Too Many PhDs, Too Few Jobs: Proposals for Fixing a Broken System

This week, graduate students across the country are sighing with relief – in the final version of their rushed, written-in-secret, barely intelligible tax plan, the GOP decided not to count graduate tuition waivers as taxable income.

The inclusion of this provision in the House bill a month ago provoked loud protests and anxious conversations; these highlighted the ways that graduate program funding structures are pushing increasing numbers of PhD students into debt, without the hope of employment in their fields.

Although many tax plan commentators were hearing about this problem for the first time, it is not a recent development. Every year, it seems, the same article about the academic job market is published. It invariably includes new sets of data, conveying old news: the number of PhDs graduating in the humanities vastly outnumbers the number of jobs available in their fields. A few weeks ago, the AHA published a piece analyzing 2016-17 job ads for History positions, which reveal that historians are competing for 12% fewer jobs than last year: 289 tenure-track positions in all fields.

Articles about the plight of adjuncts also appear regularly, detailing the misery of cobbling together teaching positions at multiple colleges, barely making ends meet, and defaulting on student loans.

I don’t know about most of you, but I’ve had enough. Enough of hearing these stories, and of departments and university administrations shrugging their shoulders and acting like they can do nothing to fix problems they see as endemic to the system.


It is time to recognize what the academic community – I’m talking mostly about the humanities here – has created:

  • A professionalization process in which trainees are expected to spend at least six years of their lives (although the median in 2014 was 9 years) – prime wage-earning and career-building years – surviving on poverty-level wages, incurring educational and personal debt, and receiving very little research and writing mentoring or job market preparation.
  • A process in which the majority of graduate students do all of this in order to have a chance at jobs that do not exist.

It is time to call graduate programs in the humanities what they are: unethical and exploitative. And it is time to do something about it.

One approach to solving the problem is really quite simple: either increase the demand for PhDs in the workplace, or decrease the supply of PhDs on the market.

Increasing Demand

It is marvelous to think of a world in which the United States has a Department of Culture that is as abundantly funded as the Department of Defense, and hires writers, artists, and scholars to do what they do.

It is delightful to imagine an American society in which humanities majors and PhDs would be admired and respected, and paid as well as hedge fund analysts for the many forms of work that they do.

It is beautiful to ponder a time when humanities departments would not have to beg for money for that next tenure line, and could hire whomever they want whenever they want.

All of this would be amazing.

But this is not the world we live in, or will live in any time in the foreseeable future. Especially given the attitudes of the current administration, it is useless to devote our thoughts and prayers to increasing the number of academic jobs in the humanities.

So we must turn our attention to decreasing the supply of PhDs.

Decreasing supply

On average, humanities programs have awarded between 4,500-5,800 PhDs per year for the past 15 years. This is about half the number of graduate students admitted to PhD programs.

Currently, PhD programs admit so many students because they provide the cheapest teaching and research labor in the market. It is in universities’ financial interest to continue admitting as many graduate students as possible, and keeping them enrolled for as long as possible in order to have enough teachers for their undergraduates at the lowest cost. This is also why many universities resist the unionization of graduate students; to allow unions would be to admit that they are workers (not “fellows” or “students”), which would mean paying them higher, living wages.

It is easy to see, then, why universities would want to admit more graduate students.

And it is easy to see why so many intellectually curious, talented people would want to go to graduate school. It may seem cruel to try to restrict access to graduate programs; if it is someone’s dream to get a PhD, why shouldn’t she have a chance to do it? In many cases, it may only be love of learning that drives a PhD student to devote this many years of her life to earning the degree. But for the vast majority of graduate students in the humanities, the goal at the end is to take that PhD and teach in a college or university, on the tenure-track.

But these jobs exist in fewer and fewer numbers. And if we do nothing but hope for tenure-track jobs to appear, and if departments continue to admit thousands of graduate students a year and train them only to teach at R1 institutions and write monographs for one another, we will continue to aid and abet an unethical educational and professional system.

It falls upon those already in ladder faculty positions, and on department chairs and graduate committees, to do this work. Because this is a system that produces, and implicates, us all.

Advising Transparency

We’ve all had this experience: a talented (or not) undergrad comes to you in office hours, confesses his dream of living the professorial life – the reading of great literature! the writing of eloquent prose! crafting exquisite and compelling lectures on the origins of the industrial revolution! – and asks for advice.

At this point, every professor must tell the hard truth. Several hard truths, really:

  • That for the next 6 years (at least), he will be making, on average, $15,000 a year.
  • That these wages – and if he is unfunded, the money he spends on tuition and fees, and potentially, taxes on tuition waivers – will mean he will have to take out loans or rack up credit card debt.
  • That when he graduates with all of this time spent and debt accrued, he will be one of more than 200 people applying for any given job in his field.
  • That he will likely spent more than three years on the job market, and will be adjuncting (at $3,000-$5,000 a class) or working part-time doing something else entirely, while he continues to apply for jobs.
  • That he will throw his hat into the ring for a handful of other available humanities positions – museum work, National Park Service, humanities councils. But he will not get these jobs either, because his graduate program likely will not include training in public history, and he will not be encouraged to pursue these different forms of work but to put all of his eggs in the tenure-track basket.
  • That the chances are very high that he will find himself, in his early 30s, still in debt and without the kind of job that he wanted all along – and that his graduate program purportedly trained him for. And then he will have to start all over again.

