A Numerical Reflection upon the 2015-2016 APSA Placement Statistics

[Okay, this “Seven…” gimmick isn’t working for producing finished blogs—mind you, I’ve got about a dozen 50%-80% finished entries in the pipeline—and [shock!] there are things that can be said with less than “Seven…” witty subcategories, but are still longer than an extended set of Tweets, which no one reads to the end of anyway. [1] So I may be doing some shorter blog posts for a while.]

Brethren and sistern [2], our reading this day is from the newly released American Political Science Association 2015-2016 APSA Graduate Placement Survey. And more specifically, the chapters and verses—which is to say, the entire report—dealing with the continued decline in the proportion of political science PhDs who are placed in tenure-track (TT) positions. Now down to an abysmal 35.4%.

Well, at least that simplifies the task of the Director of Graduate Placement, eh?—he or she can just address the year’s crop of candidates with a straightforward “Look to your left and to your right: only one of you is going to get the TT job you have laboriously trained for.”

Otherwise it’s insane: why, oh why, are you people allowing this to continue? Have you no shame?

Let’s put this in perspective. I’m not sure what placement rates were when I graduated (Indiana, then as now ranked around 20 nationally, so competitive) in 1976—though we were complaining bitterly that they’d dropped from a rate approaching 100% in the previous decade—but I do know that I joined a department (Northwestern) which I’m pretty sure was composed entirely of TT faculty: I didn’t even really know what an “adjunct” was at the time. Pretty much the same was true twelve years later when I moved to Kansas, though I think there we had a couple long-term adjuncts teaching specialized courses in policy and law that we couldn’t otherwise staff. Mandatory retirement at age 65 was still in place both institutions, so someone hired into a TT slot would on average occupy that for about 35 years. [3]

And that, campers, is the source of our problem. Mandatory retirement was abolished in the US—with a few exceptions such as airline pilots and FBI agents, but not tenured academics—in 1986 [4]. Initial projections were that academics would retire anyway at age 70 or thereabouts but, well, from what I’m hearing, that isn’t happening. In fact I’m hearing quite the opposite: I talked recently with a chair who was extolling the virtues of her multiple faculty who were in their 80s.

Now, although I don’t think I really had the stamina (or cultural/emotional links to the average undergraduate student) to effectively engage a classroom using contemporary active learning methods after the age of 55 or so, these people have every legal right to do what they’re doing and I’m sure they have assured themselves this “aging” thing is just some sort of primordial myth from which they are exempted. Whatever. We’re here to look at comparative numbers.

Let’s assume the average person hired in a TT slot now occupies that position to age 80 rather than 65: 50 years rather than 35 years. In an eye-blink, we have just reduced the availability of TT slots by about 30%. Permanently: this is not a generational thing, it is a permanent structural change.

But it gets worse: not only will these people hold those positions an additional 15 years, but they will almost certainly do so at their career-high salary levels and, unless you’ve got deans, associate deans, deanlets and deanlings backed by a really good set of lawyers and an HR department which really likes to make phenomenal amounts of highly public trouble for itself, those individuals will generally get roughly the average departmental salary increase, but do so on the highest tier of the department salaries. Which will pretty much suck all of the financial oxygen out of the room, and at public universities at least, that additional salary probably will not be funded by tuition increases. [5]

Hence the proliferation of adjuncts, and the further decline of TT positions: public universities simply don’t have the money to fund such positions any more.

The effects of average salary increases (and salaries as a function of age) are much harder to approximate than the effects of abolishing mandatory retirement, but I’d guess this factor forces another 10% to 20% reduction in TT slots. And this before various other long-term trends such as student-as-customer, university-as-athletic-franchise, degree-program-as-occupational-training and campus-as-entertainment-park which further divert resources and reduce demand for dedicated lifetime-employed positions, particularly in the social sciences.

Now, there’s an obvious [roughly] market-clearing solution in these circumstances: reduce the production of PhDs—or at least PhDs aimed at TT employment [5]—by about 40% to 50%. Not only is that the obvious solution, it’s the only solution. I’ve seen almost no evidence this is happening, and fundamentally it is a classical tragedy-of-the-commons situation which has had the classical tragedy-of-the-commons outcome.

