Sunday, August 14, 2011

Blog XC (90): Tough Times

This week’s blog entry represents a first. It reproduces three articles together. This is the first time that this blog has represented more than one article at a time. The first article is a survey of the job market for all fields in the humanities. It sets the tone and two more follow, examining the job market in fields other than history. The first article is “Outlook Grim For Prospective Professors: Disappearing Job Postings Prompt Ph.D.'s to Mull a Career Change. It appeared in the January 21, 2009 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the reporter who wrote it is Stacy Cowley. The sixth paragraph discusses employment prospects in history: 
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?"
The next article is about a group of scholars that should have known better, economists. The article “Job Market for Economists Turns ... Dismal” appeared in the February 10, 2009 issue of The Wall Street Journal. The author is Justin Lahart:
The dismal economy has claimed yet another victim: jobs for the economists who study it.

Columbia University's economics department, for example, isn't making any new hires this year. That's in stark contrast to last year, when Columbia poached eight economics professors from other schools, and hired one economist out of graduate school. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Amherst College and the University of Minnesota all have suspended their searches for economics professors. And Harvard University has gotten permission to hire just one person -- only after "many rounds of negotiation," according to Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, who is handling recruiting this year. Typically, Harvard hires two or three economics professors out of graduate school.

Among newly minted economics Ph.D.s, jobs at top-ranked universities and business schools are the most sought after. Economists have also traditionally found more lucrative jobs outside of academia: at government agencies, at nongovernmental organizations, like the International Monetary Fund, and in the private sector. But with the financial crisis, economist jobs at hedge funds and Wall Street firms have dried up, leaving schools with more candidates to choose from.

The rollback comes at a historic time, as economists struggle to explain the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The crisis, which few economists saw coming, revealed deep gaps in many of the standard ways that economics approaches the economy, driving home the need for fresh thinking and talent.

But like just about everyone else, top universities have been hit hard by financial-market turmoil over the past year, and from anthropology to zoology, department budgets are getting cut. The endowments at private schools have suffered billions of dollars in investment losses. Public universities have seen meager growth in state spending on higher education, with many facing the prospect of large budget cuts.

Economics departments are a prime target for cuts -- especially since economics professors are costly compared to their counterparts in other departments. Indeed, universities have been willing to pay a premium for faculty members who can often fetch much better salaries at high-paying business schools and in the private sector. The average annual salary schools paid new economist hires was $86,292 for the 2008-09 academic, according to a University of Arkansas business school survey.

Economics has been a growing field in recent years. Undergraduate enrollment in economics courses surged in the late 1990s into the early part of this decade, just as a glut of economists who went to graduate school in the Vietnam War years reached retirement. That led many schools to beef up their hiring, which in turn has made the dropoff in hiring this year even more of a shock.

"Everyone understands that there are fewer jobs than last year, and it could be significantly fewer," said Oleg Itskhoki, a Harvard graduate student. Mr. Itskhoki whose academic work focuses on the interaction between global trade, wage inequality and unemployment, says that students won't really know the state of the market until the bulk of offer letters come out over the next month or so. Universities tend to do most of their hiring in the spring.

Young economists at major universities often have light teaching duties, and they devote most of their time to research as they try to string together the journal publications that they need to make tenure. Getting to make money while pursuing research in an academic setting is exactly what many graduate students would like to do with their lives. Three out of five graduate students hoped to work at a major university, according to a survey conducted by Middlebury College economist David Colander between 2001 and 2003.

The Fed in a New Light
One result of weak academic market for economists is that an institution that has often had a tough time competing for talent is suddenly looking brighter. The Federal Reserve, the lender of last resort, isn't quite the employer of last resort, but Mr. Colander's survey showed only one in five graduate students hopes to work at a policy-making institution like the Fed.

"I'm hopeful about the job market that we'll be able to get good people this year," said an official involved in the recruiting process at the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors. "We've got important work for them to do."

While the Fed may be able to recruit higher-caliber economists this year, it doesn't have the budget flexibility to beef up hiring. Over each of the past several years, it's taken on between 15 and 20 new hires, with a mix of new Ph.D.s and experienced economists, and this year expects to hire about the same number.

Employment prospects are a bit brighter at some business schools, such as Columbia Business School and the Wharton School. That's because they aren't as dependent on large endowments, relying more on tuition. "We are hiring in economics, and we are hoping for it to be a good year for us," said Columbia Business School Vice Dean Christopher Mayer. Despite a plunge in its endowment, Yale University's economics department also still plans to make a few hires, said department head Christopher Udry.

In their graduation year, economics graduate students prepare what's known as their job-market paper -- typically the best of the multiple papers that make up their dissertation -- sending it out to schools and other institutions looking to hire. After that first cut, they'll go to interviews at the American Economic Association's annual meeting at the beginning of the year -- a grueling four days where top prospects may go through 35 to 40 interviews. The last stage is "flyouts," where candidates visit schools to hobnob with the faculty and present their job-market papers before the department. Privately, students say even qualified candidates went through just a fraction of the usual number of interviews this year, and some schools have canceled flyouts.

Supply and Demand
Economists, being economists, use economic terms when they talk about the job market. Graduate students on the hunt are the "supply side," while the departments doing the hiring are on the "demand side."

