• September 1, 2015

We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities


Jonathan Barkat for The Chronicle Review

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Jonathan Barkat for The Chronicle Review

Predictions are always perilous. Many of us recall the hearty enthusiasm of the Bowen report of 1989, which assured prospective graduate students that they would find "a substantial excess demand for faculty in the arts and sciences" when they earned their degrees in the mid-1990s. Of course, they did not.

Moral: Avoid confident assertions about the future of the academic job market in the humanities (or in any other field). It may be that our current dilemma is another episode in a longish cyclical history. It may also be, as I rather pessimistically suspect, that something more serious is going on.

My reason is that just about all of the key drivers are simultaneously pointed in the wrong direction. Full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities are endangered by half a dozen trends, most of them long-term.

The casualization of academic labor is probably the most serious threat. According to a 2003 American Association of University Professors report, "The proportion of faculty who are appointed each year to tenure-line positions is declining at an alarming rate." Three out of four new hires in the 1990s were appointed to nontenurable jobs. It is reasonable to infer from this that the number of non-tenure-track jobs, which accounted for 58 percent of faculty positions in 1993, will continue to rise.

A more recent AAUP report, the "Contingent Faculty Index" (2006), found that in just under three decades, from 1975 to 2003, the share of faculty positions occupied by tenured and tenure-track faculty members fell from a combined 56.8 percent to 35.1 percent.

It is important to emphasize that this is not a new development. According to a February 2010 report of the Academic Coalition on the Academic Workforce: "Over the last 40 years, there has been a dramatic shift in the instructional staff at U.S. colleges and universities. ... In 1970 faculty members in part-time positions represented only 22.0 percent of all faculty members teaching in U.S. colleges and universities; in 2007 they represented 48.7 percent." Taking into account the portion of instructors who prefer part-time employment makes this situation less grim, though only slightly.

Keep in mind that something like three-quarters of all undergraduates are enrolled at public institutions. State support for those institutions has been declining for years—in some cases decades—which is to say, long before the current financial meltdown. In other words, the institutions most at financial risk enroll by far the majority of students. As budgets at those colleges are put under increasing pressure, the number of tenured and tenurable faculty openings will inevitably shrink further.

As for private institutions: Consider the cuts and freezes at Harvard, Yale, and Penn. To be sure, those wealthy universities will recover and flourish. For one thing, the favorable ratio of demand to supply guarantees a ceaseless flow of students. Nonetheless, the Council for Aid to Education's recent report that contributions to colleges and universities (both public and private) declined by 12 percent last year—the steepest decline in the half-century of record keeping—bodes financial trouble in the future.

The growth of the so-called contingent faculty has been stimulated by the emergence of for-profit higher education. The University of Phoenix, founded in 1976, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Apollo Group, pioneered this dubious innovation in entrepreneurship. As of this writing, Phoenix has the largest enrollment of any American university: well over 400,000 undergraduate and 78,000 graduate students, mainly U.S. nationals but also including foreign matriculants. Located on more than 200 sites in the United States and Canada, Phoenix offers associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in more than 100 subjects.

Two points about Phoenix and its ilk are most relevant for purposes of this discussion. First, the students it enrolls are taught by a faculty numbering 20,000—most of whom are part timers, receive no benefits, and have no access to tenure. To be sure, many of them have other jobs, as journalists, doctors, lawyers, business professionals, and so forth. However, an indeterminate but presumably large number, including women and men with Ph.D.'s in the humanities, are trying to make a living working for Phoenix. In any case, students taking degrees at places like Phoenix represent a net loss in enrollment at traditional colleges where tenure-track jobs, while shrinking, particularly in English, are still available.

Second, while the for-profit share of the higher-education market remains relatively small, its growth has been rapid over the past decade. According to a report in The Chronicle in February, 7 percent of all American postsecondary students attend for-profit institutions. Presumably, like Phoenix, all of those colleges and universities depend mainly on part-time faculty members.

Almost as troubling, the migration of undergraduates from English (and the humanities generally) to other fields is a well-documented trend. To cite one reliable summary (taken from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Humanities Resource Center Online): The humanities' share of bachelor's degrees in 2004 was 8 percent, compared with 17.8 percent in the late 1960s.

Given the growth in college enrollment over those years, the number of humanities majors has remained relatively constant. But as a share of the total, the humanities have experienced a substantial decline. Using figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics—roughly 18 million students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions—every percentage-point rise or fall indicates the movement of literally tens of thousands of students.

