The case for cutting PhD programmes

The United States’ economic recovery has buoyed its employment market. While the nation’s unemployment rate is still relatively high, it is lower than the job market for doctorally-prepared faculty. That market has an oversupply of jobseekers.

This supply-demand misalignment has drawn the attention of the Council of Graduate Schools. With foundation aid, it is embarking on a year-long feasibility study following the careers of PhD graduates from among its 500 member institutions.

Young scholars contemplating pursuit of an academic career will then be somewhat better informed in making a career choice before embarking on a programme. Its findings will not be released until next January and will be too late to help many already in the pipeline or in the job market.

The Modern Language Association displayed a greater sense of urgency by addressing this issue at its recent annual conference. The discussions included a number of remedies weighted towards preserving the supply status quo. It is not surprising that one of the remedies offered was that states should increase subsidies to their public institutions.

Simply stated, doctoral programmes have been producing more PhDs than the market can absorb. A few short years ago demand variations among disciplines were not a major concern. Full-time faculty positions, many in tenure tracks, were in ample supply.

Both elite and non-elite graduate schools enjoyed decades of a predictable upward demand for their output of new doctorates in most, if not all, disciplines. The faculty preparation supply chain was in relative sync with the ever-growing undergraduate population.

This steady demand was largely sustained by the nation’s non-elite institutions. Lacking the brand and endowments of the elite research universities and select liberal arts colleges, many balanced their annual budgets with ever larger enrolments in order to moderate the annual tuition increases that have plagued the industry for decades.

Supply and demand

Flourishing undergraduate enrolments in turn fuelled the demand for more doctorally prepared instructors at all levels. More graduate faculty were needed to support growing masters programmes preparing larger numbers of candidates for admission to doctoral studies. In turn, doctoral programmes needed more faculty to supervise the larger cohorts of candidates.

This largely unspoken symbiotic relationship between the nation’s undergraduate and graduate programmes remained relatively balanced until recently and the entire professoriate prospered.

Unfortunately, a number of factors including the Great Recession of 2008 prompted a decline in state government subsidies to public institutions and support of student financial aid.

Increasing disquiet over student debt and growing numbers of under- and unemployed bachelor degree recipients have combined to dampen undergraduate enrolments which has in turn reduced the demand for doctorally prepared faculty.

Trade and popular media have been providing increasing coverage of these challenges facing the public and non-profit private tertiary education community. Declines in undergraduate enrolments and government subsidies have led to responses that were not conceivable a few years earlier.

Balancing the operational budget has led to an array of painful cost reduction remedies. Some institutions have closed undergraduate programmes with low enrolment figures, left vacant full-time positions unfilled and covered remaining classes with ever larger numbers of part-time instructors.

Once-secure tenure track positions have come at risk of reductions. The professorial job market has turned from a bull to a bear. With relatively large numbers still in the pipeline, the supply-demand misalignment is likely to continue unless effective remedies are implemented.


Aside from the ‘more state money’ solution, four remedies have been aired at recent conferences or within individual institutions.

One, programmes should emphasise pedagogy, even at the expense of the traditional focus on research proficiency. The curricular change should make graduates more competitive in an employment market dominated by teaching institutions.

Two, programmes could prepare candidates for careers in the much larger market outside the academy. Three, with some programmes requiring many years to complete, the time to finish should be shortened.

Remedies one and two would maintain current or perhaps higher levels of output supported by curricular changes designed to promote success in the subsequent job hunt.

The first option would narrow the search focus by preparing applicants so they are more appealing to teaching-oriented institutions. The second would broaden the search focus within the larger economy. Remedy number three would simply accelerate the number of applicants entering an already misaligned job market.

All three imply at least the same volume of admissions and throughput. Thus, the number of faculty positions in graduate programmes would be preserved, at least in the short term.

A fourth option considered at a few institutions appears more direct. These institutions would cut admissions.

The reaction to one of these enrolment curtailment plans is instructive. The institution floated the idea with a very attractive rationale. With fewer students admitted to the programme, larger individual packages could be awarded from the limited financial aid pool.

Subsequent discussions revealed faculty opposition. They spoke in support of maintaining accessibility and diversity. One suspects that underlying these laudable goals was the self-interest of job security.

Addressing this over-supply challenge will surely 'gore some stakeholders’ oxen'. At the very least, all applicants should be immediately apprised of the misalignment until equitable remedies are accepted.

Unless public support or some other revenue source is found, curtailing enrolment onto doctoral programmes makes sense, even if some faculty positions are lost.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice dean of SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.


I think it is also important to raise the bar for entry and to be honest with students about the PhD pathway.

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page