PhD programs in the US are in for some big changes. Humanities and social science fields probably produce too many PhDs and will need to cut back. But a big expansion of government-funded research could prevent a similar fate from befalling STEM PhDs.
The overproduction of PhDs has been an issue for years in the US, which has a higher rate of doctorate holders than almost any other rich country.
That by itself isn't a bad thing; it's generally good to have a more educated populace, and US researchers help keep the country's knowledge industries at the forefront of the global economy. PhDs contribute substantially to the university system, providing a source of cheap, highly skilled labor for both research and undergraduate education.
But the problem starts when the PhD students collect their degrees and go out into the world. The academic jobs they're accustomed to pursuing have been drying up. The end of the big 20th-century university building boom was the first death knell for this pipeline. Since many professor jobs are tenured, there just aren't many open spots for young scholars unless the country is building more universities — which it no longer is. Do a quick Google search for trends in any academic field — history, anthropology, English — and you're likely to find scary numbers showing a decline in tenure-track faculty openings.
Another reason for the job shortage is that colleges, under immense pressure to cut costs, have been shifting away from tenured faculty toward lower-paid lecturers and adjuncts. That pressure has been exacerbated as undergraduate enrollment has flatlined.
This condemns many would-be scholars to a bleak existence of low-wage, contingent work. Like waiters hanging around Hollywood hoping for their big break, many stick around year after year, forgoing health insurance or living in shabby apartments while their qualifications for jobs outside academia decay.
But even as that coveted professor life drifted further out of reach, the country kept producing more PhDs:
And, of course, this was all pre-Covid-19. The pandemic has dealt a grievous blow to higher education, keeping students home and causing some to question whether they're getting value for money at their schools.
One obvious solution is that PhDs need to forsake the unrealistic academic dream and go into the private sector. And that's a sensible course. The problem is that students' main career advisers are also their doctoral thesis advisers, who are themselves academics and therefore tend to know only the academic route.
Even more fundamentally, many doctorates are simply not worth it in purely private-sector terms. A history PhD can go into a corporate personnel department or marketing or consulting or launch their own startup or do a million other things — but it's highly questionable whether they'll do much better than they would have if they'd just taken a job straight out of college or acquired a master's degree. So while computer science or statistics PhDs can probably hop up a few rungs on the corporate ladder as a result of their degrees, and engineering and biology PhDs can go get a job in a private lab, doctorate holders in the humanities and social sciences are often going to be underemployed.
That's a recipe for societal dysfunction. Many historians have advanced some version of the thesis that dashed expectations among elites can lead to social unrest. Most recently, historian Peter Turchin has warned that overproduction of elites is a harbinger of discord in modern America. There's evidence that PhD school, never a particularly fun experience, is becoming increasingly stressful thanks to growing worry about careers.
A handful of angry, downwardly mobile English PhDs aren't by themselves enough to overthrow the institutions of society, but they can make hugely outsized contributions to unrest and discord if they are so inclined. Remember, these are very smart people who are very good at writing things, and well-schooled in any number of dissident ideas. Those are the kind of people who tend to lead revolutions.
There are two solutions to the PhD overproduction problem. The first is to increase the demand for PhDs. In the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, that's actually pretty easy to do: Simply pour a lot more government money into research. That's something the US badly needs to do anyway, in order to maintain technological leadership and push up economic growth rates. The Endless Frontier Act, a bill introduced by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer in May with bipartisan support, proposes spending $20 billion a year on research and development. If that legislation were to be passed, it would probably be sufficient to mop up any excess PhDs in engineering, biology and other STEM fields.
But for humanities and social science PhDs, there's no such quick fix. The government isn't going to dole out billions a year boosting research in non-STEM areas. So the production of PhDs in these fields simply needs to be reduced to a level in line with new economic realities. Already this is happening, with more than 140 humanities and social science programs suspending PhD student admissions for 2021.
This is going to be painful and frustrating for some young people who dream of studying those subjects for a living. But the squeeze on universities meant that those dreams always contained an element of fantasy. As with so many other things, America is going to have to do the hard work of bringing its academic dreams down to earth.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.