Your undergraduate needs to know this most dire of scenarios. Because it happens more often than not, to people earning PhDs from all different kinds of graduate programs, both private and public, elite and not.

He will probably not believe you, of course. Anyone who is drawn to the academic life is not lacking in self-regard. He will convince himself that he will be the exception.

At this point, every professor should suggest to the student that he should take at least two years off between graduating and applying for grad school.

Move to a city or town he wants to live in. Work at something that interests him – or not. Make some money and stash some away, if he can. And if he still feels that same pull toward academe at the end of those two years, then great. Go ahead and apply.

As a result of this kind of transparent undergraduate advising, students may find passions that lead them to other forms of work, or they may come back to academe. But at least you would have done something to prepare them for the realities of the system. You will have created a more fully informed population of students applying to graduate programs.


Equally serious work needs to be done in graduate program admissions committees, and in humanities departments across the board.

Full Funding 

Every humanities program must fully fund every graduate student, with stipends that meet living wage standards, for at least six years.

An informal survey among my academic friends in History and American Studies suggests that whether they attended large public universities or Ivy League schools, most were guaranteed some form of funding (tuition waivers, stipends with or without work, dissertation fellowships) for 4-5 years.

That sounds really great, until you realize how little money these stipends actually provide – $15,000 before taxes, in many humanities programs.

Additionally, most graduate students are enrolled longer than 5 years; 6 at a minimum, 7 years on average. In those final years of the program, at the crucial time during which students are trying to finish their dissertations, they are competing for teaching jobs and worrying about securing tuition remission. Is it any wonder that most dissertations are unpublishable upon completion?

Furthermore, in many departments, some students are fully funded while others are not. This creates class stratifications within cohorts, and a culture of resentment among graduate students – which in turn creates the toxic environments readily evident in most academic departments.

A requirement of full-funding would mean that students could focus on their work for the entire length of their programs, shortening their time-to-degree. There would be fewer students in each cohort, but they would be admitted on a level playing field. Student-to-faculty ratios would decrease, which would increase the standing of the department in national rankings. Students would not go into debt (or as much debt). And departments would create a more equitable and ethical environment.

It is possible that this shift would empower wealthier schools: they would be able to retain more students, who would continue to have an edge in the job market.

But would these imbalances be any worse than the inequities that currently exist? Ivy League graduates already have much better chances in the job market than PhDs from other institutions. At least with this requirement, students graduating with PhDs from any institution would come out debt-free and more able to pursue a wider variety of jobs.

Universities would resist this change, of course, because this would cost them a lot of money. They would not be able to exploit grad students desperate for work, or keep them working long after they should have completed their PhDs. They would have to hire more tenure-track faculty – or more likely, adjuncts – to do that work. This is the only outcome of this full-funding policy that gives me pause; creating more adjunct positions might help employ PhDs in the short-term, but this too is an exploitative system that we need to work to change or eradicate.

Career Diversity Training

In addition to fully funding their students, PhD departments must include a year of training in a form of humanities work other than teaching.

Although the job prospects in these other contexts are just as grim as in academe, in order to apply for them, graduate students must have experience in these fields, not just skills in researching and writing.

In order to prepare them for these diverse fields, graduate students must spend at least one year of their funded program working as journal editors; museum curators; public history site managers; media consultants; etc. Departments could establish these “internship” relationships at various institutes or centers within the university, or with local or state institutions. The connections that graduate students would make as part of this training program would produce collaborative projects, demonstrating the value of the humanities to both universities and their local communities.

Some graduate programs already do something like this. The department of History at William and Mary, for example, not only offers full funding for six years to its small cohort of graduate students but also requires year-long apprenticeships and internships with institutes, museums, libraries, and centers.

In 2014, the Mellon Foundation awarded the American Historical Association a grant to fund four pilot “career diversity” programs in two private and two public universities. These institutions used their funds to offer skills seminars and internships to graduate students, to prepare them jobs in fields other than university teaching. It remains to be seen how career diversity programming has shaped student expectations and job market experiences at these universities. This kind of training is absolutely necessary, however, to give graduate students a fighting chance to do humanities work after they earn their degrees.

Graduate students would emerge from these fully funded, career-diverse programs entering not just “the job market” but “job markets” in the humanities. They would create a more broad-minded intellectual community that values the range of work that PhDs in the humanities can do.


The first of these proposals is quite easy to accomplish, and can be implemented by every professor who devotes the time.

The last two are structural changes that will require significant shifts in the way that universities think about and value their humanities Ph.D. programs. They would require leadership on both departmental and administrative levels. They would also require funding, which would be harder to come by. They might also necessitate some outside pressure – a consideration of full funding and diverse job training in the U.S. News Rankings, for example.

