It is official, confirmed by the Modern Language Association itself: This will be the worst year for academic job seekers in language and literature since the MLA started keeping records more than three decades ago.
I hope you’re not on the market this year. You may be good, but so are lots of other people. And the most important factor — luck — is beyond your control.
I have been coming to these conventions since the early 90s, back when my entering cohort of graduate students was assured by nearly everyone that jobs would be opening up towards the end of that decade.
And the situation did improve a little by the time I hit the market in 1998-99; the outlook was not desperate, just very bleak: At the time, there was, perhaps a 50 percent chance of a candidate ever joining the tenure-track after ten years or so of preparation.
It was like a golden age, the late-90s.
There are some variations based on field, but now I would guess the chances of any one candidate finding a tenure-track position are probably about 10 to 20 percent. (You can find some arguments about the probabilities in the Chronicle Forums.)
I been writing columns for The Chronicle on a variety of topics since 1998, but the ones that seem to attract the most readers have addressed the worsening situation of the academic job market. For example, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” and “Just Don’t Go: Part II” generated a lot of mail for me last spring. Some of it was angry; more of it was of the “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” variety.
I received a letter today:
“Only two weeks ago, I sat down with my own adviser and had the ‘everyone is going to retire, so everything will be okay’ conversation. I felt a lot better after that, and was certain up until reading your article that academia would be a good fit for me. I’m already fine with moving around the country, with making a terrible wage, and putting in the time and misery to get a Ph.D. in the field — I just want a job afterwards. That possibility just seems less likely as time goes on. I certainly don’t hold any animosity towards my adviser, but I want to know where to go from here.”
I wish I could tell him. I hope that most graduate students in the humanities can now find some support at their university’s office of career services. (It used to seem shameful for Ph.D.’s to do that — what if your adviser heard about it?)
If there’s anything positive about the collapse of an already depressed job market, it may be that humanities graduates will stop thinking about their education as almost entirely focused on getting a tenure-track job, and they will be quicker to accept the necessity of building bridges outside of academe and moving on to more viable careers — and perhaps they will start to change the nature of graduate education and the academic labor system, both manifestly broken.
Anyway, over the next few days of the convention, I’ll be wandering around, attending panels, eavesdropping on strangers, eating at the Reading Terminal Market, poking around in the book exhibit (I’ll be at The Chronicle’s reception there, Tuesday at 3:30-5:00), observing the Delegate Assembly hearings, hoping to pick up some new ideas, and — for whatever it’s worth — gazing with empathy at the stressed-out job candidates.
Good luck, everyone. See you around.