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.