Category Archives: Academic workforce

More on the Career Paths of PhDs in English and Other Modern Languages

In 2012 the MLA and the American Historical Association (AHA) received grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of parallel initiatives to discover the current occupations of PhD recipients who had completed doctoral study since 1995—the last year humanities graduates were canvassed for the federal government’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR).1 The AHA and MLA studies used Internet searches to find public information about the current employment of a random sample of graduates. The MLA’s sample included 2,590 doctoral program graduates drawn from a universe defined by Dissertation Abstract International records indexed in the MLA International Bibliography for graduates who earned degrees between 1996 and 2011. A report on the MLA’s research appeared as “Where Are They Now,” a February 2015 post on The Trend. The AHA’s report, “The Many Careers of History PhDs,” was published in spring 2013. In 2018 the AHA published “Where Historians Work,” an online interactive data set that expands its initial research to catalog the career outcomes of 8,515 historians who earned PhDs at universities in the United States between 2004 and 2013. Both AHA resources are available at the Career Diversity Resources page on the AHA Web site.

In July 2017 the MLA’s office of research reached out to the 1,949 individuals in the original sample for whom e-mail addresses had been found in 2014 and invited them to complete a survey about their employment since they completed the doctorate. The survey received responses from 310 (15.4%) of these doctorate recipients, as well as from one respondent who was not part of the original sample. The information the 311 respondents provided is illuminating. At the same time, the small number of respondents reminds us how enormously far tracking efforts have to go before the profession can claim to have anything approaching a comprehensive picture of the occupations and employment histories of the nearly 100,000 individuals who, as documented by the Survey of Earned Doctorates, have earned terminal degrees in English and other modern languages since 1960.

Overall, 52.4% of the survey respondents held a tenured faculty position at the time they completed the questionnaire in summer 2017, and 79.1% were employed in postsecondary education—3.9% in tenure-track positions; 11.6% and 2.6% in full- or part-time non-tenure-track positions, respectively; and 8.7% as administrators (in addition to the 52.4% who were tenured faculty members). Of the 20.9% of respondents working outside higher education, 13.8% were in business, government, or nonprofit organizations, 3.5% were in K–12 education, 2.6% were self-employed, and 1.0% were retired (see fig. 1). The chances that respondents occupied a tenured faculty position in 2017 varied widely, however, by when the degree was received, as seen in figure 2. Only 35.5% of graduates in the 1996–98 cohort (76 cases) and 34.8% of those

Fig. 1.
Chart: Occupations of PhDs in 2017

in the 2009–15 cohort (23 cases) held tenured positions in 2017. By contrast 54.1% of the 2002–05 cohort (74 cases), 57.1% of the 2006–08 cohort (42 cases), and 69.1% of the 1999–2001 cohort (81 cases) held a tenured faculty position at the time they completed the survey in 2017 (fig. 2). Graduates’ longer-term occupational outcomes and prospects appear to vary significantly with the contingent economic climate prevailing at the time of their initial job search and point of transition from graduate school into the labor force.

Fig. 2.
Current (2017) Employment by Year PhD Was Received

The information these PhDs provided about their first job placement after graduate school affords insight into the movement from tenure-track and non-tenure-track appointments to tenured faculty status—and from initial placements in academe into occupations beyond postsecondary teaching and administration. Figure 3 shows respondents’ first job placements after graduate school.

