From Grad School to Welfare?

By Bethany Brookshire [ bbroo@mail.med.upenn.edu ]

“The Ph.D now comes with food stamps”, the title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, seems to speak to the worst fears of those of us about to head out on the job market. The article talks to several PhDs, mostly in the humanities, who have been forced onto food stamps and welfare, unable to get by and support their families as they struggle onward in adjunct positions. While the current number of PhDs receiving public assistance is relatively low at 360,000 (1.6% of people with a masters degree or higher), it’s still a sobering thought. Many of us face piles of student loans from our undergraduate education, and/or further debt in the form of cost-of-living loans required to help our families make it on small grad student or post-doc salaries. The worries lurk in the back of our minds: What if we can’t get a position? What if we take post-doc after post-doc? What if, some day, that’s us?

The piece itself created a surge of commentary in academic circles. Several blogs have begun hosting personal accounts of academics living on the edge. The stories are harrowing, full of people who do good work and have a deep desire to work in their field, but who are stuck in adjunct positions, unable to find full time, tenure-track jobs, and unable to find work outside of academia. The Chronicle forums are filled with potential fixes, from cutting grad programs to training grad students to teach high school.

While none of us were naïve or egotistical enough to believe that a PhD assured us a place in academia, most of us at least thought there’d be a decent paying job at the end of the line. Some people blame the supposed “glut” of PhDs competing for a dwindling number of tenure-track faculty positions. But in biomedical science, this does not appear to be the case. Yes, there are more PhDs than faculty positions, but there are employment opportunities outside of academia. Most of the worries about underemployment of PhDs appear to be concentrated in teaching rather than research, where full time tenure-track positions get phased out in favor of adjuncts who are paid by the class at very low rates and receive no benefits. Universities have realized that money can be saved by hiring faculty to adjunct as opposed to full time positions; this results in PhDs who end up teaching at several institutions at once merely to make a living wage.

In a time of increased budget cuts, adjuncts are becoming the standard, rather than the exception. And while  departmental faculty may wish to hire more full-time tenure-track faculty, they are often hamstrung by administrators who are looking to save money wherever possible. Ironically, universities are unwilling to cut their graduate enrollments. Graduate students are essential forthe function of research labs and are often needed to TA courses. Furthermore, the number of PhD degrees granted gives a university both prestige and years of tuition revenue. But more graduate students mean more young PhDs entering the market, trained only in academia and unprepared for life outside the ivory tower. The increasing competitiveness of tenure-track positions then results in young PhDs pursuing extra post-docs, adding up to many extra years in limbo trying to qualify for a tenure-track position.

But what can be done? Some suggest cutting graduate programs, and others suggest forcing universities to increase full-time faculty positions. But it appears that these may not be enough and that the best options may be outside of academia all together. This makes programs offering training for “alternative” careers essential. When the majority of PhDs are not able to find an academic position, “alternative” careers become mainstream. But while some training can be administered through workshops, other issues remain. Many professors are reluctant to train graduate students or post-docs who do not seem inclined to pursue academic careers, and those that are more open-minded often lack the skills needed to mentor these students effectively. Most professors in academia have never had to work outside of it, and may not know the first thing about helping a student succeed in the job market. Universities may have to make a concerted effort to train graduate students and post-docs in transferable job skills; the programs offered by the Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs are a good start.

Regardless of the approach, it’s clear that things have to change. The numbers of PhDs on public assistance is still small, but with increased reliance on adjunct positions, the ever-higher bar for the dwindling faculty jobs, and ballooning student loans, the numbers will only increase. Developing the skills to pursue a job outside of academia may be our saving grace.

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