The tightening of that demand side is bringing out the worst in candidates, Ph.D. students say. On a message board dedicated to this year's market (, anonymous posters are trashing their competition and and taking potshots at this year's top prospects.

The young economists have ample reasons to worry about what the weak job market will mean for them. Economists have written dozens of papers about the job market for economists. One by Stanford University business school economist Paul Oyer showed that economists hired into tight job markets end up not getting the top-tier job they would have landed in flush times. Its conclusion: Those economists tend to have less-productive careers. Knowledge like that makes competition for the remaining top-tier slots all the more intense.

"It's a pretty simple algorithm we use," said Yale graduate student Santosh Anagol, who is on the job market this year. "Everybody wants the highest-quality academic job." Mr. Anagol's recent research studies the economic role of livestock in rural India. His job-market paper studies how differing levels of information between buyers and sellers affect the market for cows.

Schools actually making hires this year face the difficult problem of figuring out how many offers they need to make to fill their slots. In most years, they'll assume that some of the people they make offers to will turn them down to take jobs at other schools. This year, said Princeton University economist Markus Brunnermeier, "the expectation is that more people will accept since they won't get any other offers."

Fortunately, Princeton's economics department includes some leading game theorists who should be able to figure out just what the optimal number of job offers will be.
The final article appeared a year later in the January 8, 2011 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Larry Gordon, the author of this article, focuses on the plight of language scholars, and it shows that little changed in that time. Here is the article “Language Scholars Feel the Pinch of Hard Times; At Annual Convention, 8,000 Compare Notes on the Economy's Effects on Education”:
As 8,000 literature and language professors and scholars gathered in Los Angeles for their annual convention this week, a lot of metaphors were tossed about to describe what many feel is the besieged state of their careers and classrooms during the recession.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Assn. of America, likened the job market for humanities faculty and students to a "low plateau" and said those in the field face crowded classrooms, program reductions and work furloughs at the nation's cash-strapped colleges and universities.

"The humanities are under greater pressure right now than they would be in economically better times," said Feal, whose organization began its four-day meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center and a nearby hotel on Thursday.

The problem, she said, may be partly the result of a misconception that English and foreign language studies do not prepare students for a range of careers. "Humanities are just as practical as any other majors," Feal said, especially during hard times when people need to be nimble about switching jobs.

The convention, the organization's 126th such meeting, combines a giant job fair for literature, linguistics, writing and foreign language professors with the chance to present academic papers and hear about the fields' latest research.

It also allows, for example, professors of medieval Spanish and experts on the novels of Philip Roth to mingle and swap tales of difficult deans and publishing triumphs.

The gathering has sometimes been lampooned as a festival of the politically correct and arcane. This week's 821 seminars include such topics as "Ha, Ha Hungary: Humor in Hungarian Film and Literature," "From Victim to Heroine: Redefining Female Detective Fiction Across Cultures" and "Refiguring Romance: Idioms of Love and Death in Old Norse Literature."

But the economy's effect on college life was a recurrent theme in sessions under the common heading "The Academy in Hard Times." A mixture of pride and defensiveness about teaching was evident, along with anger about what many participants called unnecessary budget slashing, particularly at state colleges and universities.

At one session, UC Santa Barbara English professor Christopher Newfield presented a scenario he said could come to pass a decade from now. In his vision, college students, families and professors will become disgusted by continuing tuition increases, declines in state funding for higher education and what Newfield described as the subsidies undergraduate fees now provide to corporate-linked scientific research.

The antipathy could lead, he predicted, to an "unbundling of universities," resulting in smaller "bootleg" schools seceding from bigger institutions. Such schools, he said, could charge much lower tuition and specialize in undergraduate teaching and the humanities without the costs of big-ticket research and sports.

Newfield said he would prefer that big universities reform themselves and treat undergraduates more fairly. But if that does not happen, he called for a move away from centralization and back to "craft mastery and intellectual independence."

At a seminar called "Teaching American Literature in an Age of Scarcity," Stephanie Foote, an English professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, drew a connection between writer Henry James' glacially paced 1904 novel "The Golden Bowl" and the recession's effect on current college students.

Foote said that so many of her students take on jobs to pay tuition or to help their families that they have less time than earlier generations to read the longer works of the classic writers she teaches. In addition, the Internet and such short-form communication tools as Twitter have reduced students' attention span, she said. So Foote has substituted shorter books, such as James' "The Spoils of Poynton," which is about half the length of the 592-page "The Golden Bowl."

"They feel terrible when they can't do all the work," she said of her students. "This way, they can get a sense of how that [James] narrative works, but I know they can actually do it."

Throughout the convention, the weak job market was on many people's minds.

Matching Feal's "low plateau" description, the organization reported that the number of faculty job openings in English and foreign languages across the country was about the same as last year after two years of the steepest declines in four decades.

The 2,120 expected openings are nearly 40% below the numbers in 2007-08.

At the same time, the number of doctorates awarded in English is declining, a possible sign that graduate students are seeking careers in fields that offer greater job security.

The tough economy also is causing literature and other humanities departments to defend themselves against cutbacks on campuses around the nation, said Dartmouth College professor Donald Pease, who teaches American literature.

But such classes should not be justified only with arguments about students' employability, he emphasized.

"If you don't begin with the assumption that literature itself is a repository of human values that human beings need, then we lose everything," he said.

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