The Upward Trend in Modern Language PhD Production: Findings from the 2015 Survey of Earned Doctorates

The National Science Foundation has released data tables for the 2015 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), the federal government’s annual census of new graduates from the nation’s research doctoral programs. In the academic year 2014–15, modern language programs awarded degrees to 1,281 doctorate recipients in English and to 823 in modern languages other than English. The 1,281 graduates from English doctoral programs comes close to the recent high of 1,286, reached in 2012. While the 823 graduates from doctoral programs in other modern languages is substantially below the recent high of 919 reached in 2013, there has been an upward trend in the production of PhDs in both English and other modern languages over the eleven-year period 2005–15 (fig. 1).

Fig. 1.

The increases since 2009 are particularly concerning, given the severe contraction of entry-level professorial rank positions that has marked the same years. Figure 2 shows the SED counts for PhD recipients in English and other modern languages from 2005 to 2015 against the trend lines for ads for full-time assistant professors in the MLA Job Information List over the same years. Over the six years 2010–15, PhD production in English has averaged 14.6% higher than the average for the previous five years, 2005–09, while ads for assistant professors have averaged 37.6% fewer. In other modern languages, the number of doctorate recipients averaged 11.1% higher over the six years 2010–15, while ads for assistant professors averaged 33.7% fewer.

Fig. 2.

The contrary trends in PhD production and academic job opportunities suggest that programs and the profession must return yet again to the question of graduate student enrollment and the size of doctoral programs. The national aggregate of modern language PhD recipients represents aspirations and decisions accumulated across English and other language programs in the 162 universities that awarded degrees in letters and the 86 that awarded degrees in other modern languages in 2014–15, as shown in SED table 8. The institution-by-institution enumeration underscores the critical importance of institution- and program-level tracking of the employment outcomes and career paths of students who undertake doctoral study. The question of program size can only by addressed locally and hinges largely on how readily program graduates find their way to economically sustaining careers, whether in academia, in secondary schools, or in business, government, or nonprofit organizations. We have extracted the SED enumeration of degree recipients in letters and foreign languages from table 8 and placed the data in a spreadsheet that lists the institutions according to the number of PhD recipients they graduated in 2015.

Note: The MLA counts of graduates in English and other modern language doctoral programs are drawn from table 13 in the set of 72 data tables for the 2015 SED. The MLA counts reconfigure the subfields that the NSF aggregates under “letters” and “foreign languages and literatures.” To count PhDs in English, we aggregate six of the eleven SED subfields that make up the NSF’s “letters” category—English language; English literature, British and Commonwealth;  American literature, United States and Canada; creative writing (initiated in 2007); rhetoric and composition (initiated in 2012); and speech and rhetorical studies. Our count for “other modern languages” includes comparative literature (which the NSF places in letters), along with the eleven subfields that make up the NSF aggregate “foreign languages and literatures”—Arabic, Chinese, French, Germanic, Italian, Japanese, Latin American, Russian, Slavic, Spanish, and other foreign languages. Omitted from our count for modern languages is classics, which the NSF counts under letters. The NSF categories and the subfields and degree recipients counted under each category are shown in SED table 13. We have extracted the section of table 13 that covers humanities and arts subfields and placed the data in a spreadsheet that enumerates degree recipients by subfield across the eleven years 2005–15.

Employment Trends in the Higher Education Workforce: IPEDS Data on Growth in Administrators, Other Nonteaching Professionals, and the Faculty

MLA members have long been attentive to United States Department of Education data that document the decreasing fraction of higher education faculty members who hold tenured and tenure-track appointments and the emergence of a faculty majority that delivers instruction through non-tenure-track, especially part-time, positions. Analysis has generally focused on the faculty as the unit of observation, considered apart from other categories of higher education employees. Department of Education data collected for fall 2014, for example, enumerate a faculty workforce of 1,569,207 in two- and four-year Title IV–participating United States colleges and universities—plus an additional 368,378 graduate student assistants (Ginder et al., 10–11 [table 3]). Of the 1.57 million faculty members, only 27.2% held tenure or were on the tenure track; 52.9% had part-time and 19.4% full-time temporary appointments with no eligibility for tenure.

But the faculty forms only one of the categories of higher education employees that the Department of Education tracks through the human resources components of its IPEDS survey series. (IPEDS is the acronym for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, twelve interrelated surveys initiated in 1986 and required of postsecondary institutions that are eligible to participate in the federal student aid programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965.) This past June, in an issue of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s Economic Commentary, Peter L. Hinrichs, a research economist, made apparent the substantial insight to be gained from considering faculty trends in the wider context of all seven occupational categories that the IPEDS used between 1986 and 2011 to classify higher education employees. Hinrichs was interested to discover what light data from the IPEDS Fall Staff Survey might shed on claims “that a proliferation of administrators is responsible for the rising cost of college.” He also wanted to examine the demographic background for “concern about the increasing role of part-time adjuncts and other non-traditional faculty.”

Hinrichs advances three key points. First, “in line with the conventional wisdom . . . a declining proportion of faculty are full-time employees.” Second, the share of full-time institutional employees who are full-time faculty members has also remained stable over time, at about 30% of all full-time employees. Third, and contrary to popular assertions about the proliferation of administrators, “the share of employees in executive, administrative, and managerial jobs has not risen dramatically over time.”

The first two conclusions may strike some readers as paradoxical. The third arguably runs counter to data Hinrichs himself presents and results from the decision he makes about which IPEDS occupational categories to count when considering popular claims concerning “the proliferation of administrators.” He focuses on employees in the “executive, administrative, and managerial” category. But, in one of the most illuminating parts of his analysis, he documents the striking increase in the share of employees—most of them full-time employees—in the IPEDS category “support and service professionals.” As Hinrichs notes, the category covers a broad range of professional positions. Many, such as librarians or legal staff, require advanced degrees. All are exclusive of and nonoverlapping with employees the IPEDS counts in either the “executive, administrative, or managerial” occupational category or the category “faculty” with delivery of instruction as its primary job responsibility.

In a trend analysis of IPEDS data for four-year institutions, Hinrichs shows that over the period from 1987 to 2011 the share of full-time employees claimed by the “support and service professionals” category grew by a whopping 50%, from about 20% to about 30% of all full-time higher education employees, while the faculty’s share remained unchanged. But when he concludes that the results of his study do not support popular beliefs about the proliferation of administrators, he sets to one side the “support and service professionals” group, restricting his attention to the “executive, administrator, and managerial” category, which (as he also shows) claimed only a modestly larger share of employees in 2011 than it had in 1987. The problem that analysis confronts here is not so much the technical one of deciding which higher education jobs rightly fall in the IPEDS’ administrator job category as the rather messier one that follows from asking what jobs the collective popular discussion has in mind when it points to a proliferation of administrators.

To better understand the contribution Hinrichs makes to the ongoing discussion of adjunct labor and the changing academic workforce, the MLA office of research went back to the IPEDS data files to replicate, and also build on, his results and charts. The following discussion and accompanying figures are based on files for two IPEDS human resources components from three specimen years—the 1995 Fall Staff Survey and the Employees by Assigned Position Survey (EAP) for 2005 and 2011. (The data files are available to download at The 1995 Fall Staff Survey was chosen because it was the first of the IPEDS survey series to permit analysis of the faculty by tenure status as well as by full- and part-time employment status. We use the EAP survey (introduced as an IPEDS component in 2003) because it permits analysis of employees by faculty status, full- and part-time employment status, and tenure status across the three occupational categories of faculty, administrators, and support and service professionals. The EAP and fall staff surveys cover the same institutional universe and (with some minor discrepancies) produce the same quantitative results.

Figure 1, for example, shows the percentage of institutional employees in each of the seven IPEDS occupational categories in 1995, 2005, and 2011; it replicates results shown in the first figure of Hinrichs’s commentary, which is based on fall staff survey files for the thirteen odd-numbered years from 1987 to 2011. The MLA figure and Hinrichs’s both depict what Hinrichs terms the occupational mix—that is, the percentage of all employees claimed by each of the seven IPEDS occupational categories. The trend lines for 1995, 2005, and 2011 match those Hinrichs’s figure shows for 1987–2011, despite the differences in IPEDS components and in temporal coverage. The institutional universe for both Hinrichs’s analysis and the MLA analysis is limited to degree-granting, Title IV–participating four-year colleges and universities in the fifty states and the District of Columbia; two-year colleges are not included. As Hinrichs notes, and as figure 1 shows, two occupational categories—the faculty and support or service professionals—claim the largest percentage shares and grew the most in comparison with the other categories.

