January is the cruelest month for job seekers in the humanities. Graduate students and recent Ph.D.’s gird their faith, pack their CVs, and journey to their annual conventions, which combine a high-powered conference with a high-intensity job fair. These pilgrim Ph.D.’s are everywhere visible, marked by sharp haircuts, sharply creased clothing, and worried looks.
The Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association usually hold their annual conventions on the same weekend, but this year was the second in a row that scheduling vagaries separated them by a week. I attended both again this year. I wanted to see what our two largest humanist gatherings had to say about training the graduate-student humans in their charge.
Both the MLA and the AHA have lately paid much more attention to the desperate odds their job-seekers face on the tenure- track market. The leaders of both organizations have worked separately and together on tracking career outcomes. For the past two years, both have devoted convention sessions to alternative careers. There’s been plenty of talk at both annual meetings about shortening time-to-degree.
But what about time from degree?
"I tell my students to expect three to four years on the market," said Ellen MacKay, a scholar of English at Indiana University at Bloomington, speaking at the MLA. Although her program has lately been reducing time-to-degree, she said, "we lose it on the other side of the defense" when new Ph.D.’s spend years looking for jobs.
Graduate students face plenty of obstacles already, but their overextended stay on the academic job market is another that deserves our attention.
It was the rapid tightening of that market in the 1970s that created "an ever-widening ‘threshold’ stage" for job-seekers, wrote the Princeton historian Anthony Grafton and Robert B. Townsend, then of the American Historical Association, in these pages in 2008. The familiar array of non-tenure-track postdocs, visiting positions, and adjunct jobs characterizes that threshold stage. Higher education, wrote Grafton and Townsend, "maintains a reserve army of talented academic labor—and only prolongs the misery for many of those who enlist. Every senior historian has known bright young doctoral students who failed to find anything except a series of dead-end appointments and finally left the profession in despair."
The problem is not limited to historians, of course. They just have the best data. For Ph.D.’s of all stripes, the "transition period" between degree and job has been lengthening over the past generation. Writing in 2012 for the AHA Today blog, Townsend tracked outcomes from the mid-1990s until after the great recession. He found a steady rise in the number of historians who had to wait at least three years for their first stable job.
Let’s look at the time-from-degree problem from the perspectives of both employee and employer.
It’s cruel to employees—new Ph.D.’s—in two major ways. First and most obvious, it abuses them in the present. One-year appointments afford no stability. At the end of every summer, young Ph.D.’s in visiting positions are forced to move—often at their own expense—to their new temporary homes. Then the job list comes out in the fall, and they have to start preparing to move again. In the 10 intervening months, they have to teach a full course load while also trying to get published so that they can compete for the tenure-track jobs that are the golden-apple prizes. It’s no kind of good life.
Second, the competition harms their futures. Newly minted Ph.D.’s enter the market innocent and gleaming, untarnished by the world of experience. The older they get, though, the more their experience may count against them. You would think that experience would be an asset in the employment scrum, but many employers get suspicious of applicants who have spent "too long" in temporary jobs. In effect, the willingness of young scholars to make personal sacrifices for too many years in a row raises a red flag. It’s a strange logic, but cautions about "stale Ph.D.’s" persist.
Graduate students and recent Ph.D.’s are well aware of those hazards. But employers don’t think enough about how this system hurts them, too.
First, it raises the average age of those candidates who are lucky enough to be hired into permanent jobs. That depresses the salaries that these Ph.D.’s earn later in their careers, and everyone else’s along with them. Meanwhile, as salaries fall, standards rise: "Longer apprenticeships," argued Grafton and Townsend, lengthen the CVs of new faculty members, which raises the expectations of future accomplishment—and the tenure bar—higher and higher.
Meanwhile, increased time-from-degree also delays major life choices: marriage, children. "Responsibilities for child and elder care," Grafton and Townsend observed, "often become heaviest just as a career would otherwise be taking off." And because women are more likely to take on such duties, this conjunction also widens the gender gap.
We have two tasks to break the pattern. First, we have to fix the system so that it doesn’t consign young workers to a corrosive cycle of one-year contracts. Simple, right? Well, no, so I’ll defer discussion of that problem to a later column.
Instead of thinking wishfully about how great it would be to have a better system, let’s focus on what can be done with the bad system that we have. We have to teach graduate students to view their career options differently, so they can avoid the "VAP trap" of migratory visiting professorships and adjunct work.
Our employment culture is entrenched and hard to move, but we have to start "nudging" it, said Adam R. Siepp, a historian at Texas A&M, at the AHA meeting. Nathan L. Vanderford, who teaches in the medical school at the University of Kentucky and was making a guest appearance at AHA, put it more explicitly when he said that we needed to give graduate students "permission to explore careers outside of academia."
Brian Reed, chair of English at the University of Washington, amplified such sentiments at MLA, a week later. "We have to inform students from Day One about the full spectrum of employment for humanities Ph.D.’s," he said. "Listen to your students. They have read the same reports" that we have about their prospects, yet they still choose to come to graduate school. "They want to accomplish something," he said, and it’s our job to help them.
If we make our graduate students conscious of their career alternatives, then they’ll have better choices than just to fall into the VAP trap. That’s one way to change things now.
Reform can be as simple as inviting Ph.D. alumni who work in non- or alternative-academic careers back to the campus to talk to graduate students. That’s so obvious it should be happening frequently already—but it isn’t. Simply put, every doctoral program in the country should be doing this. "The personal story is the most effective vehicle for change," said Jacqueline Jones, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and a former graduate director of her department there. She organizes panels on her campus featuring graduates pursuing nonacademic careers.
Jones also offered a personal story about her own daughter, who is finishing a Ph.D. in English and will soon face the academic job market. Her mother’s advice? "Maybe a year of adjuncting and that’s it."