“Take a basket-weaving course,” is an old saying university students use when they want to boost their grades. It’s a humorous way of poking fun at the many “mickey mouse” courses offered at universities in which students can get high grades without doing much work.
While actual basket-weaving courses are rare, useless courses are not a myth. For example, hand drumming, witchcraft, gothic horror, dance psychology, and movie soundtracks are but a few of the actual courses offered at Canadian universities. Needless to say, they aren’t likely to help students gain useful skills for the job market, but they will, undoubtedly, get them high grades for very little effort.
It’s bad enough when students waste their time taking one useless course. Now imagine completing an entire PhD program in a totally irrelevant and obscure field. Think of the thousands of hours and potentially tens of thousands of dollars of public funds that is wasted while students specialize in a field that has about as much practical relevance as basket weaving.
Job statistics bear this out. According to the Conference Board of Canada, at present fewer than 20 percent of Canada’s PhD graduates are employed as full-time university professors. In far too many cases, PhD graduates end up working for poverty-level wages as adjunct instructors, often at the same university where they completed their PhDs.
If private colleges offered programs with such abysmal job placement rates, they would go out of business. Unfortunately, public universities in North America have largely been immune to that kind of economic pressure. In fact, it benefits them to have a large surplus of PhD students since these students lighten the workload of tenured professors by grading papers and teaching many of the less desirable courses.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic and public health restrictions have upended this cozy—and largely hidden—arrangement. Due to reduced government funding, many universities across both Canada and the United States have slashed the number of students accepted into PhD programs, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. For example, New York University’s sociology department cut the number of PhD spots by one-third. Princeton’s sociology department went even further and suspended all admissions for the 2021 school year.
Interestingly, universities have not cut the number of students enrolled in professional programs such as medicine and engineering, nor have they reduced the number accepted into PhD programs in the hard sciences such as chemistry and physics. That’s because these programs typically receive significant funding from outside agencies that are often very interested in hiring graduates from these programs.
In addition, no one disputes the important role that doctors, nurses, and pharmacists play in society, particularly in the middle of a global pandemic. But most people are hard-pressed to imagine what use there is for more PhDs in education or sociology.
The situation is worse for PhD holders in even more obscure fields such as art history, gender studies, or social justice education. Frankly, universities would do many of these students a huge favour if they permanently cut PhD programs in these fields. That way these students wouldn’t waste years acquiring a degree that has virtually no practical use.
Fortunately, there are better options for students. In many cases, a bachelor’s or, at most, a master’s degree is more than sufficient for many meaningful jobs. Someone who is passionate about gender studies or social justice will do just fine with a master’s degree in the field since they have essentially the same employment opportunities as someone who invests an additional five or more years acquiring a PhD degree.
An even better option would be to get trained in a completely different field. For example, there is a huge demand for skilled tradespeople in plumbing, electrical work, and construction. Not only are the training programs considerably shorter, they are virtually guaranteed to lead to gainful employment.
Another benefit of working in the trades is that young people will have the satisfaction of doing work that makes a real difference in the lives of ordinary people. People tend to have a lot more appreciation for the plumber who unclogs their toilets than social justice activists who participate in protests to shut down the fossil fuel industry.
The reality is that many PhDs wouldn’t even be missed if they disappeared tomorrow. This is a clear sign that a significant correction is needed to how universities are using their resources. Obviously, provincial and state governments need to formally assess all the higher education programs in their colleges and universities.
Let’s hope that the reduction of the total number students in humanities and social science PhD programs becomes permanent. There certainly are better things that these students could do with their time and resources.