What are the Chances of Becoming a Psychology Professor?

In a recent follow-up to this post, I estimate the chances of landing an academic job in Psychology based on 21 years’ worth of data from the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates. Check it out here.

In my last post, I presented some data from the U.S. Department of Education on the number of people that graduate each year with a doctoral degree in various areas of psychology. And as we saw, most areas of psychology have undergone considerable growth in the last decade, graduating on average 39.82% more doctoral students in 2013 than in 2003.

In this post, I’m going to delve deeper into the current state of the field by taking a look at the availability of jobs in psychology – specifically, tenure-track faculty positions at colleges and universities.

In the last few years, there has been increasing discussion about the dismal state of affairs on the academic job market, as well as growing criticism of many graduate programs for failing to prepare students for this.

Most graduate programs prepare doctoral students for a career in academia (teaching and research) even though full-time tenure-track positions in academia are rapidly disappearing. Indeed, the tenure-track has increasingly become an alternative career path for many graduates. In large part this has been because in most academic disciplines, the number of people who graduate with doctoral degrees each year far exceeds the number of new academic jobs that become available each year.

As such, it has likely never been more difficult for a doctoral-level job candidate to secure a tenure-track faculty position at a desirable college or university. Many qualified PhD’s across all disciplines are caught in something of a “catch 22” – forced either to abandon their pursuit of a career in higher education and scholarly research or accept work as an adjunct (i.e., part-time) faculty member for the sake of remaining in academia. The latter option generally offers considerably lower pay, no health benefits, and little to no job security.

Daniel Lemetti, writing on Slate.com, characterizes the situation facing new doctoral graduates by noting the following, which should be sobering to anyone looking to pursue a career in academia (bold text added by me):

Over the past 40 years, the number of doctorates pumped out by universities each year in the United States has increased while the number of academic positions has declined. There are more people with Ph.D.s and fewer professorships. As Nature reported, in 1973 about 55 percent of people with doctorates in the biological sciences got stable academic jobs; in 2008, the National Science Foundation pegged that number at 14 percent. Across all scientific fields, NSF data suggest that only about 23 percent of Ph.D.s land tenure or tenure-track positions at academic institutions within three to five years of finishing grad school.

In a recent article published in Nature Biotechnology, Schillebeeckx, Maricque & Lewis similarly point out that there are seven times more Ph.D.’s awarded each year in science and engineering than there are new tenure-track faculty positions that become available.

Schillebeeckx et al (2013)
New faculty positions versus new PhDs. From The missing piece to changing the university culture Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx, Brett Maricque & Cory Lewis Nature Biotechnology 31, 938–941 (2013) doi:10.1038/nbt.2706 Published online 08 October 2013

And doctoral graduates in science and engineering fields are not alone.

Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic compiled data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and found that although the numbers vary widely by field, in general only about 19% of new PhD’s secure tenure-track faculty positions upon graduation.

NSF_PhDs_Academic_Jobs
From How Many Ph.D.’s Actually Get to Become College Professors? Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic

Assessing the Academic Job Market in Psychology

But how do things look for doctoral graduates seeking tenure-track faculty positions in psychology?

It’s difficult to know for sure given the data that has been published because many reports define academic fields rather broadly. For instance, in the NSF data reported by Weissmann, psychology is lumped together with fields such as sociology and political science under the broad category, “Social Sciences.”

So to assess the state of the academic job market in psychology, we’re going to have to get a little creative.

I’m not aware of any agency or organization that keeps an official record of the number of tenure-track faculty positions that become available each year, so I attempted to obtain a rough estimate of this (emphasis on rough!) by pulling data from Psychology Job Wiki, a site where job candidates and search committees alike share updates about the status of current academic job searches.

Although the accuracy of the data gathered from Psych Job Wiki crucially depends on how accurately and thoroughly the wiki is updated by users, an advantage of using this site is that it provides archives for academic job searches extending back to the 2007-2008 academic year. As such, we’ll be able to get a rough idea of how the number of new tenure-track faculty positions in psychology has changed in the last seven years (given that academic job searches are currently underway for 2014-2015, I’ll only look at data up to and including the 2013-2014 academic year).

Figure 1 below shows a comparison between the number of new doctoral graduates in psychology (specializing in any area of the field) and the number of tenure-track faculty positions listed on Psych Jobs Wiki from 2007 to 2013.

Figure 1: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Psychology (Orange); 2007-2013.

Entire Field
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As you can see by comparing the differing slopes of the two dotted trend lines, the job market in psychology generally mirrors that of other academic disciplines.

