Unfiltered Thoughts: The Academic Job Market

I can’t stop thinking about an article I read a couple days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Most History Ph.D.’s Have Jobs“* Maybe it’s just because I stand on the sidelines of My Better Half™’s (totally unsuccessful) job search (in another discipline) AND scores of close friends who *are* Ph.D.s in history looking for work unsucessfully, but the seemingly upbeat tone of the article strikes me as completely disassociative with what’s actually going on in the academic job market.

On the face of it, maybe this is good news, but even if that’s true, that belies part of the very problem: that the academic job market is so sh*tty as to merit a story that most people in a particular discipline have jobs. Note: not careers, not in their fields, not the highly desirable end goal that most History Ph.D.s have in mind, namely a tenure-track position in a college or university, just jobs. While there are corollaries outside academia that would merit such an article (“Most Journalists Have Jobs” immediately comes to mind), would we take note, for instance, at “Most Accountants Have Jobs” or “Most Dentists Have Jobs”?

But getting beyond the headline itself, as I read the article, I came across several points that were troubling. The article is about a study conducted by the American Historical Association that tracked the jobs of 2500 History Ph.D.s. One of the first points made is: “A Ph.D. in history can be more than just a gateway to a faculty appointment. Among the positions held by the group studied are: archivist, foreign-service officer, lawyer, nonprofit analyst, pastor, and schoolteacher.” So *after* achieving a Ph.D., many folks have had to go get additional credentials to gain employment (see: lawyer, pastor, schoolteacher) and we’re supposed to consider this good news?! They even cite the lead researcher for the study as saying “People are using their degrees” in these other careers. This wouldn’t be noteworthy, except that it has become so bad for folks in the humanities and social sciences that they are now in a position as to have to justify that such degrees actually get used. People who dedicate years of their lives diving into historical sources, analyzing, writing, and editing their narratives in order to graduate didn’t spend that much time accruing useless skills and aren’t going to toss aside their many skills and abilities that they gained in honing their craft.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the AHA study is that the latest data they have on any of these History Ph.D.s is 2009, which might not seem like all that long ago, but consider even this:

“Of the cohort who earned their Ph.D.’s from 1998 to 2001, about 14 percent worked in faculty jobs off the tenure track. That number grew to 25.6 percent among those who earned a Ph.D. between 2006 and 2009, a time period that included the after-effects of the recession.”

I would hazard a reasonably well informed guess that since 2009, things have gotten a lot worse for those on the academic market as the recession’s effects lag, especially, though by no means exclusively, in the humanities. Humanities degrees don’t tie directly into a career or line of work like nursing or business for example, so humanities folks find themselves in a defensive position lately. (Just google “humanities crisis,” if you’re curious). The study’s data show that 17.8 percent have landed a “non tenure-track faculty position” at either a 4 or 2 year institution. That’s pretty decent, actually (and even that 17.8% is decent should be telling). But what percentage of those 17.8% are adjunct-only? Can we at least get an over/under? While many colleges and universities have in recent years started offering non-tenure track full-time benefits eligible faculty positions, that doesn’t mean those positions are any more numerous than traditional tenure-track faculty jobs. I would bet (from personal experience) that even such “staff” positions have become highly coveted and unbelievably competitive, given the drawdown in the number of tenure-track faculty openings.

Finally, the article quotes from a former director of the American Historical Association, “Hopefully, the AHA can find out more about what choices people made that led them to take the jobs that they did.” I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here and presume that ‘choice’ was a poor, er, choice of words. Because, yes, people have agency to make choices about their lives, but I’m not sure ‘choice’ is an accurate description of what’s happening here. Unless you’re really characterizing the ‘choice’ between eking out an existence as an adjunct making a pittance per class with even more restrictions on income possibilities now due to the Affordable Care Act and the alternative: choosing a line of work instead that provides at least a reasonable amount of job security and/or benefits and/or income in order to pay bills. And here I just mean housing, transportation, food – I’m not even taking into consideration astronomical student loans and credit card debt incurred in pursuit of a History (or any other) Ph.D.

People are being forced into making the choices they do as a result of an imbalanced labor market. Unless you have an unbelievably patient partner and/or enormous cash reserves and/or a trust fund, you can’t really survive on an adjunct’s pay, where you may toil for years on end waiting in the wings for even the chance to compete for a teaching opening, whether that’s tenure-track or not. Case in point: My Better Half™ makes about $1500 a class. If we assume that both of his assigned classes make enrollment each semester (because now he’s limited to being offered only 2 classes per semester so they don’t have to provide him health benefits, and he’s not able to get any classes during summer sessions as those go only to full-time tenured faculty at his community college), he’s bringing in a maximum of $6000 a year as an adjunct. A year. And that’s zero benefits, zero job security, zero guarantees, zero job growth over time. Versus a choice to leave academia behind to make even a reasonable living (because it’s not like he can leverage his Ph.D. to make giant piles of cash working in his particular industry) that may be indirectly tied to his educational training, but which provides benefits, more predictability, less work-life imbalance, and the potential for growth & promotion over time in order to pay daycare, the mortgage, credit card bills, and even go out to eat once in a blue moon. Is it really a choice anymore? For the vast majority, I suspect the answer is no.

*The article is behind a paywall, so if you can’t access it, I guess that means that you may be one of the scores of history Ph.D.’s who has not landed a job and therefore has no access to a university’s library journal subscriptions. Ugh. Also, while the article title lacks an exclamation point at the end, you might as well mentally insert that yourself, because that’s how the article reads, although, again, that may be becuase I’m so cynical about the job market & just reading the article through that filter.