In October 2010, “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” was posted on YouTube and began to circulate rapidly through various social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. The video, a simple animation, features a starry-eyed undergraduate student who has come to ask her professor for a letter of reference for a graduate school application. When asked why she wants a PhD, the student answers, “I want to become a college professor.” Instead of receiving encouragement, the hapless student is warned off bluntly and repeatedly: “You do know that less than half of PhDs get a tenure-track position?” The undeterred undergrad eventually receives the promise of a letter, believing herself to be on the way to living “the Life of the Mind” (and ignoring her prof’s sighs of despair).

This video was a popular permutation of a theme that has been manifest in various media sources over the past several years. The corpus of criticism includes articles from The Economist, commentary in numerous blogs, opinion columns from academics such as William Pannapacker, and larger “movements” like the New Faculty Majority (in the United States) that highlight the working conditions of contract professors. These critiques have emerged partly from, or have been complemented by, nightmarish coverage of the various higher education policies being implemented in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The humanities in particular are a subject of constant debate and evaluation, standing in, not as a realistic example of educational failure, but as a cipher for the “useless” PhD that leads nowhere other than to a steady diet of ramen. Yet “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” was soon followed by multiple spin-off versions, morphing into a popular meme that included parodies of political science, physics, chemical engineering, and psychology, as well as law and business. These videos’ lesson was that humanities students are not the only ones wandering mistakenly along what they believe is a straight and narrow road to a meaningful (and lucrative) career.

So, with this general unraveling of expectations, what role does a PhD still play in training the professors of the future? What is the current context in which preparation takes place, including the various effects of political and economic changes on graduate education and on the academic job market? To answer these questions, we need to understand that the purpose and productivity of the university has come under increasing scrutiny over the past 30 years or so, as conservative political movements have gained strength, and various recessions have gouged out government coffers. We also have to understand such trends as: the constriction and stratification of the academic job market; internationalization and marketization of education; student consumerism; rapid development of new technologies and the evolving needs of an expanding student population. These developments have changed the demands made on university faculty, as has the tendency towards managerial governance in universities, which places an emphasis on accountability, efficiency, and quality control. Who ends up on the path to becoming a professor, and what kind of academic world lies at the end of it?

The journey leading to a faculty career has retained its basic institutionalized form for around a century, with only a few changes over the past decades. One important development is that there is now less chance than ever that a master’s level education will be a sufficient credential for an academic job. The PhD is all but mandatory as a qualification for faculty in Canada, except in cases where a candidate brings significant professional expertise relevant to the academic discipline in question. It’s therefore important to ask what this “first hurdle”—graduate education—looks like in practice, and whether Canadian PhDs find themselves competing on an even footing with scholars educated elsewhere.

Students’ success in the PhD is a necessary but not sufficient condition for becoming a professor, for success is dependent on many interrelated factors, some of which are beyond the student’s control. The same demographic factors that affect undergraduate accessibility will have “echo effects” at the graduate level, since a bachelor’s degree is only the initial hurdle. This means that stratification of the student body begins well before the first PhD class. Parental education and socioeconomic status are still strong contributing factors to undergraduate performance. Performance can also be affected by family crisis, health issues, depression and anxiety, and students’ outside work commitments undertaken to meet educational costs. Entry into a PhD program is primarily conditional on grades from the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, so serious disruptions to these can create a discouraging barrier.

Simply not being well informed about the requirements (and opportunities) for graduate school can also be a factor that determines who attends and who does not. Students may not be aware of the importance of grades, not only for entrance into graduate programs but also for eligibility for the large merit-based scholarships available from the federal and provincial governments, for example. Students need early mentoring in preparation for these applications, especially since success builds on success and since one scholarship often leads to more funding later on. For students from low-income and/or non-academic backgrounds this is crucial information and required support, and it’s all too easy for them to slip through the metaphorical cracks for lack of attention.

All this is to say that privilege still plays a significant role in student “outcomes”—possibly a larger role than it has since the post-war expansion of post-secondary systems around the world began almost 70 years ago. Always an elite profession, academe expanded and diversified in the post-World War Two era, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, as enrolments increased and system-building occurred throughout Canada (and around the world). During a period of unprecedented social mobility, both the professoriate and the student body began to change. Yet with the economic shifts of the past 40 years, the open door to academic advance- ment has begun to swing shut. Cultural capital, closely tied to economic advantage, has become once again one of the most significant factors in students’ academic success, so deeply enmeshed with other contingencies that it’s hard to figure out exactly how it works, But we do know that merely counting the number of books on a household’s shelves is no measure of the complicated inter-relationships between economic, academic, and social privileges.

