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

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