Solutions to the Jobs Problem Revisited

Solutions to the Jobs Problem Revisited

Last year, Daily Nous reported that Eleanor Dickey, professor of classics at University of Reading, had been collecting various possible responses to problems associated with the high ratio of PhD holders to academic jobs. The full report is here, and the helpful summary, which groups the more popular responses by type, is here.

Professor Dickey (et al) report the problem this way:

The high unemployment rates and poor working conditions of PhDs have been widely reported in the media (references are provided in the full report), and survey respondents generally agreed with that picture while providing additional nuances. The exact problems they reported differ greatly. For many questions UK respondents are slightly less unhappy than the average respondent, and Classicists are slightly more unhappy; for some questions the greatest unhappiness was reported by those who eventually did get permanent jobs. The worst problems, interestingly, are not practical ones such as poverty and constantly moving around but rather concern morale: uncertainty about the future (severe for all except those with primary employment outside academia), the anguish of not knowing whether to give up trying for an academic career, the demoralization of endless applications, giving up one’s intellectual identity, constant pressure (especially for the unemployed), the sense of failure (especially for Classicists), and the contradiction between the values professed by academia and how people are really treated (especially for those who eventually got permanent jobs). Conclusion: The morale problems should be taken seriously, since the respondents consider them to be worse than the more measurable and hence more widely reported practical difficulties facing PhDs.

As for solutions, they are grouped into the following categories:

– “changes in PhD programmes to reduce the oversupply of disappointed would-be academics.”
– “reduce the current oversupply of disappointed would-be academics by facilitating their transition out of academia.”
– “ameliorate the conditions to which the people without permanent academic jobs are subjected.”

The results are posted on the blog, Hortensii, which is dedicated to “Tackling the problems facing PhDs without permanent jobs.”

(image: “The Catch” by Alexander Calder)

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Derek Bowman
5 years ago

I find the bolded part strange. I certainly agree that “the morale problems” should be taken seriously. But I don’t understand how they can meaningfully be compared to “the more measurable and hence more widely reported practical difficulties facing PhDs.” In their conclusion for the response to 2 (from the full report), Dickey (et al) make this contrast even more stark, arguing that: “In other words, if the feelings could be addressed, to a large extent there might not be a problem: many respondents already have other solutions to their financial and other material needs.”

This strikes me as highly implausible as an empirical hypothesis, and conceptually rests on an implausible division between these psychological conditions and the “practical difficulties,” as though the one floated free from the other. Surely many of these “morale” problems are directly and indirectly fed by the underlying “practical problems” that give rise to them. Speaking from a sample of one, I can say that while I have “other solution to [my] financial and other material needs,” some of those involve being financially dependent upon others, and imposing or accepting financial sacrifices on others. What I lack is an ability to meet my financial and other material needs in ways that conform to my own values and to some of the standard values and expectations of the society that I belong to. It’s just not obvious how trying to separate out the “psychological” from the “material” elements of that problem is likely be useful in identifying a real solution to that serious problem. Similar problems arise for other elements that are presumably included under “morale” such as “constant pressure” or “constant uncertainty about the future” – these only make sense in light of the fragility or uncertainty of being able to meet one’s material needs in the future – e.g. if one loses one’s job.

I also find it implausible that “many respondents” actually have other *adequate* solutions “to their financial and other needs,” and I’m not sure the report supports this. For example, I don’t see any real discussion of children (a word search shows only one hit from a respondent under “General Comments”) or retirement. Someone may be meeting their immediately material and financial needs now but be unable to save for retirement, or to save for their children’s education, or to prepare for unexpected medical emergencies.

In the full report they go on to say: “More compassion could be shown, and more respect… Departments that repeatedly hire temporary faculty could try to give those faculty members as much stability as possible and treat them well.”

I certainly agree with that proposal. But as a contingent faculty member who has been lucky enough to receive a great deal of compassion and respect, and who currently enjoys some stability with my (part-time) employment, I can report that this is not an adequate solution to “the morale problem.” It’s inadequate precisely because it does nothing to address the very seriously material and financial needs that are bound up with those morale problems.Report