No Jobs for Ph.D’s? Depends on what you mean by Ph.D.

Jordan Weissman has again posted an excellent article – with good graphics – in the Atlantic.  This one is titled “The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts” (  (He had a previous article about the cost of textbooks, which I reference in my post,…nd-some-advice/.

So, why aren’t these “Ph.D’s” getting jobs?  If you look at my post I talk briefly about universities giving Ph.D.’s for reasons other than that the student earned it (By the way, the student doesn’t always know that they didn’t earn the degree.) and the effects it has on all levels of education. Jordan Weissman’s article shows the effect this has on the Ph.D. recepient.  In this short post, I will give just one true life example of how the system works.

Here is the story.

In a prestigious research university, the math department received a grant from the U. S. Dept of Education to help the country in an area of “national need”.  Here is the description of the program. (From the website:

“This program provides fellowships… to assist graduate students with excellent records who demonstrate financial need and plan to pursue the highest degree available in their course study at the institution in a field designated as an area of national need.”

Here is a story of an American student who received their Ph.D. from the professor who received the grant.

This student, as they were nearing graduation, asked me two questions.  Even if you don’t know math, you might find the first interesting and fun.  Here it is.

If you are at the North Pole and go South one mile, then East one mile, then North one mile, you will be back where you started.  Is there any other point on the globe where this is true?

The student had tried hard to figure it out, but couldn’t get the answer.  I found that disturbing.  (The problem was apparently from a college algebra text.)

For those of you with some calculus, you might find the other question even more disturbing.  The student told me that there was a first year calculus problem they couldn’t get, though students sometimes asked about it.  It was the following standard problem.

The problem has you do an integration by parts two different ways so that you get two different indefinite integrals.  It then asked how this can be.  The answer is simple.  The two integrals differ by sin^2+cos^2 which is, of course, a constant.

This student clearly is not Ph.D material, but now has one.  It is a disservice to the country, to this person’s students – and, in the long run, to this person.  And it is important to note that this is not at all an isolated case.

(Added on 10/19/2013 If you want to read about a real life case where granting advanced degrees improperly made a difference in college education see my new post Professor Alfred Doesn’t Know What is Wrong with the Homework)

A final note on all this.  This same math department that graduated this person has graduated some outstanding mathematicians who have done important research at the highest levels.  The problem – and I believe it is not an isolated one  – is that there is a combination of incentives and unaccountability that lead to universities advancing faculty who are more than willing to do whatever it takes.  That needs to be changed.  But it can only be changed when people understand what is really happening.  I hope this blog can help.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Some PhD’s can’t get jobs probably because they are socially inept, and are not good at doing things like networking or interviewing or marketing themselves for jobs that are a bit of a stretch for their background. At least, that’s pretty clearly why I haven’t been able to get a job in industry. As far as academia, I have no interest in working there, although I am not good enough at either research or teaching, anyway. There may be a handful of people who shouldn’t have gotten PhDs in math, but I highly, highly doubt that that explains more than a tiny fraction of the people not getting jobs. It just isn’t a very easy transition to make to go to industry if you didn’t have a plan B or if industry wasn’t your plan A in the first place. Most math PhD’s who go to industry probably had it in mind early on as plan A or plan B, but a few, like me, planned to be professors and realized a little too late that they had to bail on that without having a plan B. I think that has a lot more to do with it. I may be sort of lame at math by PhD standards, but there’s no doubt that I’m competent and still much, much better at math than I need to be for most of the jobs I’ve applied for. It’s just easy to be overlooked if you don’t have top-notch ability to market yourself, and you don’t have the very specialized skill sets needed for a lot of the jobs out there. I’d be great at millions of jobs that would take me two years to learn. The trouble is not that I wouldn’t be great–the trouble is finding an employer willing to let me take the two years to learn, rather than being ready to do it right off the bat. It really has nothing to do with being good at math, but rather, that math itself isn’t in high demand, unless it is supplemented by more marketable skills, such as machine learning, statistics, and so on. Industry is much more interested in machine learning than they are in 3-manifolds or non-commutative ring theory, and sure, those people could learn machine learning, but there is limited willingness on the part of employers to sit around waiting for them to learn it. They can get 10 other guys who already know it, so why would they bother with the pure math PhD? It really makes no difference to the employer if they are outstanding mathematicians or guys who shouldn’t have gotten a PhD. Neither one has the skill set they desire. Now, if they were busy preparing themselves with plan B, maybe they have a shot, but if they are just now being faced with a big, nasty career change, that can put them in a difficult spot.

    • You’re a bright guy and I think you need to muscle your way into a community college. Great places to teach and you’ll definitely stand out as a star. Please don’t give up!


    I like your earth problem. Surprisingly there are an infinite number of latitudes that will do this. The first being one mile north of the latitude (due north of the south pole) that circles the earth at exactly one mile; the next would circle the earth at exactly 1/2 mile; yes the sequence continues ad infinitum in our minds, but in reality we’ll eventually get too close to the south pole to make this a reality.

  3. I wonder if $\LaTeX$ is supported, because I would love to show an integral that often stumps other math teachers.

  4. Okay, LaTeX is not supported so here’s the link regrading an integration that looks peculiar to many mathematics teachers:

    Just go to page 247, question number 7.

    By the way, I am looking for work!

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