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 are part of the problem, but I think we might have hit on the core of it. Many PhD candidates have an unrealistic expectation 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 PhD, 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 PhD and met the general qualifications. *Gulp*!
No one has much motivation for encouraging PhD 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 mislead.
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 with administrators 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 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 typically end up teaching at a low tier university than they studied at.
Moving On Down
There’s a glut of people with PhDs. In Canada, about 6,000 new PhDs 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 (seems about reasonable to me), this means that a professor will train maybe 12 new PhDs over their career – some more, some less. Clearly 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. Often students will prefer to go to the best university that will accept them, and universities want to have students fighting over their admissions 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 school have been closing recently due to decreased enrollment – some accept every student who can pay.
One way that a university can improve their perceived quality is to hire professors from a better university. Your university might not be Harvard, but you can hire people who got their PhD from Harvard fairly easily! For those schools that can’t convince a Harvard PhD to come work for them, they can still certainly get some of the surplus PhDs being produced at other higher level schools.
Slate wrote about this phenomena in a recent 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 PhD 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 going to be very likely that we’ll move down at least one rank. Many will go down multiple ranks.
Obviously there will be super stars 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 PhD 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 about 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 isn’t what they imagined it would be when they thought they’d be leading a research group comparable to the one they studied in. 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 is becoming 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 a faculty members, are you at the type of school you expected to be at? What has been different from your expectations?