Will Graduate Work in Literary Studies Have to Cut Back or Shut Down?

The National Science Foundation has just issued an Info Brief on trends in the awarding of doctorates in different fields for the year 2009. (See here) The report contains data going back to 2009 and breaks the numbers down by Science, Engineering, and “Non-science and engineering,” the latter including Education, Health, Humanities, and Professional Fields. For all fields, doctorates jumped from 41,098 in 1999 to 49,562 in 2009, the vast majority of the increase falling to science (20,601 to 25,836) and engineering (5,330 to 7,634). The “non-sciences and engineering” gained only 925 doctorates, most of that gain due to professional fields (2,172 to 2,800).
The humanities at large, in fact, went down, dropping from 5,036 doctorates in 1999 to 4,667 doctorates in 2009. History went up slightly (960 to 989), but foreign languages slid from 626 doctorates in 1999 to 602 in 2009, while “Letters” (which includes English, Classics, Folklore, Comparative Literature, and Speech) dropped from 1,516 to 1,414. That makes for a four percent decline for foreign languages and a seven percent decline for English et al.
How is that possible, though, given that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the total enrollment of students in degree-granting institutions rose from 14.8 million in 1999 to 18.2 million (estimated) in 2008, a gain of 23 percent? With more students going to college, one would expect more graduates proceeding into PhD programs.
There is another odd trend in place. More undergraduates should mean that colleges and universities would hire more teachers, but here, too, the number of slots for recent PhDs runs in the opposite direction. Each year the Modern Language Association publishes its Job Information List, which provides the fullest listing of openings in the field. Recent doctorates look for tenure-track assistant professor positions in the Job List and apply to those that match their specialty.
For each of the last five years, around 1,400 fresh Letters PhDs and 600 fresh foreign language PhDs have completed school and sought a regular position. In the Letters fields of English and American language and literature, the output averages in the mid-900s. What has the job market looked like to them?
Hyper-competitive. According to the MLA’s “Midyear Report on the 2009-10 MLA Job Information List” (here), from 2005 to 2008 the number of tenure-track assistant professor positions in foreign language ranged from 231 to 267, while assistant profs posts in English ranged from 299 to 474. (English reached a high of 606 in 2000, foreign languages a high of 396 in 2001.)

The worst news comes in 2009, when the offerings plummeted: 97 in foreign language and 165 in English.
The ratio of new PhDs in 2009 to tenure-track assistant professor jobs in 2009 works out at 6-to-1 in foreign languages. Even when we take out the disastrous job year of 2009, the ratio of the previous four years’ English PhDs to entry-level tenure-track jobs is more 2-to-1. Don’t forget, too, to add in all the people who finished their graduate work in 2008, 2007, and 2006 but didn’t get a tenure-track position that year. They pick up a lectureship or an adjunct line here and there and return to the job market the next year, and the next, making the ratio in all fields even higher. This helps explain why the humanities score low on the job prospects for recent PhDs. In 2009, only 62.6 percent of them had a “definite commitment” for a position of any kind in place—that is, not only tenure-track posts but also post-docs and lecturer positions.
How have universities handled the swelling undergraduate enrollments, then? By hiring more adjuncts.
These trends cast the single-digit decline in doctorates awarded during the 2000s as a meager adjustment to the employment picture. When the MLA considers all kinds of jobs offered recently, the downward slope is precipitous:

Based on the number of jobs advertised in the October 2009 through the February 2010 issues of the JIL, we project that the number of jobs departments advertise this year will show a one-year drop of 27.5%, to about 1,000 jobs, in the English edition and of 26.7%, to about 900 jobs, in the foreign language edition. The 2009-10 drop follows last year’s similarly steep decline, when the number of jobs fell 24.4% in English and 27.0% in foreign languages. [Remember that “jobs” here signifies any kind of position.]

One wonders how long this system of doctoral production in English and foreign language departments is sustainable. When non-employment-after-graduation reaches a certain level, literature departments must reconsider their mission. If the trend continues, the inconceivable may be inevitable: graduate programs in literary studies here and there will have to adjust their curriculum drastically or shut down entirely.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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