A Terrible Time for New Ph.D.s

presidential_drgowns.jpg“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.


High dropout rates? Fewer than half of entering graduate students in the humanities make it all the way to their doctoral hooding ceremonies (the rate is slightly higher for doctoral students overall), an unsurprisingly low fraction, since, according to the National Science Foundation’s latest Survey of Earned Doctorates (covering the year 2009), the median time from first-time enrollment in a humanities graduate program to depositing one’s completed dissertation into the ProQuest electronic storage system is 9.5 years. By this time, according to the SED, half of all Ph.D. recipients in the humanities are over age 35, except that they’ve foregone many of the things that other 35-year-olds already in mid-career take for granted: solid paychecks, starting a family, buying a house.

Questionable recruiting? Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail sent to me by William Pannapacker, associate professor of English at Hope College in Michigan and author, under the pen-name Thomas H. Benton, of such articles as “Graduate School in the Humanities? Just Don’t Go” and “Big Lie About the Life of the Mind” for the Chronicle of Higher Education: “[T]here are some programs that are designed to secure grants, teaching assistance, appealing seminars for professors to teach, and to raise the standing of the university. One way to identify them is to ask whether you would ever consider, for one moment, hiring someone produced by that department. The students at such places have no clue, until they look for a job and begin paying off their loans.”

How about “gainful employment”? There’s plenty of that—in a sense. According to a July 2010 report from the Council of Graduate Schools analyzing SED data, 64 percent of recipients of brand-new doctorates in the humanities (nearly 5,000 of them in 2009) said they had definite commitments for jobs or postdoctoral study, with 86 percent of them saying those commitments were for positions in academia. The problem? Nearly all those job offers were for part-time, no-benefits work as adjunct professors where the pay rate can be as little as $2,000 per semester-long course, the “peanuts” that the underemployed anthropology Ph.D. complained about in her letter to Salon.

For nearly four decades colleges and universities have been quietly but determinedly shifting their faculty hiring off the tenure track, even as overall student enrollment has ballooned. In 1975, according to a 2009 AAUP study, some 57 percent of all university faculty either had tenure or were on the tenure track. Now only 31 percent of them fall into that category, while 50 percent of university faculty are part-time adjuncts earning next to nothing. The remaining 19 percent occupy a range of untenured full-time slots, from multi-year contract positions that can pay fairly well to “visiting professor,” a marginally compensated temp job that involves moving from campus to campus filling in for professors on sabbatical. That long-term trend, coupled with tightened faculty hiring budgets during the current recession (thanks to reduced state funding for public colleges and reduced-value endowments for their private counterparts), and the reluctance of many older tenured professors to retire given the sorry state of their pension funds, has meant that hundreds of new and not-so-new Ph.D.-holders pouring out of graduate schools apply for every available college teaching slot in their field that promises anything resembling a middle-class salary. As Catherine Simpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University, told the New York Times in 2009, unemployed Ph.D.’s looking for jobs are stacked up “like planes hovering over La Guardia.”

phd_doctoral_gowns.jpgFinally, let’s turn to crushing student-loan debt, the bulls-eye of the criticism leveled at career colleges. While most Ph.D. programs in the humanities offer free tuition and sometimes living stipends to their students—although usually for only a few years and almost always at a price to be paid in time-consuming, dissertation delaying graduate-assistant teaching and research—the National Science Foundation’s 2009 survey indicates that nearly half of all humanities Ph.D.’s incurred education debt in order to supplement their meager stipends and teaching-assistant salaries. Only Ph.D.’s in the social sciences, where fewer than half graduated debt-free, fared worse in terms of incurring student loans. By contrast, only one-third of doctorate-holders in the life sciences and one-fourth of doctorate-holders in engineering and the physical sciences, where funding and employment prospects are better, were in debt at graduation.) Furthermore, nearly half of the humanities Ph.D.’s who did borrow—about one-fourth of all doctorate-holders in the humanities–incurred loans totaling $30,000 or more: “high debt,” in the lingo of the U.S. Education Department. News stories about for-profit college graduates struggling to pay off $30,000 worth of student loans on a $29,000-a-year dental assistant’s starting salary have led to proposed rules from the Obama administration that would strictly limit the amounts that many students at such institutions could borrow. The equally dismal plight of the Ph.D.-holder struggling to pay off $30,000 worth of student loans on a $28,000-a-year visiting professor’s salary—a figure not-unheard-of in the Dickensian world of sub-tenure-track academia—merits no calls for regulation at all. In an October 2010 blog entry for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found 5,057 holders of doctorates and similar professional degrees working as janitors. And why not? Janitors average about $25,000 a year in steady paychecks, which is more than your typical adjunct professor manages to earn from exhausting herself cobbling together marginal contract teaching gigs on multiple campuses.

