Nice work, if you can get it

December 18, 1998

US humanities PhDs can't get academic jobs

The 1990s were supposed to look very different. In the MLA's files from 1989, there is a newspaper clipping that now reads like a sick joke. "Shortage of PhDs in campus seen," The New York Times reported in its careers section. Nearly ten years on, one recent English doctorate bitterly recalled the promise of those days as "the Big Lie".

The story was based on projections of a "real shortfall" in the humanities and social sciences in the late 1990s, particularly in a book Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences, co-authored by a respected United States economist. It predicted a wave of retirements in an ageing faculty from the heavy hiring days of the 1960s and a demographic boost in the college population as children of baby boomers left school.

But a sharp, unforeseen downturn in the US economy left the numbers dead on arrival, says Jack Schuster, professor of education at Claremont Graduate School. In California, the state budget swung suddenly from surplus to deficit, and plans for spending extra money went into rapid reverse. Cuts in higher education spending followed in one state after another, and hiring and job prospects evaporated in the public universities that account for four-fifths of US college enrolment.

Annalee Newitz entered a PhD programme in English at the University of California at Berkeley nine years ago and accumulated an impressive resume. But after three years of interviews, she is working as a freelance writer. "I was surprised, my committee was surprised," she says. "Pretty much everyone was surprised."

"It was a sense that this was my calling," she says. "No one who went into the humanities was under the illusion that they would get a good job, but you would get a job." Her classmates - trying their hand at everything from screen-writing to prison teaching, juggling poorly paid temporary lectureships - have featured in a Spin magazine article on "PhD suckers".

From 1991-92 to 1996-97, the proportion of English PhDs getting tenure-track jobs in the year they earned their degree fell from a high of 51 to 35 per cent, according to the MLA. Foreign-language departments have fared only marginally better. Cash-strapped universities have balked at offering tenured posts.

The October job listings in English showed a 28 per cent jump over last year. "I am fearful of making too much of it because it may be just a blip," says Phyllis Franklin, the MLA's executive director. And a large oversupply remains: 1,144 people were reported as getting English PhDs, against 885 job listings.

Anecdotally, from conversations on campus, there is a slight change for the better, particularly in terms of retirements, but no sharp upturn, Schuster says. The trend away from tenured posts continues. From 1975 to 1993, the number of full-time faculty rose from 435,000 to 546,000. The number of part-time faculty went from 188,000 to 370,000. The absolute number of tenure-track posts has plateaued, Schuster says, while the supply of PhDs has risen. "One can question whether it has been ethical for universities to continue admitting the number of students into doctoral programmes when job prospects were slender."

A proposed MLA motion this year resolves to censure any modern language department that, by 2000, exceeds minimum standards for the ratio of full-time to part-time faculty or provides no benefits to part-time faculty. It would exclude these departments from all MLA services, including the job information list.

Mark Kelley, president of the Graduate Student Caucus, says there is broad backing for the motion among the MLA's 10,000 graduate members and beyond. Distinguished professorships paying $120,000, he says, are being replaced by two adjuncts paid a tenth of the salary to carry the same teaching load. "We decided to organise and force the issue, and it's not working."

Feminist professor Jane Gallop, of the University of Wisconsin, is speaking at the MLA on "Castration anxiety and the unemployed PhD." She has had three former students on the job market three years. Many of those who do not get academic jobs, she says, "tend to assume that there's something terribly wrong with them". Instead of cutting loose, they get stuck in badly paid part-time work tied to the academic system. "There's some kind of weird, infantile relationship that they keep hoping that if they do well and work hard they will get a good job." Gallop cites a PhD student who took a job in administration when his wife was pregnant. "He needed me, as his adviser, to say it's OK not to have a teaching job."

Interviews with PhDs who have recently left the profession underscore such feelings. One describes academia as a cross between the military and the priesthood, saying leaving was like being "deprogrammed" from a cult.

Unpublished research at the University of California at Berkeley highlights the need for English departments to end the sense of failure for graduates who leave. The study looked at people who got doctorates in 1983-85 in English and five other disciplines. Ten years later, of those in English, slightly over half were in tenure-track posts, though many more had wanted them. Many were still holding temporary jobs.

But those who had moved into non-academic jobs, often in public relations, non-profit firms and publishing, reported the same levels of satisfaction as those who stayed, says Maresi Nerad, director of graduate research. Contrary to legend, of more than 1,000 English PhDs not one was a taxi driver. "We need a change of attitude within academia, specifically our top institutions," Nerad says. "People who work in other areas, these are not second-class citizens."

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