Fig. 1

Of greater significance are trends that become visible when the data are filtered to show the percentage of employees inside each occupational category that have full-time positions (fig. 2) and the share of all full-time employees claimed by full-time employees in each of the seven occupational categories (fig. 3). To calculate the first, the number of full-time employees in each category is divided by the total number of employees in that category; to calculate the second, the number of full-time employees in each category is divided by the total number of full-time employees across all seven categories. The really striking development Hinrichs calls attention to is how only the faculty saw a sharp drop in its full-time members (fig. 2). In every one of the other categories, 80% of more held full-time jobs in 2011, and the share of full-time employees inside each category either held steady or increased over the period. By contrast, in 2011 the portion of the faculty in full-time positions had fallen to under 60%. Figure 2 shows these trends and the growing disparity between the faculty and the other six occupational categories. But, as shown in figure 3, the faculty’s share of all full-time employees remained largely unchanged, while professionals in the support and service category increased their share more than any other group. Figure 2 reflects the enormous growth of part-time positions inside the faculty category; figure 3 reflects the rapid growth in the number of nonteaching professionals in full-time jobs compared with the number of full-time faculty positions, where the trend line indicates growth that barely outpaced the increase in all full-time institutional employees.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Hinrichs’s exploration of employment trends in higher education is confined to an analysis of changes in the mix of full- and part-time employees in four-year institutions. Hinrichs does not discuss tenure status or the declining standing of the tenure-line faculty in higher education—which is the trend that defines the critical issue for the academic professions and for the prospects of students in doctoral programs who aspire to academic careers. Figure 4 adds the dimension of tenure, separating the segment of the faculty that holds full-time tenured and tenure-track appointments from the segment that holds full- or part-time non-tenure-track positions. The figure also combines the two IPEDS occupational categories “executive, administrative, and managerial” professionals and “support and service professionals.” Aggregating the executive and support groups and separating the tenure-track from the non-tenure-track faculty makes vividly apparent how nonteaching professionals and non-tenure-track faculty members are the only categories that have enlarged their share of the employee mix. The growth in these categories of professional employees stands in stark contrast to the declining fraction of employees in the full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty category.

Fig. 4

In more than a few cases or contexts, there may be good reason to label the increased share of college and university personnel employed as nonteaching professionals pejoratively, as administrative bloat. For the purposes of argument, however, let’s grant the importance of many nonteaching professional positions and the positive contributions these colleagues make to institutional life. After all, some of these colleagues may be degree recipients from our own graduate programs—hardly a surprise given how much of the job growth in higher education, especially full-time jobs, has come in the form of nonteaching professional positions. Pointed questions still wait for answers, however—about institutional policies and practices that, unlike with every other category of college and university personnel, have undermined the stability of the faculty through the massive use of part-time appointments and that have signally failed to maintain full-time employment with a presumption of permanence and the opportunity for advancement through rank as normative for faculty positions (and faculty careers and career paths).

Between 1995 and 2011, the faculty in four-year colleges and universities grew by nearly 470,000, or 72.4%, while nonteaching professionals grew by nearly 400,000, or 75.2%. But of the faculty positions added, nine of every ten were non-tenure-track and nearly six of every ten were part-time; of the nonteaching professional positions, more than nine of every ten added was full-time (fig. 5).

Fig. 5

A recent study conducted for the Council of Independent Colleges found significant, institutionally problematic disparities between the segments of the faculty eligible and not eligible for tenure—in the character and consistency of the institutional policies, practices, and standards governing hiring, compensation, evaluation and review, professional development, support and recognition for continuing scholarly activity, and opportunities for advancement (Morphew et al.). And data from the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF:04) tell us that tenure-line and non-tenure-line faculty members differ markedly in their degree qualifications. In four-year colleges and universities, over 80% of faculty members who have tenure or are on the tenure track hold a doctoral degree. Off the tenure track in four-year institutions, only 30.2% of full- and part-time faculty members hold a doctorate—40.5% of non-tenure-track faculty members with full-time teaching appointments and only 23.7% of those teaching part-time. The disparity in degree qualifications is even larger for faculty members in English and other modern languages—NSOPF:04 data indicate that in four-year institutions 93.6% of tenure-line faculty members in these fields hold doctorates, compared with only 26.9% of non-tenure-line faculty members (fig. 6).

Fig. 6

Discussion of the motivations that direct the teaching preferences of tenured and tenure-track faculty members is of long standing and will continue, as will debates about scholarship and teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, and the place that scholarly publication, and scholarly teaching, hold and ought to hold in the criteria and incentives embedded in higher education’s reward system and in the institutional processes and standards governing the hiring of tenure-track teachers and their promotion through the professorial ranks. Whatever the positions taken or the arguments advanced, restoring equity with other categories of higher education employees in full-time employment and reversing the contraction of the permanent faculty and the expansion of the precariat within the mix of college and university employees must be recognized as steps necessary to healing the breach that institutional policy and practice have created between a minority class of tenure-line faculty members whose continuing employment rests on scholarly expertise expressed as publication and a majority employed to teach and only teach, with little or no institutional expectation, support, recognition, or reward for their continued scholarly engagement.

David Laurence

Works Cited

Ginder, Scott A., et al. Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2014; and Financial Statistics and Academic Libraries, Fiscal Year 2014: First Look (Provisional Data). US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 25 Nov. 2015,

Hinrichs, Peter L. “Trends in Employment at US Colleges and Universities, 1987–2013.” Economic Commentary, 13 June 2106,

Morphew, Christopher, et al. Changes in Faculty Composition at Independent Colleges: A Report for the Council of Independent Colleges. Council of Independent Colleges, June 2016,

The MLA Convention and the Changing Job Search

Academic job searches are changing, and long-standing practices connected with interviewing candidates at the MLA convention are clearly changing with them. Results from searching for the text strings “Skype” and “MLA convention” in ads that departments have placed in the MLA Job Information List over the past eight years suggest the broad direction of developments (fig. 1).

Fig. 1

As the number of ads containing the string “Skype” rose from 0 to 102, the number containing the string “MLA convention” fell from 153 to 54. As recently as six years ago, in 2009–10, only a single ad contained the string “Skype” while 101 ads contained the string “MLA convention.” As of this writing in 2015–16, 101 ads contain the string “Skype,” and 56 contain “MLA convention.” Five ads contain both terms—4 of the 5 state that interviews will be conducted either at the convention or by Skype, while the fifth states that interviews will be by Skype and not at the convention.

Departments continue to use the convention to schedule interviews. Now that cell phones are becoming ubiquitous personal accessories, however, candidates and departments find it convenient and efficient to use text messaging and voice service to communicate on-site directly rather than through the services the MLA provides in the convention Job Information Center. (The MLA has operated a Job Information Center at the annual convention for decades. Hiring departments use the center by signing in to leave information with members of the MLA staff about the location of convention interviews the departments have scheduled with job candidates. Search-committee chairs can provide advance notice of the names of the hotels where they will be staying to candidates invited for interviews, but chairs and candidates must check in on-site to obtain hotel room numbers.) The result can be seen in the following figures. Over the nine conventions since 2007, the number of departments signing in with the Job Information Center has dropped by 75%, to just over 100 from the 400 to 500 departments that signed in for the seven conventions between 2001 and 2007 (fig. 2). And the number of tables departments use to conduct interviews in the Job Information Center has dropped more than 80%, from about 140 to just 23 at the 2016 convention in Austin, Texas (fig. 3).

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

The much reduced number of departments using the convention Job Information Center obviously reflects the sharp contraction in academic job opportunities and departmental hiring that has occurred since 2008. But it also reflects changes departments are making in the way they conduct searches. The MLA has no stake in maintaining the convention job interview in the face of new technologies that both job seekers and search committees find serve them better, and there is every reason to expect that the use of videoconferencing and teleconferencing for screening interviews will continue to expand. There is also every reason to think that a system where most interviewing takes place by videoconference can restore scholarly exchange and professional development, rather than job interviews, as the convention’s central, defining activities.

The MLA seeks to provide services that will improve the job search for hiring departments and above all job seekers. To that end, through its membership committees the association promulgates standards that reflect MLA members’ evolving consensus about good professional practice. In a changing job-search landscape, where new practices are emerging, continuing communications with and among members on all sides of the job search are indispensable to understanding what is happening and how the association can respond in ways that will benefit job seekers and the job search—and also bring about welcome improvements in the experience of attending the convention.

