Colleges benefit from this situation, because there are so many well-credentialed people desperate for teaching positions that they will work for very little money. This would not be such a problem if the world outside of academe had more use for people with PhDs (see Reason 29). The fact that it does not is why there are so many people with doctorates who now find themselves working in part-time temporary teaching positions with no benefits (see Reason 14).
A new report from the American Association of University Professors describes the situation:
In all, graduate student employees and faculty members serving in contingent appointments now make up more than 75 percent of the total instructional staff. The most rapid growth has been among part-time faculty members, whose numbers swelled by more than 280 percent between 1975 and 2009. Between 2007 and 2009, the numbers of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members and part-time faculty members each grew at least 6 percent. During the same period, tenured positions grew by only 2.4 percent and tenure-track appointments increased by a minuscule 0.3 percent. These increases in the number of faculty appointments have taken place against the background of an overall 12 percent increase in higher education enrollment in just those two years.
Meanwhile, the number of people clambering to fill these jobs continues to increase. In November 2010, the National Science Foundation reported that 49,562 people earned doctorates in the United States in 2009. This was the highest number ever recorded. Most of the increase over the previous decade occurred in the sciences and engineering, but the NSF’s report noted a particularly grim statistic for those who completed a PhD in the humanities: only 62.6 percent had a “definite commitment” for any kind of employment whatsoever. Remember that this is what faces those who have already survived programs with very high attrition rates; more than half of those who start PhD programs in the humanities do not complete them (see Reason 46).
The PhD has been cheapened by its ubiquity. While students in traditional PhD programs at research universities now take upwards of a decade to complete their programs—as they struggle to fulfill the labor requirements of their teaching appointments—others are swiftly completing accredited PhDs online. These degrees do no carry much weight in the academic hierarchy (see Reason 3), but they do increase the number of people calling themselves “doctor.” One might not think that illegitimate colleges or “diploma mills” pose much of a threat to the integrity of degrees, but consider the fact that hundreds of federal government employees purchased fake degrees and successfully parlayed them into promotions and higher salaries.
Perhaps most scandalous is what legitimate research universities have done to devalue the PhD, which is now awarded in fields ranging from hotel management to recreation and (most ironic of all) higher education administration. In the meantime, universities continue to lower standards for graduate degrees. The traditional American master’s degree—which once required a minimum of two years of study, the passing of written and oral comprehensive exams, as well as the writing and defense of a thesis more substantial than many of today’s doctoral dissertations—has been dramatically watered down. Will it be long before the PhD suffers the same fate?
For graduate students, it takes longer and longer to earn degrees that are worth less and less. And after the years of investment required to obtain those degrees, they are met with a job market with little to offer them, even as the popular culture is increasingly inclined to mock them (see Reason 43).