After a few years of watching the academic job market collapse into a seeming death spiral, I also started to wonder whether my "full disclosure" strategy of trying to scare off prospective graduate students was adequate. I started to entertain the possibility that if the problem was too many qualified applicants for too few jobs, then perhaps the responsible – even ethical – course of action would be for me to stop contributing to the oversupply of applicants.So, a few weeks ago I revised my departmental web page to include the following statement: "Notice to prospective graduate students: I will not be accepting new students in my lab for the indefinite future."
This seems like a total overreaction to me. Now, I am in a STEM field, so even though the academic job market is poor, there is still pretty good demand for Masters and PhD holders in my field outside of academia, especially in non-research positions. According to the scientific societies that track such things, unemployment is low among PhD-holders, and in general remains much lower than the general unemployment rate even in times of recession.
Furthermore, what percentage of grad students go in wanting to become academics? In my field, it is pretty low--maybe 30%? None of my current students (or in fact any of the many students I have interviewed for my group) have said they want to be professors, which is similar to what GMP has experienced in her field. Maybe this is not the case for the social sciences and humanities. Even so, I find it hard to believe that the skills of a PhD in anything (statistics, research skills, writing, analysis) are not transferrable to other job areas.
In my own experience, I have a friend who went to a top-10 University, published in Science, and uses his PhD to teach high school (which was his plan all along--he just loved his field, and wanted to spend a little time delving into it before starting his career). Another former classmate is now an ordained clergy person, after getting a PhD in our field (also for the love of it). This on top of all the PhD holders I know in law, business, non-research science, and other occupations by choice, not as a last resort. Given the HUGE variety of motivations for getting a PhD, it seems kind of patronizing to say "I am going to save you from yourself, kid." Especially in fields where the main cost is opportunity cost, and grad stipends are livable.
I can understand the feeling that there are too many PhDs, but I think that is because there are more people in general, and more of those people than ever before have opportunities that used to be reserved exclusively for rich, white, Christian, heterosexual men. I do not believe that academia is a pyramid scheme, any more than I believe admissions to prestigious Universities are a pyramid scheme. My fear is that if we restrict admissions to PhD programs, we will go backwards on the progress we have made towards diversity. Tightening admissions requirements would screw over the disadvantaged in our society. I would much, much rather allow people to make their own choices and roll the dice on a TT job if they so desire.