People Stopped Going to Grad School

Over the past two weeks, in between on campus visits and workshops, I’ve continued my research on the history of the academic job market crisis.   One of the many interesting things I’ve learned is that, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, several universities offered summer programs to train PhDs in the humanities and social sciences for careers in business.

The first such program, called “Careers in Business” was created by historian Ernest May in 1978.  The program was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the New York State Education Department.   The goal was to provide PhDs in the humanities with a crash course in business to make them attractive employees to for-profit businesses.  Tuition for the program $1,200 (around $4000 today), and it was selective: only 50 of the 500 people who applied were accepted.

The PhDs attending the program studied a variety of topics aimed at preparing them for careers in industry.   At the end of the program, companies were invited to campus to conduct interviews.  And, the program worked.   In the first year, about 35 went on to careers in industry, while others remained in higher education.

The NEH grant lasted two years, but the program was such a success that Stern School of Business decided to keep it running.  Other schools started similar programs, including the University of Virginia and The University of Texas at Austin.

Then, around the mid 1980s, these programs all closed.  According to the New York Times, the NYU “Careers in Business” closed in 1987 because there was a drop in the number and “quality” of applicants. There was also talk in the academy of a looming shortage of professors. (I know. I almost snorted my coffee reading that). Here’s Edward Lewis, President of St. Mary’s College, Maryland:

 “The most obvious problem in academia is the shortage of professors. It will be across the board in two or three years, and before the year 2000 almost half of the current professors will retire … I think young people considering careers should think about getting a Ph.D. It will be a very attractive sellers’ market for them. “

With the benefit of hindsight, we know the (long-term) shortage of professors never materialized.  Instead of hiring tenure track faculty, universities turned to cheap part-time adjuncts. But, the closure of the programs due to a declining number of applicants made me wonder:  Why, after investing so much time and energy into building these programs, did universities shutter them? They all closed around the same time – the mid 1980s.

Well, it seems one very short and simplistic answer is that people just stopped going to graduate school.  There would have been fewer applicants by the mid 1980s because  the number of new PhDs had  declined.

Here are charts showing how many people earned PhDS in History and English.  The data comes from the Survey of Earned Doctorates.



I wondered how this dramatic drop in PhDs lined up with jobs.  Well, check out this graph (reprinted below) put together by Rob Townsend when he was at the American Historical Association.  It maps the dramatic drop in PhDs in history with “jobs” listed with the AHA. (Source)


For simplicity sake, Rob has counted all jobs published in the AHA jobs database for a given year – so these numbers include tenure track, one year, post-docs, and senior hires.  Nevertheless, what it shows is an evening-out between the number of people graduating  and positions in the academy in the mid-1980s, followed by a very, very short-lived moment when “jobs” outpaced new PhDs (maybe 4 years?)

So, there was a very, very, brief window when “jobs” surpassed the number of new PhDs, right around the time  when “Careers in Business” ended.   Yes, in part because there were more jobs, but largely because the number of PhDs graduating dramatically declined.

This is exactly what universities are hoping to prevent during our current incarnation of the job market crisis, and why so many are promoting careers beyond the professoriate.   Will it work? Or, will people, once again, just stop going to graduate school?  If a bright 22 year old with a BA is thinking about a career in policy or advocacy work (or any of the other post-ac careers we champion),  there are other more direct routes into these careers than a PhD in the humanities.  And, these other career paths will allow her to gain relevant work experience, become professionalized, earn money, and experience career advancement.  This is not to say she can’t use a PhD in the humanities to enter the world of policy work, I’m just wondering if she will (or should) choose that path.

More to the point:  Is the current support by universities and departments for altac/post-ac careers reflective of a changing culture within academia, or just seen as temporary until “things improve,” however unlikely that might be.

For those who are in graduate school or recently graduated, there are (again!) programs to help you transition to a new career, including Beyond the Professoriate, a two day online conference I co-host with Jennifer Polk.  If you’re interested in what else you can do with your PhD, and how to find a nonfaculty career, join us May 7th & 14th.  It’s online, so you can attend from the comfort of your couch.