Monday, August 15, 2016

96. Degrees go stale.

One of the cruelest twists on the arduous path through graduate school comes at the very end. As soon as you finish a doctoral program that took perhaps a decade to complete (see Reason 4), your fresh degree begins to age… rapidly. Doctorates are like bread; they go stale. If you have a PhD that was awarded more than a couple of years ago, and you’re still looking for a tenure-track job, then you have what is called a “stale” degree. In fact, if you do not have a tenure-track job within a year of finishing your PhD, then your chances of ever getting one begin to drop precipitously. Knowledge can become obsolete quickly, but that is not the issue here. The problem stems from the overproduction of PhDs (see Reason 55). In an age when colleges receive hundreds of applications for one job opening, eliminating the stale PhDs from the pool of applicants is a simple way to cull the herd (see Reason 8). Hiring committees justify this by reasoning that if you haven’t been hired after multiple years on the job market, then there must be something wrong with you.

Completing your PhD can actually put you at a disadvantage on the job market, because the best window of opportunity for securing an assistant professorship is in the months before your dissertation defense. This was among the findings of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Academic JobTracker project, a study of 2,500 tenure-track job searches from the 2013-14 academic year. (Incidentally, there is probably no better incentive to complete a PhD than the deadline that comes with a job offer. See Reason 46.) The Chronicle study found that only 47 percent of the jobs in history, 35 percent of the jobs in communications/ media studies, and 27 percent of the jobs in composition/ rhetoric went to candidates with a PhD more than one year old. To discourage people with stale degrees from even bothering to apply, some job announcements now specify that applicants be “new” or “recent” PhD recipients. Keep in mind that working in a non-tenure track faculty position will not prevent your degree from going stale (see Reason 14). No matter how much professional experience you accumulate after completing your doctorate, your toughest competition for academic jobs will always come from the endless supply of fresh and relatively inexperienced PhDs and ABDs (see Reason 81) who enter the job market after you. In academe, experience can work against you.



35 comments:

  1. Today I attended a beginning-of-the-year college meeting where each department chair introduced the newly hired faculty members. Every single new faculty member was a fresh PhD.

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  2. The amount of time and work that the academic track requires and the risk of failure are incredible. After the long trek to a Ph.D, it's too easy to become stuck in the perpetual adjunct track, continuing to while away your years in the forlorn hope of grasping that elusive brass ring. But that's just throwing good money after bad.

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  3. "In academe, experience can work against you."

    It wasn't always the case. When I was an undergrad in engineering 40 years ago, most of my prof either had industrial experience or worked with people who did. The knowledge and insight that they acquired was greatly prized not just by the students but the university as well.

    That changed in the early 1980s. The emphasis was, instead, on hiring fresh graduates direct out of school. That's like taking a newly-minted officer who just finished at a military academy and putting him or her into a senior command position--not a good idea.

    I spent several years in industry working in the field, in design offices, and in labs. I also received professional registration in 3 provinces. While I was finishing my Ph. D., I've had the misfortune of dealing with profs like that. Simply because they had the magic title, they thought they could tell me what engineering really about. None of them had ever worked on a shop floor or ever got themselves dirty, but, because I didn't have the same letters behind my name, they expected me to shut up and know my place. Personally, I thought they were so dumb that I wouldn't have trusted them to design a simple circuit.

    By the time I finished my Ph. D., I was in my mid-40s and no academic institution wanted to hire me, even though I had taught for several years at a technical college.

    I eventually went off on my own and continued with my research. I had some of my own money, which I accumulated over many years, so I could afford to do that. Because my work is largely numerical simulation, all I needed was a computer, so funding wasn't much of a problem.

    Since then, I've added to my credentials on my own, I live comfortably and can still pay my bills. In addition, I'm required to report my professional development hours so my degrees, as such, could hardly be considered "stale".

    If no institution wants to hire me, it's their loss, not mine. Fortunately, I'm in the position that I really don't need their money, though if one did offer me a job, I'd put my earnings to good use.

    From what I hear about what's going on in academe, what I've got now is probably the better deal.

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  4. While one hears about a critical shortage of scientists and engineers blah-blah-blah, the hiring system is a good way of causing one's degree to become "stale".

    Hiring quotas ensure that one will never get the job unless one happens to be a member of the desired category. Ads for academic positions are subtly worded to make that perfectly clear. When they state that they will accept applications from all "qualified candidates", they mean that they'll accept them from members of whichever special interest group whose slot they want to fill.

    It's also frustrating to apply for a position in one's own country only to find it'll go to a foreigner, even though one's qualifications and background experience are superior. That's hardly an endorsement of the post-secondary system of one's country and, yet, universities wonder why enrollments from citizens are declining. Then again, all they want is people's money.

