. Let’s just hope, for the sake of suffering PhD students, it comes as fast as possible.

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