All these factors will contribute to a student’s decision to pursue a PhD, as well as to her or his perception of the purpose of the degree and how one acquires it. But research from the United States shows that a serious information gap persists when students are selecting and entering a PhD program. On the one hand, doctoral programs may aim to recruit the best students whether or not those students are a good “fit” for the program (or for a particular supervisor). There may also be recruitment quotas or funding issues involved. On the other hand, a prospective student is often making a decision based on the prestige of a program or the reputation of a particular faculty member, rather than whether or not the program best suits her or his needs.

The information gap at the point of enrolment also contributes to doctoral student attrition. The high rate of PhD attrition is a long-term phenomenon that’s received relatively little attention, but many factors can contribute: depression and other mental health issues; isolation from peers and faculty; financial difficulties; problems with supervision; and the elusive “lack of fit” with the program or the institution. Canada’s PhD attrition rates are not included in the results of the Survey of Earned Doctorates or other available reports, but institutional reports seem to point to a 40-50 per cent dropout rate depending on area of study, similar to the United States.

The culture of graduate education often contributes to students’ problems. Meritocracy, the notion that achievements are determined by individual merit rather than by a complex of factors (some of which are beyond our personal control), is a concept that is crucial to academic culture and the operational logic of academe itself. Because students internalize the idea that their success is dependent on this narrow notion of merit, they often blame themselves if they “fail” to perform adequately during the PhD. They might be reluctant to speak out about their problems, since usually no one else is doing so, and they might feel they are revealing personal inadequacies, rather than bringing to light systemic flaws.

Students in many doctoral programs are socialized to “translate” academic success as gaining a tenure-track job, with an emphasis on research. But these kinds of careers are now harder to find, because of the highly competitive market for tenured positions. During the doctoral process it’s more likely than ever that students will experience stress and anxiety as a result of increasing pressure from new standards of professionalization. There is an upward drift of credentialism, and this affects the professional expectations of PhD students. The list of accomplishments necessary to find desirable academic jobs is intimidating, and students who want to succeed in this way require a high level of awareness, self discipline and autonomy, or a very proactive mentor figure—and preferably a combination of these advantages. What does work at the graduate level is provision of the information students need to make appropriate academic and career decisions. Students need clear explanations of institutional processes and of their own responsibilities and rights during the doctoral program. Social and academic integration, both with other students and with faculty, is important because it helps students learn the tacit (cultural and social) knowledge required for success in the university. Students also require structure and support, as well as mentorship, either from a supervisor or from other faculty or professional figures. This can include: help with publishing and networking; involving students in research projects; assistance with scholarship applications; academic and moral support through personal difficulties; and attending conferences and events. While mentorship is still one of the most crucial aspects of graduate education, competition for faculty attention and support has increased with enrolment, affecting the kinds of training that doctoral students receive.

The current job market for tenure-track academic positions is notoriously difficult, for reasons that are structural, political-economic, and cultural. While Canadian universities have been expanding steadily since the 1950s, in recent decades universities have relied more heavily on part-time and contract faculty as a means of increasing enrolment without incurring the cost of hiring additional tenured professors. The CAUT reports that about 35 per cent of universities’ academic staff are either part-time, temporary, or both. In spite of tenured faculty retirements, formerly tenure track spots are often being replaced with multiple part-time contract positions. Additionally, some older faculty are only “semi-retired”, and a recent trend is that they are now teaching more courses on contract, courses that were formerly taught by PhD students and recent graduates.

When they are teaching multiple courses (often at different universities) with relatively low pay and few or no benefits, it’s much harder for young scholars to engage in the research work that would help them to advance their own careers. Teaching is less valued than research in the academic economy, so it pays less and also tends to count for less on an academic CV. The problem is also a gendered one, since under-valued teaching work is “feminized”, and the proportion of women in Canada’s temporary and part-time academic workforce is above 60 per cent.

