Category Archives: Graduate study

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






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.

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