Why there's a Ph.D. glut

April 25, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Here is an irony to savor.

Once upon a time, Marxists predicted that the inevitable collapse of capitalism would be brought on by (among other "contradictions" in the system) a crisis of overproduction. That is, the steady impoverishment of the masses would mean an insufficiency of customers for what capitalism produced.

Like so many of Karl Marx's predictions, that one is tardy in coming true. (An admirer once said of Leon Trotsky: "Proof of Trotsky's farsightedness is that none of his predictions have come true yet.") However, at long last there is indeed a crisis of overproduction in one little niche of our capitalist culture, and it is the niche where such Marxists as still exist have gone to earth.

It is in higher education. The professoriate is reproducing itself too promiscuously. There is a glut of Ph.D.s.

This is merely the market speaking, and no Marxist worthy of his membership in the Modern Language Association (many members of which teach literature as sublimated class struggle) will willingly bend a knee to market forces. Still, although this crisis will not produce capitalism's final convulsion that ushers in socialist perfection, it is instructive. Markets communicate important information (this is why socialist nations are, strictly speaking, ignorant) and the more-than-saturated academic job market reveals important cultural facts.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, a window on the sometimes strange world of academics, reports that in 1997 universities awarded a record number of Ph.D.s -- for the 12th consecutive year. The number, 42,705, is 10 percent higher than just five years ago and 32 percent higher than a decade ago. "However," the Chronicle says laconically, "the rate of growth in doctorates has slowed, leading some observers to predictions of a downturn within several years."

Within several years. It is nice to know that in today's revved-up world of globalized hypercommerce, where a tap on a computer key can speed vast sums around the world in response to minute changes in conditions, there still is a little lagoon of calm, where market signals, however strong, receive a leisurely response.

For more than merely "several years" there has been a buyers' market for Ph.D.s. That will not be dramatically changed by the current modest spike in tenure-track hiring, which is being produced by two factors: retirements among faculty hired during the higher education boom of the 1960s, and surging revenues and endowments produced by the soaring economy and stock market.

The growth of a reserve army of unemployed Ph.D.s is faster in the humanities than in fields such as engineering because engineers can more easily find attractive jobs in the corporate world. The MLA estimates that fewer than half the 8,000 Ph.D.s hoping to be professors of literature, who will be produced between 1996 and 2000, will find tenure-track jobs within a year of graduating.

Academics are not immune to the spirit of the age, the entitlement mentality. They insist that the overproduction of Ph.D.s is really just an underproduction of jobs to which they are entitled.

Part of their problem is that the academy is not immune to the trend elsewhere in the economy toward "temps" -- part-time workers, often called "adjunct professors." At four-year public institutions, 23.7 percent of faculty work part time; at private institutions, 38 percent.

Some in the anxious proletariat of those earning or possessing Ph.D.s want to elbow aside the proletariat of "temps" -- many of whom have not yet earned Ph.D.s -- by pressuring universities to require full-time professors to teach even elementary writing courses. But some universities are more inclined to offer freshly minted Ph.D.s career counseling that directs them away from academia, to government or business employment.

Many political science Ph.D.s can put their skills to work in the growing world of public policy think tanks. But such options are, to say no more, fewer for the MLA member who has just polished off his dissertation on, say, "Unconscious Homoerotic Motifs in the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling and Lyrics of Mick Jagger." Which is why lots of graduate students are not amused by a campus joke:

The science Ph.D. asks, "Why does it work?" The engineering Ph.D. asks, "How does it work?" The liberal arts Ph.D. asks, "Do you want fries with that?"

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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