Fig. 3.
First Job after Completing the PhD, by Year PhD Was Received

Comparing figure 3 with figure 2 quantifies how graduates in different cohorts varied less in their initial job placements than in their longer-term occupational destinations, measured as where they were working as of summer 2017. Of the 1999–2001 cohort, which in 2017 had 69.1% of its members in tenured faculty positions, 38.8% were placed to a tenure-track position directly from graduate school; 31.3% and 7.5% had initial placements in full- and part-time non-tenure-track appointments, respectively, which had contracted to 4.9% (both full- and part-time) by 2017. By contrast, of the 2009–15 cohort, which graduated into the very challenging economic and employment climate post-2008, only 26.1% found a tenure-track position directly out of graduate school, and only 39.1% had achieved tenure or a tenure-track appointment by 2017. Of course, the future may bring more movement from non-tenure-track to tenure-track positions for those in this most recently graduated cohort, as it has for three of its four predecessors. Or the future may confirm a more permanent shift to non-tenure-track appointments and to employment outside academe—a shift that is apparent in the data for the 2009–15 cohort to date and that characterizes the experience reflected in the far lower fraction of graduates in tenured and tenure-track positions in the 1996–98 group and the markedly higher 28.9% who have moved out of academe into self-employment or business, government, and nonprofit organizations. The most urgent message of these data may be how important it is for both doctoral programs and their students to remain open and active in consideration of the fullest possible range of employment options and opportunities, especially perhaps if a leading one of those options is the career of a tenured faculty member.

A report on all findings from the 2017 survey of doctoral program graduates, including earnings and job satisfaction, is available from the Career Resources page of the MLA Web site..

David Laurence


  1. From 1977 to 1995, humanities doctorate recipients were included in the SDR, a biennial survey conducted by the National Science Foundation that gathers information about the occupations and career movement of a longitudinal sample of science and engineering doctorates from the year they receive their degrees to age seventy-five. The last profile of humanities doctorate recipients, based on the data collected from the 1995 SDR, was published by the National Research Council in 1997. The MLA has conducted periodic surveys of doctoral student placement since the mid-1970s, but those studies sought information about graduates’ employment placements within a year or two of receiving their degrees.

Preliminary Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2016–17

In 2016–17, the downturn in jobs advertised in the MLA Job Information List (JIL) continued for a fifth consecutive year. The JIL’s English edition announced 851 jobs, 102 (10.7%) fewer than in 2015–16; the foreign language edition announced 808 jobs, 110 (12.0%) fewer than in 2015–16. Figure 1 shows the trend lines for the number of jobs announced in each edition across the forty-two years from 1975–76 to 2016–17. The declines of the past five years bring the number of advertised jobs to yet another new low, below the level reached after the severe drop between 2007–08 and 2009–10. The 851 jobs in the English edition for 2016–17 are 249 (22.6%) below the 1,100 advertised in 2009–10. The 808 jobs in the foreign language edition are 214 (20.9%) below the 1,022 advertised in 2009–10.

Fig. 1
Graph showing trends in the number of jobs advertised in the MLA Job Information List, 1975–76 to 2016–17.

This past year marks the eighth that the number of jobs advertised in the JIL has remained at a trough level, below or just above the historical threshold of 1,000 jobs in each edition. The 2016–17 totals are 975 (53.4%) below and 872 (51.9%) below the 2007–08 prerecession peaks of 1,826 jobs for the English edition and 1,680 jobs for the foreign language edition, respectively.

In addition to reading JIL listings to count the number of jobs announced, staff members in the MLA’s office of research perform a machine analysis of the JIL database to develop information on the number and characteristics of the ads departments place. The number of ads is always somewhat smaller than the number of jobs the ads announce, since some ads announce more than one position. In 2016–17 the English edition carried 725 ads from 478 departments in 396 institutions. The 2016–17 foreign language edition carried 750 ads from 521 departments in 354 institutions. (Ads for positions outside postsecondary education are included in these counts.) In the English edition, 66 fewer departments placed ads in 2016–17 than in 2015–16, and the number of ads declined by 98 (11.9%). In the foreign language edition, 32 fewer departments placed ads in 2016–17 than in 2015–16, and the number of ads declined by 87 (10.4%). The 725 ads in the English JIL in 2016–17 are 923 (56.0%) below the 1,648 ads recorded in 2007–08, the recent peak. The 750 ads in the foreign language JIL in 2016–17 are 772 (50.7%) below the 2007–08 peak of 1,522. Since 2007–08, the number of departments placing ads has dropped from well over 900 to under 500 in the English edition and to just over 500 in the foreign language edition.