The slowing of retirement since the end of mandatory retirement under federal law, in 1994, has added another growing problem to the job-market mix. At the University of Pennsylvania—the only place for which I can get more or less exact and timely data—we have gone from having no faculty members over 70 in the School of Arts and Sciences, 15 years ago, to 28, or 7.3 percent of the 383 tenured faculty members, in 2010. And the median age of tenured faculty members has risen to 55.

Seven-plus percent is a substantial proportion, especially since each of those senior citizens is arguably blocking at least two assistant-professor slots. Penn could probably add upward of 40 new assistant professors in the School of Arts and Sciences, without significantly increasing its instructional budget, if everyone over 70 retired. (Whether Penn's administrators would actually do that much hiring is, of course, an entirely different matter.)

Penn is a flawed benchmark, since every study of retirement demonstrates that faculty members in research-intensive universities retire less frequently than do those in other sorts of institutions. (Robert Louis Clark and P. Brett Hammond's 2001 To Retire or Not? is now somewhat out of date, but the shape of their conclusions­—that a relationship exists between the tier of the institution and the rate of retirement—has been supported in subsequent surveys.) So the national figure, while hard to ferret out, is probably more like 3 to 4 percent: still a disheartening number. (The provost of a distinguished private university reports confidentially that his post-70 colleagues make up 8.7 percent of the tenured faculty, higher than Penn's figure.)

Furthermore, academic economists suggest that in a time of recession, professors are even less inclined to retire. Many faculty members are also concerned about anticipated reductions in university-financed health care for retirees; at least some of them will decide to keep working in order to protect their health-insurance arrangements. A number of university administrators are studying the presumptively negative impact of slowed retirement on efforts to diversify faculties.

The end of mandatory retirement, by the way, is one concrete and probably permanent example of the difference between our current situation and earlier downturns in the job market (at least those before the mid-1990s).

How have humanities faculty members and their administrators responded to this cluster of threats? They haven't. In 1987, the first year for which tallies of humanities doctorates were computed according to the preferred CIP (Classification of Instructional Programs) methodology, humanities departments graduated 2,991 doctoral students. In 2007, the most recent year for which CIP data are available, that number had risen to 4,366, an increase of 1,375, or 46 percent, over 20 years in a flat or declining job market.

To cite only the most recent data, the latest jobs report from the Modern Language Association indicates that the number of positions on offer in English has dropped 44 percent in just the past two years, from 1,800 to 1,000­—the lowest number in 35 years.

In addition, attrition in humanities Ph.D. programs amounts to academic carnage. According to estimates from the Council of Graduate Schools, something like 43 percent of the nation's graduate matriculants never earn Ph.D.'s. To be sure, attrition requires more interpretation than job placement: It is not self-defining as a quality indicator. Not all attrition is bad. We should encourage programs to make judgments about students who are not making satisfactory progress. However, that sort of attrition is exceptionally rare, at least at Penn and the other places I know something about. Most attrition represents a vast group of unsupervised students who spend as long as a decade enrolled in doctoral programs before resigning (or simply disappearing). In the years before their eventual departure, these students provide a pool of cheap and disposable labor that administrators at all levels can use to subsidize the salaries of more-expensive, long-term staff members.

Perhaps, in the absence of jobs, our national 40-plus-percent attrition rate might be considered­­—rather ironically—a good thing. In most other respects, it bespeaks negligence and indifference on the part of both faculty members and administrators.

The obvious conclusions, though many senior faculty members in the humanities seem reluctant to admit it, are these: As a profession, we are enrolling too many Ph.D. students, we have been doing so for decades, we spend far too long in guiding them to their degrees, and we then consign them to a dysfunctional job market.

Once upon a time, probably in the early 1970s, the ratio of earned doctorates to academic placements presented graduate students with quite promising job prospects. We mistook a bubble for the way things ought to be (and therefore the way they would be, if we just crossed our fingers and waited long enough). I conclude from my observations of the market over those decades that we have lived so long with a dismal situation that it has come to seem normal. Yes, there have been worse and better years, and there will undoubtedly be better years in the future. However, bad and better here represent, in my view, data points on a generally downward curve. It is long past time to confront these issues dispassionately, equipped with as much of the relevant evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, as we can quarry.

Pending that inquiry, I offer five recommendations, the first four of which follow from the analysis I've just sketched.

1. Graduate programs recruit students in the honorable hope that at least some of them will carry on the research and teaching that have served the nation so well over many years. While some minimum number of students is required to sustain a pipeline of new scholarship, we need to initiate a national conversation about the appropriate size of Ph.D. cohorts. Recently in The New Republic, Anthony Grafton offered a passionate and eloquent defense of the rigors and satisfactions of traditional graduate education, but he couples it with the recognition that many doctoral students "stick it out—and finish—only to find that the completed quest leads into Rats' Alley."