David Laurence

The Gender Pay Gap and the Career Paths of Humanities Majors

This post also appears in the Humanities Indicators Data Forum.

The Humanities Indicators has published two new reports documenting the effect of gender on the occupations and earnings of humanities majors. The new reports mark a significant addition to the indicators, especially when they are read in relation to one another and to findings from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) on the gender pay gap and from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce on employment and earnings of college graduates.

It is worth recalling the data sources that have made it possible to develop these correlations among gender, earnings, occupation, and major field of baccalaureate study: the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Current Population Survey (CPS), both administered by the United States Census Bureau. The current public discussion of the economic value of different college majors stems from a question the Census Bureau added to the ACS in 2009, asking respondents about the major of anyone with a bachelor’s degree living in the households canvassed by the ACS; before 2009, occupations and earnings could be analyzed by level of educational attainment but not by undergraduate field of study. The AAUW’s data on the gender pay gap come from the CPS; administered monthly for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CPS is the nation’s primary source of information about the labor force, employment, and earnings.

What do these two additions to the Humanities Indicators tell us? The first, on gender and occupations, shows that women proceed from a bachelor’s degree to lower-paid careers in precollegiate education at twice the rate men do and that men are 40% more likely to be in higher-paid management occupations than women. The second, on gender and earnings, shows that, among twenty-four-year-olds to thirty-four-year-olds (or “less experienced workers,” in the reports’ transposition of chronological age into a proxy for postbaccalaureate time in the labor force), women earned $2,000 less than men; this pay gap grows to $17,000 for those between thirty-five and fifty-four (“more experienced workers”). That is, the women in the 24–34 age group earned 4.8% less than the men, or, as this report expresses it following the convention of using the larger (in this case female) population as the base, the men earned 5.0% more than the women. (Presenting the gap both ways may facilitate comparisons, since in most discussions the dollar figure for men serves as the base for calculating the gap in percentage terms.) And among the more experienced workers, in the 35–54 age group, the men with a terminal bachelor’s degree earned 32.7% more than the women; put the other way, the women earned 24.6% less than the men, or 75% of what the men earned. These findings point us to perennial questions about the direction of causality. Do the women earn less because they enter socially valuable but lower-paid professions like teaching? Or are socially valuable occupations like teaching lower paying because women predominately make careers in them?

The imbalances in occupations persist for humanities graduates who go on to earn advanced degrees. These reports show that women who earn an advanced degree after earning a humanities bachelor’s degree continue to be employed in precollegiate teaching at twice the rate of men (18.2% of the women compared with 9.2% of the men). The men who hold an advanced degree are 1.7 times more likely to be in legal occupations than the women (17.4% of the men compared with 10.1% of the women). Among holders of advanced degrees in the humanities in the 35–54 age group, the women earn $18,000 less than the men, or earn about 80% of what the men earn.

The AAUW’s fall 2015 report, The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap, notes that “in 2014 women working full-time in the United States typically were paid just 79 percent of what men were paid” (3). The Humanities Indicators data on the pay gap, based on a subpopulation disaggregated by both level of education and chronological age as a proxy for level of experience, appear to align with that 79.0% figure, which is based on pay to all women working full-time, regardless of their level of experience or education. The Humanities Indicators data likewise seem aligned with the gender pay gap for graduates in all age groups with terminal bachelor’s degrees in humanities and liberal arts—$7,000—that the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce cites in What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors (2011), the first of its series of reports on earnings of college graduates, broken out by disciplines (136). In percentage terms, a $7,000 gender pay gap corresponds with women earning 86.0% of what men earn. That 86.0% figure makes sense in relation to the figures from the Humanities Indicators and the 79.0% figure from the AAUW report, given that the Georgetown Center reports lump together less and more experienced members of the workforce but exclude those who hold degrees beyond the BA. The two new Humanities Indicators reports let us see how disparities in occupations and earnings that the Georgetown Center studies have documented between the humanities and other fields also appear within the humanities. All these reports prompt important questions about the way gender inflects the choices individuals make at critical junctures of their lives and the degree to which personal agency or the power of social roles and institutions holds sway in motivating and determining what end up being called our personal choices.

Visitors to the Humanities Indicators may find themselves wondering whether to adopt the optimistic view that the gender pay gap for more recent college graduates will stay small and even be made to shrink under conditions where policy and practice are advancing toward increasing equity. Or should one instead take the pessimistic view that the gap will gradually increase for these younger members of the workforce, repeating the earnings disparities characteristic of their elders, most of whom presumably earned their bachelor’s degrees decades ago? And if the gender pay gap contracts, will it do so because median earnings for women catch up to men’s even as median earnings for men increase? Or will the gap contract because median earnings for men continue to deteriorate?

The ACS data have allowed analysts to reveal correlations among major field of baccalaureate study, occupation, and earnings. But how directly applicable are these reports to students who are working toward a bachelor’s degree now? The findings about the career paths and earnings histories of more experienced workers who earned degrees two, three, or more decades ago reach us today, but does the information we receive reveal more about conditions prevailing today or, like light from a distant star, about those prevailing at the point in the past when the majors were completed and the degrees conferred?

The release of these new reports creates an occasion to consider how the ACS data and the series of Georgetown Center reports based on them have focused public attention on earnings as a measure of the relative educational value of different fields of study, sometimes the leading or even sole measure considered worth attention. On the positive side, the Humanities Indicators reports and the Georgetown Center reports all show that graduates who take bachelor’s degrees in the humanities find employment, often in occupations whose social value needs to be reemphasized, not denigrated. The lower earnings these occupations have historically yielded should not be allowed to define their relative worth or the worth of the fields of study that characteristically serve as pathways to them. A capacious view of these data on occupations, earnings, gender, and college majors will push beyond their face value and lead us to ask important questions about how the social and economic arrangements behind them have come about. The links among gender, field of study, occupation, and earnings have powerful implications for public policy and broader social change that will create better, more equitable arrangements.

David Laurence

Where Are They Now? Occupations of 1996–2011 PhD Recipients in 2013

Insistent questions about the risks, costs, and value of graduate study in the humanities offer a forcible reminder that we know far less than we ought about the long-term career progress and employment outcomes for people who earn PhDs in language and literature. Good data about where graduates end up ten or twenty years after completing their degree programs have been especially scarce since the mid-1990s, when the humanities lost participation in the federally sponsored Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR). Begun in 1973 and still administered biennially for engineering and the physical, biological, and health sciences, the SDR follows a sample of individuals who hold research doctorates from universities in the United States from the year of their degree award until age seventy-six.

This past year, with support of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the MLA Office of Research took a step toward filling the gap in our knowledge that the loss of the SDR created. Using Internet searches for public information, the project sought to identify the employment status and occupations in 2013–14 of a random sample of 2,590 graduates. The sample was drawn from a universe of 1996–2011 PhD recipients with Dissertation Abstracts International records in the MLA International Bibliography. Of the 2,590 PhD recipients in the sample, we succeeded in locating 2,286. The final analysis excluded records of 72 individuals whose degrees are in engineering or computer science (these dissertations are covered in the bibliography because they reflect work on speech recognition or similar kinds of language-related computer science and engineering projects), giving us a sample of 2,214 PhD recipients.1 Although the MLA sample is too small to be regarded as representative, findings from the study offer useful indications about the diversity of careers followed by people who receive PhDs in English, other modern languages, and related fields.

In the Spring 2015 MLA Newsletter, MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal describes the basic findings of the MLA’s study, summarized in figure 1.

Figure 1

As of 2013–14, of the PhDs whose employment we were able to identify, about half held positions as tenured or tenure-track faculty members or as deans, provosts, or presidents (who presumably hold tenure in their institutions). Just over twenty percent are higher education faculty members teaching off the tenure track (this figure includes graduates whose tenure status we were unable to determine). Some six percent are higher education professionals working beyond the classroom in “alt-ac” positions. Over a fifth are working outside postsecondary education, in business, government, or not-for-profit organizations (7.5%) or in secondary and elementary schools (3.2%) or are self-employed (10.7%)—about the same proportion as are teaching in non-tenure-track positions in higher education.

As shown in figure 2, over three-quarters of the sample are employed in postsecondary institutions—60.5% in the United States, 4.7% in Canada, and 11.9% overseas.2

Figure 2

Breaking the distribution down by the year when graduates received their degrees reveals that the percentage working in postsecondary education is highest among more recent graduates (over 80%), whereas the percentage employed in the so-called BGN sector (business, government, and not-for-profit organizations) rises from more recent to earlier degree recipients—from 13.9% for the group who received the PhD after 2004 to 20.0% for those who completed degree programs between 1996 and 1999 (table 1).

