Johns Hopkins Magazine - November 1994 Issue

Not a Bite. Not Even a Nibble

By Sue De Pasquale

Landing a job in academia is more difficult than ever for newly minted PhDs in the humanities. With 700 applicants for a single opening, even the best qualified candidates can spend several years on the job market. Could the current downturn become permanent?

Husband and wife Shaun Irlam and Julia Saville were both overjoyed when, in February 1993, they received job offers for tenure-track positions at two respected universities--despite the fact that the campuses on which they would be teaching are thousands of miles apart. Saville, a Stanford PhD, had been on the market for three years when she was offered an assistant professorship in English at the University of Houston. Irlam, a Hopkins PhD in humanities, joined SUNY Buffalo as an assistant professor of comparative literature after two years of job hunting. During that time, two potential offers dried up when funding for the positions fell through at the last minute.

"Although we knew it was very likely that we'd end up in different parts of the country," says Irlam, "we were hoping that we would get lucky. That one of us would end up in Buffalo, the other in Boston--a more manageable commute than what we have now." Instead, time and money constraints limit the couple to just one weekend together each month.

Nevertheless, says Irlam, "we're truly among the blessed to have both gotten tenure-track positions, both at respectable places, and after relatively short periods on the market."

One need only look at the grim job market for humanities graduates to see why Irlam and Saville feel fortunate. Since 1988-89, the number of jobs listed each year for PhDs in English has plunged by 48 percent, from 2,025 to 1,054, according to the Modern Language Association (MLA). In the foreign languages, job listings dropped by 43 percent, from 1,824 to 1,037.

"As far as we can tell, this is worse than it has ever been," says MLA president Patricia Meyer Spacks, who heads the English department at the University of Virginia. The number of modern language positions advertised in 1993-94 is lower even than the previous downturn, which occurred in 1983-84. (While PhD graduates in mathematics and the sciences have also seen their prospects dwindle, the dismal scenario in the humanities is more quantifiable, since the MLA has listed all jobs in English and the modern foreign languages since 1975. The market for scientists is more diverse.)

Of the 10 graduate students in English at Hopkins who were on the market last spring, six have been placed: four in tenure-track positions, the other two in temporary "term" assignments with no promise of tenure. "It's as bad as it's ever been," says English professor and placement officer Walter Benn Michaels. "We're looking forward to a very lean market." He notes, moreover, that the market has been contracting for the last 25 years. "People have the tendency to think that this was once an incredibly easy process." Not since the boom years of the 1960s, he says. "The 'happy past' that everyone keeps referring to was 25 years ago."

Hopkins graduate student Neill Matheson will go on the MLA job-hunting circuit for the fourth year in a row this fall. "The jobs I apply for are getting 800 applications," says Matheson, whose specialty is 19th-century American literature. "I don't know how you manage to get your name picked out from such a huge crowd."

English PhD Tim Dean found that the application process can indeed be a matter of serendipity. During his second year job hunting in 1993-94, Dean got three job offers, one of which was from Wayne State University in Detroit. He had applied for the same position the previous year but hadn't even gotten an initial interview. When he mentioned this fact to Wayne State's department chair, the professor seemed surprised and asked, "How could we have overlooked you?" Dean says he knows how. "His department had had two weeks to screen over 700 applications. These are people who are teaching courses and trying to do their own research--they're not professional hirers. The departments' ability to screen effectively is compromised by the sheer numbers." Dean ultimately accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Washington.

Those students at Hopkins and across the country who failed to find jobs last year or the year before will get carried over, further bloating an ever-increasing pool of candidates. For even as job opportunities are shrinking, the number of students applying to graduate school in the humanities continues to increase. Nationwide, the number of PhDs granted in English increased by 26 percent between 1987-88 and 1991-92, according to the MLA; the number granted in foreign languages increased by 28 percent.

Despite the discouraging prospects for employment, students are more eager than ever to study English at Hopkins, says Jerome Christensen, who oversees the department's graduate admissions. "The elite graduate departments are relatively immune to applications decline," he says. "We've got an outstanding group of students coming in."

Many of today's new PhDs started graduate school in the mid-'80s, at a time when demographers and educators were predicting a shortage of professors throughout the '90s. Neill Matheson entered Hopkins on a three-year Mellon Fellowship that was conceived specifically to help address this predicted shortfall. Ironically, the year Matheson first entered the job market, 1991-92, turned out to be among the worst years ever for job prospects.