Each year, the number of people that graduate with doctoral degrees in psychology far exceeds the number of new tenure-track faculty positions that become available. And the discrepancy between jobs and graduates just seems to be getting worse with time [1]. Each year, the number of new doctoral graduates in psychology increases by approximately 154. Meanwhile, the number of new tenure-track positions that become available only increases by about 77.

Assuming that about 50% of doctoral graduates choose to pursue a career in academia, this means that on average one has only about an 18% chance of landing a tenure-track position out of graduate school (see Figure 2). Note, however, that this doesn’t take into account competition on the job market from those who are NOT new doctoral graduates, such as those who leave one academic position for another and those who enter the job market after completing a post-doctoral fellowship. As such, the chances of landing a tenure-track job in psychology right out of graduate school might actually be a bit lower than 18%.

Figure 2: Estimated Percentage of New Doctoral Graduates in Psychology who can get a Tenure-Track Job each year; 2007-2013.

percentaged who can get a TT job
Estimated Percentage of New Doctoral Graduates in Psychology who can get a Tenure-Track Job in blue; Orange line = mean

Assessing the Academic Job Market in Different Areas of Psychology

In the 2010-2011 version of Psych Jobs Wiki, users began categorizing job postings by area of specialization (i.e., Clinical Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, School/Educational Psychology, etc.). As such, we can get a rough sense of whether the job market is better or worse in certain areas of the field.

Each figure below presents a yearly comparison (starting with 2010) between the number of new doctoral graduates in a particular area of psychology and the number of new tenure-track faculty positions listed for that area on Psych Jobs Wiki.

Figure 3: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Clinical & Counseling Psychology (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Clinical & Counseling Psychology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Clinical & Counseling
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Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in clinical psychology and counseling psychology increases by approximately 154, whereas the number of new tenure-track positions that become available only increases by about 8.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in clinical & counseling psychology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is -3,985.41.

Figure 4: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Cognitive & Experimental Psychology (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Cognitive & Experimental Psychology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Cognitive & Experimental
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Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in cognitive and experimental psychology increases by approximately 15, whereas the number of new tenure-track positions that become available only increases by about 5.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in cognitive and experimental psychology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is -71.69.

Figure 5: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Developmental Psychology (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Developmental Psychology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Developmental
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Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in developmental psychology increases by approximately 4, whereas the number of new tenure-track positions that become available only increases by about 1.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in developmental psychology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is +31.20.

Figure 6: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Educational/School Psychology (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Educational/School Psychology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Educational & School
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Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in educational and school psychology increases by approximately 4, whereas the number of new tenure-track positions that become available increases by about 17.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in educational and school psychology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is -1,021.7.

Figure 7: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Health Psychology (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Health/Geropsychology Psychology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Health & Geropsychology
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Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in health and geropsychology decreases by approximately 1, whereas the number of new tenure-track positions that become available increases by about 3.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in health and geropsychology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is +12.73.

Figure 8: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Industrial/Organizational Psychology (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Industrial/Organizational Psychology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Industrial Organizational
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Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in industrial/organizational psychology increases by approximately 9, whereas the number of new tenure-track positions that become available decreases by about 1.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in industrial/organizational psychology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is -175.

Figure 9: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Neuroscience (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Physiological Psychology/Psychobiology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Neuroscience & Psychobiology
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*Note: Take the comparison here with a huge grain of salt. Although the data in the above figure suggest that there are amble tenure-track opportunities for psychologists who specialize in basic brain research, physiological psychologists and psychobiologists likely encounter considerable competition from graduates of other fields, such as neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience. The number of new doctoral degrees awarded per year from these programs is not included here.

Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in physiological psychology/psychobiology decreases by approximately 5, whereas the number of new tenure-track positions in neuroscience that become available increases by about 15.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in physiological psychology/psychobiology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is +63.31.

Figure 10: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Quantitative Psychology (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Quantitative Psychology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Quantitative
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Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in quantitative psychology increases by approximately 1, whereas the number of new tenure-track positions that become available increases by about 7.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in quantitative psychology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is +11.46.

Figure 11: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Social/Personality Psychology (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Social Psychology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Social & Personality
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Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in social psychology increases by approximately 3, and the number of new tenure-track positions that become available also increases by about 3.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in social and personality psychology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is +22.68.

Figure 12: Number of New Job Postings on Psychjobsearch.wikidot.com for Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Other Areas of Psychology (Blue) vs. Number of New Doctoral Graduates in Other Areas of Psychology (Orange); 2010-2013.

