Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Realities of the job market

Today is a non-teaching day for me. Sometimes, around here, we call these "unscheduled" days, and most people in my department manage one a week. Alas, today I have a university committee meeting scheduled, so it's not really "unscheduled."

One of my mini-projects today is catching up on some journals and such, and the ADE Bulletin (Association of Departments of English) is on the list. These bulletins usually provide some interesting reading, not only about teaching issues, but about the bigger picture issues for faculty members in literature and languages. One of those issues is the state of the job market.

If you're a grad student, or thinking of becoming a grad student, it's worth reading the MLA survey information on hiring and PhD placement (Laurence and Steward, see below for bibliographic info). It's depressing, but better to be depressed by reality than by rumor, I think. The ADE Bulletin survey articles provide information about both English and foreign languages, but because I'm an English department person, I'm going to focus only on the English side. (The statistics are pretty similar for the foreign language and lit job market. Neither should leave you rosy cheeked and thrilled. I'm also only looking at information for graduates of US PhD programs.)

The survey naturally lags a couple years. In this case, the numbers are from 2000-2001.

Table 11a lists the employment placements of graduates from English programs by type of hiring institution (111). It gives an overall number of graduates as 785; from the earlier information, the 785 appears to be the number of graduates about whom the survey got information who are still in higher education, so if you or your PhD granting institution didn't give the info, you weren't counted.

Of these 785 people graduating with PhDs in English, 373 got tenure track jobs in higher education (47.5%). Additionally, 193 people got full time non-tenure track jobs (24.6%), and 88 got part-time teaching jobs (11.2%), with an 71 people getting teaching jobs that didn't specify appointment type (9%).

The numbers are more complicated when you remember that these data only attempt to show what happened to people earning PhDs in 2000-2001. It doesn't account for people who went on the market ABD, or for people who were in non-tenure track jobs who went back on the tenure track market, and so forth.

But it does give a general idea that the job market is, indeed, very tight still. If you don't get a job your first time out, you're sharing a situation with more than 50% of your cohort. (Dr. Virago at Quod She has a post on the pre-professionalization of grad students that you might find helpful and interesting at this point.)

Interestingly, although more women graduated (463) than men (319), 46.2% of women graduates (214) got tenure track jobs compared to 49.2% of men graduates (157). Once again, it seems to be of some advantage to have a Y chromosome. (There may be some level of self-selection in these numbers, of course. I just don't have much patience for those arguments because women are asked to self-select for part-time or adjunct work in more insidious ways, and far more often, than men.)

Finally, there's time to degree information (Tables 13a and 13b, 118-119). In 2001, the average time to degree in English programs is 8.4 years for women and 8.0 years for men. That table shows the total number of people getting PhDs in English in 2000-2001 at 1,104. (The discrepancy in numbers has something to do with people who didn't answer the surveys, but there's probably more.)

Eight years is a long time, a major life commitment, more than 10% of the expected lifespan of most people in the US. Were I in an econ department, I'd talk meaningfully about the opportunity costs of spending 8 years getting a PhD to face a job market where less than 50% of the SUCCESSFUL people in my cohort got tenure track jobs. Let's just acknowledge that there's a huge opportunity cost; smart, capable people could be doing other things with their lives. (On the othre hand, there's also a potential that you can get a job you love, doing meaningful work, in a place you're happy to be.) Were I in an econ department, I'd also talk about the problems of student debt, delayed starts to retirement savings, and so forth. (Speaking of which, Ancrene Wiseass has a great post recently about the costs of putting off healthful living in graduate school. Read it!)

The system continues to fail its graduates by training overwhelmingly more people than can hope to get a tenure track job for which it prepares them.

Seeing the numbers, thinking about the numbers, is a reminder to think about how the system works, how even we regional university folks contribute to the problem.

Bibliographic info:

Laurence, David, and Doug Steward. "Placement Outcomes for Modern Language PhDs: Findings from the MLA's Surveys of PhD Placement." ADE Bulletin, No 138-139 (fall 2005-spring 2006), 103-122.

(I was about to write "Work Cited" for the article, and then realized that I should also cite the Ancrene Wiseass and Quod She blogs I linked, but I'm going with laziness and just giving you the bibliographic info so you can find the article, and the links so you can click them. Go lazy Bardiac! I'm such a nerd, really, I am. I'm just a lazy one.)


  1. These are good posts; I'd like to point my grad students toward them.

  2. Bardiac, thanks for supplying the numbers to go with our more anecdotal arguments.

    I'd like to tell me students about these posts, too, but then they might figure out I'm Dr. Virago1 :) Guess I'll just have to deliver the info to them (which, in the case of my post, I already have).

  3. Yikes -- this can make med school look easy.

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know I tagged you: List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now. Post these instructions in your Live Journal/blog along with your seven songs. Then tag seven other people to see what they’re listening to.

    Have fun!

  4. Getting a PhD is not simply a career path on the road to a post in a university, so the system is not 'failing' for that reason. If every PhD student was expected to get a university post, either universities would have to expand and dumb-down, or the death rate for academics would have to go through the roof, neither of which are good things.

    A university education is about more than simply stepping along the career path, and PhD level research is much more than that.

    A lot of people take a break after doing a PhD rather than diving in to a post. PhDs are intense and punishing. Life is not a hamster wheel. Take a break. Rediscover your sanity.

