Funding cuts, the rise of low-paid adjuncts and an oversupply of graduate students are increasingly combining to make life difficult for students pursuing doctoral degrees in the humanities.
In a recent piece for Slate, Rebecca Schuman described the years she spent working on her dissertation as a time-consuming mistake. Having hoped to land a secure job in academia, years of frustration instead led her to conclude, “the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct.”
She points to statistics showing that tenure-track positions in English receive as many as 150 applicants apiece. Though she acknowledged the rewards of intensive study in a field such as literature, she added bitingly, “There is one sort of reward you will never get: monetary compensation from a stable, non-penurious position at a decent university.”
In a broader sense, The Economist noted, “There is an oversupply of Ph.Ds. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of Ph.D. positions is unrelated to the number of job openings.”
The magazine points to some critical numbers: there were 100,000 doctoral degrees issued from American universities between 2005 and 2009, while just 16,000 new professorships were created during that same time frame. The Modern Language Association, for example, recently posted the largest decline in job listings in its history.
As a result, there are now some 1.5 million Ph.D. holders working as adjunct professors, unlikely to ever obtain a tenure-track position. This comes after spending an average of 9.3 years pursuing their doctorate.
“Most undergraduates don’t realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions in the humanities that offer job security, benefits and a livable salary,” William Pannapacker, a professor at Hope College said.
This oversupply, combined with cuts to humanities funding, is having dire effects. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article profiling the dramatic increase in Ph.D. holders relying on food stamps to get by. There are now some 33, 655 nationwide, up from 9,776 just three years ago, though that still comprises a very small proportion of Ph.D. holders nationwide.
“It’s gone beyond the joke of the impoverished grad student to becoming something really dire and urgent,” Karen Kelsky, a professor quoted in the article said. “When I was a tenured professor I had no idea that the Ph.D. was a path to food stamps.”
Here at Knox, Professor of English Rob Smith says to students considering going into academia, “The job market is very difficult and will become more so. So they need to be totally committed and focused if they go to graduate school with the goal of being a professor. It’s been bad for years and it will likely get worse.”
Smith also points to the rise of online courses as a direct threat to the number of full-time professors that will be needed in the future, saying, “Stanford and Harvard and MIT are not investing millions in MOOCS [Massive open online courses] so they can increase the number of teaching positions in the humanities.”
He speculates that the area of growth might be in grading papers and tests submitted for online courses, with lectures restricted to just a few superstars with high circulation.
“No one knows what the future will look like, but it will not be good as regards tenure track or tenure positions,” Smith said.
His view is in line with that of Michael Berube, president of the Modern Language Association, who said in the Chronicle, “When we look at the academic-job market for humanists, we can’t avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do É simply isn’t valued by very many people, on campus or off.”
None of this is to say that there are not still many who will defend the value of humanities graduate study.
Katie Roiphe responded back to Schuman’s Slate piece by saying that the obsession with job placement in academia is misguided, saying, “[Pursuing a Ph.D.] gives you a habit of intellectual isolation that is well, useful, bracing, that gives you strength and originality.”
Dogged pursuit of a research question over years for low pay is, in her eyes, excellent preparation for many of life’s challenges, whether in the job market or outside of it.
“It is also very difficult to squeeze out of life a few years where someone pays you only to read and write and think … does not seem like the worst idea in the world” she said.
James Mulholland, in another Chronicle piece, accepts Pannapacker’s main claim but argues that the response should be instead to model humanities more on the arts, where students are fully aware that their financial prospects are not great yet decide to attend regardless.
“Instead, we must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too,” he said