Other
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Each year, the number of new doctoral degrees awarded in other areas of psychology increases by approximately 33, whereas the number of new tenure-track positions that become available only increases by about 6.

The average yearly discrepancy between doctoral graduates and available tenure-track positions in other areas of psychology (number of new job postings per year – number of new doctoral graduates per year) is -316.33.

Final Assessment and Ranking of Areas

To determine which areas of psychology currently have the most favorable job markets for new doctoral graduates, I calculated the average ranking for each area in terms of the following two dimensions: (1) average yearly discrepancy between number of new job postings and number of new doctoral graduates, where a negative number reflects more graduates than available tenure-track positions per year; and (2) the slope of the best-fitting line describing the relationship between this discrepancy and time, where a positive slope indicates that any negative discrepancy between jobs and graduates has improved since 2010.

The final ranking of fields is presented below in order from most favorable job market to least favorable job market:

  1. Neuroscience (though refer to my note below Figure 9 for why we should not make too much of this)
  2. Tie: Quantitative Psychology & Health Psychology
  3. —-
  4. Tie: Social/Personality Psychology & Developmental Psychology
  5. —-
  6. Educational/School Psychology
  7. Cognitive Psychology
  8. Other areas of Psychology
  9. Industrial/Organizational Psychology
  10. Clinical & Counseling Psychology

So there you have it. Although the academic job market in psychology generally mirrors that of other academic disciplines in the sense that there are more doctoral graduates than available tenure-track positions each year, there is considerable variability between areas of specialization. And although I estimate that the chances of securing a tenure-track position in psychology is somewhere around 18-20%, keep in mind that this only applies to those who enter the job market right out of graduate school. Obviously, your chances will improve if you complete a post-doctoral fellowship after graduate school or if you spend multiple years on the job market (provided you can afford either of these options).

Nonetheless, if you’re considering going to graduate school to pursue a career as a psychology professor, then it might be a good idea to consider programs in Quantitative Psychology or Health Psychology. Doctoral degrees in either of these fields might give you the best shot at the increasingly elusive tenure-track.

Update on 1/15/15:

[1] Although the discrepancy between jobs and graduates has increased over time from 2010 to 2013, as shown in Figure 1, the job market for the entire field has actually improved a bit. This can be seen in Figure 2, which shows that the percentage of doctoral graduates who are able to secure Tenure-Track positions has actually increased from around 11% in 2007 to around 23% in 2013.

 

Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla 

10 thoughts on “What are the Chances of Becoming a Psychology Professor?

  1. What interesting data! It seems like the fields where there are more non-academic options (clinical/counseling folks working in private practice or hospital settings, I/O folks working for corporations, school psychologists working in K-12 schools, etc.) are interpreted as having more difficulty getting academic jobs just because there are more graduates, even though many of those graduates might not be seeking academic jobs, and so it actually might be way less competitive than it appears. Meanwhile, the fields that seem to have fewer options outside of academia appear higher in your ranking, suggesting that they have an easier time getting academic positions. Assuming that only 50% of graduates want jobs in academia seems like too much of a blanket assumption – it varies quite a bit by subfield, which can really change the way these data are interpreted. Given that, these data depict a much more optimistic view of the job market than I had assumed previously!

    1. Thanks for your comment. You’re right. It’s very difficult to know for sure how good or bad the job market is for each subfield without a better idea of how many graduates pursue academic careers. As always, more research is needed.

  2. Thank you for putting this all together. Very informative post. I’ve been looking around for data like this for quite a while. Outlook seems sunnier than most think it is.

  3. Yes, thank you for this analysis. It fits pretty closely with my own impressions and makes me feel better about helping a few of my current undergrad and master’s students pursue a Ph.D. with the goal of becoming a professor. I think a lot of the most depressing news on this subject comes from the humanities and, surprisingly, STEM fields. For whatever reason, psychology seems to be at least somewhat better off. It’s still a tough row to hoe, obviously–very likely requiring a post-doc and certainly requiring a willingness to work wherever the job is. And even so, doctoral students should be developing skills that are valued outside of academe (e.g., computer and statistical skills) in the event they take another path.

  4. Thank you for this post! I would echo what Jim said about the clinical/counseling group re: PsyD recipients but also would advocate for separating clinical as a separate category. Clinical students have the option of, to some extent, being flexible with their research area in their job searches and also have the added benefit of being able to supervise clinical students even if they apply for a non-clinical job.

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