The Econopocalyptic Job Market, Part I

If you or someone you know happens to be at any stage in the process of getting a PhD in the humanities — English, History, Philosophy, and so forth — you’ve probably heard that it is nearly impossible to find stable employment, even once the degree is in hand. Even with impressive publications in scholarly journals under one’s belt. The number of jobs out there for a 20th Century US historian or a scholar of comparative Slavic literature is vanishingly small.

This strikes many people as odd. Their long-suffering grad student friends are smart folks. They went for a doctorate, which seems like a prestigious degree, at top schools like Penn, Berkeley, or Virginia. How is it that not a soul wants to hire them? The weird dynamics of the academic job market, where quite a few people work for a very long time with the knowledge that they will eventually compete for a tiny number of jobs, is difficult for anyone to understand, even those most familiar with it.

This problem has been attributed to a number of factors: 1. declining enrollments in majors like English and History over the last few decades; 2. the admission of “too many” people to grad school; 3. the creation of “too many” PhD programs at too many institutions (as every department seems to dream of having its own graduate program and every college aspires to attain “research university” status); 4. the ever-lengthening time it takes to complete a PhD; and 5. the shift toward a low-wage model that favors farming out teaching positions to teaching assistants and adjunct instructors instead of creating new tenure-track positions. English departments have plenty of Freshman Writing classes to fill, History departments have lots of US History surveys, and it’s easier to pay an adjunct $2,000 with no benefits than to hire more tenured professors.

Many people have tried to weigh in on the problem, offering one solution after another to the crisis of “overproduction” of PhDs. Some are plausible, while others are outright laughable. In a New York Times op-ed a few years ago, a professor who had spent his life enjoying the privileges of tenure at an Ivy League institution suggested that the whole system that benefited him so richly should be scrapped. Tenure should be done away with, he said, and departments should be discarded in favor of temporary task forces in which PhD students would specialize in interdisciplinary themes like “Water.” If life is hard for the average English lit PhD, how is the newly minted Doctor of Water going to fare on the market? Don’t expect serious proposals from people who don’t have a horse in this race.

In any case, this will be the first of a series of posts on the Academic Econopocalypse at Tropics of Meta. We will be linking to articles on the subject that are worthy of debate, and weighing in with a range of our own perspectives.

A great place to start would be Louis Menand’s recent piece in Harvard magazine, in which the author offers some truly sobering statistics about PhD completion rates and the withering of the humanities. Menand makes the debatable argument that time-to-degree (the time it takes to finish classes, exams, and the dissertation) needs to be shortened; he suggests that this would bring a more diverse bench of candidates into graduate programs and lead to PhDs bringing their expertise into other fields of endeavor.

Is Menand’s argument persuasive? What, if anything, can be done to change the unfair and capricious system known, always ominously, as The Job Market?

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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