Table 1. Employment Sector by Year Graduates Received Degree

Unfortunately, the data summarized in table 1 cannot tell us whether the pattern reveals a cohort effect unique to each temporal group or a temporal effect likely to repeat itself as recent graduates move forward in their careers. The limitation underscores the need to gather information directly from graduates about their experiences and career paths and progress after leaving graduate school.

Analysis illuminates how the subgroup of doctorate recipients working in higher education in the United States is distributed across the different types of institutions. Looking at the distribution by institutional control reveals that 60.6% are working in public institutions and 37.8% in private not-for-profit institutions (fig. 3). Approaching the data by Carnegie classification shows that research/doctoral universities employ the plurality of the subgroup (44.6%), followed by master’s universities (28.8%), baccalaureate colleges (14.0%), and associate’s colleges (9.4%) (fig. 4).

Figure 3

Figure 4

The large share of modern language PhDs working in doctorate-granting research universities may come as a surprise to some readers, given the widespread impression that few jobs in postsecondary education, especially faculty positions, are located in research universities. The common impression, however, confuses the distribution of institutions with the distribution of faculty positions across the institutions. Carnegie research/doctoral institutions make up less than 9.0% of all public and private not-for-profit institutions in the United States that provided information in fall 2013 for the Employees by Assigned Position Survey (EAP), one of the human resources components of the United States Department of Education’s data collection system for higher education. But those institutions are large, employing upward of 30% of all nonmedical faculty members and close to 45% of all full-time, nonmedical tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Figure 5 shows a breakdown of institutions by Carnegie classification alongside a breakdown of the nonmedical faculty members and the full-time, nonmedical tenured and tenure-track faculty members the institutions employ, as reported in fall 2013 on the EAP. That said, as the figure shows, the majority of faculty positions are located in master’s universities and baccalaureate and associate’s colleges.

Figure 5

Cross-tabulating the type of institution where members of this subgroup are working by the type of position they hold offers some additional informative detail. (The number of cases becomes very small outside the four main Carnegie types [research/doctoral and master’s universities and baccalaureate and associate’s colleges] and the two main kinds of institutional control [public and private not-for-profit], so findings for those other categories should be treated with caution.) Breaking out the different types of positions PhDs hold by the control of the institution where they work reveals that the percentages of PhDs in different types of positions varies only modestly between public and private not-for-profit institutions—about two-thirds are tenured or tenure-track faculty members, and just over a fifth hold non-tenure-track faculty positions (table 2). A slightly higher percentage of PhDs in private not-for-profit institutions than in public institutions holds positions as senior administrators—4.0% compared with 2.5%. And the private not-for-profit sector has a slightly higher percentage working as higher education professionals beyond the faculty and classroom—8.6% compared with 7.0%.

Table 2. Type of Position Held by 1996–2011 Modern Language PhDs Working in United States Institutions of Higher Education, by Control of Institution

More striking differences appear in the breakdown of types of positions PhDs hold by the Carnegie classification of institutions where they work (table 3). Only 14.0% of the subgroup employed in higher education in the United States is working in baccalaureate colleges, but 78.4% of them hold a tenured or tenure-track faculty position and 12.4% hold a non-tenure-track faculty position. The breakdown is similar for the 28.8% working in master’s universities, where 76.1% hold tenured or tenure-track faculty positions and 14.7% hold non-tenure-track faculty positions. By contrast, of the large subset of PhDs working in research/doctoral universities (44.6%), a far lower 61.4% hold a tenured or tenure-track position and a far higher 26.2% hold a non-tenure-track faculty position. Professional positions beyond the faculty and classroom are most prevalent at research/doctoral universities—10.9% of the PhDs working in research/doctoral universities hold such positions—and perhaps in special focus institutions, where 11.5% are working as professionals beyond the classroom; however, the number of cases from special focus institutions (26) is very small as a basis for generalization. Senior administrators appear with greatest frequency among the PhDs working in associate’s colleges—9.7% hold posts as senior administrators, compared with 4.3% of the PhDs in baccalaureate colleges, 3.2% of those in master’s universities, and only 1.4% of those in research/doctoral universities. Unsurprisingly, given the high percentage of non-tenure-track faculty members in associate’s institutions, only 42.5% of the PhDs working in associate’s colleges hold tenured or tenure-track faculty positions, whereas 42.7% are teaching as non-tenure-track faculty members.

Table 3. Type of Position Held by 1996–2011 Modern Language PhDs Working in United States Institutions of Higher Education, by Carnegie Classification of Institution

Findings from this MLA project suggest the strong orientation toward careers in higher education of people who hold a doctorate in modern languages, literatures, and related fields; 77.0% of the PhDs in our sample whose employment we were able to discover hold positions in a postsecondary institution. But the findings also suggest the variety of roles and occupations these PhDs have found inside and beyond the postsecondary faculty and classroom and inside and beyond higher education. As an outside view based on public information gathered by the MLA, the study affords insight that is necessarily limited. That we were able to identify only a single unemployed PhD, for example, seems more a reflection of the nonpublic character of that category than an indication of the unemployment rate among humanities PhDs. And an outside view affords next to no insight into PhDs who regard themselves as underemployed, wanting full-time positions but employed part-time. Despite the study’s limitations, the findings do tell us that, overwhelmingly, language and literature PhDs find professional employment, often beyond teaching as a tenured or tenure-track faculty member. The forms of professional success PhDs find are varied. Doctoral programs and their students need to be able to embrace success in the full variety of occupations where graduates in fact find it.



  1. The American Historical Association conducted a similar study, also with support from the Mellon Foundation, results of which are available in a report by L. Maren Wood and Robert B. Townsend, The Many Careers of History PhDs.
  2. There are eleven graduates included in calculations for figure 1 who are not included in the calculations for figure 2 because the location of their institution could not be determined, hence the base number and percentages in figure 1 differ slightly from those in figure 2.

Opportunity Costs of the PhD: The Problem of Time to Degree

The road to a PhD in a humanities discipline is long—for graduates who completed degrees in 2012, 9.0 years long, the median time from first entry into graduate school to receipt of the degree (Doctorate Recipients, table 31). That nine-year median is not just long in itself; it is significantly longer than the median for 2012 graduates in social sciences (7.7 years), life sciences (6.9 years), physical sciences (6.7 years), and engineering (6.7 years). Only 2012 graduates in education, with a median 11.8 years to degree, take more time to complete their degree programs than graduates in the humanities.

As long as a nine-year path to the PhD may be, the class of 2012 humanities degree recipients took less time than any classes since the 1970s. The 2012 median of 9.0 years is notably shorter than the 9.5 years recorded by humanities graduates who received degrees over the five years 2006–10, and it is strikingly shorter than the record-high 10.7-year median for graduates who received humanities degrees between 1986 and 1990. (The median for 2011 graduates was 9.3 years, in case you were wondering.) In fact, since 1990, median time to degree (measured from year of entry into graduate school) has been falling across the disciplines. Figure 1 shows the history of time to degree in the four broad disciplinary areas of the arts and sciences over the fifty years from 1961 to 2010. The source is a custom report that NORC, the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) contractor, developed for the MLA from the raw SED data on time to degree from 1961 to 2010. The custom report grouped degree recipients into ten five-year clusters—1961–65, 1966–70, 1971–75, and so on to 2006–10—breaking out five major disciplinary fields (humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, life sciences, and engineering) and, within the humanities, three SED subfields (history, foreign languages and literatures, and American and English literature). Progress to the degree lengthened across all the arts and sciences disciplines during the 1970s and 1980s. But it lengthened most for graduates in the humanities. Graduates who received humanities PhDs between 1986 and 1990 spent 2.5 years more in graduate school than humanities graduates who completed degrees two decades earlier, between 1966 and 1970. And humanities PhDs who received degrees between 1986 and 1990 spent over four years more in graduate school than their 1986–90 counterparts in the physical sciences, three years more than those in the life sciences, and two years more than those in the social sciences.

Fig. 1
Fig1_time to degree

As of 2012, the most recent year for which SED data are available, the gap between the humanities and other disciplines is smaller but remains substantial: over a year longer for humanities PhD recipients than for PhD recipients in the social sciences and over two years longer than for graduates in the life sciences and the physical sciences (fig. 2).

