Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Blog XL (40): Less Than A Third

Today's entry is Stacy Cowley's article, "Outlook Grim For Prospective Professors; Disappearing Job Postings Prompt Ph.D.'s to Mull a Career Change." This feature appeared in the January 21, 2009 issue of The Village Voice. Cowley's reporting raises important issues about employment possibilities for the newly minted Ph.D. and suggests that many--actually most--Ph.D.s should look for employment outside of academia. Here is the article:

The American Economic Association's job board recently sprouted a brand-new section: cancelled listings. Newly minted economics Ph.D.'s and postdocs looking for their next academic job will instead find pages and pages of frozen and suspended searches, more than 50 in all. It's the same story for classicists and archaeologists checking the American Philological Association's listings, which now start with a roster of misery-a rundown of all the positions that no longer exist. Job hopefuls in psychology, film studies, creative writing, and sociology have created wikis to swap news about spiked listings, a death register that includes opportunities at Dartmouth, Cornell, Harvard, Hofstra, Fordham, and nearly every open search in the SUNY and Cal State systems.

Never mind a hiring freeze. For those seeking jobs in academia, next year is looking more like a nuclear winter.

"Last year, about a quarter of the positions I applied for had their searches canceled, and last year's market didn't look as bad as this year's," says one aspirant, art historian Sandra Cheng. "I'm wondering how many of these positions I'm applying for are actually real."

Now a visiting assistant professor at Pratt, Cheng got her Ph.D. in May at the University of Delaware and has a résumé filled with fellowships and grants. She's seeking a traditional academic livelihood: research, travel, and teaching, at a university with
tenure-track positions. But after a year of job-hunting and piecing together part-time positions, Cheng is wondering if the career she envisioned still exists.

"I do sense a permanent change," she says. "I wonder if this is the last leg for the tenure system."

At the American Historical Association's annual conference/job fair, held in New York earlier this month, researcher Sterling Fluharty presented a paper about the job market in his field with a blunt conclusion: "Job seekers in history need to think more about their employment prospects in non-academic fields." A grad student at the University of Oklahoma, Fluharty mined data and found that less than a third of those who earned a Ph.D. in history between 1966 and 1992 were tenured faculty as of 2003. Even before this year's market meltdown, the move away from offering full-time, tenured positions was accelerating. By Fluharty's calculations, within the next decade, 55 percent of all university history faculty members will be working in part-time positions.

As professionals in fields with weak demand head back to grad school to sit out the market for a bit, grad students are investigating their own options for staying out of the job fray. Katy Pearce, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in communications at the University of California Santa Barbara, had planned to wrap up her studies this year. But when she returned from a stretch of fieldwork in Armenia, she found that "everyone in my program that was expecting to go on the job market this year all bailed. They just weren't seeing anything being listed."

Pearce's program guarantees funding for up to four years, so she decided to delay graduation, focus on burnishing her publishing credentials, and hope hiring prospects in 2010 look brighter. But as schools cut back their undergraduate enrollments to bridge budget gaps, she's wondering if the demand will be there for new grad students and for professors to teach them.

"At the last conference I went to, I heard that one of the jobs that opened at Northwestern, 400 people applied for. Usually, 100 apply," she says. "So many assistant professors have gotten cut. For those of us just getting our Ph.D.'s, how can we compete against people who have already been an assistant for a year or two?"

Those odds have Cheng reconsidering her career path. She's thinking about detouring away from art history and going into academic administration-universities are businesses, and businesses always need managers to run them. But if she does stick with teaching, she'd like to land a school where she can concentrate on undergraduates. Cheng is queasy about the idea of encouraging future art historians along into a field unable to absorb them.

"For Ph.D.'s in the humanities market, it's almost like we really shouldn't make any more, because there's such a backlog of doctorates floating around out there and we don't have the jobs," she says. "The programs want more grad students to keep their departments floating, but is it really ethical, I wonder?"


  1. PhD candidates in humanities should not finish their degrees, in my view. Having a doctorate in hand will make them less, not more, employable in non-academic fields. As a potential employer, rather than hear someone say how they toughed it out to obtain a degree that is largely worthless outside the academic world, I would prefer to hear them describe how they sized up a difficult situation and their responsibilities in that situation, and pragmatically decided to cut their losses. Sorry if this sounds brutal, but realism is of the essence.

    Crabby Historian

  2. I dont think a PhD is a universally bad asset to have in the non-academic world. But it could be seen as detrimental in some cases, say if the person was young (i.e under 30) or with no experience other than university studies. This person would have a very hard time filling out a professional resume and passing a non-academic job interview.

    However, someone who has a decent amount of non-academic experience and a phd will be be able to sell themselves to many employers. The trick is to build on skills learned in university and adapt them to new work environments. For instance, academic research and writing skills can easily be adapted for other purposes like writing reports, govt briefs, etc. Anyone who can teach a class can do PR or communications work.

    Unfortunately, education in the humanities involves no job training or preparation for non-university work, even though the vast majority end up there anyways. Humanities depts need to accept reality (and responsibility) and stop brainwashing students into thinking that only academic jobs matter. It's simply not true. There are way more opportunities for work outside university - and they pay better and won't consume your life.

  3. Ha ha. These people have it good! I will soon have a PhD in Sociology. But not from Harvard, maybe then I would have found jobs. From a German university, much lower in the food chain (and it is the same around here). And not in such a cool sub-discipline like Internet or education that would get me jobs in the real industry. What I am thinking of right now - please let me know what you think:
    * getting a new degree, this time in something useful like business
    * writing non-fiction books for money? I wish
    * and yes, I am keeping my day-job as a freelance, badly paid, museum guide. Better than nothing.

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