    Finally, PhDs over here are scheduled for 3 years but usually over-run to 3½ or 4 years. 8 years is a very long time to do a PhD, unless you are including the first degree (which is usually 3yrs here).

  5. Thanks for the responses, all!

    Clanger, the 8 years is after the BA or BS degree. All the programs I've looked at say students should finish in 5-6 years, but the numbers say that's not happening.

    While in theory I agree that grad school isn't just about a job at the end, I think inasmuch as people entering grad programs are hoping to get academic jobs, it is. Eight years and a load of student debt is a huge opportunity cost; we need to first make sure students understand what they're getting into, and second to change the practices of PhD granting schools that accept students for their cheap teaching, knowing that the job market is as bad as it is. That is, we need to limit enrollments, but somehow, we need to limit enrollments without making it impossible for people from non-elite backgrounds to have a chance.

  6. I'm stunned. Even 5-6 years is way too long for a PhD. 8 years is economically insane, and maintaining the level of application and intensity required for that long is impossible. Something is seriously wrong here. Are these part-time PhDs?

    Backgrounds are irrelevant at PhD selection level. All retro-inequalities should have been ironed out by the end of a 3 year first degree, and a graduate will by then have demonstrated the clear ability to do a PhD, which is serious and new research, or not.

    All good research should be done (although a great deal of essentially worthless research actually gets done, especially at the theoretical end of lit. studies). Those with less in the bank will obviously need funding support.

    A PhD is a standalone degree, a personal choice, and a personal sacrifice. There is no more reason why someone should go for an academic post after getting one, than they should go for a PhD after getting their first degree. Obviously its an option.

    There is no reason to assume that someone who has done a superb PhD will be a good teacher.

    One of the great faults of the corporatisation of academia is the failure to split teaching and research posts, and then treat them equally. Research and teaching require different skill sets. The best researchers do not always make the best teachers, and vice versa. A (very) small number of folk are very good at both.

    A good university should seek to have an even mix of both, and treat them (pay and status) equally well.

  7. I agree that 8 years is too long, but that's what the MLA data shows as the average for that year.

    My experience is that most PhD students in the humanities are full-time students who teach 3-10 class hours a week, depending on their programs, for most of their graduate program. Many students get 1-2+ years of fellowship, during which they don't teach, though they may have part-time jobs to make ends meet.

    In an ideal world, inequities would disappear completely. Alas, I don't live in an ideal world.

    I don't think it really makes sense to separate research and teaching, though I agree that some researchers are lousy teachers and vice versa. The PhD programs I'm familiar with don't do a good job preparing students to teach, in general.

  8. 10 hours teaching a week makes your PhD a part-time PhD by default-no wonder it takes 8yrs. Its good to have researchers giving lectures, and good to have teachers writing research papers, but a humanities PhD (in the UK) is typically 3 and a bit years of intense research, punctuated only by boughts of manic depression and borderline insanity. It has very little to do with teaching, although there is often an option to do some. If a postgraduate is to do any teaching, they should certainly get some training.

    To teach in a school (5-16) or sixth form college (16-18) here, folk traditionally do a 4yr B.Ed, or a 3yr BA/BSc and then a 1yr PGCE (post-graduate certificate of education), much of which is practical ('student teacher' = target). Teaching of undergrads has traditionally been done largely by paid and employed academics who usually do more teaching than they want and whatever research they can fit in. There has always been a lack of teaching tuition for PhD students, despite some doing some teaching (often because they need the money), and many going on to do it.

    The inequalities I suggested that would vanish would be any lack of education (not any financial problems). After 3 years of graduate study, anyone intellectually capable of doing a PhD would have demonstrated those abilities, regardless of their circumstances before they started their degree. Money is always an issue for postgrad students, who never have enough. I certainly didn't.

    Over here a fellowship can come after your 3yr PhD if you are really good, there is a space, there is funding, you want to do it, and you are better than the competition (many of whom are external). This would normally set you on a track towards an academic post and support you whilst you publish your thesis as a book. There are far fewer fellowships than completing postgrads, but there is no expectation that moving on into a fellowship or academic post is part of a pre-ordained path.

    I disagree on the teaching/research. Completely different things. Teaching is about social skills, communication, performance, the role of the educator, and the nurturing of impressionable minds. Research (esp. a PhD) is about intense and highly focussed study (to medieval levels of monastic dedication) breaking new ground in a field, forgetting to eat, sleep, or wash during sustained bouts buried in large piles of obscure journals. A good PhD student spends a lot of time alone.

    A teacher knows exactly how late they are to the minute and is deeply stressed about it. A researcher isn't entirely sure what day it is, and doesn't really care. People know if you are a teacher because after the first month you talk LOUDER all the time, having developed a 'room voice'. People know if you are a researcher because there are only about 6 people on the planet who understand what you are talking about, get your jokes, or appreciate your discoveries. Teaching is a noble vocation. Research is an obsession bordering on a form of psychosis. Teaching will eventually exhaust you. Research will drive you insane. Note the subtle difference. People who do both well are rare and special individuals, although they will of course end up both exhausted and insane.

    I'd draw the analogy of the pilot and the aircraft designer. You find both around planes, but they tend not to spend part of the time doing each other's jobs.