Fig. 2
Fig2_time to degree

How one views these data on time to degree will vary, depending on what one thinks the data reveal about the risks and opportunity costs of attempting to enter the academic profession. Do we think time is an abundant or a scarce resource for students in their twenties and early thirties? Do we think it unreasonable to expect graduate students to invest a decade of a working lifetime and life span to earn a PhD?

In retrospect, we can see how the lengthening path to the PhD documented in SED data from the 1970s and 1980s coincided with concerns voiced at the time about the way a depressed academic job market was deforming graduate education, placing increasing pressures on graduate students for professional activity, especially publication, that up until then had been demanded only later. John Guillory captured the contemporary sense of what was happening in his 1996 essay “Preprofessionalism: What Graduate Students Want”:

What the market demands, incredibly, is a graduate student who is already in some sense a successful professional before that student can be considered for a position as a professor. In such a context, “professional desire” is contorted into the form of prematurity, of desiring something now—professional success—that can only be had later. This prematurity is phantasmic: it telescopes professional careers into the time period of graduate school and conflates graduate education with self-marketing, as though getting a job were somehow the culmination of a successful career. (4)

That preprofessional pressures for graduate students to publish would operate to lengthen time to degree I take as axiomatic. The same period, 1970 to 1990, was also notable for a rising bar for tenure and promotion and increased demands for publication that motivated a transformation of the tenure-track assistant professor position, especially in doctorate-granting research universities. The work and life of faculty members on probationary appointments changed from what had been a distinctly junior status quite sharply differentiated from the privileged standing tenured professors enjoyed. As the job crisis in the 1970s made assistant professor positions scarce, it also made them more privileged and protected, more like than unlike the senior professorial ranks in the conditions of their work. It became common for university departments with graduate programs to limit the exposure of their assistant professors to committee and other service obligations. Assistant professors came to have the same (lighter) teaching load as their tenured seniors, the same or sometimes even greater access to research leave, and the same exemption from teaching the required composition course and other introductory courses.

For actors on all sides—whether graduate students or faculty members in their dual roles as advisers to graduate students and members of search committees making hiring decisions—the sense that the bar for earning tenure was getting higher likewise worked to raise the bar for entry to a tenure-track position. To be competitive, graduate students afforded themselves the time to make the entry ticket of the dissertation as close as possible to a monograph manuscript ready for the publisher.

The downward trend in time to degree since 1990 is every bit as interesting as the prior upward trend—and may be more of a challenge to understand. Certainly, around 1990 time to degree and the closely related matters of attrition and completion rates emerged as prominent topics in the policy discussion around the economics of doctoral education. In Pursuit of the PhD, William G. Bowen and Neil L. Rudenstine’s 1992 follow-up to the 1989 Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences, by Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa, brought renewed attention to the economic issues in doctoral education—of high costs to universities, high opportunity costs to students, and questions about the investments (and returns on investment) of fellowship programs like those sponsored by the Danforth Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The Graduate Education Initiative that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation undertook through the 1990s explicitly made shorter time to degree a prime objective and called attention to long time to degree and high noncompletion rates as problems graduate education needed to address (Ehrenberg, Zuckerman, Groen, and Brucker). More recently, the Council of Graduate Schools’ PhD Completion Project reflects and amplifies the concerns administrators and funders have expressed about the large investments of time and resources doctoral study has typically demanded from both the students who undertake it and the institutions that sponsor it. The data suggest that these discussions and initiatives may have had an effect.

A median summarizes a distribution with an equal number of values higher and lower than the single median number. As part of the MLA’s request for historical data on time to degree, the office of research asked NORC to develop frequency distributions detailing the number of graduates who took differing amounts of time, from six years or less to more than thirteen years. The distributions behind the medians turn out to be illuminating. As shown in figure 3 and figure 4 (in which the distributions have been aggregated to show time to degree in five groupings from six years or less to more than twelve years), the medians mask the real locus of action over the past fifty years, which has been at the extremes of shortest and longest times spent in graduate school. In the first three five-year temporal groups—1961–65, 1966–70, and 1971–75—a quarter of humanities graduates took six years or less to complete their degree programs—about the same portion that took more than twelve years. From the 1980s forward, the segment taking six years or less dropped to 10%, while the segment taking more than twelve years expanded to almost 40%, falling back to just under 30% from 2000 on. Figure 4 shows the same information but groups degree recipients across the ten time periods together according to the number of years they spent in graduate school.

Fig. 3
Fig3_time to degree

Fig. 4
Fig4_time to degree

As figure 4 may reveal most clearly, over the fifty years the biggest changes were a pronounced drop after 1975 in the percentage of humanities graduates who took six years or less to complete their degrees and a corresponding increase in the percentage taking more than twelve years. Changes over time in the three middle groups were modest by comparison.

Interestingly, a pattern almost identical to the humanities is evident across the disciplines. The life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences, however, start in the 1960s with far higher percentages of graduates finishing in six years or less and end in the 2000s with far lower percentages taking more than twelve years to complete their degrees (fig. 5 and fig. 6).

Fig. 5
Fig5_time to degree

Fig. 6
Fig6_time to degree

A review of the history and historical trends still leaves us to grapple with the question of direction for the future. Figure 7 focuses attention on the 2006–10 group of program graduates and compares the disciplines by the percentage of those that had the shortest and longest time in graduate school. The figure reveals the large and even startling disparity between the humanities and the other arts and sciences fields. The percentage of 2006–10 graduates completing degrees in six years or less (the green bars) is three to four times greater in the sciences, engineering, and social sciences than in the humanities. And the percentage of 2006–10 humanities graduates taking more than ten years to earn a PhD (the red bars) is more than double the percentage in the sciences and engineering and 1.5 times the percentage in the social sciences.

Fig. 7
Fig7v3_time to degree

Circumstances where, whether by choice or necessity, 40% of a field’s PhD recipients end up taking more than a decade to earn their degrees seem unsustainable. Shrinking the surprisingly large group of degree recipients in language and literature who take an inordinately long time seems imperative. On the other hand, when thinking about practical measures to respond to this imperative, we need to recognize how the data hide individual histories, with their complex mix of circumstances. There is much we would wish to know and understand that these data do not and cannot tell us. As students pass beyond a fourth or fifth year, how do they support their graduate studies? If they are self-funding five or six years or more of doctoral education, how is lengthy time to degree intersecting with the troubled state of academic labor and the adjunct academic workforce? The data do, nonetheless, remind us forcibly why it is important for local programs to keep track of doctoral candidates and their progress to the degree.

David Laurence

Works Cited
Bowen, William G., and Neil L. Rudenstine. In Pursuit of the PhD. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

Bowen, William G., and Julie Ann Sosa. Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply, 1987 to 2012. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989. Print.

Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2012. National Science Foundation. Natl. Science Foundation, Jan. 2014. Web. 9 May 2014.

Ehrenberg, Ronald G., Harriet Zuckerman, Jeffrey A. Groen, and Sharon M. Brucker. Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.

Guillory, John. “Preprofessionalism: What Graduate Students Want.” ADE Bulletin 113 (1996): 4–8. Web. 9 May 2014.

Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 2

The shrinking share of the faculty workforce with tenure or eligibility to earn tenure is well known and, among those in the academic community at least, widely deplored. Even in four-year colleges and universities, the percentage of faculty members holding full-time tenured or tenure-track appointments has dropped from 51.3% in 1995 to just 33.4% in 2011 (US Dept. of Educ., Fall Staff Survey data files).

It is often assumed or asserted that the growth of the non-tenure-track academic workforce, and especially the corps of part-time teachers who form the largest and most vulnerable part of that workforce, has been more or less the direct result of the hypertrophy of a doctoral education system that has permitted or even promoted a self-destructive overproduction of PhDs far in excess of the number for whom higher education can provide tenure-track opportunities. The implications and consequences for our PhD employment problem of the emergence of a majority non-tenure-track academic workforce, however, are less straightforward than may at first appear.

The United States Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) provides robust data on PhD production each year since 1958, disaggregated by broad discipline (humanities, social sciences, life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, and education) and for many humanities subfields (including history; English, French, German, Spanish, and several other language and literature fields; comparative literature; classics; philosophy; and religion). There is no correspondingly detailed source of systematic information about the faculty and its development over time, disaggregated by discipline. The human resources components of the United States Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) provide an annual census of institutional employees, including employees with faculty status. But (except for distinguishing nonmedical from medical school faculty since 2003) the IPEDS human resources surveys count faculty members only in the aggregate. So—the bad news—we have next to no national, systematic sources of information about the growth or contraction over time in the number of tenure-track faculty lines at the level of the disciplines. (The Humanities Departmental Survey [HDS] that is part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators Project attempts to make a start at gathering information on this question. HDS-1 was completed by a representative sample of humanities departments in 2007–08; HDS-2 was fielded in 2012–13.)

