“If I don’t succeed in academe, I’ll die!”
So read the anguished headline of a Jan. 23 cri de coeur to Salon magazine’s advice columnist, Cary Tennis. The writer was a woman who had apparently spent eight years acquiring a Ph.D. in anthropology, plus another seven years trying unsuccessfully to get an entry-level tenure-track professor’s job—a position whose average starting salary is less than $54,000 a year, which is decent but perhaps not worth putting in nearly a decade in graduate school. At age 37 (if you add fifteen years to her presumed age at college graduation), the woman chafed with frustration, fury, the grinding humiliation of being able to secure only low-paying part-time teaching work, and resentment of her professor-husband who had landed a tenure-track slot at a prestigious university—but she could not let go of the dream that had driven her to endure nearly a decade of grad-school poverty for no reward. She wrote in her letter:
“I scrape by teaching the occasional class for peanuts, and one other prof has taken enough pity on me to let me work in her lab so I can pretend to continue my research. On an intellectual level I understand that I’m not going to get that professor job that I’ve been envisioning for, oh, 15 years now. It ain’t going to happen—no matter what I do, there is going to be someone younger, better trained, and with more publications….The problem is that emotionally, I can’t drop it. It’s like having a painful sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue—all day, every day. I’m angry, bitter and heartbroken. I resent my husband so much for having what I can’t get that I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, I’m so consumed with jealousy….Sometimes, stuck in this town I don’t much care for, with my once-promising career in shambles, I wonder if it’s even worth getting out of bed.”
This ground-down woman is scarcely unrepresentative, in a job market where fewer than one out of every two holders of doctoral degrees in the humanities these days receive job offers that put them onto the tenure track that is key to a successful (if seldom wealth-generating) and reasonably secure life of teaching and scholarship—and that’s in good year. Right now we’re in a bad year, when, according to the American Association of University Professors, the ratio of tenure-track openings to new doctorates is more like 1 to 4.
Both the Modern Language Association (the leading professional society for English professors), meeting right after Christmas, and the American Historical Society, meeting in early January, reported fallen-off attendance and a marked decrease in job interviews and hence job openings for the anxious grad students and new Ph.D.’s who typically flock to the two associations’ annual conventions (which double as job fairs), double or triple up in motel rooms, and peddle their fresh-from-the-printer curricula vitae. The MLA convention used to be low-hanging fruit for journalists, who could gin up easy laughs for their readers just by quoting the postmodernist mumbo-jumbo in the titles of the scholarly papers presented: “Back in Black: Theorizing the Sequel in Marlowe’s Tamburlaines” (that’s an actual paper title from the 2009 MLA meeting). This year’s MLA convention, after a 50 percent drop in the number of tenure-track job openings between the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 academic years, was just plain grim, from all reports.
For months now, the spotlight of negative attention in the academic trade press has been trained on the for-profit “career colleges,” with their high dropout rates, sometimes questionable recruiting tactics, and poor reputation for “gainful employment” on the part of their graduates, who can find themselves with no jobs and mountains of debt from the student loans that account for nearly 90 percent of their alma maters’ revenues. Ph.D. programs, especially in the humanities, can be viewed as career colleges for the highly educated. As with career colleges, their stated purpose is vocational training: for that full-time faculty position in academia. And exactly the same unappealing features of many career colleges, with their low-income, poorly prepared student populations turn out also to be features of Ph.D. programs, even though the latters’ student populations tend to be upper-middle-class and if anything, over-prepared.
Continue reading A Terrible Time for New Ph.D.s