Global Ethics Corner: Should Universities be Giving so Many Ph.D.'s?

May 18, 2012

Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of students enter Ph.D. programs each year. And historically, a Ph.D. has been a ticket to some kind of career in academia.

But in recent years, these academic pursuits have developed a dark side. The number of Ph.D.'s on welfare has spiked since the great recession. At least 33,000 U.S. Ph.D. graduates are now on food stamps. Many earn less than minimum wage teaching at universities large and small.

An increasing number of Ph.D.'s means that the supply of academic specialists far outstrips the demand for their services. In response to funding cuts in higher education, university administrators have replaced many tenure-track professors with part-time adjunct instructors. As adjuncts, Ph.D.'s lack health benefits and job security. Worse still, they earn what many say is far below a living wage.

So why do so many universities continue to encourage students to follow the Ph.D. track?

Simply put, more researchers leads to more research. Like any employer whose high-quality employee pool will sustain low wages, a university has an incentive to bring on more fine minds to bolster its output and reputation.

Ph.D. students share in the responsibility, since they continue to pursue doctorates irrespective of lagging demand. Moreover, advocates note that unless Ph.D.'s form unions, they won't be able to negotiate better contracts.

For their part, universities could accept fewer Ph.D. students to shrink the pool of academics on the market. They could also provide better career services for Ph.D.'s seeking jobs outside of academia.

As the number of Ph.D.'s on welfare rises, how do you weigh in? Should Ph.D.'s be ready and willing to settle for a life of poverty? Who should be responsible for matching supply to demand in the Ph.D. job market?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

By Stacey Patton, "The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2012

"The disposable academic," The Economist, December 6, 2010

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:
Philip Squires
Joss Rogers [also for picture 10)
Laura Billings
Sewanee: The University of the South
Kevin Tong/UC Davis College of Engineering
WCN 24/7
DeSales University

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