Having made clear that, in my own view, graduate programs across the country should admit fewer students, let me comment on five objections to substantial reductions in the numbers of graduate students.

First, the nourishment of scholarship to one side, we all know that another of the principal reasons for the continued overadmission of students is to serve the perceived preferences and alleged needs of graduate-school faculty members. They enjoy teaching graduate students, and a glance at the courses they choose to teach indicates that they do not equally enjoy teaching undergraduate service courses, especially freshman composition. Admitting students to graduate programs nicely satisfies both preferences. I do not find this to be a defensible objection to reducing graduate students' numbers.

Second, reductions in graduate-student cohorts would make it increasingly difficult to staff large lecture courses with teaching assistants and graders. I simply acknowledge that this is true. And given the teaching loads and the prevailing faculty-student ratios at research-intensive universities, I have no remedy.

Third, some faculty members will insist that they "need" graduate students to assist in their research. I view that claim with a good deal of skepticism. In the first place, the consequences in truncated or ruined careers wouldn't be justified even if this assertion were true. But it isn't true. In 2010, one Internet-connected computer can do the work of half a dozen graduate students. It may be that graduate students are, in fact, vital to research programs in science, but it is simply not the case in the humanities.

Fourth, reducing the number of graduate students would supposedly make it more difficult to recruit the most desirable faculty talent. I would respectfully suggest that such a position, in which the reputational ranking of a department is given higher priority than the welfare of flesh-and-blood students, is morally dubious at best. And insofar as that high faculty profile is justified as essential to the placement of graduate students in jobs, it appears that the strategy isn't working very well, since such placements are happening less and less frequently.

Beyond that, how much longer shall we choose to maintain an expensive and debilitating "star" system, in which marketable faculty members receive exceptionally high salaries, research budgets, and other benefits, while adjuncts and lecturers work for a pittance, and many young scholars are denied any jobs at all? And while I'm on this subject, let me also observe that the annual million-dollar-plus compensation packages that many university presidents now receive may have little overall impact on campus budgets, but they send their own crude message about the large and growing distance between academe's haves and have-nots.

Fifth, if graduate-student enrollments were reduced, many young men and women would be denied the education they want­—and to which they are entitled by virtue of their talent and commitment. I concede this to be the case.

2. Every graduate program in the humanities should include a truthful statement on its Web site about the realities of academic employment. Every program should also include a required (presumably noncredit) first-semester course aimed at introducing students to the professional facts of life. Such a course would review local and national information on attrition, time-to-degree, placement, prospects for tenure-accruing jobs, salaries, and the workings of professional organizations.

3. Every graduate program should also be required to maintain an accurate and current job-placement Web page. At a minimum, these pages would record the name of each student who has completed the doctorate, the year of completion, the date, type, and year of first placement and each subsequent placement, and the percentage of each cohort that has completed the degree within 10 years. At the moment, there is a troubling variability in the scope, accessibility, and accuracy of placement information from one program to another. In particular, a number of such pages do not distinguish clearly between tenure-track and non-tenure-track placements. And most do not include nonacademic employment.

4. The core mission of graduate programs in the humanities is to prepare the teachers and scholars of the next generation. I accept that statement of purpose. At the same time, we have now accumulated a generation of experience on the relative success of Ph.D. (and A.B.D.) students who have found and enjoyed successful careers outside the academy.

I have some personal experience in this area. From 1979 to 1984, during what we thought might be a temporary slump, I devised and ran (pro bono, I hasten to add) a project called Wharton Alternative Careers. Staffed by faculty members from the Wharton School in such areas as marketing, finance, and management, the program enrolled about 40 Ph.D.'s each year from all over the country for a six-week, residential, summer institute combining a micro-M.B.A. curriculum with intensive counseling in résumé-writing and interview preparation.

Above all, my associates and I worked assiduously to bring corporate (and a few not-for-profit) recruiters to the campus, persuading them that our participants had unusual profiles but were eminently employable in all sorts of fields. We had an excellent placement rate (consultancies, management training, human-resources groups), and we stayed in touch with as many of the roughly 190 "graduates" as we could, a somewhat hit-or-miss proposition since we had no budget or post-1984 staff.

Conclusions (comparable to those reached by the managers of the few similar programs, such as one at NYU, though all of our data were pretty soft): These women and men found somewhat more job satisfaction than did members of their cohorts who continued in academic careers, in part because they ended up in locations of their choice, and in part because they tended to make more money. The American Historical Association recently reported similar findings for historians in nonacademic careers.

