why there are phds in the unemployment line…

May 11, 2012

According to what we’re often told, if we work hard, study, get good grades, and go to college, we’ll have good jobs that let us make a steady living and the typically poor college student days will be long behind us as the president of a university hands you your graduate degree. Sure, you may not have the life of plenty but you are definitely clearly of having to go on welfare to feed yourself, right? Actually, maybe not. As it turns out, there’s a disturbing number of PhDs on food stamps working odd jobs after all the schooling and hard work that would make them immune to the trials of the working poor, according to the prevailing societal truisms. Many times, the initial reaction is to say that it’s really not that huge of a problem, especially compared to the millions upon millions of non-PhDs currently out of work and that these situations are almost certainly temporary. Of course one could see why not a whole lot of administrators and pundits would be interested in talking about PhDs on welfare at any length. It really drives home the fact that a lot of long-held American beliefs about education and income can vary widely from reality and that you could do everything right only to end up having to file for aid.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the PhDs who have trouble turning their education into stable incomes. Quite a few undergraduate students are also ending up making a lot less than they may have expected, and while you can say that the compensation premium for a bachelor’s degree hasn’t changed very much even during much of the Great Recession, the worst salaries in decades have effectively made that premium worth far less than it once was. In fact it’s a neat accounting trick that helps for-profit trade schools and college lenders. They can lure in students by showing the relative premium of a college degree but forget to mention that in real dollars, this premium gives graduates far less purchasing power than they had five years ago. Oh and that’s if they do manage to get a job, which may or many not even be in their field. But come on, they did the right thing, they’re obviously on the way to something great, right? After all, they studied hard enough to get into college and after applying themselves earned degrees, exactly as mom, dad, and everyone else around them told them they’ll have to do to get a good job and start a career. How could it be that we send millions of students to college to spend all that time, money, and effort, and have them rewarded by crushing debt and unemployment?

But the sad fact is that this is exactly what we obliviously do while pretending that the system in which we’re working is fundamentally just and seldom fails to reward hard workers and good scholars. All right, why don’t we look at it another way? A lot of the welfare PhDs spend tens of thousands of dollars getting degrees in all sorts of humanities disciplines for which there’s little demand so surely they must be to blame for their bad situations. How many people will be interested in employing someone who wrote a dissertation on the social dynamics portrayed in silent films? Who but a handful of universities need a PhD in theology? This may be a good way to salvage the seeming fairness of the system but it’s fundamentally flawed. Yes, as I’ve said many times myself, you can’t rely on a degree in humanities to pay your bills, but at the same time, the problem isn’t that humanities PhDs are ending up with big loans and empty pockets, it’s that a degree does not guarantee sustainable, full time work. Even the most highly demanded STEM disciplines are subject to the whims of the market and predicting exactly what will be needed in what city and by what companies in four years before you even start your first class, would be an exercise in clairvoyance. Yet we expect college students to perform this feat every year and then fume when they fail to fare any better than a psychic. Of course they can’t do it.

On the part of the humanities scholars who find themselves out of work and academics who find themselves under attack, some write articles berating modern society for ignoring their passion for crass consumerism. I understand it may be disheartening to know that the world cared more about Twilight than Joyce and I agree, it’s really quite sad. At the time time, people need food, shelter, security, roads, and medicine. It’s not that PhD after PhD is discarded by society for daring not to care about the latest Angry Birds sequel or choose to study the most obscure language in the world to mine it for insights into human culture, but that its immediate and material needs have to take precedence over their academic ones. Society doesn’t tell you to crank out a little metal widget because it needs to print some navel-gazing self-help treatise or load another trite pop bleating on iTunes, but because it needs to fix a road, or develop a new antibiotic, or write some new software to keep important financial transactions secure. It doesn’t want the luxury to plan for its new generations and the best you can do is try to be at the right place, at the right time to find a career close to what you like to do, and when you get there, there may not be a reward for college or good grades and a C- student may be your boss. This is how our world works today and let’s not pretend that there’s some magical combination of degrees, GPAs, and professional credentials that will save you when you find yourself in a really bad economy…

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  • No offense, but the point of getting a PhD is not to improve your ability to get a job. Anyone who enters a PhD program for that reason should be sat down and told gently that if their not passionate enough about the subject to take a vow of poverty, then they should get out now before they are too far in debt.

