I put on my PoliSci hat and robe

I’m a would-be academic who’d like to go back to school at some point. While I was laid up in bed with fever today, I decided to make the most of my cold sweats and red-eyed headaches by doing a little research into the job market for PhDs, particularly those in the humanities (PoliSci, English, and History being my assorted jellies and jams, as the young people say).


While the overall market looks about as bleak as you might expect, I did come across one interesting tidbit in an MLA Research article (emphasis mine):

Good data about where graduates end up ten or twenty years after completing their degree programs have been especially scarce since the mid-1990s, when the humanities lost participation in the federally sponsored Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR).

This intrigued me for a lot of reasons. For one, politicians on both sides of the aisle frequently argue about the need to track job placement rates for university graduates – the consensus seems to be yes, we need to do this but things break down when it comes to motive and method. SDR fills at least a little bit of that gap but as things are right now, it’s kind of useless to a significant chunk of the would-be academic population (re: everybody who’s not looking to go into a STEM field, and maybe even some of them who are). There’s also the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), and while that one does go back farther, it focuses more on annual demographics and doesn’t track people over the long term the way the SDR does. On the plus side, job placement gets a mention if you know where to look in the data tables: It’s listed as postgraduation plans, which seems a little iffy to me in terms of showing whether someone has an actual job or not, but hey – take what you can get.

For the curious, here’s a smattering of tables from 2013, the most recent year available:

All Broad Fields (Life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, engineering, education, humanities, other)
Humanities (Foreign languages and literature, history, letters, other)
Social Sciences (Anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, sociology, other)

Key takeaway: Depending on how you count it, non-STEM doctorates made up about one fifth to a little less than half of all doctorates awarded in 2013. That trend basically held for three years straight and I’d wager it would still be true of prior years as well.

So why the hell don’t we put more effort into tracking this stuff?

It probably involves this guy.
It probably involves this guy.

Sufficed to say, this involves getting down into the weeds on relatively minor policy decisions made about twenty years ago – not the easiest thing in the world. It looks like the decision to ax the humanities from SDR happened somewhere between 1994 and 1996. 1995 seems to be the last year that the SDR covered some of the social sciences; I haven’t found any evidence it covered the other humanities fields, making the whole thing a little misleading even when it wasn’t focused exclusively on science and engineering.

Something like this seems like it could only be boneheaded enough to come from legislation. I have a hunch that the decision was made during the 104th Congress, which had a certain tendency towards decisions that were just plain awful in hindsight (see: Newt Gingrich killing the Office of Technology Assessment). To that end, I spent a couple of hours rifling through the Library of Congress without much luck. I’ve reached out to a librarian and I’ll update this post if they’ve got anything useful.

At the end of the day though, I suspect the choice to remove humanities from the SDR, thereby blinding would-be academics like myself to reliable long-term job trends that would affect our decision to pursue a particular doctorate, is one of those little everyday horrors of politics: Somewhere, something happened without anyone noticing, recording, or mourning what was lost; just some schlub in a suit back in 1995, pushing a few pieces of paper and derailing a million lives over twenty years before going home and having a beer.

Like this, except not so serial killer-y and with a family and a steady job with non-lethal office supplies and...probably not like this at all, actually.
Like this, except not so serial killer-y and with a family and a steady job with non-lethal office supplies and…probably not like this at all, actually.

For what it’s worth though: I think you could enact legislation to get SDR to track all doctorates, but you’d have to pitch it a certain way. Federal government is on a STEM binge right now so you’d probably have to frame it as You could make a more compelling case to get people into STEM doctorates by having reliable comparisons with non-STEM fields. Not exactly the most satisfying way of doing things, but if it gets them done…


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