Counts of faculty employees from the IPEDS Fall Staff Survey do tell us that, looking at degree-granting four-year institutions and the faculty as a whole, the tenured and tenure-track faculty position is not disappearing. Figure 1 shows the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members that four-year institutions reported on the Fall Staff Survey in 1995, 2003, and 2011. The number grew, albeit modestly, with all the growth between 1995 and 2003 coming in the tenure-track category, presumably because during those years movement from the tenure track to tenure did not quite keep pace with retirements. The pattern reversed between 2003 and 2011, when 95% of the growth in the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty members came in the category of full-time faculty members holding tenure and only 5% in the tenure-track faculty. (Click on the chart to see a full-size version.)

Fig. 1

I focus on four-year institutions, since that is the sector of higher education on which doctoral students most set their sights. Of course, as noted above, data for the faculty as a whole leave in darkness what’s happening at the level of the disciplines. Still, it is useful to remind ourselves that the evidence does not support claims of a wholesale abandonment of tenure across four-year postsecondary institutions.

But, then, over the same period since 1995, the Fall Staff Survey documents gigantic increases in the number of non-tenure-track and especially part-time faculty members (fig. 2), compared with which the modest growth in tenured and tenure-track positions amounts to practically no growth.

Fig. 2

So despite the small numerical increases on the tenured and tenure-track side of the ledger, there has been a huge drop in the percentage of faculty members holding tenure or on the tenure track (fig. 3). (Remember, these data are for employees with faculty status in degree-granting, four-year institutions. Graduate student teaching assistants are not included.)

Fig. 3

Looking at the numerical quantities side by side—as shown in figure 4—makes clear how the institutional demographics have altered since 1995, so that in the aggregate, even in four-year institutions, the part-time academic workforce has come to far outnumber the tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Fig. 4

Putting these pieces together, adding data on student enrollments, and including two- as well as four-year institutions, we see in figure 5 a higher education system in the midst of profound demographic change. Since just 1995, the student population—the blue line—has grown 1.5 times. The faculty population—the orange dots—has grown about 1.6 times. But over 90% of the increase in the size of the faculty has come in the form of non-tenure-track positions—the red diamonds. By comparison, the tenured and tenure-track segment of the faculty—the green squares—has seen zero population growth.

Fig. 5

The non-tenure-track academic workforce, however, long the fastest-growing and now the largest part of the faculty by far, is not composed primarily of graduates of doctoral programs, according to data from the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF:04—unfortunately the last in the NSOPF series). Based on a sample of 35,000 faculty members in 1,080 two- and four-year degree-granting not-for-profit postsecondary institutions, data from NSOPF:04 remain the sole systematic, national source of information about faculty members and their characteristics—the degrees they hold, the type of institution where they have their primary employment, and the discipline in which they teach, as well as their tenure status and full- or part-time employment status. Using the Department of Education’s DataLab online interface to query NSOPF:04 for the highest degree faculty members hold, by tenure status and the type of institution where they are primarily employed, we see how disparate the tenure-track (including tenured) and non-tenure-track groups are in their degree qualifications (fig. 6). (Graduate student teaching assistants were not included in the NSOPF sample.)

Fig. 6

According to NSOPF:04, a doctorate is the highest degree held by only 30% of the full- and part-time faculty members teaching off the tenure track in a four-year institution and by a small percentage of all faculty members teaching in a two-year college, whether on or off the tenure track. Overall, as estimated from NSOPF:04, less than a quarter of the faculty population employed off the tenure track holds a doctorate; most hold a master’s degree. Across the disciplines, a master’s degree is clearly the standard degree qualification for teaching in the first two years of college, whether those first two years occur in a two-year or a four-year institution.

The pattern is even more pronounced in the humanities (fig. 7), where NSOPF:04 shows well over 90% of tenured and tenure-track faculty members teaching in a four-year institution hold a doctorate, compared with just over 30% of humanities faculty members teaching full- or part-time off the tenure track.

Fig. 7

A doctorate is unquestionably the standard degree qualification for holding a tenured or tenure-track faculty appointment in a humanities discipline in a four-year college or university, whereas a master’s degree is standard for teaching off the tenure track or in a two-year college. Since 2000, humanities doctoral programs in United States universities have awarded approximately 5,000 to 5,500 degrees each year. Across all disciplines, doctoral programs have awarded about 50,000 new doctorates annually over the same period (SED). Meanwhile, master’s degrees number well over ten times that 50,000. In 2003 there were over 500,000; in 2011 over 700,000. Humanities master’s degrees numbered over 14,000 in 2011, up from just over 11,000 a decade ago (IPEDS completions component). Insofar as our PhD employment problem has a connection to higher education’s increasing reliance on non-tenure-track positions, the connection has much more to do with institutions expanding the labor pool from which they draw their teaching faculty in the face of an expanding undergraduate student population than with doctoral programs producing an oversupply of PhDs. As a response to the growth of the non-tenure-track academic workforce, at least, the prescription to cut the production of PhDs would seem to be aiming the wrong medicine at the wrong target.

The question remains, however, whether the doctoral education enterprise needs to shrink, given the doctoral program attrition rate of 31% that Ronald Ehrenberg and Harriet Zuckerman report in Educating Scholars (172), their study of programs that participated in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Graduate Education Initiative, and the ten-year noncompletion rates of up to 50% among humanities doctoral students that the Council of Graduate Schools reports from its PhD Completion Project. If those who leave doctoral programs without receiving a PhD (not to mention those working as graduate student teaching assistants or adjuncts while enrolled) are as much a part of the labor pool from which postsecondary education draws its teaching staff as those who complete the degree, the solution would seem to lie in reducing doctoral program enrollments rather than the number of PhD recipients per se. But doctoral candidates who leave PhD programs with a master’s degree form only a subset of students who receive master’s degrees, whether from departments where a doctorate or a master’s degree is the highest degree offered (IPEDS completions component). The paradox seems to be that master’s degree programs, which have occupational outcomes other than college teaching as their stated purpose, have in practice long placed a significant subset of graduates to (non-tenure-track, especially part-time) postsecondary teaching positions, while PhD programs, which have preparation for a professorial career as their stated purpose, have in practice long had a significant subset of their graduates go on to occupations other than postsecondary teaching.

Agreeing to the proposition that a measure of PhD population control would be a good thing still leaves unaddressed key questions of what the target number should be and why, which subspecialties to target and why, and how in practical terms the system of doctoral programs moves from here to there. In departments’ hiring to tenure-track positions, subspecialization comes to the fore. Fortunately, as I expect most would agree, no central mechanism exists to mandate the number of applicants programs may admit; the field specializations doctoral candidates will be permitted to follow; or the closely linked determinations of the topics, authors, works, and periods departmental curricula and degree programs will cover. Far from relieving programs of responsibility, the local and decentralized character of these decisions places both the authority to determine appropriate program size and the responsibility to take account of the realities of placement squarely on departments and their faculties.

Fifteen years ago, in 1999, Maresi Nerad organized a series of career-management workshops for a number of University of California, Berkeley, doctoral programs, of which English was one. The project arose as a result of what Nerad learned over the course of the research she conducted with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on career paths to 1995 of PhDs who earned their degrees between 1983 and 1985. Here is how one graduate student, Anne-Marie Harvey, described the experience of attending the workshop in a presentation she gave at an ADE Summer Seminar, as published in ADE Bulletin 124 (2000). (Four essays from the Bulletin about the Berkeley series, including Harvey’s, are available here.)

First, there was the mere fact of sitting in the same room with others from the Berkeley English department and talking openly, as a group, about careers besides college teaching, breaking the taboo that reigns among many graduate students on this topic. I felt immediately less isolated.  .  .  . By talking about other kinds of work, we turned down the brightness of the holy aura surrounding academic work. We considered the possibility that other work can be rewarding in similar ways.

