Caveat Venditor & Market Failure in the Academic Job Market

The Chronicle of Higher Education published the speech Kevin Birmingham delivered last October upon receiving the Truman Capote Award for his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. In his speech, Birmingham decried the widespread employment of adjunct faculty members, particularly in the humanities, as “exploitation” and “injustice.”

The abysmal conditions of adjuncts are not the inevitable byproducts of an economy with limited space for literature. They are intentional. Universities rely upon a revolving door of new PhDs who work temporarily for unsustainable wages before giving up and being replaced by next year’s surplus doctorates. Adjuncts now do most university teaching and grading at a fraction of the price, so that the ladder faculty have the time and resources to write. We take the love that young people have for literature and use it to support the research of a tiny elite.

There’s enough blame to go around. But what Birmingham describes is better understood as the result of market failure, not the result (for the most part) of intentional harm.

More on market failure in a moment. A word though about the PhDs themselves. For all the people and institutions Birmingham blames for the oversupply of PhDs in the humanities – the massive oversupply of PhDs – the one set of persons he does not discuss is the PhDs themselves.

I expect that Birmingham would respond that any discussion of PhDs themselves is simply victim blaming. For most academics, one’s desired vocation is not just business, it’s personal. Still, if someone knows in advance he or she faces a gamble, but still chooses to roll the dice, it is neither exploitation nor injustice if what turns up are snake eyes.

Birmingham mentions that over one million people with PhDs work in non-tenure-track academic jobs. One million. These are generally smart people. Even if throughout the process of being an eager undergraduate considering graduate school, to laboring as a graduate student, to being a freshly-minted PhD looking for work, and even if the faculty members with whom one interacted with hid the truth about the dismal state of the job market in one’s discipline, it takes almost willful self-deception these days to hide one’s eyes from the massive oversupply in many areas of the academic job market.

To be sure, being self-deceived does not excuse those who help to deceive, or who take advantage of the self-deceived. But how far must universities go to help putative PhDs in the humanities and other fields understand that odds are they will not obtain a tenure-track job?

We like to convince ourselves that we’ll be the winner. And, to be sure, there are all those films that celebrate the person who made it despite all the odds (while ignoring the many identically-skilled, identically-motivated folks who failed to make it). Should departments not provide students who want to give it a shot despite the odds the opportunity to take that shot? Is it possible that what Birmingham ascribes to “exploitation” and “injustice” is little more than personal disappointment at having given it one’s best shot when one’s vocational roll-of-the-dice turned up snake eyes?

Like putative sports professionals who didn’t make it despite years of hard, disciplined training, or musicians who dreamt of the acclaim of a performance career but now labor in frustration as middle-school band directors, the starry-eyed expectation that one will make it despite the odds does not mean the game was rigged when one does not achieve one’s aspirations. People lose, sometimes painfully so, even when the game is fair.

I talk to undergraduates all the time about law school and graduate school. I tell them that it’s a lousy time to go into academics, and a lousy time to go into law. I’m unsure any student ever changed his or her mind after speaking with me. Usually they come looking for confirmation for what they’ve already decided. And that’s fine too, as long as after speaking with me they go to graduate school or law school recognizing the gamble. Talking about supply and demand may sound mundane when a student comes to me with romantic ideals of the life of the mind or being the next Atticus Finch. Better some realism early on. Caveat venditor is the byword.

None of this means departments and graduate programs do not share responsibility. And perhaps there are some faculty and some departments who intentionally mislead putative graduate students into thinking that there’s a wide-open job market awaiting them upon graduation. If so, that’s immoral.

My experience is that it doesn’t work that way. Contrary to Birmingham’s assertion that “professional humanists [are] indifferent” to adjuncts, my experience is that all – and I use that word advisedly –  departmental administrators and faculty in the humanities are aware of the oversupply to PhDs in their fields and think it is a problem that requires solving.

To Birmingham’s plaintive question, “Why?” the answer is not intentional exploitation (as Birmingham suggests) but plain-ole market failure.

The problem is that incentive structures departments face conduce against unilateral action to solve the problem: Unilaterally reducing the size of one’s own graduate program imposes direct costs on the department while at best generating diffuse benefits to the profession at large.

On the one hand, robust graduate programs generate positive goods for departments themselves: Good scholars often want to work with graduate students. As a result, departments with strong graduate programs – and numerous graduate students –often find it easier to attract strong scholars than departments with small or no graduate programs. Attracting stronger scholars means more and better publications, more national and international prestige (which scholars often value in its own right), and this can translate into bigger budgets and more resources.

If a department chooses consistently to shrink the size of its graduate program it becomes marginally less attractive to faculty relative to other programs that do not shrink their programs. Fewer graduate students to work with, fewer doctoral seminars, fewer TAs for introductory classes that professors must now teach. (Which isn’t a bad thing, but that’s another topic.) The costs to departments are direct.

On the other hand, no department by itself graduates so many PhDs that if it were to shrink the size of its graduate program, even if it were to shut down its program entirely, it would much affect the abysmal market for PhDs in its discipline.

Unilaterally reducing one’s graduate program or abolishing it is the equivalent of unilateral disarmament in international affairs. It’s surrender. It’s the sucker’s play if you do it unilaterally. So given the incentive structure, departments continue to host graduate programs and sustain the overproduction of PhDs. This, despite universal acknowledgement of the oversupply of PhDs as a serious problem.

