Graduate Students Face Unfavorable Job Prospects
Harvard Ph.D. Recipients Increasingly Turn to Private Sector Employment Because of a Dearth of Positions in Academia
As College seniors look ahead to the world outside Harvard's ivy walls, another set of graduates is also searching for a future--and often not finding what they're looking for.
Post-doctoral students are facing an increasingly tight job market, something that they and their advisers didn't anticipate when the decade began. And lifelong academics are having a difficult time helping their students forge innovative careers.
"Overall, what we hear from the national media and from professional associations is that academic jobs are certainly not as good as they were predicted to be five or six or seven years ago when these folks began working for their degrees," says Russell E. Berg, dean of admissions and financial aid at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS).
Faced with these obstacles to finding academic jobs, more and more doctors--after years of scholarly work--are searching for jobs in the private sector. An Office of Career Services (OCS) report from last year places the "high rate of nonacademic employment" among Ph.D.s at 15 percent.
A graduate student in the social sciences who asked not to be identified says he sees many of his peers job-hunting outside academia.
"I've noticed a lot of students looking into consulting," he says. "Another critical mass of graduate students are looking at law school, and some are trying to connect the work they've done in graduate school to the private sector."
In the late 1980s, when many of Harvard's senior graduate students matriculated, it was thought that a large number of professional academics would soon retire, opening up a huge job market for scholars earning their Ph.D.s in the mid-1990s.
These jobs, however, have not materialized.
"[There have been] predictions about retirements which haven't happened as quickly as thought," Berg says. "More importantly, when people retire, the slots are being rethought."
According to Berg, a tightening economy has led to downsizing in many academic communities. In addition, since mandatory retirement caps have been lifted, aging professors wait longer to leave their positions. When they finally retire, many universities consider replacing them with temporary faculty--or not replacing them at all.
According to the 1994-95 OCS Report on Ph.D. Recipients, this lack of placement opportunities for Ph.D.s is part of a slump that has been going on for several years.
"In general, the patterns from academic year 1993-94 were repeated in the past academic year," wrote Margaret L. Newhouse, OCS assistant director for Ph.D. careers. "Surveys continue to reflect a tight academic market."
But the change is recent enough that many of the students who are today looking for consulting or technical jobs entered the Ph.D. program planning to work in academia, according to Berg.
"The academy is still presented, I think, as a very favorable environment for a job," Berg says. "I think the majority of our students start with the expectation that they will get the Ph.D. and then teach or enter research."
This trend away from academia is quite a departure from the ideals of a decade ago.
Many current professors, who would have found the idea of a nonacademic job all but unthinkable when they received their degrees, are having difficulty coping with the new challenges that their advisees face.
Kenneth A. Shepsle, professor of government and chair of the Government Department, says this generation gap among scholars affects the advising that graduate students receive from professors.
"Most of us on the Faculty have known nothing but the academy as a place to work," Shepsle says. "So I don't think we go out of our way to encourage our students to look outside of the academy, and that may be a failing of ours."
One graduate student in the social sciences says she thinks those scholars already ensconced in tenured positions find it difficult to relate to the scarcity of such tracks for today's Ph.D.s.
"I think it's kind of taboo, especially at a place like Harvard," she says. "The training assumes that everyone wants to be an academic professor."
Newhouse also says that some professors have difficulty accepting the idea of counseling their advisees on nonacademic jobs.
"I think we still need to educate faculty a bit," Newhouse says. "It's important that faculty are open to the need in many cases to look outside the academy for jobs."
For students, though, non-academic alternatives are already becoming more and more acceptable.
Lida F. Junghans, an eighth-year graduate student in the Anthropology Department, says that while she hopes for an academic job, she is willing to consider other possibilities.
"If the academic picture isn't good when I start looking," Junghans says, "I'm prepared to make a lateral move in any one of many possible directions, so I'm not pesimistic."
"I'm going to try very hard to get an academic job," she continues, "but it's not like my life depends on it or my identity depends on it."