Many PhD students are rightly concerned about the availability of academic jobs and about the proportion of PhD candidates finding full-time, permanent positions. But while anecdotal evidence abounds, actual numbers are harder to find. How many Canadian PhD graduates end up on the tenure track five or ten years out from graduation? It’s possible that the long-term shortage of positions (in comparison to applications) has led to a logjam. When new graduates begin the search for a tenure-track position, they’re competing not only against those who graduated within the previous several years and remain without tenured positions, but also against those who may already have a tenure-track or tenured position at another university and have decided to move (for whatever reason).

The market for tenure-track positions is also an increasingly international one. To some extent this has always been the case; but now more than ever the elite stratum of scholars has opportunities to travel to the best institutions both for the PhD and for academic work later on. The flip-side of this mobility is the instability that comes with the process of developing an academic career. Searching for tenure often means uprooting yourself and your family, because only so many positions are available at a university near one’s chosen location. Sometimes difficult decisions must be made to focus on the priorities of just one family member. It means one must also assume that job security will still exist in the years to come, and that the five-to-six-year tenure process will have a positive outcome.

Many early-career academics now choose a post-doctoral fellowship as the first step after their PhD. The post-doc allows for further professional development before entering the academic job market. But post-docs, too, are becoming more competitive as more grads apply, and they also cost, since there is a large gap between the average salaries of those who enter the job market immediately and those with post-doctoral positions.

Because of these systemic difficulties, relatively few PhD graduates tend to find a permanent faculty position (in the short term). Just as a master’s degree is no longer enough for a professorial position, it’s also rare to meet anyone who has a tenure-track job lined up immediately after their PhD; and hiring ABD doctoral candidates seems to be more or less a thing of the past.

Critics often ask whether we are over-producing PhDs. But this question is usually posed in relation to the number of PhD graduates who cannot find decent faculty jobs. If we assume that PhD enrolments must somehow reflect the needs of the academic job market, then there has always been a mismatch between enrolment and demand. However, if couched in terms of developing “human capital” for the “knowledge economy”, increased enrolment numbers make more sense. But little is being done to bridge the gap between quantitative policy goals (simply increasing the number of PhD graduates in comparison to the OECD average, for example) and the qualitative factors affecting students’ understanding of the purpose of the PhD.

Are the graduates who opt for the academic job market ready to deal with the everyday reality of professorial work?  How will they handle the technologies of quality control and time management, the committee work, the politics of departments and institutions, and the “soft skills” needed to deal with students and colleagues in appropriate ways, as well as the ethical comportment we reasonably expect of scholars? If many graduate students do not find tenure-track positions, how do we ensure that all students have ample opportunities to make appropriate decisions about their careers, as well as having access to mentorship and skills that will help them formulate goals and work towards those goals?

Breaking the silence about the problems students encounter during the PhD years would also help to humanize the academic workplace and make it more inclusive and supportive, potentially reducing the likelihood of PhD students leaving their programs. Some scholars have produced research suggesting that exit interviews should be mandatory for all students, whether they complete their programs or not. This would provide valuable feedback about program changes and would help build the relationships that allow universities to follow alumni over the long term, learning from their career paths about the possibilities for current and future students.

The changes to the university that most affect aspiring professors are merely local manifestations of larger phenomena that can be seen across economies around the globe, whereby the nature of careers and employment has shifted towards competitive contingency. Increasing reliance on education as a credential by larger proportions of the population ironically shows up the ways in which education has not historically been the only factor in “success”.

Thus there is no guarantee of upward mobility, even with that highest of educational attainments, the PhD. Ultimately this represents not only a change to the perception of doctoral education but also to our understanding of the benefits of education in general, and its role in the assumed social contract; namely “Educate yourself, work hard, and you’ll get ahead”. Earning a PhD is still one way to achieve this, but the academic profession itself is no longer an epitome of its realization since the old arrangement has begun to break down. Caveat emptor is a warning that now applies to education as to other “goods”, but the fact that it must be made explicit tells us something about the nature of the times. Education is more of a risk, even as it becomes more of a necessity.

Harbingers of doom aside, the university will change and will most likely survive. PhD education remains at the core of academic training but has become a focus of contemporary anxiety, partly because education is the way we try to control (and change) the future—and the culture of academe is at the heart of control over education. How we negotiate the tension between control and innovation is one factor that will determine the scope of future academic careers and the nature of the university itself.

Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education, York University. She writes extensively on higher education at her blog ‘Speculative Diction’ and for University Affairs magazine.