It’s that time of year again: sending in the last of the grad-school reference letters. Over time, my answers to students who request grad school reference letters, particularly for PhD programs, have become more and more emphatic: don’t do it. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how good your grades have been.
The job market for political science PhD’s is abysmal. It has long been pretty poor, though nowhere near as bad as that for historians and philosophers. But following the 2008 recession, the market has simply collapsed. At this point, there is such a backlog of underplaced and unemployed political science PhD’s that even a strong economic recovery, with its concomitant benefits for state budgets, can never clear it. Speaking from personal experience, you now need to have a better record (in an “annual average productivity” sense) to get an entry-level assistant professor job in political science at a directional state college than to get tenure at a Carnegie Very High Research institution.
If you get a political science PhD, you should be aware that you are buying a lottery ticket. If your number manages to come up — but it probably won’t — you can get a tenure-track job — eventually. Otherwise, you should see your five, six, or seven years of postgraduate education as a consumption good, and prepare your resume for entry-level private industry jobs. Then, if you’re one of the few lucky ones to get a tenure-track job, you might not get tenure. That used to mean that you dropped down to a lower-ranked institution and started over. Now it means that you have to change careers.
It’s not just PhD programs that aren’t worth it any more. Law school applications have plummeted. Full-time MBA’s in the United States are of doubtful value at best, especially when opportunity cost is considered. Even medical degrees are now a huge financial risk.
Instead of going to graduate school, students would be better advised to do more with their undergraduate degrees. The value of studying math is difficult to overstate. From engineering to biomedicine to insurance and finance, understanding calculus and advanced statistics opens doors. This is true regardless of whether a BA is useful mostly for human capital development or for signaling (math is hard for most people). I recommend a minor in math to most undergraduates. Alternatively, computer programming and web development can be self-taught — you don’t even need to go to college.
In the end, I break down and write the reference letters and wish my students the best. I want them to succeed. I just know that most of them won’t. If you’re early enough in your education to avoid making the mistake that all too many of us have made, take my advice: don’t go to grad school.