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Too Few PhDs? The Replacement Rate in Sociology

by ASA Research and Development Department

For years, the academic community heard the complaint that there were “too many PhDs” in sociology and other social science disciplines, and that the number should be limited because of the lack of professional positions that use doctoral training. Yet, computations based on data from two National Science Foundation surveys, the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), the annual survey of the universe of new PhDs, and the Survey of Doctoral Recipients, a sample survey that uses the SED as its population universe may cast some doubt on this complaint.

Since 1993, the “replacement rate”— the ratio of the annual number of new PhDs awarded to the number of PhDs retiring—has steadily declined in all social science disciplines. Figure 1 shows the replacement rate between 1993 and 2003 for these disciplines. Rather than a one-to-one replacement rate, with one new PhD for every one retiree, there are more retirees than new PhDs. Among the social science disciplines, psychology has the highest replacement rates and sociology has the lowest one. By 2003 (the last year for which data were available), there were two-thirds of a new psychology PhD (.66) for every PhD psychology retiree. In contrast, there was less than one third (.29) of a new PhD for every one PhD retiree in sociology.

The declining replacement rate over the last decade in sociology is the result of a basically flat number of new PhDs and an increasing number of PhDs retiring. In 1994 there were 542 new PhDs, while there were 562 in 2004 (with more graduate students obtaining their degrees in some years and fewer in other years). In 1993, 6.2 percent of the PhD labor force in sociology retired. This percentage peaked in 2001 at 11.9 percent and declined very slightly by 2003. The pattern in sociology contrasts with economics and political science, which have generally had a high retirement rate, on the one hand, and with psychology, which has generally had a relatively low rate (see Table 1).

Given the low replacement rate, by 2003 we would expect a low unemployment rate and a low involuntary out-of- field rate because of the potential labor shortage of new sociologists to replace the retirees. Although the unemployment rate for doctoral-level sociologists was low in 2003 (less than half of the national rate for all workers), it grew between 2001 and 2003 (from 0.9 percent to 2.6 percent). As of 2003, sociology had the highest unemployment rate among the social science disciplines. Psychology had the next highest rate at 1.7 percent and economics had the lowest rate. However, the growth in unemployment among PhD-level sociologists may be an aberration, since over the decade unemployment rates in sociology have hovered around 1 percent. Future years will tell whether 2003 is aberrant or the start of a trend.

In addition, between 2001 and 2003, the percentage of PhD sociologists who reported that they were employed outside of their field involuntarily increased from 4.1 to 5.1. However, the 2003 figure represented a decline from the 6.9 percent- high in 1995, and was a lower rate than in political science and other social science disciplines.

Lingering Questions

Assuming that the increased unemployment rate is an aberration, will the low replacement rate have a positive impact on PhD employment? Although the replacement rate is low, the numbers of full-time tenure-track positions in sociology departments may be lower than the number of new PhDs, as a result of cutbacks and the creation of contingent rather than tenure-track positions. In 2001 when the ASA Research and Development Department last examined this issue, the ratio of the number of those leaving tenured or tenure-track positions to the number of tenure-track replacements was one to one. We hope to re-examine this issue when the ASA’s department survey goes into the field in fall of 2007.

Even if tenure-track positions continue to be created in sociology, will all of them be filled? Recently, we heard of a sociology department at a master’s comprehensive university that is being merged into a psychology department because of unsuccessful searches to replace retirees. This may be atypical, but it suggests that we need to assess whether tenure-track positions in sociology departments are becoming less attractive, and, if so, why? Are greater demands to raise outside funds, to teach more courses or students, and to perform more service negatively affecting job satisfaction?

Finally, positions outside the academic sector in applied, research, and policy positions may be considered to be out of field by numbers of new PhDs socialized to think of academic positions as their true calling. The ASA Research and Development Department will continue to provide research on this topic.

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Data Sources

National Science Foundation (NSF), Science Resource Statistics. 2006. Characteristics of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers in the United States, 1996-2006. Arlington, VA: NSF. Accessed www.nsf.gov/statistics/pubseri.cfm?seri_id=13 November 31, 2006.

National Science Foundation, Science Resources Statistics. 2006. Survey of Earned Doctorates. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation. Accessed caspar.nsf.gov November 11, 2006.