At a minimum, even if graduate faculty members themselves refuse to engage in training or advising students toward alternatives, they should destigmatize such decisions on the part of students and should support those who choose to explore careers outside the academy. Information about nonacademic careers should be included on placement Web sites. Among other outcomes, broadening postdoctoral career opportunities would serve the interest of departments eager to maintain higher rather than lower levels of graduate-student enrollments.

My own conversations with graduate students over several decades indicate that most of them do not find the idea of nonacademic careers particularly appealing. Perhaps if the question were rephrased—an alternative career or none—the results would be different. And perhaps, over time, a more spacious conception of postdoctoral employment might attract a different cadre of students.

Reimagining graduate education might also respond to the ambivalence that many students have expressed about their careers. In an important survey conducted at the University of California by Mary Ann Mason and her collaborators, the researchers concluded, "Neither men nor women consider tenure-track faculty positions in research-intensive universities to be family-friendly career choices. Less than half the men (46 percent) and only a third of women (29 percent) imagine jobs in these settings to be somewhat or very family friendly." Many students report that "they did not want lifestyles like those of their advisers or other faculty in their departments." In Mason's opinion, "the structure of academia at all levels is turning people away from the profession."

5. While we must face the facts of the job market realistically, we should also do everything we can to strengthen the place of the humanities in American education and, indeed, in American life. The disciplines that make up the study of the humanities offer students and citizens unique access to the multiform ways in which women and men have explored and expressed their intellectual and emotional experiences over many centuries. Whatever careers we ultimately pursue, all of us face the fundamental struggles and anxieties that adult lives entail. The humanities don't solve such problems, but they permit us to learn from the shared humanness that unites us across time and distance.

Collectively, those of us who profess the humanities must make a sustained effort to explain to our various constituencies—students, parents, legislators, journalists, even our own university trustees (I speak from personal experience of that latter group)—that these disciplines, and the traditions they represent, are not merely ornamental and dispensable. They lie near the heart of mankind's restless efforts to make sense of the world. Debates over war and peace, justice and equity: From the uses of scientific knowledge to the formulation of social policy, the humanities provide a necessary dimension of insight and meaning.

Despite the trends in enrollment and financial support that I have described, I am confident that the humanities can find the recognition they deserve. But it is our obligation to articulate our contribution if we hope to find increasing levels of support for the work we do. This is no simple assignment, as I can attest from having served on two of the dozens (scores?) of panels, committees, and task forces that have attempted this task in recent decades. Simple or not, we have no choice.

I would much prefer to define our current job-market difficulties as a problem in underdemand rather than oversupply. The facts, however, cannot be denied. After a generation of dithering, we need to act decisively to minimize the damage that our practices are inflicting on thousands of talented young women and men whose aspirations and idealism are jeopardized by our institutional inertia as well as by our laissez-faire, wishful thinking that the job market will simply take care of itself. If we should have learned one lesson from the current financial crisis, it is that all markets need vigilant oversight.

Peter Conn is a professor of English and of education at the University of Pennsylvania.


1. graemeharper - April 04, 2010 at 05:48 pm

This is heartfelt, no doubt, Dr Conn, and well argued; but I fear you miss a significant point. Your "Humanities" appears to be a relatively unchanged menu of intellectual and creative foods. Ever been to a restaurant where the menu hardly changes, ever? Been there more than a few times? You say "the disciplines that make up the study of the humanities offer students and citizens unique access to the multiform ways in which women and men have explored and expressed their intellectual and emotional experiences over many centuries". Indeed they do; and, indeed, it is in the Humanities (in the Liberal Arts more so, even; to be somewhat more expansive, but nevertheless. . . ), that growth, creativity, and the widest possible intentions and aims of human exploration, can brilliantly exist and develop. Employers need these things; but so does Humanity generally. But we cannot think (or act) in fixed, time-unconscious ways. Simply, the worst thing we can do is to start talking about the pressure to close the restaurant, when we have the unique ability to prepare such wonderful contemporary meals! I say (and leaving the foodery behind!) let's not sell ourselves or our students short.

2. 12071647 - April 04, 2010 at 08:38 pm

Many of these arguments relate equally well to the basic sciences: Universities devote many resources to applied, patentable, commercial research. Federally funded research (emphasizing commercial interests) also drives scientific directions, often leaving basic science out in the cold. The humanities and basic sciences have much in common.

3. jstrobel - April 05, 2010 at 02:59 am

There is of course a huge difference between humanities and basic sciences: Basic scientists are much easier to find a job outside of academia and there are actually "science jobs" as such specified.