Another graduate student who also asked to remain anonymous says the perception of non-academic jobs is changing faster for the students than for the Faculty.
"I think that especially in my field, in the cohorts that I know the best, a lot of people are very ambivalent about an academic future; but they feel the training they get here will allow them to get more applied jobs," she says.
"I think that applied work is not very respected in the academy, but I think a lot of people I know would be very fulfilled by that," the graduate student says.
Berg says that the GSAS and OCS are proactively trying to keep students aware of the limited job market in academics to prevent them from getting caught in a career path unable to support them.
"That's what we're trying to avoid by alerting them as early as possible that there are economic limits to the academic job market," Berg says.
According to Newhouse, OCS is actively trying to point students toward nonacademic job possibilities.
"We do a lot to show what alternatives there are to academic jobs for people who decide they don't want one or can't get one," Newhouse says. "A greater proportion of the people I see are looking for alternatives."
Berg and Newhouse agree that there are increasing numbers of technical positions available for Ph.D.s.
"There are places out in the world that are more accepting of Ph.D.s," Newhouse says. "And I think a number of people are getting more disillusioned with academia."
The OCS report urges readers to "note that over four-fifths of the unemployed [Ph.D.s] intended academic careers, compared with under a tenth of those intending nonacademic careers or either. In other words, frustration and disappointment are undoubtedly more the domain of those bound for academia."
The 1995-96 GSAS General Announcement and Admissions Application nonetheless remains optimistic about job opportunities in teaching and research.
"Most Harvard Ph.D.s pursue academic employment upon completion of their degrees. Job opportunities in many academic fields are expected to improve in anticipation of the large cohort of faculty members who will retire in the 1990s. We anticipate that students beginning Ph.D. programs in 1995 will enter favorable job markets," the bulletin reads.
Such glowing descriptions sound eerily similar to predictions made in the late 1980s about today's job market, and that has some graduate students concerned.
But Berg says GSAS is trying to avoid making the same mistake twice.
"We're no longer quoting optimistic predictions," Berg says. "We're talking about individuals with a passion following their star, and we believe that there will still be room in society for talented people interested in research and teaching."
A Place of Learning
As the tightening job market receives more attention from the administration and worried graduate students, some in academia are concerned that doctoral candidates will be so anxious about earning a living that they will forget why they are studying in the first place.
"I sort of think that it would be a mistake to go overboard in thinking the mission of the University is to be an employment agency for the students," Shepsle says. "The students that come here are chiefly here to be educated. We have to make sure that we do that well."
The graduate student in the social sciences says that finding a job is not necessarily the most important consequence of attending graduate school.
"Somebody who wanted to be guaranteed a job might have gone into law or business," she says. "In my department, it seems like what animates them is not a desire to get a tenure track job."
Berg says he thinks that while students are aware of the possible difficulties involved in finding an academic job, most choose to continue studying their subject of choice.
"I think they really are following interests during their graduate career," Berg says. "We hope that they are making informed decisions and don't have false hopes about their job opportunities when they graduate."
As the market is glutted with more post-doctoral students than it can support, graduate schools around the country are wondering what the future holds--and whether they should be cutting back on their programs.
The indeterminate lag between matriculation and graduation in doctorate programs is one factor that makes prediction difficult.
"The manner in which our current Ph.D.s are faring in the job market does not tell us much about what we should do about graduate admissions," Shepsle says. "I think the general feeling is that the academic marketplace is contracting a bit and we ought to be a little prudent but not overreact."
Most students and administrators agree that students know what they are getting into.
"It's not like a bunch of first-year graduate students are coming in having bought into a bunch of lies," says the graduate student in the social sciences. "They're not that dumb. The real question is what's happening to the attraction of talent."
Newhouse says she thinks the GSAS administration is very careful about not misrepresenting the job market and that job opportunities will improve somewhat in the future.
"My assessment is that the positive demand factors will outweigh the negative," she says.
"I think it's a pretty daunting process no matter what, but our students really have a lot going for them," Newhouse says. "It's just kind of a question of keeping at it and keeping up their spirits."