how hard is academia?

A few days ago, we got into a discussion about whether the grad skool rulz ($2 – cheap!) are too pessimistic. One commenter wanted to know how hard academia is relative to other careers. Here’s how I would compute it. First, what % of students will complete their degrees? Second, what % of graduates land in jobs that they were aiming for? Call the final number (completion x intended employment rate) the “end of pipeline” number.

In terms of getting people into the job for which they were trained, the hardest area is academia (~25%), then law school (~70%), then medical and business school (~80%) . And academia ain’t in the same ballpark as other fields. It ain’t even the same effing sport.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 28, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, fabio

13 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on tressiemc.



    September 28, 2012 at 12:35 am

  2. Comparing an apprenticeship of six to 10 years with three professional degrees is a bit of a stretch. Not the least of the confounding issues is that the professional programs have the benefit of professional market-making for graduates. Professionals at the universities are involved with outbound placement and professionals do the recruitment of MBAs, lawyers, and doctors. In academia, search committees are amateurs and the outbound placement is by rank amateurs. It is a wonder the end of the pipeline isn’t microscopic.



    September 28, 2012 at 12:55 am

  3. One crucial thing here to consider is the “selection effect” of who chooses to go into various grad schools. I dunno if others have noticed this, but law folks tend to have very different abilities than business folks, etc. etc. To compare these rates, then, is comparing apples to oranges.

    That said, perhaps Fabio’s point is that for people who aspire for a certain goal, successfully navigating a PhD appears to be harder than for other grad programs, perhaps for many of the reasons that Randy identifies. Also, though, tenure track is by no means the only successful end point for many PhDs, especially those in science, technology & engineering. In my area, health policy, 2/3 of grads in my program graduate “successfully” but end up working outside of academia, often in research roles in government or non-profits.


    phd student

    September 28, 2012 at 6:17 am

  4. If it was my comment you are responding to here, you miss my point. Not MBAs who find jobs, but MBAs who make it into the upper reaches of management. Not law school grads who find legal employment, but law school grads who make partner at respectable firms. Etc. This would seem the real baseline for comparison, where tenure is “top of the game,” like making partner. By that metric, I’d gladly take my chances with academia. Academia is not _uniquely_ “hard,” but, as I pointed out in my comment on your earlier post, there is something for everyone in maintaining that it is.



    September 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm

  5. At least for med school, there is a weeding out process before students apply. Many freshmen college students say they want to go to med school and then switch it up before they graduate. Also, if I recall correctly, medical school has a lower acceptance rate than law school.

    There are a lot of limitations to your calculations, but we got to start somewhere. Interesting post.



    September 28, 2012 at 3:31 pm

  6. Even bracketing all the issue brought up above, I think this data just doesn’t demonstrate your point. Even if we don’t want to concede and say tenure is now only for people at “the top of the game”, there’s a few data points that don’t work for accurate comparisons.

    This compares the rates at a top business schools to a mix of graduate schools. We can almost be positive that mid- and lower-tier business schools have much lower placement rates of grads, especially the grads who didn’t already come in with a good job.

    Similarly, if we’re only calling tenure track “success”, we should make sure our law data is as demanding of “success”. I don’t know which data you’re using, but, in the data reported by most law schools, many people listed as “employed” are basically either employed outside the industry or, if they are employed in the industry, doing underpaid work the equivalent roughly of adjuncts. I don’t know what a fairer assessment is, but especially out of elite law schools, there appears to be quite the employment crisis among newly minted JDs so 80% seems unreasonably high.

    This is definitely a mix of graduate schools. If I’m reading the data right, each institution here averages 11 programs. I would guess a lot of the graduate schools like Harvard, MIT, Michigan, etc. have more than 11 programs. I just checked, Columbia offers 62 PhD programs: Even elite science and engineering schools like MIT and Texas A&M have many more than 11 programs. Either not all institutions reported data on all their PhD programs (seems less likely) or there are clearly a lot of smaller schools in the sample. So the comparison to elite MBA programs and solid JD programs isn’t exactly apples to apples. Additionally, literature PhDs generally have the lowest rate of ending up in tenure track jobs so apply that 41% rate to all the data seems potentially misleading.

    Lastly, the tenure track is the primary marker of success probably only for PhDs in the social sciences and humanities (excluding economics PhDs probably). The employment rates in, say, the natural sciences and engineering I’m sure are higher than 41% once one factors in other possibilities in industries directly related to the PhD. And, I don’t know if this is true for the life sciences and the physical sciences, but I know engineers who attrit with an MS are generally more employable than those with merely a BS so it’s not like those two years are “wasted years”. In this data, especially in engineering, there is very little attrition after year three (aka after the masters) and, based on what my friends have told me, at least some of that later attrition is people who already have the skills they need and have a job offer from the industry. Those who leave with their masters have still undoubtedly benefited professionally from going to graduate school, even if they did not get a PhD. By saying “25%” you’re being very misleading to 3 of 5 broad fields you’re citing.

