We are all, I think, very much aware of what a terrible year this has been for recent PhDs seeking academic humanities employment. Most of us have friends and colleagues seeking such jobs. Most job seekers, smart and accomplished as they are, did not get positions. OK, all years seem to have been terrible years in academia, at least for the last several decades (back in 1987 I was told I was insane to go to graduate school because unemployment would be my destiny). But 2008 and 2009 have been especially dire. What this means and whether the state will last are uncertain. Most of us are concerned about what the future of advanced humanities study will be: everything seems in peril. I'd like to make three observations, all of which take as a point of departure recent blog posts elsewhere.
(1) Describing the admitting of students into humanities PhD programs as "unethical" in no way advances the conversation. Unethical would be a PhD program tricking students into thinking that they are guaranteed a full time position with tenure and good pay at the end of the road. I have not encountered any would-be graduate students who are quite so easily duped. Those seeking to undertake doctoral study tend to pretty damn smart. They know the risks, and have been frequently reminded of them by those who mentored them as undergraduates, wrote their recommendations, by their incredulous parents and friends. Dean Dad recently wrote “we owe it to the next generation to steer them away from grad school whenever possible. The path is legible, but it doesn’t lead anywhere good.” In general I agree: most students should not go to graduate school, especially if they can find a course of life that will make them just as happy but will provide a more secure future. But I wouldn't presume to choose on behalf of a student. I know I did not appreciate it when my elders tried to do that for me. Read all of Dean's Dad rather paternalistic post, and tell me that he doesn't underestimate the intelligence of those younger than him.
(2) Michael Drout composed a piece partly about the job market by way of reflection upon tenure in the wake of the Amy Bishop murders (thanks, Steve, for calling it to my attention via FB). What I most agree with is Drout's observation that calls to reduce the number of PhDs "come in part from a desire to remove competition from people from humbler backgrounds who want a professorial job." These calls are silently calculated "to have the effect of making certain elites have an even greater advantage than they do now." In other words, I can't tell the difference between the oft-repeated demand that the number of PhD granting institutions be greatly reduced and good old fashioned elitism. Let's face it, when most people declare that there ought to be fewer doctoral programs what they mean is that outside of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Cornell, Brown, Princeton, Columbia no advanced humanities diplomas need be minted. Where I disagree with Drout, though, is his equation of working hundreds of hours (like his dad, an MD) being the equivalent of doing good work, that a dedication to working such manly hours is essential to the tenure process, that most academics are dutiful rather than talented and that this -- combined with some bad luck -- is why they don't get jobs. Please. Spoken with any graduate students or recent PhDs lately? And I mean spoken with, not spoken to.
(3) Recent PhDs don't get jobs because colleges and universities do not hire the full time teaching staffs they in fact require. The demand is there (read Marc Bousquet,* why don't you?), but our profession is being adjuncted to death. Tom Elrod makes this point forcefully in his critique of Drout's post, "Academia is not American Idol." Elrod writes:
The majority of higher ed teaching these days is adjunct teaching. There would, in fact, be enough full-time positions in this country for most Ph.D.s, if all the adjunct positions became full-time jobs with benefits. Most adjuncts are working full-time hours for part-time pay. If they become positions appropriate for people with careers, the huge job gap in academia would shrink ... There is not an oversupply of Ph.D.s as much as there is an undersupply of full-time jobs.The answer to the horrible market is right there, and it is a simple one: the postsecondary education labor system is broken. Administrators, many of whom are or have been faculty members, choose the cheapest way to staff courses rather than the best (paying someone $2K-$4K and no benefits on a per course basis is so much less costly than hiring someone into a position they might hold for decades, their salary rising -- rising slowly, but rising -- all the while, their health care and their life after the job a university responsibility). The winner in this system: the bottom line. The losers: students, graduate students, faculty, the future of advanced study in the United States.
*E.g. "What’s really happening is restructuring of the labor market from a “market in jobs” to a market in contingent appointments. Throughout the economy, we have substituted student and other temporary labor for faculty and other more secure workers. The name for this restructuring is casualization, the making-temporary (and cheap, and controllable) of work that used to be secure (and more expensive, and more difficult to manage). This restructuring has been in place since 1970, when roughly 3/4 of faculty were tenured or in the tenure stream."