Another valuable effect of the workshop was the shift from a paradigm of helplessness and narrowing options to a paradigm of autonomy and choice.  .  .  .  I wish I had had the chance to go to one of these workshops years earlier, to gain a greater sense of myself as an autonomous adult with useful skills and to stop feeling quite so trapped by circumstances beyond my control.  .  .  .  If graduate students can leave behind the sense that they’re traveling down a narrowing and increasingly crowded path with a precipice on either side and feel instead as though they are advancing across a field, with choices about which way to turn, they’ll feel less desperate. They’ll become more confident teachers and scholars, they’ll write their dissertations faster, and they’ll engage in the kind of competition that energizes people instead of devastating and paralyzing them. (40, 41)

To me, that sounds like the right prescription for how doctoral programs and their students can think productively about life after graduate school, irrespective of what the placement statistics say or whether the paths graduate students explore lead them to careers as tenured faculty members or positions in postsecondary administration, secondary school teaching, government agencies, for-profit enterprises, not-for-profit organizations, or the many other professional occupations where doctorate recipients have made and will continue to make their livelihoods. The conversation about career paths and possibilities for humanities PhDs has recently gained new life in discussions at the MLA and AHA annual conventions and in projects like the AHA’s Malleable PhD, the MLA’s Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, and the Public Fellows program of the American Council of Learned Societies. Promising and important as these projects are, most crucial will be faculty members and graduate students finding the courage to speak up in their home departments. It’s way past time to break the taboo enforcing the academic career as the sole placement option that can be publicly acknowledged and discussed. We need to make a start now toward naturalizing a larger, more generous view of employment possibilities and career success in graduate education.

David Laurence

Our PhD Employment Problem, Part I

Our PhD employment problem is very simply described: there’s a mismatch between the number of graduate students earning doctorates each year and the number of tenure-track faculty positions available to them. There are too few tenure-track jobs for the PhD recipients who are qualified to compete for them. The problem is most commonly attributed to an overproduction of PhDs. But it can be understood and has been argued to be the result of an underproduction of tenure-track positions symptomatic of institutions’ increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty appointments.

Figure 1, with its red trend line tracking new PhD recipients and its blue trend line tracking jobs advertised in the MLA Job Information List, has formed our basic image of the depressed academic job market that has persisted since the 1970s. (Click on the chart to see a full-screen version. The curve representing PhD recipients is based on a query for graduates in “English and literature” from the United States Survey of Earned Doctorates [SED] data as maintained on WebCASPAR, a National Science Foundation [NSF] Web site of United States government data resources on higher education. “English and literature” is an NSF aggregate of several SED subfields, including English and American language and literature, creative writing, comparative literature, classics, folklore, speech and rhetorical studies, and, beginning in 2012, rhetoric and composition. The SED is the federal government’s annual census of new PhD recipients.)

Fig. 1

More than an image, this charting has served as our mental model for the job market and its troubles—especially the two episodes of acute crisis that become vividly apparent where the blue trend line for jobs plunges below the red trend line for PhD job seekers in the mid-1990s and most recently since 2008. I want to argue that this model is oversimplified and has led us to think too narrowly about PhD career paths, actual and possible.

Consider, for example, the record of initial employment placements across the fourteen studies of PhD placement that the MLA has conducted since 1977, as shown in figure 2. (The most recent study sought information about placement, as of November 2010, of graduates who received their degrees between 1 September 2009 and 31 August 2010.) This charting of MLA placement survey findings reminds us that the PhD employment (and unemployment) picture has always included several strands in addition to postsecondary faculty positions on and off the tenure track—including administrative posts in postsecondary institutions and employment outside higher education as well as postdoctoral fellowships.

Fig. 2

The crisis episodes of the mid-1990s and since 2008 are clearly reflected in the sharp downturns in the percentage of graduates finding tenure-track placements and corresponding upturns in the percentage taking full- or part-time non-tenure-track positions. At the best, across the record of fourteen MLA surveys over three decades, just above half of a given year’s graduates have found placements to tenure-track faculty appointments in the year they received their degrees. In trough years, the figure has dropped below 40%. (Shown here are findings for graduates of doctoral programs in English. The picture for languages other than English is similar.)

Also striking in the record of the MLA placement studies is how unchanging and predominant placement to postsecondary teaching has been. Across the ups and downs of three decades, close to 80% of program graduates have consistently gone on to postsecondary teaching right after graduate school, whether as tenure-track assistant professors or as non-tenure-track instructors. The notable development has been an exchange of placements beyond postsecondary teaching in favor of placement to postdoctoral fellowships. Employment outside higher education, whether in K–12 education, government, not-for-profit organizations, or for-profit enterprises, has actually seen significant decline since the 1980s. The unemployment rate (graduates reported as not employed and seeking employment), which, after reaching 10.5% in the crisis of the 1990s dropped to 2.1% in 2006–07, increased to 4.2% in 2009–10. Again, what we are looking at here is placement of graduates directly after completing the PhD, within the same year a graduate received the degree. Interestingly, and in contrast to postdoc placements, placements to academic administration, where we might expect to see some indication of a turn to nonfaculty (or “alt-ac”) positions in higher education, has yet to break out on the MLA survey as a significant percentage of initial placements, reaching a peak at 3.9% in 2003–04 and dropping back to 2.0% in 2009–10.

The concentration of humanities’ graduates in postsecondary teaching positions immediately after completing doctoral study is striking in comparison with graduates in social sciences and sciences, as data from the SED make apparent (fig. 3). If a humanities degree recipient has a definite commitment to employment or postdoctoral study at the time they complete the SED questionnaire, chances are 8 in 10 that the commitment is to a postsecondary teaching job (whether on or off the tenure track), by far the highest among the five major disciplinary areas.

Fig. 3

Correspondingly, the SED data show how dominant postdoctoral study is in the sciences and also how the upward trend in placement to postdoctoral study that we saw in the MLA placement findings is shared across the disciplines (fig. 4). (Do the sharp increase in placements to postdoctoral study in science and engineering after 2008 and the equally sharp drop since 2010 reflect both early adjustments to the financial crisis on the part of programs and graduates and subsequent reduced allocations of government funding for research labs in these fields?)

Fig. 4

But how does the humanities’ overall placement record compare with that for the sciences and social sciences? Figure 5, drawn from the SED, compares the percentage of graduates in the different disciplines with definite commitments, whether to employment or postdoctoral study, across two decades, from 1991 to 2012. The SED consistently finds that the humanities have the lowest percentage of graduates reporting a definite postgraduation commitment to employment or postdoctoral study. But, no surprise, things have gotten a lot tougher for everyone since 2008. What may come as a surprise is the sharp declining trend for graduates in the life sciences and a trend for the humanities that is actually slightly positive (if by a considerable margin still lowest among the disciplines in the percentage of graduates reporting definite postgraduation commitments, although the distance between the humanities and life sciences has narrowed).

Fig. 5

It is illuminating to consider the numbers behind these percentage values (fig. 6). The life sciences have experienced dramatic increases in degree recipients, which have doubled in number since 1982 and show no sign of slowing down. Humanities degrees increased through the 1990s but, unlike the sciences, leveled off after 1997. (The most recent year for which SED data are available, 2012, did see a notable uptick in the number of humanities degree recipients.)

Fig. 6

So the relationship between trends in numbers of graduates and trends in percentage of graduates finding postgraduation placements differs for the sciences on the one hand and the humanities and also education on the other. Figure 7 illustrates the story for life sciences over the two decades since 1992. (The blue and black trend lines for absolute numbers of graduates refer to the left axis; the red trend line for the percentage of graduates placed refers to the right axis.)

Fig. 7
07_SED_life sciences

The absolute number of life sciences graduates finding placements immediately after graduation has been increasing. But the number of graduates has been increasing a lot faster. So the percentage of graduates reporting definite postgraduation placements has seen a substantial decline of ten percentage points. It is now approaching 60%, where it had been 70% or above.

Compared with life sciences, PhD production in the humanities looks flat—as does the number of graduates finding placements immediately after graduation (fig. 8). And the two fields have actually gotten a lot closer in the percentage of graduates with definite commitments to employment or postdoctoral study than was the case ten or fifteen years ago.

Fig. 8

Education shows yet another pattern (fig. 9), with a sharply declining number of graduates receiving degrees—down 25% since 2007—but accompanied by an equally abrupt decline in the number of graduates finding placements. Consequently, the substantial reduction in graduates with PhDs in education has not improved the percentage of graduates reporting definite commitments to employment or postdoctoral study (just under 70% in 2012).

Fig. 9

But what about humanities PhD employment and careers in the long term? Figure 10 presents data from the 1995 Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), a United States government survey and companion to the SED that tracks a sample of PhDs from the time they receive their degrees to age seventy-five. In 1995, the last year data were collected for the humanities, the SDR found something on the order of 40% of the entire humanities PhD population working in positions other than postsecondary teaching.

