Casey Holtz, PhD, thought he did everything right to secure an academic research position. As a graduate student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, he vigilantly honed his research and clinical skills, took leadership roles in his department and on campus, and published an impressive dozen papers before completing his PhD in 2010. Still, he found a difficult job market awaiting him.
Initially, he hoped to find a position that mixed research and teaching, but several promising leads came up empty after a nationwide search. In the end, he accepted a teaching job at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. "I love this school," he says. But to get the mix of experience he craves, he also sees patients at a clinic and does independent research at a local hospital — all on top of his full-time teaching job.
The workload is definitely challenging. But, he says, "I want to stay in a position to be competitive."
Holtz is hardly alone in his frustrations. Across disciplines, academic jobs are in short supply. "In the social sciences, about 40 percent of doctorate recipients end up in nonacademic positions," says Robert Sowell, PhD, vice president for programs and operations at the Council of Graduate Schools.
But you can boost your odds of securing a spot on faculty. And for talented psychologists, plenty of opportunities exist outside academia, as well.
Traditional tenure-track jobs in academia are increasingly rare, and several experts point to funding as a big factor in that trend. "The real issue right now is the economy," Sowell says. "Institutions are cutting back."
Those cost-cutting measures have resulted in an increase in visiting professorships, contract positions and part-time posts, which often pay less than tenure-track jobs. Part-time positions, in particular, save colleges money because they often don't include health benefits. In 1975, 57 percent of faculty at all U.S. degree-granting institutions held tenured or tenure-track positions, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. By 2009, just 30 percent of faculty could say the same. Meanwhile, the proportion of part-time faculty swelled from 30 percent in 1975 to 51 percent in 2009.
The recession seems to have hastened this trend, says Holtz. When he started his search, it seemed that there were a number of promising openings. But in the end, he says, "many of the positions I pursued didn't get filled due to budget problems."
The recession has also caused many older, tenured professors to delay retirement. "Faculty who in years past might have considered retiring might be working longer because their retirement accounts are down," says Sowell.
Also, compared with their peers a generation ago, older professors are more likely to be in good health and physically able to keep working into their golden years. "They really enjoy the work they do and don't see any reason to retire," says John Curtis, PhD, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors.
Those factors conspire to create fewer job openings for qualified candidates. "I think the academic job market has come to the point where it's really not entirely rational. It's not based on a person's ability or even their qualifications," Curtis says. "There is a fair amount of simple luck involved."
It's a trend that's not just bad for students — it's bad for a society that values education, Curtis says. "We can't necessarily expect that the best and brightest are going to be attracted to the academic profession," he says. "That impacts our ability to continue with technological innovation and to prepare people to participate in democracy. And it impacts the kinds of growth and development we need to fully escape the economic recession that we've been in."
Furthermore, temporary and part-time faculty aren't as involved in curriculum planning and often have less time for students. "The students are really being shortchanged in terms of the educational experience that they're getting," he says.
Life After Graduation
While academe may not need as many psychology graduates, new sectors of the economy are opening up to psychologists, says Debra Yergen, author of the "Creating Job Security Resource Guide" (2011). In particular, psychologists are needed in the service industry, where retail and restaurant chains and hospitals are hiring research psychologists to help them track, measure and respond to employee behaviors, she says. "This is an emerging field that is giving graduates options that didn't exist a decade ago."
Psychology grads that might previously have found jobs in academia are now building research careers in corporations, non-profit organizations, the U.S. military and the government, at both the state and federal levels. (For more on outside-the-box opportunities in psychological science, check out APA's career profiles.
'Above and Beyond'
If your heart is still set on academia, there are ways to boost your chances of landing a university job. For starters, don't dismiss non-tenure-track jobs. Holtz noted that many of the positions he applied for ended up being filled by internal candidates. Certainly, non-tenured and contract jobs can be a foot in the door, and they are often gratifying positions in themselves.
It's also possible to assemble a great career from multiple part-time positions. Half-time lecturers may also choose to develop their own clinical practices or work as consultants, for instance.
Graduate students interested in academia can also take steps to beef up their resumes. "The best thing you can do is publish," says Daniel Oppenheimer, PhD, a psychology professor at Princeton University. Oppenheimer served on Princeton's faculty search committee last year for a tenure-track assistant professor in cognitive psychology — a position that drew 175 applicants. Ultimately, he says, the committee chose a candidate with a strong publication record whose interests intersected with those of the faculty.
Although a sound research record is important, it's not enough to have a number of similar papers in a single area of expertise. You need to show breadth in addition to depth, and publish in a few different areas, he says. "You need to show that you're not just a product of your adviser," he says. "Attend multiple lab meetings and try to publish with multiple people."
Flexibility is also key. One early career psychologist who spoke on condition of anonymity has held a contract position as a researcher at a university-affiliated clinical treatment organization since she completed her doctorate in 2009. She'd like an academic job but has limited her search to metropolitan areas where there are job opportunities for her husband. She believes her narrow search radius contributes to her inability to find a tenure-track position. Holtz, in contrast, conducted a nationwide search for an academic post.
"These are difficult positions for us to get in the early stages of our careers," he says. To find a university job, he adds, "you need to be prepared to go above and beyond in graduate school."
Looking for another way to set yourself apart? "Develop some sort of expertise that distinguishes you from other candidates," says Eric Jones, PhD, a psychology professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Jones, who finished his doctorate in 2009, noticed there was a need for psychologists who could teach statistics and research methods to undergraduates and graduate students. By developing an in-demand skill, he says, "there's suddenly a greater number of jobs you're a good fit for."
It's clear that academia has changed. But in the long run, having a doctoral degree "is going to put a person in a better position to find employment, even if they don't get a faculty position," Sowell says. "I don't think this is necessarily doom and gloom for PhDs in any field."
Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.