What’s the solution? Each department would of course invite all the other departments to reduce the sizes of their graduate programs. Indeed, even if disciplinary associations would get together and try to form departments into a cartel, bargaining over PhD production quotas would prove almost insuperable. (And even if successful, any agreement might be a violation of antitrust laws.) State-level action presumably would not be coordinated enough to do much good. (Consider, for example, state-level efforts to curb tax competition for sports teams and other businesses has worked.) And it’s difficult to think that humanities’ faculties in universities, particularly in these days, would invite national-government intervention to set PhD production quotas.

It’s difficult to think of what will solve the problem other than letting low-wages and poor working conditions work their way out in the market by inducing PhDs to leave teaching, and by deterring putative PhDs from entering the market in the first place. That said, market disincentives created by oversupply have been in place already for at least several decades already and don’t seem be correcting the oversupply. This is not good news to those already in the market, or to those who are thinking of entering in the market. Caveat venditor is the byword. Caveat venditor.

James R. Rogers

James Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, and is a fellow with the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. He also served as editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics from 2006 through 2013.

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  1. gabe says

    Perhaps we should let the market work this out.

    No more government backed loans for graduate programs (or at least in the “humanities”, such as that field has come to encompass)

    How many potential PhD;s will leave the chase?

  2. nobody.really says

    There’s enough blame to go around. But what Birmingham describes is better understood as the result of market failure, not the result (for the most part) of intentional harm.

    Fine essay—except the part about market failure.

    If Rogers’s thesis is that students are being deceived about their career prospects after graduation, then I would agree that this reflects a kind of market failure. (And indeed, in legal education, many law schools actively promoted this deception by publishing false statistics about the number of graduates who had found careers in the law.)

    Or if Rogers’s thesis is that voters or legislators have been deceived about the social value of subsidizing graduate programs, I might also agree that this could reflect a market failure.

    But if grad students largely know about the dismal career prospects for PhDs, then I don’t see the market failure. Rather, I see people who derive value from their studies, or from the prestige they associate with having a PhD, or from the chance of landing a remunerative job as a result of their credential or education. In each case, the students would seem to get what they value. And sure, students who gambled on winning the lottery will be disappointed when they don’t, and will express that disappointment, but that’s not a market failure.

    The problem Rogers focuses on is the idea that he (and perhaps society) doesn’t value the choices that these students have made. He wishes that society invested fewer resources in producing these PhDs. And this is perhaps not surprising. He (and society) does not get to enjoy the psychic benefit derived by the students reveling in the wealth of the world’s intellectual patrimony, or in the personal satisfaction that comes from having an advanced degree. (“Please put the reservation in the name of DOCTOR Wilson, thank you.”)

    But why should we readers want to privilege Rogers’s (or Birmingham’s) values over the values of the students making the choice about what to do with their own lives?

    To advance his own values, Rogers promotes the idea further restricting access to graduate programs. I would propose a different remedy: Educate people about the career prospects for newly-minted PhDs in the humanities, and eliminate the subsidize for producing them. Rogers notes that he has tried to educate students, and perceives that few take his admonitions to heart. But it is unclear to me that they didn’t accept his advice, or that they weighted it against other factors—the joy of the study, the prestige of the degree—and made a rational choice to proceed.

    If we are going to try to rescue students from themselves, grad students would be pretty far down on my list. In contrast, I struggle with how to respond to bogus (and often for-profit) educational programs. Trump University grabs the headlines, but there are no shortage of other organizations that purport to offer degrees in various regulated fields—teaching, police, counseling, etc.—but the degrees offered by these schools are not recognized by the various licensing authorities. In practice, the degrees are worthless (often because the educations are as well).

    A student would have to be a fairly sophisticated consumer of education to know to investigate these dynamics before enrolling. I was blessed to have college-educated parents, and a sufficiently good SAT score to be able to rely on prestige and longevity to help guild my choices. But if I were a first-generation college student who was choosing among less prestigious options today, would I be able to distinguish between the glossy procures offered by real schools and the glossy brochures offered by fake ones?

    The Obama Administration sought to implement my proposed remedy to address this problem. They advertised the need for students to be on their guard against bogus schools. And they adopted policies to withhold student loans for students at schools that had a poor track record of students acquiring jobs that would justify the debt—in other words, they reduced subsidies. (Ok, gabe beat me to the punch here.) I understand the Trump Administration may abandon these policies. Oh, well….

    • gabe says


      Yep, but you did express my thoughts in a far more elegant fashion.

      I think you are quite correct with the special problem of a first generation college student who may not have the benefit of the advice and experience of family members who themselves had endured the Chase (think the old movie the “Paper Chase”).

      I think you are also correct regarding the “psychic” value associated with the pursuit, even if not the attainment, of an advanced degree. I have a (not-so-young-anymore) nephew currently engaged in this effort. Advice is politely listened to – but nonetheless not adhered to. Let us hope that satisfaction is the ultimate reward.


      What do you make of the recent trend which has Universities / Colleges do mass market advertising. I don;t mean the Trump type or technical school types but rather larger Universities doing this?

      Could this not lend some credence to Rogers, or better Birmingham’s theses?

      In any event, very fine comments.

      Fortunately for me, I was too dumb to pursue an advanced degree – ha!!!! – so I can not reflect upon personal experience other than to say that there is a very real *psychic* value in learning.

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