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    1. being a member of a (as in ONE) category isn't enough anymore! Look at Elizabeth Warren, being a women wasn't enough she had to add Native American in order to get her teaching job.

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    2. This is pure BS.

      Ads will say that they want "diversity" but will end up hiring yet another white man.

      I assume you're one of the delusional and ignorant Americans voting for Trump?

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    3. One reason it's hard a white male to get a faculty position is that not just available tenure-track jobs but grants are catered to specific groups.

      I know someone who's a prof in the other end of the country who got her job and her funding because the government mandated that they went to "women and visible minorities". She was Asian and female--how could she fail to get hired?

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    4. @8:01,

      Except in STEM, where a given woman is twice as likely to get a professorship than a given man. Thanks for substantiating your position, though!

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    5. @8:01

      You're wrong - except when it comes to Asians:

      http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/tenure-not-hiring-bottleneck-to-stem-faculty-diversification/97321?cid=pm&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en

      "When it came to landing tenure-track jobs in their field, women and members of minority groups considered underrepresented appeared to be at a significant advantage. Black and Hispanic doctorate holders were both quicker and, respectively, 51 percent and 30 percent more likely than their white counterparts to obtain such positions. Asian doctorate holders were slowest to land such positions and 33 percent less likely than whites to obtain them. Women were quicker, and 10 percent more likely than men, to get tenure-track jobs."

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  5. This post pretty much seals the deal of why someone should not get a PhD, expecting to get a tenure track professor job later.

    You'll work 5-10 years on a PhD degree only to find out that all your hard work and money spent is worthless one year out.

    This fact alone should scare most people away from the PhD programs.

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  6. This is absolutely correct. Now that I have been out of School and in the real world for a while, I watch forlornly as my hard-won, costly degrees, and all that I learned in the pursuit of them, irretrievably recede into the mist. The farther back in time, of course, the worse this phenomenon becomes. Virtually everything I learned in my intensively competitive, academically oriented college-preparatory boarding school, for example--in the days of the Cold War and before Google--is now either outdated or not even emphasized much anymore. Occasional visits to the school have confirmed this suspicion. Curricula are revised and priorities change. Resting on pretty yet stale degrees will turn one into a fossil.

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  7. The biggest mistake of PhD wannabes is...the University isn't a marvelous place! Duh! Quite the contrary. I quit my PhD instantly when I saw that it was a waste of my time and went straight into real estate where I made oodles of money and live on a big property in a big house with a big car, a big dog and three bossy cats! And got to do whatever I pleased, too, being my own boss.

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  8. Thank you so much for this blog. Don't wait another year man.

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  9. wow. this is an unbelievably backwards reality. do you feel this is true across all fields, including STEM areas?

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    1. It's especially true in engineering. One works hard, gets a good education, and the jobs one is qualified for either don't exist or go to certain people in order to fulfill a politically-imposed quota. Of course, how much one wants to be paid for one's work has a lot to do with it, if you know what I mean.

      Unless one has imagination and a lot of ambition, though opportunity and some money help, and take the initiative to head out on one's own, those degrees will be wasted.

      And, oh yes, politicians insist that there's a shortage of scientists and engineers and more schoolchildren should consider careers in those fields.

      It's all about politics and cheap labour. Why bother when someone in Coleslawvania will do the same work for pennies a day?

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  10. According to Academic JobTracker, math Ph.D.'s stay marketable for 3-4 years rather than 1-2 years. That's better, but not great considering the low odds of landing a job in any given year.

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    1. Fundamental science such as math hardly goes stale easily, since concepts in math almost never change. Unlike in physics where fundamental paradigms may change every 50-100 years (as with black holes recently). Social sciences and humanities are easily spoiled material, goes rotten like vegetables, whenever political situation turns.

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  11. Excellent reason to avoid grad school.

    The problem is that the humanities and social sciences are obsessed with trendsetting. Your degree becomes worthless if your field decides to hop onto the next big theory train rolling by. When I first started, our department encouraged everyone to gravitate towards global and postcolonial literature since that was where the jobs were at that moment. 7 years later, digital humanities is all the rage and most jobs want a DH scholar.

    This phenomenon is even worse in fields like rhetoric and composition where they change their theory and methods monthly. Now they're obsessed with assessment and student learning goals.

    The rush to adopt new trends means that less jobs are available and it's difficult to predict what direction the field is going in. There might only be 6 tenure track positions available in a particular specialty and those jobs will inevitably go to ivy leaguers (see the reason about the significance of your degree institution).

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    1. Being obsessed with assessment and "learning goals" is nothing new. I went through that nearly 25 years ago when I was an instructor at a technical college.

