By Hans Blokland
In all OECD countries, but in particular in Germany, there seems to be an enormous overproduction of PhDs – in case one sees a PhD as the starting point of an academic career or as an important asset on the job market. Between 1998 and 2006 the number of students who received a PhD in all OECD countries increased with 40% (The Economist 2010). Between 2005 and 2009 more than 100.000 students received a PhD in the US, whereas in the same period only 16.000 university jobs became available (Hacker and Dreifus 2010). In countries like Germany, Belgium and Spain five years after they had completed their dissertation about half of the PhD’s were still on temporary contracts. Often they work as postdoc, boosting the research- and teaching-output of universities against low costs. They hope for more, but the universities are hardly ever able to live up to the raised expectations.
A job market disaster
According to several authors, the situation in Germany might be even more complicated than in other countries. The science historian Caspar Hirschi (2011) describes the recent “Exzellenzcluster” at German universities even as “Arbeitsmarktdesaster“: The initiative in question has created a big reservoir of young scholars with hardly any prospects for an academic career, especially in the humanities. For the assumed overproduction in Germany several explanations are generally proposed. Firstly, there probably does not exist a country where “Bildung” and “research” in general and the academic profession in particular are in such high regard as in Germany. Consequently, there is always an abundance of ambitious students prepared to take a slow academic train with no clear direction and destination. Secondly, the institution of the “Lehrstuhl” seems to motivate many professors to collect as many PhD-students as possible since their number is regarded as an indicator of one’s academic accomplishments and standing. After the recruitment of these students, many professors consider their presence mainly as an unfortunate burden, though. Thirdly, especially in the humanities, where usually no big investments in research instruments are necessary, the “Exzellenzinitiative” made it possible to hire extraordinary large numbers of PhDs, post-docs and other short-term employees. As remarked, for most of these scholars there will be no structural position available after they have completed their research.
Not everybody seems to be very enthusiastic about the “Graduate Schools” and other associations that often employ the new generations of scholars In Germany. Other than in the US or in England, but like the situation in the Netherlands, these institutions as a rule, Hirschi (2011) states, have: “weder einer präzisen Problemstellung, einer konkreten Kooperationsform noch eines klaren Erkenntniszieles bedarf“. Instead they are often no more than swarms of scholars organized around very general and ambiguous concepts. One could think about clusters like “Asia and Europe: Changing Asymmetries in Cultural Flows”, “Varieties of Inclusion and Democracy” or “Migration, Development and Conflict”. The Graduate Schools and other research-clusters pretend a coherency, a collaboration and a mutual inspiration that seems largely absent. Maybe the whole idea of large groups of scholars working on common themes and reaching levels of scholarly insight unreachable for those working on their own or in much smaller groups, is not applicable to the humanities.
Dissatisfaction of PhDs
Dissatisfaction among PhDs is common. They complain about the long hours, the low pay, the quality of supervision, the lack of academic freedom and the lack of career prospects. Consequently, the dropout rates are high. In the US only 49% of the doctoral students in the Humanities will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrollment. Research has shown that the students who eventually hand in their dissertation, are not cleverer than those who do not. A survival process of the fittest academic is not at hand, consequently. A PhD-title also does not foster personal income. In the social sciences a PhD will not earn a higher salary than somebody with just a Masters-degree (Casey 2009). It seems that the qualifications students develop during their work on their dissertations do not have much value on the job market. A PhD does not always make people happy either. Especially when they end up in a job where they cannot make use of their qualifications, employees with a PhD often become frustrated and dissatisfied. They will also be less productive than people with lower qualifications, research indicates.
Assuming that there is an overproduction of PhDs, there seems to be not much room for change. Universities and professors have no interest in this. PhDs and post-docs are cheap labor, are highly motivated and disposable. Especially in times of huge scarcity, PhDs, worried about their career prospects, are obedient, humble and submissive. They will write articles, book chapters and even books for their superiors and will take over their teaching responsibilities. Further, as said, the number of PhD’s professors collect is considered an indication of their academic standing, so many professors will hardly ever say “enough”. In general, the less substantial rational agreement there is about “quality”, the more the members of the academic community are tempted to define quality in functional rational terms, which means: bigger associations and collective projects, larger numbers of PhDs and other employees, larger numbers of articles, book chapters, books and other items of academic “output”, and this all produced at a faster rate.
Still, asking whether there are too many PhD’s is like asking whether there could be too many cultural activities. In the end this is not just an economic question, but also, or even predominantly, a political philosophical question, a question of which the answer is based on normative views on men and society, on views on the Good life and the Good society that makes this life possible.
As soon as we would see the writing of a dissertation less as a preparation for an academic career or less in economic terms, both at a personal and social level, many questions about the present practices come up, though: could we not, or should we not, write dissertations with different subjects, different aims, different methodologies, different wordings, different audiences? Should we also not train PhDs in different ways? Currently we pretend that all PhDs have entered the road to an academic career and their training is based on this pretension. Once we acknowledge that many will have a career outside academia instead, we might ask whether the training universities offer, the skills and expertise they try to develop, should not be more tailored to the demands of these different environments.
More relevant dissertations
Related to this is the question of social and political relevance. Obviously, we will never totally agree about the criteria for relevance. But it is also not the case that the disagreements are that big, that it is senseless even to ask about it. After having read about a thousand research proposals of students who applied for the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences I must admit that I cannot remember a single research proposal that explicitly went into the question about societal relevance. I also cannot remember that relevance played a big role in the final discussions of the application committees. Hardly anybody seemed to be much bothered by the topic. But relevance is not just something that academics might owe society. Universities and Graduate Schools also might have an obligation towards the PhD-students: many of them will have to find jobs outside academia. This search is not helped when they have devoted an important part of their studies to a topic of which too many people do not understand the significance, and a topic that also seldom prepares them for the many other opportunities and challenges that after-university life offers.
Another related question concerns the feasibility of many PhD-researches. As remarked, hardly any PhD manages to complete her dissertation within the three years she is formally paid for doing so. One explanation of this is that most researches are too ambitious. A factor behind this is the expectation, again, that the dissertation is the start of an academic career. Supervisors hardly have the urge to correct this expectation. At issue is whether it is fair and productive (both personally and socially) to motivate people to work into their thirties (as is currently usually the case at German and American universities) on a dissertation and only tell them then that there is no vacancy at the university. For moral, social and economic reasons it might be preferable to tell them almost a decade earlier.
A next set of questions concerns the organization of Graduate Schools. How coherent are they? Do they contribute to academic exchanges that improve the work of all the people concerned? Does coherency foster academic quality or would an organized pluralism in disciplines, paradigms and research methods be a preferable strategy? What are the consequences for academic freedom and quality when the position and prospects of PhDs, postdocs and other non-tenured employees are to a high extent dependent on the goodwill of a relatively small number tenured professors?
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