Pecking at Crumbs

Tim Bower

When Victoria Olsen ponders how her academic dreams went sour, she can't help but think of one of her field's classic titles: Great Expectations. From an early age, Olsen galloped through school with delight. By the late 1980s, she found herself studying 19th-century British culture and literature in a Stanford PhD program. At the time, job prospects for newly minted PhDs were bleak. But Olsen was buoyed by predictions that the picture was about to brighten. She would finish her studies in the early 1990s -- just as a baby boomlet was expected to swell undergraduate populations and a wave of faculty retirements would crest. In 1994, Olsen triumphantly delivered her dissertation, ready to move on to a tenure-track post.

But here the story took a Dickensian turn. Instead of job offers, Olsen's mailbox began to collect rejections for the few openings that came up in her field -- none of which offered the prospect of tenure or more than $10,000 a year. It took almost half a decade, but Olsen, now 35, eventually gave up on the idea of becoming a tenured literature professor. Instead, she launched a career as a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the online magazine Salon, and she co-edited a collection of essays, On the Market: Surviving the Academic Job Search (Riverhead Books, 1997). "I am learning to live with this plot twist," Olsen says.

A whole generation of PhD students is trying to come to terms with a similar story line. The dismal academic job market can be chalked up to a series of overlapping causes. The predicted flood of undergraduates arrived as expected in the early 1990s, but there was no hiring boom. One reason: federal law outlawed mandatory faculty retirement in 1990 and many senior professors decided to keep teaching. When positions did come open, they weren't filled with new tenure-track professors but rather with the growing legions of adjunct "para-faculty" that now make up at least 40 percent of all university-level teachers.

The crisis has become more visible in the last year. Some top academics are calling for a cap on the number of doctorates. Others have begun suggesting what once seemed unthinkable: that PhD students look to careers outside the academy. Meanwhile, an increasingly angry cadre of graduate students say universities must be pressured to stop relying on part-timers and start filling tenure-track jobs again. Stanford English and comparative literature professor Herbert Lindenberger, former president of the 30,000-member Modern Language Association, believes schools must at minimum be brutally honest with students about their futures. "At a time when America is so prosperous," he says sadly, "we're in a permanent recession in academia."

The numbers are sobering. In 1997 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), a record 42,705 PhDs were awarded in the United States. That represents a 10 percent increase since 1992 and more than double the 17,949 awarded in 1966. Over the decades, the boom in grad school enrollment has been driven by the desire to avoid the draft, high unemployment outside academia, the promise of well-funded Big Science and -- yes -- the pure love of learning.

But almost since that dramatic expansion began, the academic job market that was supposed to employ those PhDs in scholarly pursuits has not kept pace with the supply. A study issued last September by the National Research Council, for example, found that six years after graduation, only 62 percent of those with PhDs in the sciences held permanent jobs in 1995, compared to 89 percent in 1973. Many young scientists have been forced to take one postdoctoral position after another because of the shortage of full-time tenure-track work.

But the picture is far worse in the humanities, which have produced a staggering backlog of unemployables. In the field of history, for example, universities in the last five years have graduated more than three PhDs for every two junior-level positions advertised. This can mean waiting years before getting a foot on the first rung of the academic ladder. Just ask Shulamit Magnus, a Jewish studies scholar with a doctorate from Columbia. Despite a dazzling vita -- a published book, extensive teaching experience at Stanford and elsewhere -- it took her a decade to land a tenure-track position, at Ohio's Oberlin College. She had nearly given up looking in academia. "I applied to numerous positions every year and was profoundly demoralized," she says. "It was sheer desperation that kept me trying."

Not all young academics are as fortunate or as tenacious. The Modern Language Association, whose members include professors and students in English, foreign languages, comparative literature, linguistics and classics, polled nearly 2,200 graduate students who got their PhDs in the 1996-97 academic year. About 40 percent of foreign language and comparative literature grads landed full-time jobs within a year. For English, linguistics and classics PhDs, the figure came to about 33 percent. Those trying to remain in the academy often find themselves relegated to the ranks of "freeway fliers" -- part-time lecturers who cobble together single courses at different institutions and spend their days rushing from one to the next. That leaves little time for the research and publishing that might improve their permanent job prospects.

A Victorian scholar from City University of New York, Christina Boufis, 37, teaches an undergraduate course at UC-Berkeley. To make ends meet, she also teaches high school equivalency-test preparation classes to women at the San Francisco County Jail. "Given the realities of the job market -- there are only a handful of positions for new PhDs and employment opportunities in the California penal system are a record high -- it seemed only logical," Boufis writes in an essay in On the Market, which she co-edited with Olsen.

Boufis's counterparts in the economics department might point out that there's an obvious solution to this classic supply and demand problem: shut off the PhD spigot. Many in the humanities do support cutting back on the number of graduate students. An MLA committee convened to examine the job market concluded in 1997 that "it is imperative that graduate programs make adjustments appropriate to the realities of the job market." In a recent syndicated column, Robert Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, goes even further: "University departments should be allowed only the number of incoming students in a new year as the number of graduates in the previous year who achieved good positions or the number that can be financially supported by fellowships and teaching."

Some institutions have heeded the call. The University of Michigan has cut the number of its history graduate students from nearly 50 to about 25. Indiana University's English department now enrolls 20 doctoral students, down from 65 eight years ago. Schools such as Duke and Washington University in St. Louis have shrunk their humanities PhD populations in recent years.

