I've been thinking further about the issues raised first by Dean Dad in his post advising a History student not to pursue a PhD. A conversation ensued; first Dr. Crazy responded by arguing that when we advise students not to go on to graduate school, we're advising against diversity in graduate programs. Then I responded. And then Dean Dad responded again, noting that economics programs have managed to control admissions, and so are less impacted by the dismal job market prospects in most traditional humanities fields.
So, of course, in the throes of grading procrastination, I've been thinking further about the issue.
The two areas of English studies which seem to have reasonably healthy job markets are composition studies and technical writing (which I'm using for want of a better umbrella term, though in practical terms, this also includes rhetoric, scientific writing, and so forth). Composition studies researches how people write, learn to write, writing practices, and so forth, focusing not only on college writing, but on writing in grade school and outside of academics. It's often allied with educational schools/departments for obvious reasons. Technical writing studies how writing and rhetoric work in non-fiction fields, most obviously in scientific and technical fields.
Why are the job markets in these two fields less dismal than in literature?
First, there are relatively fewer PhD programs in these fields, and those PhD programs tend to be fairly small. There's little incentive in these fields for faculty who want to avoid teaching lower level courses to recruit graduate students to teach those courses.
PhD students in composition studies do generally support themselves by teaching composition, but at most PhD granting institutions, most composition teaching is done by an army English grad students. Technical writing programs tend to offer few lower-level courses, and few large lecture format courses (the kind that use graduate student teaching assistants to lead discussion sections). Thus, tech writing grad students tend to teach in composition (still owned mostly by English departments), and in editing type courses, which, compared to first year composition, have a relatively low demand.
Second, each field has another "outlet" for PhDs. Composition studies people can find jobs in education departments as well as English or Composition departments, or find (semi-)administrative jobs directing writing and tutoring centers. And these jobs are as well-respected as composition studies jobs in general. (That respect issue deserves more time than I'm going to give it, I'm afraid.) Technical writers can find jobs that pay a whole lot better than academics if they move into editing and writing in technical fields.
Third, these fields attract relatively few graduate applications compared to English departments or other more traditional humanities departments. I haven't been wildly looking, but I haven't noticed an undergraduate major in composition studies, so while there may be one out there, few students have that option.
For most undergraduates, "composition" begins and ends with their first year writing course. They aren't taught composition by someone who's a specialist, so they aren't seeing a specialist in action the way they are when they take a Shakespeare course. These classes are all too often taught by an instructor who'd rather be teaching something else, with whatever skill, experience, and enthusiasm s/he brings to the class. If only extrapolating from my own experience teaching first year writing courses, composition teachers rarely enthuse about the latest research in the field.
In PhD granting institutions, undergrads can't help but notice that "real professors" don't teach that course, so they don't think of it as a field for real research and study.
I've seen a lot more technical writing majors available, but they're still relatively rare compared to more traditional majors. And technical writing majors have many more obvious job opportunities available in their major field with a BA. You simply don't need a PhD in the field to get a good starting job.
So, both fields turn out relatively few PhDs, some of whom leave for greener pastures, and some of whom go on the job market in academics.
One of the things that interests me about study in these fields is that since they're not traditional humanities fields (well, rhetoric is, but not in quite the same way), Ivy type schools simply don't tend to offer majors or graduate programs in these fields (though they must hire writing center directors and such, I suppose?). Instead, the places that tend to offer PhDs in these fields are more often state universities. This tendency suggests that these programs are already more diverse in some ways than most PhD programs.
So somehow, they've avoided the job market problems AND the lack of diversity problem.
Now if they just seemed one tenth as fun as studying and teaching Shakespeare! That's the rub, of course. I studied a little composition theory, and while it was indeed interesting, and remains very useful to me in my work, it just didn't seem nearly as fun as literature.
English departments often "support themselves" within universities by serving as the home of first year writing or composition programs. The upsides are that English departments sometimes get more faculty, which means people can teach more specialized upper-level courses, English departments may have more clout in governance, and there are actually more jobs for literature PhDs in some places than there would be without those first year classes to teach.
The BIG downside is that we lit folks rarely know as much about composition teaching as someone trained specifically in composition theory does. Most English grad students learn along the way, and the quality of composition teaching varies more than it should.
The other downsides include (ab)using lots of adjuncts, and overproducing English PhDs because PhD granting departments have a service commitment they fulfill with cheap grad student teaching, and can't/won't fulfill with the literature faculty they hire and value. Oh, and contributing to that dismal job market.
And here, of course, I've driven myself into a conundrum. Have I mentioned lately how glad I am to even have a job? To have a job that involves reading and talking about Shakespeare and other literature? I know my department depends on my (our) "service" teaching first year writing, and I try to do a good job at it. But I also know that someone who's put in the effort to get a PhD in composition studies is probably better at it than I am (or better out the starting gate; I suppose I may have learned something over the years. The Flying Spaghetti Monster knows I've tried!)
This is my punishment for grading procrastination.