I appreciate Jason’s post. I have been giving the same advice to my students for some time (although few listen, alas). I can usually draw on whatever search we are conducting and give them a sense of the numbers. This year, for example, we had a tenure track search.
- Number of applicants: 188
- Number of applicants invited to interview on campus: 4
Off this pool, my guess is that the same 20-30 PhDs will compete for all the decent tenure track jobs. A few applicants will get multiple interviews and offers. But most will never get anything but a form letter thanking them for their interest. The odds are the worst if you are coming from anything but a top 20 program and are not a member of an historically underrepresented group (and no, this category does not include Christians, Mormons, libertarians, natural law theorists, etc., etc.).
But the issues go well beyond the abysmal market that current exists. There have been down markets before and “lost generations” of academics. But there have been good markets as well (even though, under the best of circumstances, I would guess that most PhDs will never get placed).
The other day, one of my colleagues asked: “How long do you think tenure will exist? Do you think we are the last generation?” Interesting questions. The current model may not be sustainable in the long-run, and there are so many incentives to hire adjuncts instead of tenure track faculty. I am quite dubious of the merits of tenure, by the way, even if I am quite happy to have tenure and an endowed chair that supplies me with a decent research budget.
But the real disruption is on the way. As I noted to my colleague, so many universities are now providing courses free on the internet (In the past year, I’ve watched a course on game theory from Yale, a course on political theory from Oxford, and a number of assorted lectures from a variety of universities. All were excellent. All were free and available on my iPad). As soon as some enterprising organization decides to allow students to take whatever courses they want online, administer exams, and credential students, the prevailing model of higher education will find itself under a significant assault. Certainly, there will always be wealthy parents who want their children to attend a “name brand” university or elite liberal arts college largely as a means of signaling their social status to their peers (those university stickers really dress up that old Volvo). But I am dubious that these institutions will still see the merit of tenure, and even if they do, there will be far fewer positions available to the stunning number of PhDs who are on the market.
A few days after my conversation, I followed a link from Marginal Revolution and discovered that the new model is being rolled out. Under the University of Wisconsin’s “Flexible Option,” students will be able to “complete their education independently through online courses, which have grown in popularity through efforts by companies such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.” You can read the full story here (WSJ).
Bottom Line: follow Jason’s advice.