Not surprisingly, there is now an entire Internet world of blogs and Tumblr posts where unemployed and underemployed holders of doctorates indulge in the second of the five stages of grief—anger—over their lousy-to-nonexistent academic job prospects. The blogs bear such titles as On the Fence (where a poster titles her entry “A Broken System”), 100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School, and Worst Professor Ever, which displays photographs of its anonymous ex-prof author burning her Ph.D. degree. Widely circulating on the grad-student electronic grapevine is an equally anonymous document titled “because: a manifesto” that surfaced on the web in early January, right after the MLA and AHA conventions. It consists of a list of reasons why its author, who claims “three advanced degrees,” is leaving academia: The manifesto featured a riveting blend of financial woes, professional setbacks, and self-pity: “Because I am tired of being made to feel like a failure because I have been failed by a failed system.” “Because I am not nurtured, encouraged, or valued in this system.” “Because I am enduring personal, financial, and professional hardships to no perceivable purpose.”

A few professors have gone public to agree with the graduate students they once mentored. Last August Monica J. Harris, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, announced in Inside Higher Ed that she would no longer accept new Ph.D. students as research assistants in her laboratory because she could not in good conscience continue to feed their expectations of finding decent academic employment on graduation. Declaring that the current academic job market “bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a Ponzi scheme,” Harris wrote: “It is in most faculty members’ and departments’ best interests to recruit a lot of graduate students. Churning out Ph.D.s is one of the major metrics of departmental ‘success.’ Departments need graduate students to teach their classes, and faculty members need them to run their labs. Yet, as in any social trap, when everybody acts in their self-interest, a negative collective outcome ensues.”

After a long article titled “The Disposable Academic” appeared in The Economist on Dec. 16 blasting Ph.D. programs as a “waste of time” for producing an “oversupply” of smart people with essentially useless degrees, at least one university, Yale, announced that it would start posting on its website the job placements of Ph.D. graduates in its humanities programs. Yale’s move toward transparency resembles similar lists published by the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Northwestern, and the University of Michigan, among other institutions. All the placement lists seem designed to combat charges that universities fudge or keep secret their job records so as not to discourage potential applicants to programs, such as English, that need warm bodies to teach composition for next to nothing to hundreds of writing-impaired freshmen. Yet even this step in the right direction is hedged by some faculty members’ and administrators’ seeming indulgence in another, and earlier, stage of grief: denial.

Let’s look at the website of one Ph.D. program in English, at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center in Manhattan. The website announces that CUNY’s English Department accepts 30-35 new graduate students each year. Another page outlines a brisk timetable in which entering students right out of college not only complete 60 credits’ worth of graduate-level courses but master two foreign languages and finish their doctoral dissertations within five years of enrollment (in contrast to the average 9.5 years that the SED reports for all humanities programs), but also present papers at scholarly conferences and submit articles to scholarly journals.

That’s quite a schedule. It might be doable—until you turn to the “financial aid” page of the website. There you learn that some doctoral students in the English program—CUNY doesn’t say how many—will qualify for an Enhanced Chancellor’s Fellowship that means free tuition plus an $18,000 stipend for five years, while the rest will have to eke out more straitened livings as adjuncts at the various CUNY undergraduate campuses in order to qualify for free tuition. Not that the Enhanced Chancellor’s Fellows on the upper tier of this two-tier hierarchy won’t have to work, too; they’re expected to put in hours as researchers during their first year and teach after that. As all graduate students know, teaching is labor-intensive, and every hour spent prepping for class or grading misspelled freshman composition papers is an hour taken away from getting anything done on one’s own academic projects. There is also the question of how far $18,000 a year will go in New York City unless you can bunk with your investment-banker parents. CUNY does not say how many Ph.D.’s in English it graduates annually.