4. gimmeabreak - April 05, 2010 at 08:18 am

Give up the demand for tenure (a.k.a. lifetime employment and protection against dismissal even for cause) and you'll see many more full-time faculty positions open. What employer in their right mind would hire someone into a job knowing that if you keep them for seven years you're stuck with them forever? Private industry doesn't guarantee anyone employment for their entire working life and higher education shouldn't, either.

5. trendisnotdestiny - April 05, 2010 at 09:24 am

Well said Dr. Conn! To use a wall street word, this article reminded me that our major institutions are all de-leveraging their commitments during this period...

As a result, pension commitments--tenure commitments---most longterm agreements of stability are being dismantled as our society implements a deleveraging of what Barb Ehrenreich calls (YOYO); your on your own! You speak to the intracacies of PHD education well and make a persuasive case...

To me, this is a familiar process of decay; and reminds me that Ivan Illich pointed out that many professions are dissected into essentializing (profitable) and non-essentializing (discretionary) parts slowly to be de-skilled, de-schooled, and gutted all but those things that sustain the status quo....during an economic depression... this makes sense ( I really liked your advocacy for disclaimer and transparency about doctoral program outcomes)

6. hildavcarpenter - April 05, 2010 at 09:26 am

Mr. Conn misses the point that the humanities pursuit of education in research has no other venue than tenure. Again, the arrogance of tenure system points out its own cycle.

7. copesan - April 05, 2010 at 09:45 am

Well done, Professor Conn. Thank you for bringing a long-term perspective to this subject, demonstrating reasons why the crisis in employment may not be just a blip that will disappear when the economy improves, but a re-structuring of academic institutions.

8. 11194062 - April 05, 2010 at 10:49 am

"[O]ne Internet-connected computer" may have the resources (i.e., the sheer Googling strength) to accomplish what "half a dozen graduate students" can. However, that same computer does not have the powers of discretion and the capacity for synthesis and novel thought that even the feeblest of graduate students ought and do possess.

9. johntoradze - April 05, 2010 at 11:35 am

Ahem. A humanities discussion that includes:

YOYO - Your on your own.
Please. You're on your own.

And dey wonder why dey ain't got no job's? ;-)

10. trendisnotdestiny - April 05, 2010 at 12:00 pm

quite right johntoradze; its less of an ignorance issue and more of a sloppy editing issue.... thank you for your correction minus the sarcasm:)

11. johntoradze - April 05, 2010 at 02:08 pm

Mother was an english major...

12. philactr - April 05, 2010 at 02:30 pm

In your last paragraph you state "After a generation of dithering, we need to act decisively..." But early in the article you state "How have humanities faculty members and their administrators responded to this cluster of threats? They haven't." So the one question I have is, what makes you think that academics in general/humanities in specific, will respond to this critis?

13. stmartins - April 05, 2010 at 02:56 pm


14. newfudgeman - April 05, 2010 at 04:18 pm

Amen to gimmeabreak--we need to do away with tenure. There are laws to protect academic freedom; we no longer need tenure to do it.

15. upallnight - April 05, 2010 at 05:19 pm

yeah, get rid of tenure and everyone will be on one-year contracts with crappy pay and crappier benefits. Most days, I wonder why I stay after spending most of my youth "in school" even having tenure now. The politics and the marginalization of faculty by administration make the job no "life of the mind."
Those wanting to get rid of tenure should be advocating for more secure positions (i.e., multi-year contracts) for part-timers. We are all disposable to the powers that be. Soon we will be replaced by robots (not kidding).

16. dnewton137 - April 05, 2010 at 06:09 pm

I found Professor Conn's article an admirable description of a difficult current challenge in graduate education. However, as a former Penn colleague, I feel compelled to comment that I think his description of what he sees happening in higher education understates the magnitude of current developments.

The world of higher education has changed markedly since Professor Conn and I received our PhDs. The scale of the higher education institutional community has increased substantially. There were many new universities founded during the past half century, community colleges have flowered everywhere, and student enrollments in higher education have burgeoned. Entirely new kinds of colleges and universities have been born, fostered in part by extraordinary developments in information technology applicable in education. Conn mentions the University of Phoenix. The Sloan Consortium reports that about one quarter of all American college students took at least one online course last year, and that number is increasing at double digit rates annually. None of those changes are, to use Conn's word, "cyclical." That word suggests a hope that perhaps, if we're lucky, things will swing back to the way they were in the good old days. No way! Those changes are permanent. And there're more of the same coming.

So, what about "graduate education?" Conn begins his article by writing about graduate education in the humanities, perhaps quite naturally thinking about graduate education in English literature. He later moves on to recommendations about just "graduate education," as if graduate education in the humanities somehow typifies graduate education in general. Nothing could be further from reality.

