Ph. D.s Face Bleak Job Prospects

Glut in Academic Positions Anticipated in 1990s Has Failed to Materialize

At one time, a Harvard Ph.D. Was a guarantee of sorts, a hard-won ticket to a life of thought study and security.

The 206 Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) students graduating today no longer have that guarantee.

A bleak academic market and the aftereffects of the recession have left many graduate students--some after enduring more than a decade of graduate school--jobless, bitter and disappointed.

"Pretty much across the board things have been pretty dismal for the last three years," says Margaret L. New house, assistant director of the Office of Career Services (OCS) for graduate student placement. "A new Ph.D. has to be pretty lucky to get a tenure-track position that they really want."

Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Christoph J. Wolff says a majority of today's Ph.D. recipients do have jobs for next year. But he admits that the number of people who do not is "too large."

Take, for example, the case of new economics Ph.D. Andrew D. Harless, who has sought more than 100 jobs in finance, management consulting and government.

Harless--who wrote his dissertation on help-wanted advertisements--is 0 for 100 in his job search.

"In retrospect, I wish I had gotten a different degree because I don't know what I can do with this one," Harless says. "I'll do whatever job I find, assuming I can find one."

Though he was not seeking one of the even rarer academic positions, Harless' attitude is typical of many in the graduating GSAS class who are.

"I do sometimes wonder whether getting a Ph.D. was the right thing to do, whether getting an M.D. wouldn't have been better," says Tassie L. Collins, who will receive her Ph.D. in immunology today. "I definitely feel like I chose the tougher row to hope."

Collins is holding out for an academic position after her post-doctoral fellowship, but says she will consider jobs in other fields if she must.

A Gamble

The academic job search is a gamble at best, Newhouse says. "Plums are rare, and people really have to be willing to take their chances," she says.

Even the Harvard name no longer seems a help for students desperate for a job.

"At the beginning, I was convinced that there would be a job waiting at the end for someone with a Harvard Ph.D. says Peter G. Alexander, who will get his degree in music today. "The question was not 'if' but 'where.'"

But after sending out 40 applications, Alexander still has not found a job, "even a job I don't want."

OCS figures on last year's Harvard Ph.D. report a steady decline in teaching appointments, although the number of degree holders in the humanities finding academic jobs rose slightly from a 1992 low.

No figures are yet available for the GSAS class of 1994, but among its members there is a widespread perception that a Ph.D. is far from a guarantee of future security.

"It's a very hard and demeaning process for most people," Newhouse says. "It's not uncommon that 400-500 people will apply for one job or that someone will only come across two listings in their field."

Nationwide, the numbers are bleak.

The Modern Language Association reports that the number of academic jobs listed in English and modern languages in 1993-94 dropped to the lowest point since the group began charting numbers in 1975.

And the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a glut of academic jobs expected to surface in the 1990s has not materialized.

Why the Job Crunch?

There is no single explanation for the Ph.D. job crunch.

Of the students who conducted unsuccessful searches for positions outside academia, most attribute their failures to the recession and bad luck.

Within the academic, one problem is the oversupply of new Ph.D.s, the flood of which is growing all the time.

GSAS received its highest number of applications ever this year, the number topping 8,000.

"We're still attracting the best people world-wide regardless of their projected apportunities for employment," Wolff says.

Many students retreat into further education when the job market is sagging, the dean says.

"There's a national trend here--in the last five years the number of people applying to graduate schools has been dramatically increasing," Wolff says. "If people don't have a job they tend to feel like getting better educated is time well spent."

Students may also have been lured into graduate school by the rosy academic job projections of the 1980s.

But with so many people going to graduate school, many scholars are beginning to wonder Whether Ph.D.s aren't being overproduced, Indeed, some call it "unethical" for institutions to mass-produce Ph.D.s knowing that their job prospects are discouraging.

"There are absolutely too many Ph.D.s being produced and their quality varies significantly," Wolff says. "Harvard, for example, is becoming much more selective--that makes it particularly painful for us when our Ph.D.s do not find jobs."

Another reason for the dearth of academic positions is the uncapping of the mandatory retirement age. Tenured professors can no longer be forced to step down at a certain age, and their lifetime appointments mean they can hold down valuable spots.

"Many faculty members are no longer retiring when they normally would have," Wolff says. "There's no room for young faculty."

Until most institutions make their final provisions for retirement incentive programs--provisions Harvard itself has still not finalized--the current academic job crunch will continue.

The result will be that students who entered graduate school in joyous pursuit of an intellectual mission will often come to the end disillusioned and regretful.

"Almost all Ph.D. students are totally committed to their fields and don't begrudge any of the hard work they put in earning their degrees," says one student who will receive a doctorate in English today.

"But I'm not so committed now that I have no way to support myself with this passion."