Good luck with that.


  1. Or at least not my extended tweets. Though eyeballing the Twitter stats, the drop-off is a great natural example of exponential decay.
  2. Yes, “sistern” is a word. In Middle English.
  3. That figure is almost certainly high: between voluntary and involuntary attrition, 30 years would probably be closer. But we’ll stay conservative.
  4. Abolition for tenured faculty in the US was actually delayed for an additional 8 years, to 1994, which is why we start seeing these effects kicking in around the 2000s rather than earlier
  5. At this same time, public financial support was also dropping precipitously compared to the levels during the post-WWII expansion of those systems, and tuition increases were hard-pressed to deal just with that decline in revenue. Declining public funding  accounts for substantial amounts, though probably not all, of the oft-heard ” tuition increases faster than inflation” complaint, at least in the 1990s and 2000s.
    Until the Great Chinese Trade War—or the Great Student Visa Crackdown—is in full swing, elite private schools appear to be able to raise tuition indefinitely. Such schools, of course, tend mostly to hire from each other (and a few top publics), though somewhat surprisingly the differences reported by the APSA between the top two NRC tiers (1-19 and 20-37) are surprisingly small, except for the top tier, as expected, being more likely to place in PhD programs. Below that, things get really grim.
  6. Ironically, I think there is a substantial unmet need outside of academia for individuals with advanced training in the social sciences, both quantitative and qualitative, that certainly goes beyond the typical two to four semester M.A., and in many cases would include the independent research experience required by a dissertation. At least on the quantitative side, such opportunities are probably absorbing most if not all of those unable to find TT employment. But there’s a huge waste in the current system: time spent training people on the assumption that they will spend their lives in the classroom and writing unread[able] articles published in paywalled venues following a five-year lag could be put to much better use on more practical topics. I’ve yet to see anyone do this in political science, though one sees some initial efforts in multi-disciplinary programs.

Addenda, 8 Feb 2017

Well, people seem to be reading this, so a few additional thoughts

1. Once again, my numbers on the impact of the end of mandatory retirement are just approximations, though probably not far off. I’m guessing most people won’t literally delay retirement until their 80s, but delay until mid-70s already seems to be quite common, so we’re still adding 10 years. Meanwhile I probably substantially over-estimated the average time spent prior to age 65 in a TT job, since attrition from the standard full-teaching-load TT position can occur through a variety of tracks, particularly administration (which in my experience is disproportionately drawn from the ranks of political scientists: during part of the period I was a grad student at Indiana, the president, provost and dean of liberal arts were all political scientists) or, as I did, shifting to buying out most courses with research funding. So the average time in a TT prior to age 65 may well be more like 25 years, though that and retirement at 75 leads you to pretty much the same numbers.

In the second half of my years at Kansas we had a highly effective provost, David Shulenburger who developed, along with his senior data analyst, Deb Teeter, an absolutely massive database on faculty and departmental costs and [multiple measures of] productivity. So I’m certain that Shulenburger and Teeter knew to the third decimal point the values of the sorts of numbers I’m speculating about here. Most faculty, of course, assumed Shulenburger allocated resources solely on the basis of personal whim, immensely hampered by his inability to recognize their intrinsic genius.

2. Barring various ailments, you can definitely live a “life of the mind” well past the age of 55: in fact with the Internet now instantly augmenting whatever lapses one has in memory, you can have a rather fabulous time doing this. What almost no one can do as well at age 55 as at age 35 is conduct a 3-hour active learning seminar, or, for that matter, pull an all-nighter to write a brand new lecture based on three books you read the previous day. Yeah, yeah, the Boomers reading this—other than the fact they won’t be—are all figuratively jumping up with counter-examples (most of which are urban legends) and yeah, yeah, at age 39 Tom Brady brought the Patriots back from near certain defeat to win the 2017 Super Bowl. But I’m guessing the NFL isn’t planning to shift its recruiting strategy to focus on 39-year-olds.