In 1997, Stanford ranked 10th in the nation in terms of the number of PhDs granted -- 591 -- according to the National Research Council. The University of Texas-Austin handed out the most doctorates that year -- 787. Significantly, though, engineering degrees made up the largest chunk at Stanford. Unlike many institutions, particularly large state schools, Stanford began scaling back its graduate programs in the humanities beginning in the 1960s, and the University has not substantially shifted its teaching burden to part-time faculty or graduate students. Not surprisingly, professors at Stanford are against cutting back the humanities any further. "The reaction is, we're already at minimum sustainable size," says associate dean for graduate policy Thomas Wasow.

At the same time, Wasow is among the growing ranks of professors advising graduate students not to pursue a PhD unless their passion for their subject is so compelling they cannot resist. But among these students, especially those exceptional enough to make it to Stanford, there is a faith that somehow the dire warnings don't apply. "A lot of people think they're going to beat the odds. It's like a cancer diagnosis. 'I'll be the one to survive,' " says Lindenberger. "There's something very American in that -- but it's very unrealistic."

At Stanford and beyond, there are many who don't buy the idea that reducing supply is the answer. "This is not a laissez-faire job market, it's a system," insists Mark Kelley, a graduate student in English from City University of New York. As president of the MLA's Graduate Student Caucus, he's been outspoken on the subject of the academic job crisis. The call to reduce programs, Kelley says, is pitting the graduates of elite schools against those from less prestigious programs. The students at the elite schools are blaming the PhD glut on big state universities with high graduate student enrollments. What they don't realize, Kelley says, is that cutting back programs at the less prestigious institutions will reduce the number of faculty jobs -- and thus worsen the hiring situation. "It's a way of balkanizing what should be a coalition," he says. Instead, Kelley's group is pressuring universities to combine part-time jobs into tenure-track positions.

But even as Stanford has done its part to minimize the number of humanities PhDs, those same graduates face horrendous competition once they go "on the market." That reality has prompted some departments to adopt a fairly aggressive "truth in packaging" policy, as Lindenberger calls it. The dozen entrants to Stanford's graduate program in English this spring, for example, received a packet of statistics on the job placement of the department's PhDs. Drawn from a survey of students admitted from 1988 to 1992, the numbers were sobering. Among those with PhDs in hand, the percentage with tenure-track jobs ranges from 45 percent for the 1990 group to 75 percent for the 1988 and 1992 groups. "This is one of the most eminent English departments in the country," Lindenberger says, "and it still doesn't guarantee a job."

There is, of course, a risk to such gloomy candor, Wasow notes. "We're competing with other top departments for the best students. If we send along strong warnings, we may lose out on the best students," he says.

In the face of the crisis, some institutions are taking an unprecedented step: urging graduate students to consider careers outside the academy. A number of schools, including Columbia and New York University, have begun offering programs to train math PhDs in business and financial skills that might equip them to join Wall Street firms. Last year, Princeton English scholar Elaine Showalter spent much of her term as president of the MLA urging graduate students to consider looking outside academia for work. Last December the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation launched a program to fund internships and fellowships for humanities PhD students in entertainment, media and high-tech corporations and in k-12 schools. Weisbuch, the foundation's president, hopes that redirecting PhDs will revitalize the humanities. He looks forward to "the day when the year's most gifted graduate in, say, comparative literature decides to forgo an assistant professorship at Stanford for a position with amazon.com or Merrill Lynch."

At Stanford, too, PhD students in the humanities are being trained to broaden their job searches. The English department organizes twice-yearly "alternative career" panel discussions, where Stanford PhDs in technical writing, publishing and higher education administration explain how they put their degrees to use. Angelica Duran, a PhD candidate in English, attended one of the panels in 1995. It opened her eyes to possibilities outside academia. But she also made the best of her academic training, tailoring her dissertation topic to the market with the help of a faculty adviser (she is writing about the influence of the scientific revolution on pedagogy in poet John Milton's time -- a hot topic again today). Duran still hopes to get a tenure-track post, but she can just as easily see herself as a college administrator. "You can't always have your ideal," she says. "I've learned about Milton, but I've also learned about education."

For every realist like Duran, there are those who resent the idea that PhDs should focus on jobs in industry. "To think a PhD in 17th-century prose works is going to translate into a job as a screenwriter is just imaginary," the MLA's Kelley says, referring to one of Showalter's suggestions. "No one is knocking careers outside the academy, but groups like the MLA should be demanding correction inside the academy."

Meanwhile, there are now hints of an upswing in full-time openings for humanities scholars. Recent statistics suggest that some of those faculty retirements finally are happening, and the strong economy has eased the financial strain that once dampened faculty growth. Last fall the MLA reported that there was a 28 percent increase in full-time job listings overall for its disciplines. Job listings for historians were up 13 percent last fall, according to the American Historical Association, with demand for Latin American specialists (up 46 percent) and world history experts (up 94 percent) especially strong.

Not that the crisis is over. With the backlog of doctorates still searching for full-time work, PhD graduates look likely to outnumber the job openings for a long time to come. Still making ends meet by teaching basic skills to women inmates in San Francisco, Christina Boufis admits that she feels the tug of academia. "Being in graduate school is a luxury and a privilege," she says. "I would do it all over again."


Joan O'C. Hamilton, '83, a Stanford contributing writer, authors a column on high technology for Business Week.