The Modern Language Association reports a depressing statistic: the estimated number of jobs offered this year for professors of English will drop 3.6 percent from last year. The main issue here is that for the first time in 20 years foreign language openings will exceed those in English, but the actual decline of English jobs is newsworthy in itself. The job market contracted sharply in 2008 with the economic meltdown, and marked increases in job posts in 2011 and 2012 signaled that the field was coming back. The news here suggests that there isn’t going to be any return to the pre-2008 market, not for English and not for foreign languages, either. This year’s English jobs are fully 34.8 percent less than those in 2007, and foreign language jobs are still one-quarter less than 2007’s tally. More jobs may materialize later in the year, but those tend to be non-tenure track positions–adjuncts, lecturers, post-docs
Meanwhile, graduate programs in English show no sign of slowing down their admissions. In 2010, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, fully 1,466 doctorates in English were awarded, but in 2011, the number jumped to 1,515. The University of Chicago English Department currently lists 74 graduate students in its program , while Berkeley lists 142 active students. Every one of those recent PhDs who fails to earn a job in one year produces an accumulating effect. They pick up a few courses here and there, work on turning a chapter from the dissertation into a journal article, and try again the next year, and the next.
Some of them linger for ten years, never winning a tenure-track job, but only swelling the ranks of the applicant pool. Also, because they are willing to stick in the field at poverty wages (adjunct courses in English pay $3,000 to $5,000 each), they perpetuate the system. If fewer PhDs agreed to serve as adjuncts, what would English departments do to staff their freshman composition courses? They would have to offer a better package, perhaps a $35,000 a year lectureship with some security and benefits. But departments don’t have to do that. When they find 200 CVs in the stack every time they offer a regular position, they know it’s a seller’s market. The current MLA Job List indicates it’s going to remain that way.