Fig. 10

Humanities participation in the SDR, which was funded with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, was lost when the endowment’s budget was cut in the mid-1990s (data are still collected for the sciences). The lack of current information about the employment sectors where humanities PhDs find work and what they are actually doing in their work has prompted several recent efforts, including projects being undertaken by the MLA and the American Historical Association (AHA) with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to track the current occupations of post-1995 PhDs and the 2012 survey Katina Rogers directed for the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI). The AHA has issued a report of findings from its study of PhD employment outcomes. The (very preliminary and subject to change) returns from the MLA’s effort are so far very much in line with the AHA’s findings for history PhDs, as shown in figure 11. A little under 60% of the PhDs we’ve located are working as tenured postsecondary faculty members. Just over 10% are in non-tenure-track faculty positions. Between 6% and 7% hold professional staff positions in postsecondary institutions; between 4% and 5% are deans, provosts, or college presidents (the “senior postsecondary administration” category on this chart); and a not insignificant 21% are working outside postsecondary education altogether. (These early results from the MLA’s research come from a subset of several hundred PhDs, all of whom earned degrees before 2000; consequently, for the purposes of this first, quick take, we did not attempt to distinguish tenure-track assistant professors.)

Fig. 11

It’s interesting to look at these findings in relation to findings from the SCI’s 2012 survey, shown in figure 12, since that effort focused specifically on people with graduate degrees who were working in “alt-ac” positions—pursuing careers in postsecondary institutions but not as faculty members. (The SCI findings include ABDs and respondents who left graduate school with master’s degrees as well as those who completed the PhD.) Asked about the career they expected to enter at the start of graduate school, the SCI respondents overwhelmingly indicated a career as a tenured faculty member.

Fig. 12

And an equally overwhelming percentage of the SCI respondents said that when they started graduate school they were either certain or fairly certain that they would pursue a career as a tenured faculty member (fig. 13). Remember, for most of the survey respondents, their actual careers have taken them in other directions.

Fig. 13

So the evidence we possess points to two conclusions: people who enter the long and arduous path of doctoral study in the humanities do so having a postsecondary faculty career as their primary goal, and people who pursue graduate education in the humanities actually find careers in a far broader range of professional positions than postsecondary teaching, even if their first job after graduate school is a postsecondary faculty position on or off the tenure track. So the question isn’t whether doctoral study can lead to careers beyond postsecondary teaching—it already does and has for decades. The question comes down to the view doctoral programs and their inhabitants take of what has long been the simple fact.

But, given that graduate students in the humanities declare becoming a postsecondary faculty member as their predominant career goal and motive for undertaking doctoral study, it seems pertinent to our discussion to remind ourselves what is happening to the faculty. That is the topic for The Trend‘s next post.

David Laurence

More on That Northwestern Study: The Authors Speak, but Is Anyone Listening?

“Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” The three authors of the NBER working paper—David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter—spoke on 7 October at a colloquium organized by Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR), which Figlio directs. (A PDF of the paper is available for free at the IPR Web site.) As reported in the 8 October issue of the Daily Northwestern, their remarks underscore the point made in my blog post on their paper.

From Schapiro, president of Northwestern University: “In retrospect, I wish we had been a little clearer about the fact that we have non-lined faculty, but most of them are regularly renewed longtime professors here teaching full time for us and have been doing it forever. It’s a big difference [from] when I was at (the University of Southern California) and we called them ‘freeway flyers.’”

From Figlio: “The biggest takeaway message, in my opinion, is really [that] major research universities have these outstanding teachers teaching classes and we need to give these outstanding teachers more respect. We in the professoriate and maybe NU as an institution, but not just NU, need to recognize that if these people are doing such a good job in the classroom, maybe they should be even more integrated into the fabric of great research universities.”

New York TimesWall Street JournalChronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher Ed, and university and college presidents from sea to shining sea, are you listening?

David Laurence

One-Tenth of a Grade Point

The trend toward a majority non-tenure-track faculty has begun to attract serious economic analysis as—possibly—an institutional problem. You know something is up when administrators seek evidence that no damage ensues to students’ education from staffing practices and personnel policies that have created a higher education faculty with, in four-year institutions, only a third of its members employed in full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty positions (and under 15% in two-year colleges).

Enter the working paper recently released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?,” by David N. Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern University; Northwestern University’s president, Morton O. Schapiro; and Kevin B. Soter, from the Chicago-based consulting firm The Greatest Good. The paper examines first-term classes taken by first-year Northwestern University students across eight student cohorts, from fall 2001 to fall 2008, some taught by faculty members inside the tenure system and some taught by faculty members outside the tenure system. The authors ask two questions: Did the likelihood that a student took a subsequent class in the same subject vary by the tenure status of the instructor in the first course? Did the grade the student received in the subsequent course vary by the tenure status of the instructor in the first course? The paper states their core findings as follows:

[A] non-tenure track faculty member increases the likelihood that a student will take another class in the subject by 7.3 percentage points (9.3 percentage points when limited to classes outside the student’s intended major) and increases the grade earned in that subsequent class by slightly more than one-tenth of a grade point (with a somewhat greater impact for classes outside of the intended major). (9)

The conclusion that follows most directly from these findings should come as welcome news to MLA members, especially in the light of the exceptional character of the study’s institutional setting and the specific courses on which it focuses. It should surprise no one to have evidence that a cadre of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, most of whom have what the paper’s authors describe as “a longer-term relationship with the university” (9n8), perform well as teachers in the introductory courses that are central to the work Northwestern University hires them to do. Or that these full-time non-tenure-track instructors even improve—slightly—on the support colleagues inside the tenure system can offer students in these introductory courses, courses that are not as central to the work, including the teaching work, Northwestern University hires faculty members inside the tenure system to do. Perhaps the surprise should be how small the differential is rather than how large. We’re talking about one-tenth of a grade point on a four-point scale.

Of course, the study and its conclusions will be put to polemical uses that can be anticipated to respect none of the features that ought to make the study welcome and to indulge all the phony generalizations that are bound to make its findings damaging. Under cover of the conveniently elastic term “adjuncts,” results of a study confined exclusively to full-time faculty members are sure to be cited as showing what the findings emphatically do not show: that the widespread institutional abuse of part-time faculty members does no damage, whether to students’ education, to the faculty, or to institutions. Memo to the media: the findings of this study have nothing to do with faculty members whose status or function can properly be described as adjunct, even if institutions use a title like “full-time adjunct professor” to categorize them.

The authors are curious to understand how their results may speak to the debate about higher education’s staffing practices and the dramatic expansion of the segment of the faculty employed off the tenure track. They note that in the United States in 1975, “57% of all faculty [members] (excluding graduate students) were in the tenure system; by 2009 that figure had been cut almost in half to 30%” (2). Interestingly, according to the United States Department of Education’s Employees by Assigned Position Survey (EAP), in fall 2011 tenured and tenure-track faculty members made up 57.7% of all non-medical-school faculty members at Northwestern University, compared with 28.2% across all degree-granting institutions, both two- and four-year, and 33.9% across the four-year institutions. With respect to tenured and tenure-track faculty members, the faculty demography of Northwestern University today is comparable to the faculty demography prevailing across all institutions of higher education in the United States in 1975.

Moreover, according to the EAP, 64.8% of the Northwestern faculty outside the tenure system was full-time in fall 2011.  Among four-year colleges and universities, 70.3% of the non-medical-school faculty outside the tenure system was part-time in fall 2011, nearly the reverse of conditions at Northwestern. In the light of the decidedly exceptional demography of the Northwestern University faculty, efforts to generalize the results of this study to the wider universe of four-year colleges and universities are untenable or at best premature. Unless, of course, a right understanding of this study and its institutional setting really argues for returning the faculty to the conditions of tenure status and full- and part-time employment status prevailing across the system in 1975 and still prevailing at Northwestern today.

The most consequential implication of the paper’s analysis may be stated as follows. If non-tenure-track teachers are professionals who perform well in the work they are hired to do, shouldn’t this—now majority—faculty be included in institutional employment and compensation policies that treat them as professionals? Instead, it seems depressingly clear that the paper will be abused to rationalize the further immiseration of the large and rapidly expanding part-time segment of the non-tenure-track academic workforce, under the excuse that “the research shows” faculty members outside the tenure system teach at least as well and often better, irrespective of the size of their classes, their course loads, their compensation, their full- or part-time employment status, the working conditions they endure, or how little support they receive. Which leads to the question, How will the authors, most especially the president of Northwestern University, respond if their findings are used to assert such unjustified conclusions?

David Laurence