The other thing you unquestionably lose by age 55 is any sort of intellectual networking with the people who are developing the new cool theories: by 55, most of your peers from graduate school and pre-tenure days are no longer doing any meaningful research at all (or have shifted their focus to something like UFOs…), or have become administrators, or are running focused research projects where the work occurs largely out of the limelight. Want to see what Harry Potter felt like wearing that invisibility cloak?: walk through a conference venue when you are over the age of 50. Yes, this will happen to you (maniacal laughter…and get off my yard…)

[By the way, do not try to make these arguments in an academic department because your HR department will become exceedingly upset. I can say them because I’m no longer employed in academia.]

3. The sort of qualitative work I know of that is tremendously valued outside of academia is the intensely focused language/culture/field experience that is typical of much of comparative politics. Just as with quantitative training, the specific topic isn’t all that important, it’s the fact that you (and your immune system) can do it at all. I’m guessing there are culturally-immersive equivalents in U.S. politics, and there your choice of “shots” will be whiskey vs bourbon rather than typhoid vs typhus.

This doesn’t extend indefinitely: if by “qualitative” you mean simply sitting around in seminar rooms discussing ever more esoteric theories you have pretended to read, there’s a point where that is too, well, “academic” and no one else cares. The equivalent in the quantitative realm are people who spend their entire time studying estimators on simulated data: yawn… In academia there are niches for this sort of thing, just not very many, and your chances of getting placed into one are extremely low.

4. I’m guessing one of the primary motivators for the proliferation of PhD programs which have no realistic chance of placing most students into TT positions is to provide “graduate” TAs for the fabulously lucrative introductory courses, which basically drive most of the finances of large departments (certainly political science). This is actually a terrible model, and universities would be much better off using their best senior undergraduates in these roles, but you rarely see this. Nonetheless, I’ll always remember one of the honors students at Kansas who was working for me noting “I look at people in the honors program here, and they’re going off to graduate school at places like Harvard, Michigan and Berkeley. Whereas the GTAs here are going to graduate school at, well, KU.”

Addenda, 25 April 2017

In the wake of political science professor Will Moore’s suicide last week, it is also worth noting that putting up with the apparently ever-increasing psychological stresses of this rat race may not be good—or even safe—for you. In fact a remarkable number of blogged comments about Will—beyond the observations that in his academic life he was highly productive, well-networked, and by all external appearances, unusually successful—noted this issue: Cullen Hendrix and (more nuanced) Christian Davenport are just two among these.  But completely independently of that event, a couple weeks earlier Science magazine had posted an extended discussion of the topic of mental health in academia, focusing on graduate students.


I’m not sure where this all ends up, but the current process, with the implicit assumption by administrators and senior faculty that they can continually raise expectations, and lower rewards, with no consequences, does not seem sustainable. Some form of three or four-year post-secondary “educational” experience, nominally devoted to learning but mostly focused on branding and drinking, seems pretty common across history and societies. Massive hyper-bureaucratized research universities, on the other hand, date back only a century or so, and even urbanized, industrialized societies appear to be able to get along just fine without them: the contributions of the universities to both the political and technological revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries were minimal. University administrators, however, appear to think nothing can possibly displace them. So did the dinosaurs.

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2 Responses to A Numerical Reflection upon the 2015-2016 APSA Placement Statistics

  1. V Hudson says:

    Yeah, I too think it’s immoral to train Ph.D. students who can never get jobs. The one fly in the ointment is that if lower tier schools eliminate their Ph.D. programs entirely, we will surely have academic groupthink where all potential professors are coming out of the very same programs. Don’t think that would do much for social science progress. So how do you get around that issue? What are your thoughts, Phil?

    • schrodt735 says:

      Definitely an issue, particularly given the very narrow cultural focus of most of those schools. We saw a partial solution to this with the massive of expansion of the public system — particularly in the Midwest and California — in the post-WWII period, though you could argue that [predictably] these gradually became assimilated. It’s a classical collective action problem, of course: if a small (like really small: there’s probably room for only 20 to 30 viable graduate programs and most of those slots are filled) group of schools would provide a really selective and high quality alternative to the usual suspects, that would work, but disseminating those efforts across fifty schools, all with weak and non-selective programs, doesn’t.

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