Thoughts on life after the PhD
Whining about the bleak state of academia seems to be the favored pasttime of academics everywhere, especially those in the humanities. Grad students are exploited as cheap labor. Universities are morphing from institutions of higher learning to degree mills that churn out the next generation of corporate drones. Tenure-track and full-time positions are being phased out in favor of adjunct and part-time work. Arts, language, and literature programs are seeing their funding cut left and right because no one wants to get a degree that won’t immediately land them a high-paying job. Learning is dying, money is king.
I don’t mean to imply that the above statements aren’t true, or that they’re not valid causes for concern. But after a time anyone could grow deaf to such complaints, especially when most of what seems to happen is complaining and not action. Graduate students are also frequently reassured by faculty that such claims are exaggerated, and that they’re hardly new (I agree with the second part). It can’t all be THAT bad, right? Right?
Well, I’m not so sure anymore. Recently the Modern Language Association released its data on job placement for PhD’s in literature and language, and the results kind of made my blood run cold. The graph showing the number of foreign-language job placements over the past two years looks like a very advanced ski slope. In 2007-2008 there were 1,680 job postings. In 2008-2009 there were 1,227. And in 2009-2010 there were 1000.
It would be somewhat comforting to think that the drop was the result of the economic recession, but unfortunately that doesn’t appear to be the case. The fact is that the number of PhD’s has increased at the same time as universities are cutting more jobs and hiring fewer full-time faculty members. A colleague recently pointed out something very obvious–academic job placement is, at its heart, a numbers game, and the odds don’t favor the job applicant. When the average graduate program in, say, English literature has ten professors and forty PhD candidates–and few or none of those professors are likely to leave their jobs any time soon–it’s ridiculous to assume that every PhD in that department, or even half of them, will get jobs. Despite the confident picture often painted by faculty advisors, the numbers simply don’t add up.
I attended a recent meeting of grad students in my department to discuss these and other issues, and we were all craving strong drinks at the end of it. One PhD had applied for forty positions–forty!–in a single year and hadn’t even gotten as far as the interview stage for any of them. She had been told by faculty not to be discouraged, that almost no one got a job in their first year of searching, that it often took two or three years. Given that academic job-hunting is almost a full-time job in itself, said faculty member probably should have indicated how she was supposed to feed herself in the interim.
As Louis Menand and others have pointed out, certain traditions and unwritten rules in the world of academic job placement are beginning to seem more and more absurd. What other career track requires upwards of nine years of preparation, only to release graduates into a market where job prospects are alarmingly bleak and low-paying? What other job placement system doesn’t even bother to notify its applicants that they’ve been rejected? What other system sees virtually any job besides a tenure-track professorship as a failure, even when such jobs are quickly becoming nearly impossible to secure?
One of my colleagues mentioned that she and her husband were thinking about opening a restaurant. We all threw around the idea of non-profit think tanks. I mentioned that I was leaning towards getting more involved in various non-profits and volunteer teaching efforts. We’re all still likely to go on the market, but we’re realists, and realists in academia have multiple back-up plans.
I still love what I do, and I still love the prospect of being able to work in an environment that values scholarship and the exchange of meaningful ideas. I love the prospect of being able to inspire students with the desire to question and create, to value something beyond material gain. But I can’t be blind to the graphs. Academic life might feed my soul, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’ll ever put food on my table.
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