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The Declining Market for PhDs

One had to wonder how long the perverse job market in the humanities would last. Here is a sign that academics may finally be getting the message that they need to respect the law of supply and demand.

It’s a story of a recent report by the American Historical Association showing the trend in annual tenure-track job openings in history and annual doctorates awarded in the field. While my own field of English committed the unconscionable blunder of producing more PhDs last year than the year before, even as the job market shrank once again, history actually produced fewer PhDs. The number of teaching jobs for 2014-15 slipped 2.6 percent from the previous year, which was no surprise given that we have seen three successive years of decline before that.  But history also produced 3.1 percent fewer doctorates–a sensible belt-tightening that acknowledges the realities of lower enrollments, fewer majors, and less funding.

Related: The Tribes that Hire the PhDs

My own field of English hasn’t learned the lesson. PhDs in “letters” (mostly English, but including Classics) went up 2.45 percent. Once again, the research departments produced many more doctorates than there were tenure-track jobs.  When we add in all the PhDs from previous years who are still scrambling for regular teaching posts, it’s like Highway 95 outside Washington DC reduced to two lanes and cars backed up for 10 miles.

It’s not as if this is a new situation.  In English, the job market has ranged from tight to microscopic ever since the mid-1970s. We had a huge hiring wave for a decade starting in the mid-60s when the Baby Boomers swarmed undergraduate classrooms and forced colleges to grab anyone with a few years of graduate school (not even a doctorate yet) just to handle the workload of teaching all of those new students. New and large universities opened such as UC-Riverside and UC-Irvine.  Tenure for many of these young professors came as soon as they filed their dissertations and got a few articles out to scholarly quarterlies for review.  For the faculty in the humanities, it was indeed a Golden Age.

There were enough resources for everyone, but all that growth produced a different kind of competition: prestige. Just having a job didn’t mean much, as it does today. Everybody had one.  But where you worked made all the difference. Most people might regard teaching Wordsworth to community college kids in Queens is just as noble and important as teaching him to kids at Columbia. But among the professorate, for all their egalitarian talk, the ladder of value had many rungs.

I heard it all the time when, as a lecturer and an assistant professor, I tagged along with a few senior professors to dinner and listened to them talk about what was happening at Harvard and Hopkins: who was leaving where, which department was rising, and which falling. It was insider news, but more than just gossip. People understood it as professional awareness.  You displayed your competence and savvy by knowing what was going on and who was doing it.

But as the Nineties wore on and the economic condition of the humanities steadily slipped, curiosity over this famous scholar’s travels and that renowned department’s controversies sounded ever more like celebrity chatter. As more people struggled to find jobs, graduate programs looked less like training centers for the professorate and more like preservers of status.

Related: Humanities, Pretty Much Dead, Are Mostly a Hunt for Racism and Sexism

If you have a graduate program, your department can lay claim to research prestige.  That was one effect of the great expansion of the late-Sixties and early-70s.  Unless you were at one of the very few super-selective colleges such as Dartmouth and Amherst, you needed to be in a research university if you wanted to have full respect by the profession. Having graduate students meant that you were on the cutting edge of theory and scholarship. If you were just at a college teaching undergraduates, you were stuck in the more or less humdrum routine of introducing youths to Shakespeare and Homer.

That’s the real draw of having graduate students. They enhance the professor’s standing. And that’s why the production of more PhDs than there are jobs continues. It serves those who already have jobs. And those fortunate few are entirely unaccountable for their decision to keep those graduate programs well-populated with students. If they have cultivated graduate students for six years, but those students fail to get jobs, it has no effect on the professors. They can keep doing what they are doing until the end of their career.

The slight turn downward in the production of history PhDs is a good sign (so long as the downturn in jobs continues). The rest of the humanities, English included, should pay attention.

2 thoughts on “The Declining Market for PhDs”

  1. Sadly it’s a Ponzi scheme. There’s no other way it can exist, because there is just no market for these degrees outside the academy.

  2. Excellent article. However, I would date the crash in English (at least) to about 1969. That’s when my Ph. D. class at Harvard heard the rumor that jobs were suddenly drying up. I got one job offer in 1971 and promptly took it, with a Department (at Mississippi State University; offering an M.A. but no Ph. D, in English) that quickly staffed itself with my peers from Yale, Penn, Chicago, Berkeley, Cornell, and, again, Harvard.

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