Colleges Shouldn't Be Employment Agencies

John V. Lombardi

The Chronicle of Higher Education  POINT OF VIEW (4/16/99 )

Student: "I love history and want to go on for a doctorate. I have great grades and a fine score on my G.R.E. Will you take me?"

University professor: "Sorry, my forecast for employment opportunities for Ph.D.'s indicates that you are not likely to find an academic job five to seven years from now, so we can't permit you to pursue your doctorate at this time."

Is that what we've come to? Faculty members at prestigious graduate programs worrying not only about whether they train students well in their disciplines, but also about how to turn themselves into labor-market specialists? Arrogantly, we propose to tell aspiring Ph.D. students that we know so much about the job market that we will deny them the right to pursue a graduate degree in the field they are passionate about.

The Chronicle recently reported that graduate departments at Columbia, Duke, Indiana, and Washington Universities, and at the Universities of Chicago and of Michigan are among those limiting the number of incoming doctoral students on the basis of academic-job-market projections, or according to the number of doctoral students whom the university can financially support. The latter condition is really just a corollary of the former: The assumption is that, if newly minted Ph.D.'s won't be able to get academic jobs, they shouldn't be expected to pay for the advanced portion of their education. The trend, which has emerged over the last several years, is particularly marked in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts.

That's nonsense. What gives the university the ability to estimate future needs for Ph.D.'s, and by what authority does the university implicitly tell aspiring students which jobs they should pursue if they earn a Ph.D.? Does every Ph.D. in history have to end up a tenured professor of history at a research university? Is it a bad end for a Ph.D. to teach at a high school or a community college? Is it beneath the standing of a prestigious university to produce Ph.D.'s who might end up in business? Something is very wrong with this picture.

Academics often engage in policy conversations from too narrow a perspective. We sometimes think that what the academy sees as important, critical, and significant is what the world sees -- or, at least, what it should see. If we note a shortage of good academic jobs for our Ph.D. graduates in various fields, we feel bad because those graduates have difficulty finding jobs like our own. We do not ask whether the world needs or wants more people just like us.

Moreover, we refuse to admit that we cannot actually do anything about the job market, because it responds to economic forces beyond our control. So, rather than acknowledge that managing the job market is not our business, we overreact, saying to recent graduates of doctoral programs and to current doctoral students: "Look, we are concerned about your job prospects today, so we will help you by restricting the supply of Ph.D.'s tomorrow."

I don't know if we're kidding our students, but we're certainly kidding ourselves. Trying to influence the market for those doctoral students who will be applying for junior faculty positions seven years from now won't help today's new Ph.D.'s. Besides, the market seven years from now is almost impossible to predict. We can make as good a case that demand will rise -- for example, as a result of the retirement cycle -- as we can that demand will decline because of undergraduate and graduate enrollment extrapolations, increased reliance on part-time faculty members, or what have you.

Nonetheless, we have to say something to our students who are graduating today with a Ph.D. and, perhaps, no academic job lined up. So we say, "Gee, times are tough, and we don't want to repeat our error by allowing people like you to risk not getting a job in the future." Of course, the irony is that, just as we make our dire predictions, publications like The Chronicle report that this year's academic job market is the best it's been for a long time.

Moreover, in our self-centered haughtiness, we forget that many other employers besides colleges and universities hire Ph.D.'s. Advertising, business, public relations, banking, publishing, and an endless list of other enterprises do so, and, amazingly enough, many of those employers pay -- can you imagine? -- better than academe. Elementary and secondary schools need better teachers, we say. So why not supply well-trained Ph.D.'s to teach our children? Community colleges teach more and more of our undergraduates. So why not prepare well-trained Ph.D.'s to teach those students?

Don't we also have an obligation to current undergraduates who love their academic fields and consider pursuing them at an advanced level an enriching experience? Let me check my notes, but isn't that what higher education is primarily about? Sure, tell them about the current academic job market, but then let them study what they want to study. That is their choice, not ours.

The University of Florida has the resources to give qualifying applicants financial support, and the faculty members and facilities to help educate them. The university welcomes graduate students who want to study and learn, to acquire advanced knowledge and academic skills, whatever the students' long-term, professional goals. We encourage students to get Ph.D.'s and other advanced degrees, because we believe that graduate education is good for students, good for our state, and good for our nation.

We think America has too few people with advanced training, and too few Ph.D.'s in most fields. We also know that too few women and members of minority groups earn doctorates. And so we are enthusiastically expanding our doctoral and other graduate programs.

We provide extensive support for students in their search for employment, but we're not an employment agency.