As they walk in hooded robes to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance," many students getting their doctorates this spring dream of heading to another university to begin their careers as tenure-track professors.
But when Elena Stover finished her doctorate in September, she headed to the poker tables. Frustrated with the limited opportunities and grueling lifestyle of academia, Stover, 29, decided to eschew a career in cognitive neuroscience for one playing online poker. She got the idea from a UCLA career counselor, who was trying to help her find employment.
"The job market is abysmal, especially within the academic system," said Stover, who spent six years getting her doctorate at UCLA.
It has never been easy to find a tenure-track teaching job. But this year, dwindling endowments and shrinking state budgets — especially in California — have made that goal more elusive than ever. Now, many graduates with doctoral degrees are finding themselves looking for jobs outside universities — jobs they probably could have gotten without five to six years of intense schooling and tens of thousands of dollars of education debt.
"That's one of the weird things — after all this training, you should really have these career options, but in reality, it's really scarce," said Stover, who moved to Oakland, got a poker coach and says she's making enough to pay the bills.
Budget cuts are plaguing California's once-admired higher education system. The California State University system lost 10% of its teaching force over the last year, which is the equivalent of 1,230 full-time posts. The University of California's share of state general fund revenue of $2.6 billion in the 2009-10 fiscal year was 20% less than it was two years earlier.
Many universities are cutting costs by reducing full-time staff and hiring adjunct or part-time professors. The number of full-time faculty members at universities was around 51% in 2007, down from 78% in 1970, said Jack Schuster, a senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate University. That leaves many doctoral degree candidates stuck with adjunct work, which can pay as little as $2,000 a semester.
Graduates with humanities doctorates are particular vulnerable to the downturn in university hiring. In 2008, 86% of humanities doctoral recipients ended up in academia, whereas only 15% of engineering doctoral recipients did.
The number of jobs listed in the Modern Language Assn.'s Job Information List, a clearinghouse for English and foreign literature doctoral students, is down more than 40% over two years, the steepest decline since the association began keeping count.
But doctoral recipients in all disciplines are having a tough time landing teaching gigs, said William Pannapacker, a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education and an associate professor of English at Hope College in Michigan. For example, university job openings requiring a math doctorate declined 40% in the 2009-10 academic year from the year before, according to the American Mathematical Society.
At the same time, schools keep producing doctoral recipients. The number of doctorates awarded by U.S. colleges and universities reached an all-time high in 2008 at 48,802, nearly double the number awarded in 1970.
People holding doctoral degrees do, on average, make more money than workers with less education. The 2009 median weekly earnings for someone with a doctorate was $1,532, 50% higher than the median weekly earnings for someone with a bachelor's degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the highest-paid doctorate holders tend to be those with degrees in the hard sciences working in the private sector. Nearly three-quarters of engineering doctoral recipients in 2008 found work in industry or business, according to the National Science Foundation, while only 3% of humanities recipients did. And there are still plenty of opportunities for those with doctorates in math in corporate America, said Mike Breen, public awareness officer for the American Mathematical Society.
It's a different story for doctoral recipients in the humanities. Those looking to jump to the private sector now are competing with recent college graduates whose skills typically are better targeted to the corporate world, Pannapacker said.
Mia McIver dreamed of finding an academic job, even though her undergraduate advisors warned her there weren't many to be had. She has been seeking a tenure-track position in English literature for the last three years.
"It's been pretty miserable — a real slog," said the 32-year old UC Irvine grad. She's supplemented her income by teaching test preparation, but is now considering working for a consulting firm or a nonprofit.
Those who have already transitioned out of academia are more emphatic.
"If you're thinking about going to graduate school, don't do it, don't do it, don't do it," said Erin Williams Hyman. After receiving a doctorate in comparative literature from UCLA in 2005, she looked three years for a job as a professor but was unsuccessful. Now she works as a consultant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Those who do get doctoral degrees don't have to be tied to academic careers, said Alexandra Lord, the founder of Beyond Academe, a website that educates historians about opportunities outside the ivory tower. Lord, who has a doctorate in history, works for the National Park Service. She spent four years as a professor before deciding to leave.
"You can graduate and actually find a job that will give you full-time pay, benefits and healthcare," said Lord, who lives in Washington, D.C. "And you have great options choosing where you want to live."
Stover, the graduate-turned-poker-player, isn't bitter about switching careers. She said she was sick of the long hours and "soul-sucking" world of academia. She still has friends who hold low-paying academic jobs who want out.
"In retrospect, doing a PhD was not worth putting in six years of my life," she said. "But going through that whole process taught me a lot about how to work hard."