Table 1 shows the number and percentage of ads in the JIL’s English edition, broken out by the index terms for tenure status and rank that advertisers have selected for listings placed since 2007–08. Table 2 shows the equivalent information for listings in the foreign language edition. The tables quantify the scale of the contraction in academic job opportunities in English and the other modern languages, especially tenure-track assistant professor positions, that began in 2008–09 and has persisted since. In the English edition, the share of ads for positions classified as tenure-track has fallen to under 65% from about 75%, while the share of ads for positions classified as non-tenure-track has grown to almost 35% from just over 20%. In the foreign language edition, the share of ads for positions classified as tenure-track has fallen from about 60% to just over 45%, while the share of ads for positions classified as non-tenure-track has grown from about 35% to over 50%.

A full report on the 2016–17 JIL and trends in the ads will be published later this year.

David Laurence

Table 1. Number and Percentage of Ads Indexed for Tenure Status and Rank in the English JIL, 2007–08 to 2016–17

Tenure Status and Rank 2007–08 2008–09 2009–10 2010–11 2011–12 2012–13 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17
Tenure-track assistant professor
Number of ads 879 645  469 541 541 513  470 448 402 320
Percentage of ads  53.3 52.5  48.7 51.9 49.8 50.6 50.6 50.7 48.8 44.1
Tenure-track assistant professor and another rank
Number of ads 192 151 78 92 109 98 73 75 63 72
Percentage of ads  11.7 12.3 8.1 8.8 10.0 9.7 7.9 8.5 7.7 9.9
Other tenure-track positions
Number of ads  175 129 81 96 107 102 74 70 87 68
Percentage of ads   10.6  10.5 8.4 9.2 9.8 10.1 8.0 7.9 10.6 9.4
Non-tenure-track positions
Number of ads 353 255 304 278 293 277 272 278 261 247
Percentage of ads 21.4 20.8 31.5 26.7 27.0 27.3 29.3 31.4 31.7 34.1
 Tenure status not relevant or not specified
Number of ads 49 48 32 35 37 24 39 13 10 18
Percentage of ads 3.0 3.9 3.3 3.4 3.4 2.4 4.2 1.5 1.2 2.5
Total number of ads
(basis for percentages)
1,648 1,228 964 1,042 1,087 1,014 928 884 823 725

Table 2. Number and Percentage of Ads Indexed for Tenure Status and Rank in the Foreign Language JIL, 2007–08 to 2016–17

Tenure Status and Rank 2007–08 2008–09 2009–10 2010–11 2011–12 2012–13 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17
Tenure-track assistant professor
Number of ads 635 518 322 384 405 393 371 327 320 251
Percentage of ads 41.7 45.7 35.3 39.0 39.4 38.3 39.3 37.1 38.2 33.5
Tenure-track assistant professor and another rank
Number of ads  140 97 56 70 74 69 65 50 59 45
Percentage of ads  9.2 8.6 6.1 7.1 7.2 6.7 6.9 5.7 7.0 6.0
Other tenure-track positions
Number of ads  131 80 69 80 89 79 60 65 66 51
Percentage of ads  8.6 7.1 7.6 8.1 8.7 7.7 6.3 7.4 7.9 6.8
Non-tenure-track positions
Number of ads  576 394 437 420 430 453 420 424 384 388
Percentage of ads  37.8 34.7 47.9 42.6 41.9 44.2 44.4 48.1 45.9 51.7
Tenure status not specified or not relevant
Number of ads 40 45 29 31 29 31 29 15 8 15
Percentage of ads 2.6 4.0 3.2 3.1 2.8 3.0 3.1 1.7 1.0 2.0
Total number of ads
(basis for percentages)
1,522 1,134 913 985 1,027 1,025 945 881 837 750






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% or 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,

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

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