"Graduate education" is a term frequently used to mean an ill-defined something somewhere on the broad spectrum ranging from any kind of "post-baccalaureate" education to PhD education designed solely to prepare researchers and scholars for prestigious tenured professorships exactly like those held by their faculty mentors. The latter is but a tiny segment of reality. We have long understood the academic purposes of graduate programs in law and medicine. In recent decades, graduate programs in many other areas have become prominent. The MBA has become the second most frequently awarded graduate degree in the U.S. (I note that Professor Conn is also a Professor of Education, and will therefore know that the first place master's degree is in education.)

Moreover, both undergraduate and graduate programs are being challenged to prepare students for careers that have not yet been invented, indeed, students who are prepared to invent such careers. Some years ago, the University of Maryland, College Park awarded a master's degree to a foreign student named Sergey Brin, who later co-founded Google.

Another example: In the mid-nineties the Sloan Foundation began supporting the development of a new kind of program, a terminal science master's degree called the Professional Science Masters (PSM). It is related to the traditonal science PhD program rather like the MBA is related to the PhD in Economics. Such programs are burgeoning. As of three days before the writing of this comment, the number of officially recognized (by the Council of Graduate Schools) PSM programs had grown to 175 in 89 institutions.

My point here is that higher education is permanently morphing into a new kind of enterprise, not passing cyclically through temporary bad times. As a scientist, I cannot suggest what my humanist colleagues might do about this, other than to get serious about conceptualizing a new place for the humanities and for graduate education in the humanities in an unprecedented academic world.

Don Langenberg
Chancellor Emeritus
University System of Maryland

17. 11159995 - April 05, 2010 at 06:14 pm

The observations and advice provided here, which are generally astute, make me wonder what the implications will be for scholarly publishing at university presses, an industry that this humanities (philosophy) ABD has found to offer a wonderful alternative career. On the one hand, fewer graduate students and faculty mean much less writing that is not worth being published and that takes up scarce time to sort through. On the other hand, fewer graduate students and faculty mean a smaller market for sales of the monographs that do get published. I wonder if this is a fair tradeoff?---Sandy Thatcher

18. neovictorian - April 05, 2010 at 07:57 pm

For Don Langenberg's clarification:

Peter Conn does not use the word "cyclical" in a manner that reflects his own optimism: "It may be that our current dilemma is another episode in a longish cyclical history. It may also be, as I rather pessimistically suspect, that something more serious is going on."

(As a doctoral student in an English Literature program, I may never get a ["good"] job in academe, but I will always believe that useful intellectual conversations cannot be had if we fall prey to misprision and/or misrepresentation.)

19. paulderb - April 05, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Regarding Professor Conn's suggestion #4, about the potential for PhD's to find employment in business:

The academy's senile and sclerotic hostility to business employment (in every sense of that last word) is a primary reason that PhD students are less employable where they are sorely needed. Generating more PhD's and Masters would be just what the nation needs, if only those graduates of that kind of graduate school could see that working for a university funded by business is, ethically speaking, the same as working for the business itself.

Finally, regarding upallnight's "not kidding" concern about "robots" (Comment #15): I agree--after all, why kid about something that teaches students far better than many a tenured human does? This aging Romantic notion that fears machines is mere muckraking, and better suited to Tea Party logic than to a thinking academy. Having left the academy with a PhD and, after a 10-year stint in business, having returned, I am frankly shocked at the refusal of academic personnel to tolerate either the truth of effective learning, or changes to that method of learning, to both of which they are ostensibly sworn devotees. Instead, they are concerned about being cited by their peers, and scorn new scholarship, such as informatics in scholarship, in order to generate those numbers.

Sounds a lot like Lehman Brothers to me.

20. jprmacdonald - April 06, 2010 at 12:59 am

A general question -

Where would this leave a student of the classics? I'm an MA/PhD student in classics and critical theory. I certainly have my crises of confidence in obtaining a tenure-track job; moreover, I want to assume responsibility for my parents (who gave their savings and lives to my education, as they never got one) when they can no longer work, and as we know, even if I am lucky to get a tenure-track position, there is no guarantee it will be near home. I would be very happy to work in business, and I think my language-skills and adeptness with semiotics would make me a good fit for marketing and advertising - but what firm would hire me with a PhD? Am I being too close-minded?