What went wrong? Demographers were right in predicting that undergraduate enrollments would swell throughout the '90s. "There is no lack of students," particularly in the humanities, notes Phyllis Franklin, editor of the MLA's Profession 93. "What we are seeing is renewed interest among undergraduates in languages, writing, and literature." Since 1981, she says, the number of BAs granted in English has increased by 45 percent.

However, forecasters had no way to anticipate two other, very important, factors: the federally required end of mandatory retirement among faculty, plus an economic recession that has put enormous pressure on U.S. colleges and universities to reduce their salary budgets.

"Everybody had the fantasy, or what turned out to be the fantasy, that the predicted retirements of the '90s would open up new jobs," says the English department's Michaels. Instead, many professors continued teaching well into their 70s, while at the same time schools have cut back on new faculty hires. According to data gathered by the American Council on Education (ACE), 25 percent of colleges and universities took steps to reduce their faculty size in 1992-93. Of those schools trying to cut staff, 77 percent did not fill vacant positions, and 50 percent offered early retirement. The story was much the same in 1991-92, when 26 percent of public and 17 percent of private four-year schools reduced faculty.

In many cases, the squeeze has been caused by a reduction in government funding. Since 1991, for instance, the California Legislature cut the budget of the University of California at Berkeley by $70 million, or 18.8 percent. Nationwide, total state appropriations for higher education dropped by about 1 percent in 1991 and again in 1992, according to an annual study by the Center for Higher Education at Illinois State University; that's the first two-year drop in funding since the center began the study in 1958.

"Departments just haven't grown in a way that keeps pace with the increase in enrollments," says Stephen Knapp, Hopkins's new dean of Arts & Sciences, who until recently was director of graduate studies in English at Berkeley. During the mid-'70s, he says, Berkeley's English department numbered 80 faculty members, 1,000 undergraduate majors, and 250 graduate students. Today, while the student enrollment has remained constant, the number of faculty has dipped below 60. Berkeley has made do by increasing the size of its classes. Other universities have responded by hiring part-time instructors and non-tenure-track full-time instructors. These adjunct teachers are generally underpaid and receive no fringe benefits such as health care.

Some fear that these stopgap measures could become permanent. "As universities learn to live with larger class sizes, there won't be any incentive to restore the former student/faculty ratios," says Knapp. And, if well-qualified PhDs are available to teach single courses for $2,000--why create a position at a salary of $40,000 plus benefits for a similar person to teach six courses?

The economic downturn is what sets apart this current job shortage from the one that hit in the late-'70s to early- '80s, when undergraduate enrollments shrank. "Then, most postsecondary institutions did not need new humanities faculty members, while today new faculty members are needed, but they can't be hired because of economic constraints," notes the Summer 1993 issue of the MLA Newsletter.

Dovetailing with the downsizing trend at colleges and universities has come an ideological shift within the humanities that has been driven, at least in part, by changing demographics. As women and minorities have increased their influence in American society, the literary canon has been expanding to include a much more diverse offering of works, writers, and approaches. As a result, universities are hustling to hire qualified female and minority candidates, and to increase their course offerings in such areas as gay studies, feminist criticism, film studies, African studies, and Hispanic studies, many of which fall under the rubric of cultural studies.

"If you looked at the MLA job listing 10 years ago, you would have found few, if any, jobs in African American literature," says Michaels. "If you looked now, you'd find at least 30 to 50 positions that ask for candidates who concentrated in African American literature, or have some experience in that area."

Students who've failed to keep up with these shifting intellectual currents can find themselves with few job options. For instance, says Christensen, "you might do a traditional dissertation on the metaphor of the heart in Spenser's The Faerie Queene," when instead universities are looking for someone who's done "a French feminist analysis."

In his dissertation, Neill Matheson has taken a psychoanalytical approach in critiquing works by Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne--an approach that was much hotter a decade ago than it is today, he admits. "I'm not the kind of candidate that people are looking for anymore."

When colleges and universities can dig up the money to make a new hire, they want to get the most bang for their buck. Frequently, they look for a candidate who is strong in whatever period or genre it is they need to fill--19th-century American literature, for example--and who can teach courses in such specialty areas as gay or feminist studies.

