A Forecast of the Job Market in English

December 15, 2000

It would be an overstatement to say the job market for faculty members in English is booming, but scholars have reason to be mildly optimistic: New statistics show the number of faculty openings is up again this fall, for the third year in a row.

Job openings in English rose by 6 percent this year -- to 954 in 2000 from 899 in 1999 -- according to the Modern Language Association, which holds its annual conference in Washington, December 27-30. Since 1997, the total number of positions in the field has risen by more than 37 percent.

For recently minted Ph.D.'s the most important barometer of the job market is the number of tenure-track openings at the assistant-professor level. The news here is somewhat mixed. The number of assistant-professor jobs inched up from 518 last year to 528 this year. However, in the total pool of openings, the proportion of entry-level jobs on the tenure track actually dipped 3 percent.

"I'm not ready to throw my hat in the air yet," says Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the M.L.A. She notes that there were still nearly twice as many new Ph.D.'s produced last year -- 1,024 -- as there are new entry-level, tenure-track jobs -- 528. And, she says, that's not even considering the backlog of Ph.D.'s who didn't land jobs in previous years.

"Either the number of tenure-track, assistant-professor positions will have to increase significantly or the number of degrees granted will have to decrease a lot more in order to really make for better employment opportunities," she says.

While many professors in the field predict that tenure-track openings will continue to increase moderately over the next few years -- in part because of faculty retirements -- they caution that it's important for graduate programs in English to keep tight controls over admissions. "Faculty retirements open up some positions, but they don't necessarily increase the number of tenured faculty," says Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Many professors also say they are concerned about universities' increasing reliance on part-time and temporary faculty members. "The great worry," says Michael Levenson, head of the English department at the University of Virginia, "is adjunctification, which could keep students from getting the proper tenure-track jobs they clearly deserve." The fear, Mr. Nelson adds, is that universities will stay hooked on cheap labor as budgets tighten, distance education expands, and student enrollment increases in the coming years.

Despite the competitive market, some new Ph.D.'s are landing tenure-track appointments their first year out of graduate school. Heather Dubrow, a professor of English and director of graduate job placement at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says that in 1999, more than half of her department's new Ph.D.'s got tenure-track jobs. At the University of Michigan, 10 of its 17 Ph.D.'s on the market in 1999-2000 found tenure-track jobs. The Graduate Center at the City University of New York had 19 Ph.D.'s on the market in 1999, 14 found academic jobs, 11 on the tenure track. And at Virginia, seven of its English department's 12 Ph.D. recipients in 1999 found full-time work in academe, though only five of them on the tenure track.

"I would say [our job placement is] pretty decent given how bad the market is," says Ms. Dubrow of Wisconsin. "But we can never forget that 'pretty decent' leaves some people out in the cold."

Large numbers of Ph.D.'s wind up taking adjunct or temporary jobs for a couple of years, although according to a report on the long-term job prospects of Ph.D.'s, most who stick with their search for a tenure-track position will eventually land one.

There's been a lot of talk in the field about providing temporary employment for Ph.D.'s who've been left out in the cold, through the creation of postdoctoral teaching fellowships. Data from the M.L.A.'s most recent job listings suggest that some departments are doing just that. The number of openings for doctoral or postdoctoral fellowships in the association's Job Information List is still relatively small -- 27 -- but has more than tripled since last year when only eight such fellowships were listed.

In addition, a growing number of English departments -- including those at Urbana-Champaign and at the University of California at Davis -- have postdoctoral programs limited to their own graduates, giving their new Ph.D.'s a kind of safety net so they can finish up publications and become better prepared for the job market.

Mr. Nelson favors postdocs in the humanities -- in fact, he pushed his department into starting its postdoctoral program -- because it helps to give many bright Ph.D.'s a better entree into the profession. But he warns that the good intentions of departments could backfire if the practice becomes institutionalized, as it has in the sciences. Already his university is "addicted to our postdoc program, which is providing them with instruction by Ph.D.'s at a graduate-student rate of pay. So the university thinks, 'Wow, isn't this nice? We can now hire Ph.D.'s in the English department for $4,000 a course.'"

The traditionally large subfields of English -- including British literature, American literature, and rhetoric and composition -- continue to have the most job openings, as well as the most job seekers, but newer subfields like ethnic literature and world literature are growing.

Larry Scanlon, acting chairman of the English department at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, says his department hopes to expand in the areas of world and American ethnic literature. This year his department plans to hire one, and possibly even two, specialists at the junior level in world literature and/or American ethnic literature. Rutgers also plans to hire a junior 19th-century Americanist.

Many other departments -- including the ones at Urbana-Champaign, Madison, and Davis -- also say they are hiring. Illinois plans to recruit three new scholars, in medieval literature, Renaissance literature, and modern British literature. Wisconsin will hire a senior Americanist. U.C.-Davis plans to make two junior hires -- in medieval literature and in postcolonial literature and theory -- as well as a senior hire in composition theory and literacy theory. Still, most departments aren't expanding, say Professors Scanlon and Nelson, but struggling to keep up.

Departments in California universities may be the exception to that rule, say experts in the field. Linda Morris, head of the English department at Davis, predicts that, for the foreseeable future, her department will have to hire three new faculty members a year in order to keep up with the enrollment boom in her state.

The job market certainly isn't as bleak as it was five years ago. "The thing that makes me cautiously optimistic is that most of the demographic kind of objective criteria are in our favor," Mr. Scanlon says. "I mean every place I know about is understaffed. It's not like English departments have a lot of fat that institutions can continue to cut. The tenure-line faculty as a group continue to age, and because of the good economy, many of the richest institutions made a ton of money in their endowments over the last 15 years, and some of them may be looking around to spend it."

As for the job market in foreign languages, only minimal information was available from the M.L.A. The total number of openings for foreign-language Ph.D.'s dipped by less than 1 percent this year, Ms. Franklin says, to 666 jobs from 672 in 1999. However, the proportion of entry-level positions in the jobs pool rose to 66 percent this year from 51 percent in 1999.