21. williamsjeff - April 06, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Peter Conn starts out by locating the problem correctly, in the trend of casualization, but then ends up with the cliched analysis, that the demand is shrinking and there's an oversupply of faculty. But let's look at this idea of demand: The enrollment of college students in the US is now estimated at 17.3 million. It has increased steadily over the past century, from 7.4 mil in 1970 to 13.8 mil in 1990 to 17.3 now. In other words, the demand for higher education has steadily increased. So, please, let's put an end to this cliched knowledge that the demand has lessened: it has not, and professors should know better and correct such cliches and received opinions.

22. grouchovonbismarck - April 06, 2010 at 02:03 pm

There is another possible angle, which is to switch to aother discipline. I became an accounting academic in the late 1970s with a PhD in physics, when the Dean of Business explained to me that bright students studying science wanted to be research scientists, but bright students studying accounting wanted to be partners in KPMG. So there was an acute shortage of real academics to teach all these students, and he thought that an academic could learn accounting more easily than a professional accountant could learn to be an academic. The department I joined (in Canada) had PhDs in English Literature, Philosophy, and Chemistry besides me - all of us have since made successful careers in accounting.
Thirty years later we are all retiring, but the job market for academic accountants has not changed. You won't get a look-in at Penn or a few other snooty places who can pick from the (very few) new PhDs in accounting, but at most universities in the US and around the world accounting departments count themselves lucky if they can get one appointable candidate to reply to an ad for a tenured position.
If you have a PhD in something that makes you unemployable but taught you to think and write (French theory generally precludes both of these, but almost anything else should do), you need some technical knowledge of accounting because you will have to teach it. This is not trivial, but there are plenty of M.Acc. programs to cover it off in a couple of years. Then you need to read some accounting research literature and find an area that you can contribute to. You will be pleasantly surprised: much of it is arid economics, but accounting is basically a social science and you will find people working in history, philosophy, politics, ethics, sociology and other disciplines with accounting content. The research problems can be genuinely interesting and extremely challenging.
This produces a three-way win: you get a tenurable career in academia; you bring your disciplinary insights to a research understanding of the role of accounting in society (not necessarily in business); and you help to educate the never-ending stream of professional accountants whose activities contribute so much to the wealth that pays your salary. (No, I am not being cynical - if you can only view that statement cynically, you have more to learn than you think.)
Whether there are other disciplines with similar conditions, I could not say - but this has been broadly true of accounting for my whole career. There is certainly a trend to casualisation of the academic workforce in accounting, but there is such an ingrained shortage of genuine academics that your chances should remain good. Talk to a professor of accounting at your university - don't ask whether you could be appointed there, but ask what it would take to build a career somewhere else.

23. nassa - April 07, 2010 at 12:33 am

I am very fascinated to hear about accounting academics. Mr. Grouchovonbismark could you please write to me off-list to: n_assa@yahoo.com with further advice on accounting academia. I have worked at an accounting firm (Coopers & Lybrand) and would love to revisit those credentials if there is a glimmer of hope for academic career and tenure. I am a historian and have not seen an accounting book for a decade. Many thanks!

24. qwerty_asdf - April 07, 2010 at 10:55 am

Humanists need to think more broadly about the transferability of their skills--even within the academy. One example: the graduate fields that explore health education, health communication, and health behavior often attract students with BA's in English, History, Sociology and Anthropology. The employment market for these fields, for which an MPH is sufficient training, is strong and growing.

25. pmizz - April 07, 2010 at 11:53 am

What we really need to do is deconstruct the myth of acdemia that fuels this whole machine. Unrealistic expectations that a college or university teaching job is one of the only places where an intelligent person can find rewarding, self-directed work is too easily bought by talented undergraduates who have never known life outside of school. Professors who are role models feed into this because it's an idealized version of thier lives.

The myth falls flat when one enters and realizes that faculty positions are entry level jobs like many others - lots of work for little pay.

Bona fides - I have a terminal degree (libary science) and turned down a faculty position to work in the non-profit sector in a related capacity. Best career move ever. My job gives me more freedom, higher pay, creativity, and insulation from petty squabbles.

26. genedelisa - April 08, 2010 at 07:17 am

We now have calorie/fat information on menus. Somehow I always knew that a fast food burger had obscene quantities of fat and sodium even without the new menus.

When I began my doctorate in music I had absolutely no illusion that I would ever find a decent job in my field. The University did not disclose this fact; nor was it needed. Everyone knew that the graduates who actually landed jobs were the exception. I completed the degree anyway. I had a deep and abiding interest in the subject matter. I wanted to improve my knowledge and skills. Decades later I'm still trying to improve them.

In spite of being able to make tens of dollars yearly as a composer of "classical" music, I pay for my cat's dinner by earning money outside my field. I don't consider my degrees wasted because I'm not teaching at a university.

