Graduate School, A Ponzi Scheme?

The Economist has a very interesting article about the usefulness of graduate education and PhDs.  I don’t entirely agree with the article because I think it neglects a critical factor for pursuing an advance degree, job satisfaction. But it does bring up some key questions for academics. Namely, are we creating an oversupply of doctorates? Many of the brightest students that I went to graduate school with have left academia or are still struggling to find positions. Of course, there are individual-level factors at play in these cases, but I cannot help agree with the Economist’s article that the problem mainly resides at the system-level.


Written by brandyaven

August 15, 2012 at 12:33 am

Posted in academia

8 Responses

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  1. “Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience. Some universities are now offering their PhD students training in soft skills such as communication and teamwork that may be useful in the labour market.”

    I brought this up to some professors I have met, but I have not found a great answer. A lot of people with a PhD are brilliant, but they cannot communicate with the average person. Sometimes I feel like if the cure for cancer were discovered, the PhD person who discovered it would be unable to let the rest of the world know about the cure.

    I think getting published in one of the top academic journals is very important and impressive, but in general… the average person does not seem to benefit from publications that appear in academic journals.

    I would love to see more universities offer soft skills to PhD students so that academics can become less-jargonized and more humanized.



    August 15, 2012 at 3:08 am

  2. Well, are PhD programs any more of a ponzi scheme than schools of journalism? Or dance/acting programs? At least in comparison to programs in journalism, your top quarter of graduates earn a proper wage. It seems to be that in all pleasant career choices there is oversupply that means either that nobody gets paid very well (personal trainers) or that only very few get paid well (rock stars).

    I don’t see communication skills as being a major problem in business, where rewards for good teaching are significant. And the average person in my class benefits from top academic publications to the extent I am able to internalize some of the stuff I read in ASQ or AMJ and can bring that into my teaching in some form (mostly NOT as a power point in a slideshow).



    August 15, 2012 at 10:04 am

  3. The job markets for business schools and sociology departments are very different. My sense is that most management phds get jobs in business schools because management phd programs are small relative to the number of available jobs. In contrast, the number of sociology phds trained each year exceeds the number of available jobs (the same is true in economics and political science). There are simply not enough academic jobs to employ all of the newly-minted phds. I think that’s a problem. We’ve created more supply than there is demand.

    My sense is that sociology programs have slowly started to downsize their phd programs, in part because they aren’t getting as much financial funding from their colleges as they used to receive. Also, sociologists are aware of the problem, although not nearly as aware as their phd students, and so some departments may be making conscious efforts to limit the number of new admits. Full professors have very few incentives to self-regulate the number of phds that they train, and some sociology departments depend on a sizable phd program to provide instructors for undergrad courses. This is often the case at large public universities.


    brayden king

    August 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm

  4. There is a substantial over-supply of PHDs relative to academic posts in physical and biological science and mathematics. The incentive to over-supply is the value of grad students to academic faculty at research institutions. This incentive has been shifting as caps on tuition reimbursement for grad students have made postdocs more cost-effective as research assistants.

    But I also agree with henri. All fields that involve either high rewards or intrinsic pleasure in the job are highly competitive and draw in more people who are trying to be in them than the number of paying positions available. The decline in the real wages of the lower half of the economic distribution in this country cannot be irrelevant.



    August 15, 2012 at 1:35 pm

  5. It seems to me that PhD’s in disciplines like Sociology should only be pursued if that individual wants to be an academic, I don’t think there’s enormous scope outside of the academy for a Soc PhD unless they get creative, OR, have a very strong background in statistics.

    There does seem to be an over-supply of Sociology PhD’s. It’s something that could possibly be corrected if the discipline became more mathematical at the undergraduate level and the bar raised for entry at the graduate level.

    Something has to be done because having all of these PhD’s bumming around looking for jobs and having to make do with being glorified teaching assistants to the detriment of their research and development, is frankly a waste of talent.



    August 15, 2012 at 1:44 pm

  6. I know a significant number of sociology PhDs who have rewarding careers outside of academia–and who chose to pursue non-academic careers exclusively. We actually do far better in preparing graduate students for non-academic careers than many other disciplines do, since we incorporate excellent methodological training and yet still expect researchers to be able to explain what it is they are doing to a broader audience (such as first-year undergraduates). To my mind, the problem is much more that PhD program faculty continue to see non-academic careers as a failure and thus do not provide appropriate assistance to those seeking such positions. Those seeking non-academic careers benefit from internship programs, the ability to work on policy-relevant projects while in graduate school, departments that maintain strong connections with alumni in non-academic jobs, training in grant-writing, and support in pursuing their interests. When these supports are provided, sociology PhDs have an excellent chance of finding rewarding careers in policy research, program evaluation, and market research, as well as in non-sociology positions within academia like institutional research, on medical school research teams, etc.



    August 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm

  7. The article was a bit long as a simple plea, but interesting nonetheless, and I agree that it did slide over the markets outside of academia. Mikaila cited some of those opportunities for sociologists. The anti-market bias in sociology prevented a better development. We consider the public relations work of Merton and Lazarsfeld as a fluke, not a paradigm. In a wider sense, that applies to academia in general. Not many course offerings exist for “the business of [your discipline].”

    The Business of Music is a new creation. Also, for several years, I had my dental work done at the University of Michigan; and talking to the students, I learned that they are, indeed, closely coached on how to set up a practice — to which my cardiologist confessed complete ignorance, and for which he was grateful to have joined an existing firm.

    The deeper problem may be the anti-capitalist mentality. Having drifted away from Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin, we have been educated away from commerce. Now we live with the consequences.


    Michael E. Marotta

    August 15, 2012 at 7:11 pm

  8. Some reflections on the ‘usefulness’ of humanities PhD [also relevant to sociology] in the corporate environment from Alex Pang in his classic ‘Journeyman’ essay:



    August 16, 2012 at 9:17 am

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