Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Academic job market sucks for thirtieth year; Ph.D.s remain unaware of other job markets

This piece of complete non-news in the New York Times caught my eye this morning:

With colleges and universities cutting back because of the recession, the job outlook for graduate students in language and literature is bleaker than ever before.

According to the Modern Language Association’s forecast of job listings, released Thursday, faculty positions will decline 37 percent, the biggest drop since the group began tracking its job listings 35 years ago.

The projection, based on a comparison between the number of jobs listed in October 2008 and October 2009, follows a 26 percent drop the previous year.

I read this, and wondered what bothered me about it. Obviously the news itself is bad, but not surprising: the academic job market has been a disaster area for a generation now, it’s not going to get better, and anyone who thinks it will is delusional. When I was in grad school in the late 1980s, the conventional wisdom was that we were hitting the job market at exactly the right time: the generation that was hired during the Great Expansion in the 1950s and 1960s would retire, and we’d cruise into those positions.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen, and the fact that many of those jobs were converted into short-term positions should have been a clear signal that The Market Had Changed.

But this is old news. What gets me about this piece, I realized, is how it’s framed. It equates “the job outlook for graduate students in language and literature” with “the academic job market:” there’s no sense that Ph.D.s might be capable of doing SOMETHING ELSE with all that knowledge. Demonstrably wrong, guys.

[To the tune of British Sea Power, “Something Wicked,” from the album The Decline Of British Sea Power (It’s a 1-star song, imo).]

2 Comments

  1. My question then is: how do I communicate to a skeptical undergraduate advisor that I want a PhD not because I want to work exclusively in academia, but because I believe it will prepare me for the work I want to do (and that a history PhD looks like parts of it could be great intellectual fun)? The great history professor I had this semester has been encouraging me to work toward a PhD, but sees it as preparation for academia, and nothing else. Any ideas on how to communicate a different goal?

  2. Play up the intellectual fun and challenge part, downplay the "I don't want to be an academic part," mainly because it could put you at a disadvantage for graduate funding, and mark you as Not That Serious. Graduate programs need to identify people who are safe bets, who are worth investing in; and someone who doesn't want to be an academic runs the risk of being classified as risky investments, like women 40 years ago, when advisors wondered, "Why should we spend all this time on her when she's just going to get married (or these days, become a diplomat / run an NGO / manage a theatre / write popular book)?"

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