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How The Academic PhD Job Market Was Destroyed

“I spent over a year looking for a job in academia and flew to multiple interviews. I didn’t get one offer.”

A PhD told me this recently and many other PhDs have told me similar stories. 

Of course, the stories involve more than just looking for a job for a year. 

They involve living on a meager academic budget, trying to support themselves and their families, often in very expensive cities where many of the biggest universities are located. 

They involve decisions to never go on a vacation, to feed their kids cheaper, less healthy food, and to work all weekend while their kids grow up without them. 

They also involve months and months, if not years, of being led on – of being told that “you’re a finalist!” only to get no offer. 

This is what an academic job search looks like today and it’s far more brutal than an industry job search. 

And industry job search is tough and requires learning a new language, the language of transferable skills. 

But the academic job search is broken. Forever. 

There are millions upon millions of industry jobs in the U.S. as an example. 

There are a handful of academic faculty positions and most of them go to people from the same few universities.

This is how the destruction of the academic job market started…

Prestige Bias & Internal PhD Hiring Practices

A crucial aspect that has shaped the academic job market is the overwhelming influence of institutional prestige. 

A study published in Nature on the academic job market revealed a stark reality: a handful of elite universities dominate faculty appointments across fields. Specifically, just 5 U.S. universities were responsible for training 1 in every 8 tenured faculty member. 

This concentration of academic opportunities creates a challenging environment for graduates from less prestigious institutions, often leading to higher attrition rates. 

Moreover, the practice of self-hiring, where universities preferentially hire their own PhD graduates, has been identified as a negative trend that restricts the free movement of ideas and limits opportunities for external candidates​​.

The Pandemic’s Impact On PhD Positions

The pandemic has exerted significant pressure on universities, leading to economic constraints that have directly impacted faculty positions. 

According to NewsRX, 17% of university position changes were categorized as “permanent layoffs” and 58% as furloughs during the pandemic. 

This economic strain made postdoctoral positions in federal research institutions like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, as well as other various National Labs, relatively more stable and desirable 

University positions, in contrast, were further destabilized. 

The pandemic’s effect has thus reshaped the academic job market, making certain positions more coveted while diminishing others​​.

Oversupply Of PhDs & Shrinking Academic Positions

A concerning trend has been the mismatch between the number of PhD graduates and the availability of academic positions. 

An article from The Princetonian noted that there is a giant, nation-wide oversupply of PhDs amid a shrinking number of professorial job openings. 

This is particularly evident in the humanities, where the lack of openings is becoming increasingly prevalent. 

The previous academic year, for instance, had the fewest professorial job listings in history since records began in 1975. 

This oversupply and lack of openings question the practicality and ethics of admitting new PhD candidates into programs that may not lead to viable academic careers​​.

Changing Landscape Of Higher Education

The landscape of higher education itself is changing, with shifts in consumer preferences for education models, unique economic environments, and the emergence of new technologies. 

These changes, as discussed in a report by Tyton Partners, create an urgency around institutional business model innovation and demand partnerships and affiliation to address scale challenges. 

The evolving landscape necessitates a shift in approach, with a renewed focus on models that integrate education and work. 

As non-elite institutions face enrollment challenges and calls for equitable outcomes, there’s a push towards models that deliver economic mobility, especially for historically underserved populations​​.

The Way Forward

In light of these challenges, the academic job market calls for adaptability and strategic planning from job seekers. The emphasis on prestige, the impact of the pandemic, the oversupply of PhDs, and the changing landscape of higher education collectively demand a reevaluation of career expectations and preparation. Aspiring academics need to consider diverse career paths, including roles outside academia, and develop skills transferable to various environments.

In conclusion, the academic job market has faced significant adversities, reshaping its dynamics and posing challenges to PhD graduates and academics. The future of this market depends on how well institutions, graduates, and policymakers adapt to these changing circumstances, ensuring sustainable and fulfilling career paths for those in academia.

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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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