      Actual talent and ability were secondary--keeping the kiddies happy was the sole objective.

      I often asked myself why I bothered getting the education that I had. It didn't seem to make any difference in that place. Talk about stale degrees.....

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  12. Jesus, what a crapshoot. I know there are some services, like what "The Professor Is In" offers, that give really in-depth advice on how to position yourself in a variety of ways to get a TT job in the humanities. But still, what happens if your area of expertise, one you selected at least four years ago, simply isn't in vogue when you arrive on the market?

    Very glad I decided to stop at the M.A. level. I'm starting work as a grant writer soon. I'm quite pleased I can work on behalf of institutions of higher learning in a meaningful way without completely surrendering future career viability and earnings.

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  13. great. Don't even go to graduate school- it is a complete and absolute waste of time and their reasons for accepting you, funding you, and keeping you are always 100% self-serving. They are USING you for cheap labor and to fill enrollment of stupid classes on ridiculous topics no one would ever take if they were not being paid to. It's a total scam

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    1. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case.

      My first supervisor treated his grad students like hired help and acted like it was out of his own generosity that we were paid. (Sorry, mate, that money didn't come out of your pocket. It came from your *grant*, which you applied for and received from another source. It was your money to the extent that you were in charge of how it was spent, but it wasn't your own personal cash.)

      He had a tendency of hanging on to those students who produced lots of data that he could publish. One stayed for the full time the university allowed for him to finish his Ph. D.

      Another came from overseas with a master's in his discipline. He was scuttled in his Ph. D. defence and ended up with another M. Sc.--in the same discipline. The poor guy started again from scratch and finally got his doctorate 12 years after he arrived in the country. He apparently stayed on at the university for a while longer but never got a tenure-track position, though I don't know why--maybe it was his choice. The last I heard, he got an academic position in his home country about 20 years after he left.

      He was lucky. Nowadays in this country, he might have ended up on the academic scrap heap. Universities, like many employers, want their faculty young and impressionable, just smart enough to do their jobs but maybe not smart enough to figure out what's really going on and that it's really a sucker's game.

      Nice system, isn't it?

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    2. The academic system is going through collective (symbolic) death right now: some people are purely in denial about it and will dismiss everything on this blog and every one of us who comments on it as Pessimism Pornographers, others are simply angry and searching to vent at administrators politicians or the tenured, others are bargaining (if I just completely sell out and do my research on topic X will I get a job???), others are trapped in debilitating depression, others, like me, have finally accepted it is all a waste of time and have moved on to more productive things and more interesting sectors of the world that have nothing to do with all this bullshit.

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    3. Cheers to this awesome comment. It is time for everyone to move on. Let the last and most delusional defenders hold down the fort and revel in it. Everyone who still retains some semblance of health needs to cut their losses, take a breath, and pivot toward something more functional with some confidence that there are sectors of the world where effort and outcomes, input and output, are more closely related than they are in academia.

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    4. Academia is a religion. The irony is that, for a bunch of people who fashion themselves "way too smart to believe in religion," they are every bit as much held hostage to their cult as any other. To you, smart person reading this comment: if you could not imagine yourself joining a group of Rapture Awaiting Biblical Fundamentalists or Polygamous Mormon Fundamentalists, then please apply that same level of intellectual integrity to the cult you are currently in, which is arguably even more constricting, abusive, self-serving, and based in nonsense (the Pseudo Science of "Critical Theory" is a far cry from the kind of serious work that, for example, goes into curing cancer) than any of them. If you can't step away from that cult, you have no right to criticize any of the other ones.

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  14. This reason is very accurate.

    My former advisor told me that after earning a PhD, a person only has a 3 year window to receive a tenure track position. He said that if I did not receive an offer while ABD, I should find a visiting assistant professorship or a post-doc because adjuncting is the kiss of death, which is depressing when we consider how adjuncts greatly outnumber tenured/tenure track faculty. It is nearly impossible to transition from adjunct to assistant professor due to the unfair burdens placed on them. It's difficult to stay up to the date on the latest academic trends when you're teaching 5 courses on 3 different campuses for $2,000 per course.

    As another poster suggested, trendiness contributes to degrees going stale, as the academe is unpredictable and destabilized. A topic that someone may have spent the last 4 years researching will suddenly go out of vogue, and there may be few positions in that area of specialty.