  • Bruce Coulson

    Well, that would certainly end the problem of Ph.D.s on the unemployment line pretty quickly. There would be so few of them that employment would be almost guaranteed.

    College is a tremendous investment of money, not only of the student’s but generally speaking their family. Passion is fine, but it doesn’t pay the bills. If getting a Ph.D. requires you to put not just yourself but your family into debt, solely to follow your passion, then only a very few people, all but a few the children of privilege who can afford to indulge their offspring, will get one. The rest, no matter how passionate they may be, will have to settle for less and live in the real world.

    Economically, reducing the supply, if the demand remains constant, should improve the prospects of those remaining.

  • DreamQuestor

    Just out of curiosity, how do we know that the majority of Phds existing on food stamps actually majored in humanities? (I know that Greg has not specifically stated this, of course, but the essay seems to imply it.)

  • Greg Fish

    “how do we know that the majority of Phds existing on food stamps actually majored in humanities?”

    Well, a PhD doesn’t major in a discipline, he or she does research in it. No one seems to keep any official statistics we could quote, but if you notice all the posts and stories about the bad fortune of PhDs, there are no references to those who did graduate work in engineering, or astronomy, or comp sci, or medicine, as least there were none in the many stories I’ve seen and linked to in my posts.

    Of course this doesn’t mean STEM PhDs will never end up on food stamps, but when every quote on post after post on welfare PhDs quotes those who studied history, art, film, or language arts, you can see some sort of trend emerging. Again, in the absence of official stats this is all conjecture, but I think it has a basis.

  • Economically, reducing the supply, if the demand remains constant, should improve the prospects of those remaining.

    You misunderstand. Passion is a requirement specifically because getting a PhD doesn’t really improve your chances of employment, and the employment that /is/ available is invariably lower in salary than other types of work. Passion is also a requirement because it pushes the student through the gauntlet. Lest they get stuck much longer, piling up debt, and still end up out of work after it all. This is especially in relation to STEM fields, which, contrary to the opinions of Greg Fish above, DO also have issues with PhD employment. EVERY field has unemployment and underemployment issues right now. If a person isn’t passionate about the subject, if the whole concern is over future employment possibilities, the constant worry will inevitably lead to a downward spiral into depression.

  • Greg Fish

    …contrary to the opinions of Greg Fish above, [STEM fileds] DO also have issues with PhD employment.

    Nowhere did I say that STEM PhDs have a golden ticket to the life of plenty and never have to worry about un- or underemployment. My entire point is that according to the anecdotal evidence with which we’re presented in articles about this issue, it seems like they have fewer problems getting work than humanities PhDs. That’s all.

  • Paul451


    You often mention the advertising/propaganda aimed at school-leavers that college grads earn $1m more than non-grads. Since non-grads includes everyone, whereas grads includes only those capable of graduating, and of paying-for (or borrowing for), and of supporting themselves (or being supported) while studying, I’ve often wondered what kind of comparison you’d get it you had a matched cohort of non-graduates. Same economic background, same highschool scores, etc. Everything the same except a) no debt, b) no degree, c) 2-4 years head-start in the workforce.

  • Greg Fish


    There are people who do very well in high school and may end up either dropping out of college or not going due to some family drama of financial problem, and they could make decent money in some jobs, however, they end up facing a glass ceiling when they’re mid-career because to climb the ladder, they need a degree. So they could be supervisors or junior level managers, but middle management and above will usually be closed to them without at least a B.A. or a B.S. degree. Some senior positions will require an M.S. or an MBA to even apply in the first place.

    In your scenario, the non-grads would be better off initially in the ways you’ve specified already in the short term. They could get their own place and pay their own bills faster, they could build up a good credit score quicker, and they wouldn’t have the miasma of college debt following them. But over the long term, they would be stuck in jobs where pay doesn’t keep up with inflation, unable to get many mid-level jobs and virtually any senior level post would be off limits to them, and face creeping inflation leaving them a bit poorer every year. At some point they will need to go to college to keep up.