"In this kind of market, there is a real premium on versatility," says Christensen. Partly in response to that reality, the Hopkins English department this year launched a major overhaul of its graduate program. Until now, graduate students in English were guaranteed financial support--in the form of teaching assistant stipends and dissertation fellowships--for four years. Students generally took specialized coursework their first two years in preparation for their oral exams, which came in the middle of the third year. Since many students experienced a "mental hangover" after completing their orals, says Christensen, the second semester of the third year was generally not a productive one. Students spent their fourth year writing their dissertations and interviewing for jobs. Candidates generally don't schedule a defense date for their dissertation until they have a job offer; this allows them to get continued support as teaching assistants, and explains how a student can be "on the market" for two or three years, yet still be enrolled as a graduate student.

Under the new plan, the program has been extended from four years to five. "We discovered that as the market gets worse, people are staying longer and we end up supporting them anyway," Christensen explains. In addition, oral exams have been abolished. Instead, students will present their work in a series of seminars at the end of their third year. Christensen describes the seminars as a "speed bump." Previously, students automatically received a dissertation fellowship their fourth year; now, candidates will have to get the approval of a departmental committee before moving ahead to writing their dissertation.

The time freed up from preparing for oral exams, he says, will give students the chance to take more survey courses on a wider variety of topics. "This way they can use the third year as a time to explore or to specialize. And we want to encourage them to take courses they wouldn't ordinarily take--art history, for instance. This is market-driven," he says. "Universities want people who can do two or three different things. I know I'm planning to be more versatile, even though I've got tenure."

The English department has also hired a specialist in African American literature--Robert Reid-Pharr, from Yale University. "Until now, we haven't been in a position to respond to the need for specialists in African American literature," says Michaels. Now that Reid-Pharr is on board, Michaels expects to see at least one student specialize in that area each year.

Several humanities departments at Hopkins have responded to the lean market by reducing their graduate enrollments. "We've limited our intake to no more than three to four new students each year," says French professor Stephen Nichols. "That means we'll be putting out about three [PhDs] each year," he says, roughly half the number of a decade ago. The English department plans to limit incoming classes to six to eight students.

"Our own experience at the Humanities Center has not been bad," says center director Neil Hertz. Of the four humanities students on the market last spring, one accepted a postdoctoral position, another landed a tenure-track position at the University of Indiana, and the other two were offered assistant professorships in English at Berkeley--both highly sought-after tenure-track positions. However, two out of the center's five 1992-93 graduates still don't have permanent positions. "We wouldn't want to enlarge our program," says Hertz, noting that the center will continue to bring in three or four new students each year.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Hopkins's reputation as a top-ranked research institution can work against some graduates who've applied for positions at lesser-known state schools and liberal arts colleges. "There's a class system involved," says Christensen. Those doing the hiring at such schools assume that Hopkins graduates simply wouldn't be interested, or that they'd concentrate on research at the expense of teaching, or be eager to move on to a more prestigious school at the first opportunity. That mindset is gradually changing, Christensen says, as it becomes increasingly clear that today's top graduates are happy to get any tenure-track position, no matter where it is.

"Prospective employers need to look beyond the so-called Hopkins image--the perception that people coming out of Hopkins are just super theorists, a perception that's widely wrong," says Nichols. Hopkins grads do, in fact, get teaching experience: most departments require their PhD candidates to teach intro level courses to undergraduates, and some graduate students design and teach advanced courses through the Distinguished Teaching Fellowship program. Nichols says that Hopkins PhDs have been widening their circle of prospective employers and vice versa. "More liberal arts colleges without graduate programs have been willing to look at Hopkins PhDs, and more Hopkins PhDs have been getting jobs in them. It's been a nice match," he says. "[Hopkins grads] are realizing that a small liberal arts college is a nice place to teach without impeding one's research."

Will the job prospects for humanities PhDs ever improve? Or will graduate departments across the country be forced to restructure themselves to cope with a permanent downturn?

"No one knows what's going to happen at this point," says Arts & Sciences dean Knapp. "Now that the economy has begun to improve, there may be some relief for universities, but that's uncertain," he says. In California, for example, the recent "Three Strikes, You're Out" initiative has meant that state funds that would have gone to higher education will now be used to build more prisons. "Just as you think you're going to emerge, you get hit by something else," Knapp says.

