The incredible shrinking Ph.D. program: how universities are cutting back

Post-Recession Blues for Doctoral Programs

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The financial crisis hit U.S. universities hard, downsizing their endowments and forcing the government to cut some support. In response, institutions nationwide announced in 2011 that they had stopped admitting applicants or closed graduate programs, from the University of North Carolina to the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago had decreased its incoming Ph.D. classes by 30 percent in 2010.

Even with some signs of economic rebound, the shrinkage continues throughout academia. But some graduate fields are actually expanding, with universities announcing new Ph.D. programs to address emerging disciplines or industries expected to grow rapidly in coming years.

Ph.D. programs suffer from university budget crisis

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that college endowments--an important source of funding--declined by an average of 23 percent from 2008 to 2009, due to record investment losses and a steep drop in donations. By late 2010, U.S. News & World Report reveals, endowments had recovered somewhat, but only to 2005 levels.

Some departments see more program closures than others: In the fall of 2010, the University at Albany - SUNY announced plans to eliminate major, minor and graduate programs in French, Italian, Russian, the clas­sics and theater.

Department restructuring and low enrollment are among the reasons for graduate program closures. The University of Iowa cited them in its 2011 cuts to Ph.D. programs. Lower enrollments may be a response to the economic crisis and rising tuition costs, or a reaction to the difficulties of the graduate student lifestyle.

Another factor is the length of time needed to complete Ph.D. programs. A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in March 2011 shows that the time required to earn a doctorate varies by student and by discipline: In the humanities, it could take from five years to more than a decade.

Ph.D. glut?

The decreased size of graduate programs may also reflect an overabundance of doctorates and the lack of jobs for Ph.Ds. In 2009, the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that some universities were cutting the number of doctoral students because of the oversupply of doctorates in the job market. In 2010, the Los Angeles Times discussed the downturn in university hiring and the resulting reduction in jobs for Ph.Ds. This trend is especially hard for those in the humanities, who generally find work in academia. As another example of the shrinking job market, in May 2010, the American Historical Association reported that the hiring of new assistant professors of history had dropped 30 percent year-over-year.

Universities view doctoral programs as costly

Non-Ph.D. students traditionally subsidize their education costs through federal aid or out of their own pockets, while Ph.D. students often receive help with tuition and their other costs. Forms of graduate aid typically include tuition waivers, cost-of-living stipends, as well as teaching and research assistantships. That makes maintaining Ph.D. programs a costly endeavor.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology reports that 60 percent of its students are in graduate programs, and more and more of them depend on fellowships. University administrators see Ph.D. programs and fellowships as expenses, in contrast to master's degree programs and professional programs (such as law school or medical school), which can bring profits to schools.

Scattered Signs of Growth

Despite numerous cuts across graduate programs, a certain number continue to grow. Some universities are even launching new programs. This growth may reflect emerging new disciplines or "hot" industries, such as health care. For example, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing announced in March 2011 that enrollment in doctoral nursing programs increased in 2010, growing by 10.4 percent.

Here are examples of a few new doctorates, from March 2011 announcements:

  • Emory University. Ph.D. program in environmental health sciences
  • Ball State University. Multidisciplinary Ph.D. in environmental science
  • West Virginia University. Doctoral program in business administration

In fact, a few schools seem to have weathered the financial storm. In March 2011, Harvard Business School announced it would protect spending on fellowships and continue to increase the number of students admitted to doctoral programs.

To pursue or not pursue a Ph.D.: That is the question

There are a list of reasons why students shouldn't pursue a doctoral degree, including the amount of work, the possibility that students may not finish their degree, the lack of financial reward in the short term, and the likely struggle to find occupation afterwards. However, a student who loves learning and enjoys academic work may find it rewarding to go ahead and pursue a Ph.D. In turn, it is crucial to research prospective Ph.D. programs and investigate all options before committing to a doctoral program.

In the long term, those who complete advanced graduate studies may reap financial rewards. In its most recent employment data, the BLS reported median weekly earnings in 2009 for those with a doctoral degree reached $1,532, roughly equivalent to earnings for those with a professional degree and more than twice the wages of those with an associate degree only.

The BLS also predicts growth in occupations where workers typically hold doctoral degrees. These job openings are expected to grow by about 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is more than twice the growth rate estimated for jobs requiring only work experience or on-the-job training.