I was out to brunch over the weekend and had an interesting discussion with a friend about why many faculty members are unhappy. We bounced around a number of ideas, each of which I suspect is part of the problem, but I think we might have hit on the core of it: many Ph.D. candidates have unrealistic expectations about the odds of getting a faculty position and the caliber of school they will work at if they do get a position.
Odds of Getting a Faculty Position
At the start of their Ph.D., just about every student feels that they will be a professor after they defend their thesis. If they have some awareness of faculty positions being quite competitive, it’s a dim awareness and they’re confident that they’ll be “the cream that rises to the top”. At some point during their studies, they’ll actually take a serious look at the job market. Often this is a very sobering experience. For me, it was when I applied to a 3rd rate Canadian university and was told there were 217 applicants for the 2 positions they had. I’m sure that every one of those 217 applicants had a Ph.D. and met the general qualifications. *Gulp*!
No one has much motivation for encouraging Ph.D. students to face this hard truth earlier. Professors want good graduate students, as do universities. It’s a bit of a bummer talking about how many graduates who want faculty positions won’t get them, so many people avoid the subject. This can lead people to feel they’ve been misled.
This would make you think that the faculty members who DO get positions would all be happy. Yet many of them constantly grumble. What’s that all about?
Part of this is that you’re “locked in” once you get tenure, and there can be long-standing grudges between faculty members and administrators (or other faculty members) that just simmer over the decades instead of ever being resolved. In most other work environments, the person would quit or get fired, yet tenure distorts both those options.
Another part of this is that many faculty expect more autonomy and input into the university’s operation than they actually get. “Shared governance” is more about getting faculty members to serve on committees and volunteer for other work than giving the Provost feedback on what you think she should do.
The biggest element of this, in my opinion, is that faculty are unhappy because they end up teaching at a lower-tier university than they studied at.
Moving On Down
There’s a glut of people with PhDs. In Canada, about 6,000 new Ph.Ds. are trained annually by around 15,000 professors. Globally it would be a comparable ratio. If we say that a professor will train, on average, 0.4 PhDs per year (which seems reasonable to me), this means that a professor will train maybe 12 new PhDs over their career – some more, some less. New faculty positions aren’t being created at this rate.
Universities are very aware of how they are perceived and where they sit in the viewed ranking. How this is determined is convoluted, but there absolutely is a ranking. Students will prefer to go to the best university that will accept them, and universities want to have students fighting over their admission spots every year – often using their acceptance rates as a measure of how selective and prestigious they are.
Harvard fills every slot they allocate, while for-profit schools have been closing recently due to decreased enrollment – some accept every student who can pay.
One way that a university can improve its perceived quality is to hire professors from a better university. Your university might not be Harvard, but you can hire people who got their Ph.Ds. from Harvard fairly easily! For those schools that can’t convince a Harvard Ph.D. to come work for them, they can still certainly get surplus Ph.Ds. being produced at other higher-level schools.
Slate wrote about this phenomenon in an article titled The Academy’s Dirty Secret: An astonishingly small number of elite universities produce an overwhelming number of America’s professors.
What this means is that schools like the one you got your Ph.D. from probably would rather hire someone trained at a more prestigious school than you. If you’ve attended the top echelon of schools (good for you), you’re going to be competing with the entire world for a faculty position at one of the tiny number of comparable institutions.
For those of us who do get faculty positions, it’s very likely that we’ll move down at least one rank. Many will go down multiple ranks.
Obviously, there will be superstars who end up at a better university than where they studied. There will also be the people who are good enough to stay at the same rank university they studied at. These will be the exceptions, not the rule. According to the Atlantic, the average Ph.D. graduate won’t get a faculty job. Of those who do, the majority will move down to a lower-tier university than they studied at.
Why Is This A Problem?
The short answer is it isn’t. It’s just an explanation of why some faculty are so unhappy. Some of this unhappiness comes from having different expectations for their career than they have experienced. They hoped to work with students like they saw at the university they studied at, but are instead working with a less academic population. Often their research productivity and standing aren’t what they expected. They thought they’d be leading a research group comparable to the one they studied at. Weltschmerz is a German word that describes the unhappiness that results from the difference between how the world is and how we would like it to be. The saddest part of this is that many faculty in these positions could be much happier if they got over their expectations.
What To Do If You Can’t Get Over This
A faculty member is at their most marketable after 3 years in a tenure track position. Your research profile becomes quite clear at this point, and you’ve demonstrated whether or not you’re able to deliver on the various parts of the job of being a faculty member. If someone is unhappy at the level of school that will offer them a job, the solution is to accept a job from the best of the pack, then work extremely hard for the next 3 years to make the case that you can move up to a higher league by landing a job at a higher ranked school.
For those working as faculty members, are you at the type of school you expected to be at? What has been different from your expectations? Why do you think faculty are so unhappy everywhere?