Nichols expects to see some improvement within a year or two. He points to some large university systems that, in response to the budget crisis of the early 1990s, have offered widespread early retirement buyouts. "There's bound to be some translation of that into increased jobs," he says. Nichols cautions against unrealistic expectations, however. "We certainly never expected the boom that the post-Sputnik era opened up. That was incredible," he says. "It was also not historical. The '60s were an anomaly. Never again in our lifetime will we see that huge swell that came along during the '60s."

Michaels adds that the job forecast for new PhDs may not be as bad as it looks on the face of it. While the overall number of advertised positions has dropped, entry-level positions have declined less than have those at other ranks.

Still, there are those who say that some soul-searching is in order. "One of the most difficult questions the profession will have to face is whether the now prevalent model of the research-oriented career can (or even should) be sustained," said Rutgers English professor George Levine at the 1992 MLA conference. The research model, Levine charges, "diminishes teaching for the best-qualified scholars and critics, builds a cadre of teaching assistants and part-time lecturers to teach most undergraduate students, and fosters graduate programs with students who, we know, will never be employed."

At Hopkins, most believe that research will continue to be emphasized at the most elite colleges and universities. However, some see the balance at other schools shifting toward teaching. That shouldn't be a disconcerting prospect, says Neil Hertz. "The primary role of graduate departments should be producing interesting teachers," says the humanities professor. "It doesn't seem to me that our students should be depressed to end up in departments that are less oriented toward research."

Now beginning his 10th year at Hopkins, Neill Matheson is pushing to complete his dissertation this fall, after which he'll take one final stab at finding a job. "I'm hoping that having my thesis finished will make a decisive difference," he says, "but I'm not counting on getting a job this year. In fact, it's quite likely that I won't." He says his father, a retired professor of studio art at the University of Massachusetts, is more optimistic. "He's convinced himself that when I finish my degree, things will change for me, that there'll be more opportunities."

Matheson sighs. "It's hard not to be depressed by the situation I'm in now. What I'm focusing on is just getting my dissertation finished. That will either unlock some doors, or it will get me out of graduate school, so that I can think about doing something else." He pauses. "The problem is, a PhD in English doesn't qualify you for a lot."

Out in Seattle, Tim Dean says he can't help but feel happy about the package he worked out with the University of Washington. Dean, whose critique of gay studies focused on the works of 20th-century American poet Hart Crane, had already written one book before starting graduate school, and has since authored more than six journal articles. He found himself to be something of a hot commodity his second time around on the job market. While most new hires at the University of Washington are eligible for tenure after six years, Dean will be put up after just three. He has a light teaching load of just one or two courses per quarter, leaving plenty of time for research, for which he's been guaranteed a summer budget. What's more, the university found a teaching position for his partner, Jason Friedman.

From Houston, where they've managed to spend the summer together, Julia Saville and Shaun Irlam look back on their first full year as faculty members, and say that it was a time of tremendous professional fulfillment--and personal sacrifice. Living apart from one another has its price. Though their friends and families have been supportive, they say their respective faculty colleagues--most of them older, tenured, and ensconced with their spouses--have been "extremely oblivious" to the strain the long-distance arrangement engenders. "I had one colleague say, 'You should be enjoying the independence of developing your own academic persona," says Irlam, with a hollow laugh.

The expense of monthly airfare, maintaining two separate apartments, and frequent long-distance phone calls is steep. "We estimate that the cost of the whole set-up just about cancels one of our salaries," he says.

So why continue on this way? "We feel this is the best way of achieving our goal of being together [eventually] as two professionals," says Saville. "If I were to do the traditional thing and say, 'I'll go with my husband,' that would doom me. Once you've developed a gap in your CV, people feel that you're not committed to your profession." Their strategy, the couple says, is to make themselves indispensable to their respective universities, so that sometime in the not-too-distant future, they'll have the bargaining power to convince one or the other of their schools to make a spousal hire.

"We plan to publish furiously, to make ourselves as desirable as we can, as invaluable to our departments as we can, so that they'll dread the thought of one of us picking up and going," says Saville.

Meanwhile, they'll continue living with a paucity of time together. For now, at least, the fulfillment they derive from their work makes the personal sacrifice worth it. "I love what I do," says Saville. "The stimulation of teaching, the pleasure of seeing a class of students go through and go further, the challenge of publishing--I don't think there's a better job."

Sue De Pasquale is the magazine's editor.

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