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

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

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

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

Figure 1

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

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

Figure 2

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

Table 1. Employment Sector by Year Graduates Received Degree

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

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

Figure 3

Figure 4

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

Figure 5

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

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

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

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

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



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