    I think you’re right, by the way, graduate school is hard, people do need to understand that 7-10 years of work does not guarantee a cushy job, the employment prospects are difficult (especially in the humanities but also in the social sciences), adjuncting and (in the social sciences) post-docs are more and more common, that there’s a lot more attrition than we talk about (some good, some bad), and that which school you go to really matters. This just isn’t the data that slam dunk demonstrates that.


    I like numbers

    September 28, 2012 at 4:55 pm

  7. Saying that graduate school is hard is too simple. Fabio’s better point, the arduous road from admission to a doctoral program into a tenure track job, is right on, and there are lots of reasons. Medical schools, to provide the most obvious and frustrating contrast, demand extensive and well-delineated preparation (which weeds many out), offer a pretty standard and regimented curriculum, elaborated support and tutoring, and the virtual certainty of employment at the end of the process. Few leak out of the pipeline once admitted to med. school.
    Grad schools are all over the place in terms of programs, selection, and employment prospects. The number of students admitted is not tied to the number of likely vacancies, and the high attrition rates make it more likely for graduate schools to employ diverse criteria and “take risks” in admissions.
    But there are lots of other comparisons worth thinking through. Journalism schools, for example, seem to be flourishing, even as the industry is, uh, faltering. The number of graduate school berths is not tied to any estimate of jobs in industry. Even worse would be graduate school in creative writing or drama.


    David S. Meyer

    September 28, 2012 at 6:45 pm

  8. […] how hard is academia? ( […]


  9. @ilikenumbers: Yes…sort of. My point is that comparing the percentage of PhDs that land tenure track jobs to simple employment rates of MBAs, lawyers, etc. is misleading in the extreme. Better to think of tenure as something like becoming partner at a decent law firm or consultancy. In other words, what are your odds of becoming a “made man” (or woman) in ANY of the various careers that a bright, ambitious, high-functioning BA might pursue? In that sort of “apples to apples” comparison, academia does not look unusually “hard.” I mean, seriously, even the MLA (!) reports that 41% of literature PhDs land t-t jobs. Yes, things are tougher today than they were in the past, and it is, in general, harder to land a t-t position, but, like Fabio’s numbers, that really isn’t relevant to the question at hand.

    As hinted in my comment on Fabio’s original post, the dirty little secret here is the supply side story that the Rulz studiously avoids addressing. Sure, many who enter PhD programs will not receive PhDs and many who receive PhDs will not land t-t jobs. The rub, however, is that Fabio would not argue that everyone should receive a PhD or land a t-t job! So, as I asked earlier, given the nature of the supply of students that, for example, move into the sociology pipeline post BA, what rates of a) attrition before PhD and b) employment in t-t jobs after PhD would you expect in our (admirable) open system of contest mobility? I am sure that Fabio expects both to be >0, but what are they? Very crudely, the answer is somewhere in the ballpark of the proportion of applicants for t-t positions at the OrgTheory team’s respective institutions who will be rejected out of hand as “not even close” this year. The Rulz won’t tell you about that, but it is important information to consider. Academia is “hard,” but so are lots of careers that a bright, ambitious, high-functioning BA might pursue. It is the same “effing sport” and, as far as the big leagues are concerned, it is not an especially hard one.



    September 28, 2012 at 9:54 pm

  10. A question drawn from anecdotal experience:
    1. Is there any data to prove or disprove that after 2008 its a whole new ballgame at least for the social scientists with universities downsizing and shifting towards more visiting professors and adjuncts, and reducing at least for the newly minted PhDs the number of tenure-track positions available? If I read the MLA survey cited above, it looks like its data is from ten years ago.


  11. Chris — “Archivist” on the sociology job market forum has tracked the number of pages of positions (TT or adjunct) listed in the ASA job bank over the last 4-5 years. At least by this very crude measure, the job market was better in the 2011/12 season than it was in the 2007 season. (See “where are all the jobs” thread in the general discussion section.)

    Archivist’s measure includes all types of positions, so it’s possible that a greater proportion of positions in the last couple of years have been adjunct and visiting. However, if the recovery in the “pages of positions” measure was being driven by non-TT jobs, you’d expect a greater proportion of postings to come up in the spring than pre-crisis. The month-by-month measure doesn’t show this shift in timing.



    September 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm

  12. Proof that lack of probability if “making it” does not discourage people from trying (in sports): — why should academia be any different?



    September 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm

  13. […] grad skool “scam” (video) –how-hard-is-academia? […]


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