Contributed by David Barner
By some accounts, there is a dirty little secret in academia, a secret which applies to psychology departments, and most other departments on campus: Most PhD students will not end up on the other side of the desk in tenure track positions, and worse, only the best-of-the-best PhDs, from the best-of-the-best degree granting institutions will even stand a chance of entering the lottery. These facts have percolated into the popular press and into the collective unconscious of graduate students – and surely potential graduate students – everywhere. A 2013 article in The Atlantic describes data from the National Science Foundation, which found that only about a quarter of PhDs in the social sciences had found an academic position by the time of graduation. This is maybe because universities train approximately 7 times more PhDs than needed to fill available academic jobs. Worse still, a 2015 piece in Slate found that most of these positions are filled by students from elite institutions like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford: “the top 10 schools produce three times as many future professors as those ranked 11 through 20″. When Bill Gates leaves the bar, the average wealth of patrons is quite low indeed.
Doom and gloom aside, the data themselves, not to mention the hopes and dreams of actual PhD students, may tell a different, and somewhat rosier story. First, the overall employment rate and salary of PhDs is currently much better than that of individuals who hold only a BA. Whereas in 2009 – near the apex of anxiety regarding unemployment in the US labor market – 20% of psychology undergraduates struggled to find full time employment, a full 100% of PhDs in Psycholinguistics – hardly the MBA of the doctoral world – found full time jobs according to the American Psychological Association’s 2009 dataset. And overall, the data for other domains of psychology were comparable, with fewer than 4% failing to find full time jobs. Further, these jobs weren’t all at Starbucks (though as a rule I do insist that all of my PhDs learn how to pull a decent espresso shot). In 2009, the modal PhD in Psychology (N=175) found themselves working in a clinical setting making a median starting salary of just over $60,000 USD. If you were lucky (or, perhaps, greedy) you ended up making $80,000 working in the criminal justice system (N=16). If you were unlucky, you found yourself in the academy, making around $56,000 as an Assistant Professor.
Yes, unlucky. It’s perhaps unsettling to notice so few PhDs ending up in the academy, since this is chiefly what faculty train them to do in disciplines like experimental psychology, my home turf. The thing is, this is neither a new situation, nor a bad situation, nor does it always reflect a failure on the part of PhDs to fulfill their dreams. There is a twin wake-up call needed in most departments: First, to students: If you want to get a tenure track job, it’s true that it will be hard, but it’s not true that your PhD is a waste of time, nor that prospects for PhDs are substantially worse than they were decades ago (at least relative to all other ordinary, wage-earning folks – we’ll leave aside the fact that almost all of us are sliding into an economic abyss together while a tiny fraction eat Ferrari’s for breakfast). Second, to faculty: about that taboo that we all need to kill: It’s ok to talk about the fact that most of your students will not get jobs.
Let’s focus on the taboo. In the Atlantic piece that signaled dire prospects for current PhDs, it was also noted that, at least in the past, almost half of PhDs didn’t want faculty jobs in the first place. And of those who did want faculty jobs, roughly half – about a quarter of all PhDs – were thwarted in their efforts to find one and ended up elsewhere. Why is this important? Because it suggests that a good many PhDs show up in the lab fully expecting not to be a professor when they grow up, but nevertheless want to write a thesis anyway. They want to read and learn about the brain, learn to conduct experiments, to analyze complex data sets, to master techniques for measuring mysterious latent phenomena like the mind, or information flow. And they want to do this despite the fact that there is no fame or glory to be found. Why do they want to do these activities if they don’t all want to be faculty members? There are likely to be as many reasons as there are students. Many likely don’t know what else to do, and they liked psychology (or literature, or linguistics, or whatever) as a undergraduate. Some may need to redeem themselves in the eyes of their parents (read “debtors”) in any way possible by appending the word “doctor” to their letterhead. Some may just be curious, and think that a PhD is a perfectly legitimate way to explore their curiosity and to figure out what to do in life. I actually fell into this last category, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. With expectations aside, a PhD can be mighty fun when it goes well.
Faculty members don’t really want to talk about this much. Why might this be? I suspect one reason is that we fear that (1) we think all of our students want to be faculty, and we don’t want to crush their delicate little souls, (2) we think that to tell them this truth, and thus to crush their souls, will irreparably damage their potential for productivity; they will become disenchanted, disengaged, and either drop out with the ominous “terminal” masters degree, or worse, never leave, and become a dreaded “Nth year” PhD, or (3) we fear that we will need to change the structure of our PhD programs, so that they become boutique training institutes – community colleges on steroids, training students to do specific jobs, with specific skills.
I think each of these three worries (and related other concerns) are misplaced. There should be no taboo about talking about the *real* future with our students. Doing so will not crush their souls, damage their productivity, nor require us to change course in how we train students – at least not fundamentally. Instead, a bold prediction: Talking realistically about the future will engage students, warm their souls, make them more productive, and reassure them that, although a faculty job might not be in their future, doing a PhD in experimental psychology is not totally insane, and in fact that doing it well could be both worth their while and fun, to boot.
By sustaining this taboo, we are fueling the problems we seek to avoid. Students begin a PhD with many different visions of what this experience will be, but quickly imbibe the view that anything short of a tenure track job will surely disappoint their faculty advisors. Consistent with this, PhDs are beginning to assemble to discuss their situation, because they “feel they can’t come out and say they want to leave academia, they’re too afraid.” It is this feeling, together with the reality of the academic job market, which – in my casual observations – causes the despair, disengagement, and dropout. In short, faculty members are ruining all the fun: Many PhDs want to show up, do some science, and see where things go, but they quickly come to believe that more is expected of them – impossibly more, and that only the stars will reach these heights.
Faculty: There’s really nothing to fear here. We can preclude this type of neurosis in our students by talking to them, from Day 1, about what they want from their experience. We can start by asking them if they have an idea of what they want to do when they graduate – whether they have a specific vision, or just want to do a PhD and see where things go. If they say they want to ultimately go the academic route, great. We can now tell them what it likely to be required, and work with them to build them the corresponding road map. But the prescription need not be radically different for students who say they want to go into industry. This is because industry wants PhDs roughly in the form we currently produce them: Curious, broad thinkers who can write, crunch data, create new ideas, and reason skeptically about these same ideas simultaneously. We need to understand – and to tell our non-academic track students – that the PhD in psychology is well suited not just to train future professors, but also to train generations of thinkers, leaders, and industry innovators, too, and that burrowing into the depths of the infant cognition or birdsong neuroscience along the way may be a stimulating, useful, way to acquire this expertise.
The PhD is healthy, but increased awareness and openness regarding job outcomes have created a needless taboo, one which creates chasms between faculty and students, thwarting the interests of both. It’s time to kill this taboo.