27. goodeyes - April 08, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Tenure provides due process for termination, and without it, faculty can be fired for any reason that is not discriminatory. Tenure does not give lifetime employment for documented and continuing poor performance, but unfortunately, poor performers are often not held accountable. Academic freedom in the court system is a gray area.

28. cstars - April 08, 2010 at 04:08 pm

This is an excleent article. It is unfortunate that we must hear from the standard critics of tenure (gimmeabreak and newfudgeman) as part of the comments.

Perhaps we should get rid of tenure - with meaningful protection for academic freedom. But, we will then need to pay professors at a rate that makes the profession attractive to young people. For, even if we streamline graduate education, those young people are looking at certain facts: 1) extended education, 2) little to no choice in geographical location and few choices to stay put if a position in one place does not continue, 3) poor pay relative to that earned by others with comparable [or less] education, and 4) being assessed according to the views of students. If we add to this the element of life-long job uncertainty that now haunts other kinds of work, only the most pig-headed will bother.

29. dly115 - April 09, 2010 at 03:59 am

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30. fightingwords - April 09, 2010 at 03:37 pm

What would happen if a tenure track hiring and an admission into a PhD program became the same thing? Connect the graduate track to the tenure track, so that no one starts out on such an investment of time and work without knowing there's a pot of gold at the end.

You push the selection process forward and admit tenure track doctoral students who are guaranteed an eventual position as tenured faculty upon completion of coursework and dissertation.

Current PhD programs are essentially offering a 7-year application process, an extended audition -

So instead of hiring from a pool of PhDs AFTER they've all gone through a lengthy accreditation process - hire from a pool of B.A.'s and M.A.'s BEFORE putting them through arduous, drawn out doctoral training institutions wind up training their own faculty, which seems like it could only encourage Collegiality.

Non-PhD granting teaching institutions who need to acquire full-time faculty draw from the surplus of PhD's currently adjuncting or working in private industry.

I see two potential problems:

1) Departments lose a little hiring flexibility - if they need someone to teach 18th century literature and there's no one in the pipeline-

2) Departments shrink the pool of graduate students to TA and teach low-level courses - although that would free up senior faculty to teach those same classes, albeit grumblingly. You can also expand terminal M.A. programs for people who want Life of the Mind and/or to teach at lower levels.

Seems like the system already sort of does this - the most desirable graduate applicants get offered tuition waiver, stipend, fellowships, teaching assistantships - now the most desirable graduate applicants get tenure track admission..

31. carol90403 - April 10, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Regarding the 'seniors' who you claim are occupying tenure track spots, those spots will simply be gone or halved when these folks retire, or replaced by two 'assistant' nontenure professors, or adjuncts. The trend now seems to be that for every two or three retirements probably one gets hired. You are also ignoring that this is a cycle -- longer life spans, and an older population in general

Look at it this way; by 2015 half the US population will be over the age of 50. If these people retire early, be ready to pay *more* of your own salary into taxes to pay for social security and pensions funds than you've ever dreamed of. This is because retirement as a stage of life was constructed in the 40s, 50s and 60s, when there were plenty of younger people in the Baby Boom to support entitlement funds [and the life expectancy was lower]. Now, there is not. People don't receive social security or university pensions by a magic wand waved by the govt. so newer people can then take over their jobs; it is because those who still work at those jobs pay *into* the system, to keep it afloat.

32. barnhillec - April 11, 2010 at 08:23 pm

The only thing that shocks me about this article is that the author is also a professor of education. Surely schools of education escape many of these dilemmas, having established a reasonably proper, practical relationship to the needs of society by training teachers and others in the large essential field of education. It does leave me curious, is the education doctoral student headed for an equally dismal market or is the academic education industry thriving by contrast?

33. jchristopher - April 13, 2010 at 09:01 pm

I'm grateful for this analysis. I wonder if "trends" are always the inexorable forces we imagine them to be. If universities do more to publicize, both to prospective graduate students AND the public at large, their decreasing investment in proper education in the humanities, as they should, perhaps people will demand a change.

Perhaps university administrations cannot be expected to publish this decreasing investment. However, by following the recommendations above individual academic departments can let people know what's going on. This is fair to those considering a career in the humanities, and it also represents and opportunity to get people who are in a position to change things to consider doing so.

It's not as though fewer high school students are enrolling in college; it's not as though tuition is getting ever cheaper. It seems to me universities are charging more and more for less and less. Each year it seems the number of courses being taught be adjuncts increases. Why? Who are making these decisions? They're not just "trends." They're decisions actual people with names are making in administrations, in state legislatures, and so on. Let's publicize this information more as well.

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