    Tangentially related, but the job market is truly a special kind of hell. Applicants are expected to jump through fire laced hoops at the initial stage. Why are schools asking for so many materials when they barely even look at everything? A few years ago, my former department held a job search for an assistant professor and received 600 applicants. They asked applicants for a cover letter, CV, teaching statement, research statement, teaching portfolio, writing sample, diversity statement, AND recommendation letters. One search committee member admitted to me that they automatically threw out any applicant who did not have a book contract and at least one publication. Nowhere in the job description did they specify that, so they wasted most people's time and money. The candidate they chose was a friend of the search committee chair, whose research I'm honestly not impressed by, and the department gave so many applicants false hope that they had a chance. A pipe dream indeed.

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    1. Worse is that, in many cases, one needn't bother going to any interviews because the preferred candidate has already been selected.

      That happened to me several times, and not just for academic positions. I was brought in for an interview and was made to perform my required "circus dog" tricks. But, based on the questions I was asked, and how they were asked, I sensed that the interview committee already knew which person got the job. I was simply there to comply with laws and regulations that all "qualified" candidates be considered. (Yeah, right.) Since I was going to be turned down anyway, the interviewers had to find something that disqualified me.

      In some cases, I never heard back and I didn't think it was my place to contact the employer. In others, I did call after their "we'll call you in a week" time period came and went and I didn't hear anything. When I called, I got the laughable "oh, we were about to call you" response. (Uh-huh.)

      What irritated me about this is that I spent all my time and effort for those interviews and the reasons I was there were completely bogus.

      By the way, it's almost always a committee that conducts the interview. The official reason is that the employer wants a variety of perspectives and such, but the real reason is simply CYA. If a newly-hired employee doesn't pan out, no one individual will ever be held responsible or lose their job over it--and the employer will *never* fire the committee as that would often mean losing its top management.

      It isn't any better in industry. One can have a good background, with suitable qualifications and experience, but if one doesn't know, say, certain software--and it almost always has to be the current version--forget about it. Either the application is chucked out with the day's trash or the interview is over then and there. Don't think that offering to spend a few hours learning how to use it will help, either, even though one's background indicates that one could easily do that.

      And don't think that doing that on one's own time at one's own expense will do anything, either. Any weakness or deficiency in any other part of one's background or qualifications, like I described earlier, results in.....well, you get the picture.

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    2. On that bit about it not being any better in industry- all sympathies for the bs experiences you’ve had, there is bs all over without a doubt.

      I also had a friend recently tell me about how the same thing happened to him- got interviewed as a formality because the candidate was already chosen, and the interviewers were especially obnoxious digging for reasons to explain the rejection.

      But that same guy got another interview 3 weeks later, and was hired. Also, these interviews took place within a 20 minute radius of his house. There is something especially obnoxious about the academic job market, which makes it virtually impossible to have an on-going search outside of the once a year fun bonanza, and also that people pay thousands to take cross-country trips for the mere possibility of being interviewed.

      The sub title of this blog mentions the focus on humanities and social sciences- for anyone reading these comments who is young and at the stage where you have to yet to jump into this abyss, please DO NOT buy into the reasoning that because there is bs in every industry, all industries are created equal. Just because it is “bad all over” as many comments here attest to, all badness is not equivalent. There can be more badness in some places, lol. If you are about to embark on a PhD in the humanities, you are entering an alternate universe which demands incredibly extensive circus tricks with virtually no remuneration. If you truly can financially afford to do immense amounts of work without real compensation for the love of it, great! For everyone else, figure something else out on your own steam before you are forced to by a completely broken system that will break you in the process.

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  15. "27 percent of the jobs in composition/ rhetoric went to candidates with a PhD more than one year old"

    Colleges rely heavily on contingent employees to teach their writing courses, but they almost never hire those same people for tenure-stream positions.

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    1. Yes, Writing Programs are the biggest exploiters of adjuncts. They need them to teach the endless amount of required courses they offer. In my former grad program, there were only 2 tenured professors who taught College Writing. The other 200+ sections were taught by adjuncts. This was also a very "student centered" school, meaning that adjuncts were kicked to the curb if their evaluations weren't high enough, and they can easily do this because there's always going to be hundreds of desperate academics fighting for whatever scraps the ivory tower throws their way.

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    2. If you think about it, it doesn't even make sense to have tenure-track composition instructors. Tenure typically suggests research requirements, which get in the way of the grunt work of grading loads of student papers.

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    3. @Anon 12:19

      This largely depends on the type of school. If it's a community college or non-R1, they emphasize teaching and have little or no research requirements for tenure.

      The problem with tenure at these schools is that they place too much weight on student evaluations, so professors do whatever they can to keep the kiddies entertained and satisfied.

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  16. http://tucson.com/news/local/education/pima-college-boss-violated-civil-rights-of-ex-employee-judge/article_78f4f548-026d-5e6b-a7e9-9f0a366772ef.html

    Check this out.

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  17. How is this not age discrimination?

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