Now let’s turn to the CUNY job-placement page for its English doctorate-holders. That page lists forty-two tenure-track jobs found by graduates of the doctoral program during the years 2005-2009, some at community colleges but many others at four-year institutions of varying reputations. That’s 10.5 jobs per year. CUNY also lists the names of 20 of the students in its English doctoral who found full-time jobs during the 2008-2009 academic year. Only eight of those were tenure-track jobs at four-year institutions. The placement page adds this proviso: “Assessing placement rates is difficult, since the general pattern for our graduates seems to be (often) continuing part-time teaching for some time after graduation, moving then into full-time but non-tenure-track positions, and then finding tenure-track work only two or three or four years post-graduation.”

In other words, those 30 or so brand-new doctoral students in English at CUNY this year happily sitting through such courses as “Theorizing Intersectionality” and “Insecure: The Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism” (those are actual listings for the Spring 2011 semester) will have to test their close-reading and math skills in order to figure out that very few of will ever obtain the decently paying teaching positions for which they are currently training, and then only after many years in the underemployed trenches. (Mario DiGangi, chairman of the CUNY Graduate Center’s doctoral program in English, did not respond to my repeated efforts to reach him by telephone and e-mail.) Still, the students keep applying to graduate programs in the humanities, slogging through years and years of coursework, dissertation-writing, and curriculum vitae-circulating–and then, maybe exploding at their statistically inevitable dismal fate. Joshua A. Tucker, an associate professor of politics at New York University, writing in a Jan. 31 riposte to the Economist article, observed that during this very academic year when job prospects Ph.D.-holders could not be more desperate, “hundreds” of young people had submitted applications for the 20-25 slots in the Fall 2011 Ph.D. class in his department. Tucker argued that academia is a “meritocracy” like major-league baseball, in which there are few winners and many losers, so it makes sense to give plenty of doctoral candidates a chance to prove themselves, despite the certain knowledge that most of them will wash out. “Do we really owe every 22-year-old who is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program?,” Tucker asked.

Tucker had a point, but his argument would make more sense if the actors on both sides of the doctoral divide—the professors and administrators who lure graduate students into their programs and the starry-eyed students themselves—were more honest about the realities of the world beyond graduate school these days: the slim chances for success, the very modest rewards for all but a handful of the winners, the fact that teaching and researching at a university aren’t the only respectable careers for Ph.D.-holders. James Mulvey of Victoria, B.C., who walked away from a generously funded offer to enter a doctoral program in English at McGill University after earning his master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, maintains a blog, Selloutyoursoul.com, that counsels unemployed holders of doctorates on how to pick the shattered pieces of their lives and to realize that switching to a career that actually affords them a middle-class income is not a mark of failure. Many of his readers find his blog, he says, when they type “Ph.D. in English Useless Destroyed My Life” into Google.

“I get twelve to fifteen thousand hits a month and a lot of e-mails,” Mulvey said in a telephone interview. “I imagine their anxiety. They’re confused about what they should do next. People considering graduate school with their B.A.’s—the graduate schools don’t tell them what it’s really like. They don’t tell them what it costs and what they’ll have to endure. They don’t realize that it’s a gamble. They think it’s a safe bet. It’s traumatic for them when they find out what it’s really like—that only half of new Ph.D.’s get tenure-track jobs and a lot of people maybe never make it. That’s a pretty low success rate for giving up ten years of your life.”

After Mulvey turned down the doctoral program at McGill, he set up a free-lance landscaping business in Victoria: “Have Master’s Degree—Will Mow Your Lawn.” It didn’t pay a whole lot (he now works part-time for an advertising agency and part-time as a free-lance writer. “But it sure pays more than being a graduate student,” he said.

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