The fact remains that something must be done. We cannot just sigh with relief about saving the untaxed tuition waiver and move on like nothing is wrong. We need to implement plans like these to do something to change current situation in graduate education, which is both profoundly unethical and ultimately unsustainable. We have the opportunity – and the duty –  to do it.


Featured Image: AHA Today, November 16, 2017.

13 thoughts on “Too Many PhDs, Too Few Jobs: Proposals for Fixing a Broken System”

  1. History was my first academic love, but I too was told it would be hard to make a living in “history” (except for teaching, which dad did as a history teacher for 33 years), so I opted to get my degree in electronics, which I ended up never using as I ended making a living in music for the next 25 years.

    20/20 Hindsight – I should have pursued history, as I still revel and use it – including a presentation/lecture of the Civil War here in New Mexico and guided battlefield tour of Glorieta Pass – frequently for over a decade now as well as having written several articles locally.

    It has been a privilege and pleasure to get to know and interact with Megan, Paul Andrew Hutton, Hampton Sides, and others, and I flatter myself that I could well have been included as a peer in their profession, but – oh, well.

    After retirement (I am a Financial Advisor), I may well (belatedly) get that Bachelor’s Degree in History and more.

    Yep – making music and promoting history – living the dream…

  2. I have been thinking about this post since it appeared. One issue places like Civil War Round Tables and volunteer museum organizations have is that most of their members are old people. Stay with me now . . . I was warned very early on that I could never make a living as a historian, so I did not get a degree in history, which was/is my first love. Years went by and suddenly I, too, was old, but just as passionate about history as ever. I had been a reenactor, I took my classes to historic sites, I did all I could, but I was still not a historian. It was not until I was 60 that I just decided to dig in my heels and do something about this before it was too late (although many of you reading this may feel 60 is pretty much too late). Simply put, I had to wait until I could afford to be a historian! Yes, the tax lady calls it a “hobby,” and I have no idea how I will be affected by the new Tax Bill, but I think it is terribly sad that we geezers have had to wait until our last years to really do what we could have been doing since our 20s if things were different. But things are what they are, and I am writing to ask for a little respect here, for the docents, the folks behind the counter, the volunteer gardeners, and the grandparents traveling with young children to Mount Vernon. Please be patient with us–we are almost history ourselves.

      1. I was able to put myself in debt for almost $30,000, if that is what you mean. Otherwise, nothing. And as you pointed out in an earlier Historista, many of the places one goes to do research are free when enrolled, but off-limits when one is not.

  3. Absolutely! Though I have to say that my attempts to warn students that the profession is changing and there will simply be no jobs when they graduate usually falls on deaf ears. Some are sure they will be the exception to the rule; others just want the experience of going away and studying at a top university in the States. They can’t imagine what it will feel like, 7 years down the line, when the reality of the job market hits them.

    1. This certainty of exceptionality seems to be true across the board – and given this, I’m not sure how we can make them understand the realities. But I’m hearing from some folks that lots of profs don’t even try. So kudos to you for trying!

  4. Departments don’t want to give up the gravy train either. PhD programs = more money for the department. And sometimes this means faculty are part of the problem, because they don’t want to become a service department that only teaches Gen Ed. The system is broken and hard choices need to be made. Good suggestions.

    1. This is a great point, Karen – and it underscores the many ways that both departments and administrations benefit from the current system. Thanks for reading!

  5. These are very good points, Megan. Much of what you have written aligns with my own personal experience. How many times have we heard the phrase, “I would not apply to a PhD program if I knew then what I know now”? It’s infuriating to hear that universities in the US awarded about 1,000 doctorates with only 289 TT jobs available. One graduate program I know only admitted a small number of students, circa 2009-2010, during the depths of the Great Recession and budget crises. Unfortunately this lasted only about two years and I am guessing they started admitting lots of graduate students again because they “needed” their cheap labor. I lean more toward the approach of discouraging history majors from pursuing graduate school (assuming they want to become professors) but I have heard completely valid points opposing this view. On the demand side, finding a way to reduce class sizes would theoretically make more professorships available. But I don’t pretend to have any answers on how to accomplish this short of some sort of mass, nationwide organizing among instructors of all level (contingent and tenured) the likes of which we have yet to see. Indeed, from a managerial and exploitative point of view, keeping college instructors busy enough so that they have to teach 10 classes per year just to tread water has the added benefit of reducing the likelihood that they will organize!

    1. Oh, yes. And not only are all of those newly minted PhDs applying for that handful of jobs – but the thousands of PhDs who are 1-5 years out are *also* applying. It does seem hard to imagine what argument to make that will convince administrations to hire full-time tenure-track faculty rather than exploiting grad students and adjuncts. Moral suasion has not worked, clearly.

  6. . . . and of course those of us who work privately–home alone!–have little or no access to any of the few, paltry perks offered to those affiliated with a college or university, so there’s that. I am considering my retirement from teaching middle school to be an extended, paid sabbatical during which I can write full time. At least there’s the web . . . for a while, at least.

    1. Yes – the fact that anyone who wants to continue doing humanities work while not on the tenure-track must go further into debt in order to do so is yet another imbedded form of inequality in the system.

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