"Here's an exciting career opportunity you won't see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment. Forget about marriage, a mortgage, or even Thanksgiving dinners, as the focus of your entire life narrows to the production, to exacting specifications, of a 300-page document less than a dozen people will read. Then it's time for advancement: Apply to 50 far-flung, undesirable locations, with a 30 to 40 percent chance of being offered any position at all. You may end up living 100 miles from your spouse and commuting to three different work locations a week. You may end up $50,000 in debt, with no health insurance, feeding your kids with food stamps. If you are the luckiest out of every five entrants, you may win the profession's ultimate prize: A comfortable middle-class job, for the rest of your life, with summers off."
So begins this typically inflammatory article on the subject from The Village Voice. I will not comment on the humanities market generally, but I will comment on the job market I know rather well: philosophy. Perhaps philosophy is utterly anomalous; that I do not know (though I very much doubt it). I do know that it is highly misleading to suggest that only "one in five entrants" will get "a comfortable middle-class job, for the rest of your life, with summers off."
For what this statement, indeed the whole article, indeed almost all discussions of these topics omit is that one's prospects are directly a function of the quality of the graduate program you are enrolled in. (This, needless to say, is why having reliable measures of quality is so important.) It is simply not the case that only "one in five" who get a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton end up with permanent posts in academia; it's more like nine in ten. (Even if you factor in those who start the program, but then drop out after a year or two, it's far closer to four in five--but, of course, spending a year or two in a program, and then deciding "this isn't for me" is a lot different from spending "six to ten years" studying and finding oneself unemployed.)
Michigan, as I've noted in the PGR, posts exceptionally detailed data on how its graduates have fared over the last dozen years or so. Although not quite Princeton, Michigan has been a solidly top ten program during this whole period. Of the 49 graduates who earned the PhD between 1991 and 2001, 36 currently have tenured or tenure-track academic positions, or about 7 in 10. Several of the recent graduates not currently in tenure-track jobs (typically they are in visiting or one- or two-year posts, not adjunct positions) are, based on past experience, likely to get tenure-track jobs over the next one-to-three years, meaning that before long roughly 4 out of 5 graduates during this period will have permanent, tenure-stream academic posts. (I suppose I should say likely permanent, since some may not get tenure, and then fail to secure subsequent academic employment: this happened to one of the unemployed 13 on the list, in fact.)
Don't misunderstand: that only 4 out of 5 who complete a Ph.D. at a genuinely top department end up with tenure-stream academic employment is a sobering statistic. And it is a statistic that doesn't reflect the number who spent multiple years in the program, but never finished (by my calculation, this might push us back to the 7 out of 10 figure, but not more). Sobering as it is, these statistics are still a far cry from the scary "one in five." (For more sobering discussion of the job market, see my comments here.)
Let's be clear: there are surely PhD programs where "one in five" would overstate your prospects of that "comfortable middle-class" existence. Students need to figure that out before enrolling. They need to investigate the job placement of the program, or of the faculty in the program they are most interested in. They need to gauge the strengths of the program, its reputation, and its commitment to students. But it's a disservice to undergraduates thinking about graduate school to spread absurd misinformation like, "You'll spend ten years in graduate school, and have just a 20% chance of a job." For the student who gets in to Princeton or Rutgers or Michigan (among many others) for philosophy, that's just not true. Philosophy is competitive enough without making up scare stories!
It's unfortunate, in my view, that a minor industry has developed in the blogosphere of scaring students off graduate school. (Here's a recent example.) I'm all in favor, obviously, of giving students as much candid information as possible, but let's not lose sight of something: a career in scholarship and teaching can be extraordinarily satisfying, and for some folks, there really wouldn't be any line of work comparably rewarding. Faculty ought to give candid advice to students thinking about graduate school, but they shouldn't lose sight of why students want to go to graduate school, which is usually why faculty themselves went in the first place. It's really fun and interesting to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, or at least it can be, and teaching and writing are a terrific career, or at least they can be. Students need help in assessing their prospects, and the risks involved, but let's not forget the benefits, which can be splendid. It's bad to be an "invisible adjunct," but it is simply dishonest to represent to undergraduates that, regardless of ability and where they go to graduate school, that they are likely to end up in that situation.
(In that regard, I was utterly astonished to see Erin O'Connor (English Penn) remark on retired blogger "the Invisible Adjunct" (an adjunct history teacher who has now given up trying to find a permanent academic job): "I have to wonder whether any of the gainfully employed academic historians who have publicly mourned the fate of IA have tried to find a place for her--a real, lasting place for her--in their profession. It's obvious from IA's site what a fine teacher and scholar she is--the Invisible Adjunct's blog may quite reasonably be read as one of the longest and most eloquent job interviews in history." Perhaps this was meant as a joke [hire someone based on their blog?]. The simple fact is we know nothing about the Invisible Adjunct's actual job qualifications: where she got her degree, the quality of her scholarly work, who her references are, what they think about her work, etc. It is very possible that she is a terrific candidate, who has been screwed over by bad luck or systemic injustice; it is equally possible that she's a mediocrity. We do not know. Why romanticize the situation? UPDATE: I learn from Weatherson's site that a newspaper article on IA did report that she went to a "top ten" graduate program and was once some kind of finalist for a "top" job. Even putting aside the worry that journalists are a bit loose with terms like "top ten" [I've had journalists refer in conversation to Duke as a "top ten" or "top" philosophy department based on the reputation of the university], this still doesn't support any conclusion about IA's employability. This is all minor, in any case.)
Universities, to be sure, will continue to have powerful financial incentives to exploit adjunct labor (just as they take advantage of graduate student teaching assistants). But one reason they can get away with it is because the marketplace currently supplies far too many candidates than universities could accomodate in tenure-stream positions (even if the terms of tenure-stream appointments were made considerably less attractive). There are more than 110 Ph.D.-granting programs in philosophy in the United States. If the majority of them were closed, there would be only a slight loss to the profession; if the weakest third of them were closed, there would be no loss at all, and, in fact, a net increase in human happiness, since it is these programs that produce the dreadful outcomes which The Village Voice laments.
Philosophy, at least, does not need more Ph.D. programs. It could benefit, I think, from more top-flight, terminal M.A. programs (like Tufts, Wisconsin/Milwaukee, Northern Illinois, Virginia Tech, etc.), as a way of helping students figure out whether the academic career is for them. Unfortunately, the trend right now is in the opposite direction, with what were quite attractive terminal M.A. programs becoming PhD-granting institutions, without any clear market rationale.
UPDATE: Daniel Nolan (Philosophy, St. Andrews) writes with a good, additional point:
"There's something else obnoxious about the Village Voice article you link to: the suggestion, that often gets made by the press in America when they're taking shots at academia, that academics treat summer as one long holiday.
"Maybe my experience is atypical, but the vast majority of academics I've come across in the US are professionally busy over summer, usually with research. (At least a vast majority of the ones I've known well enough to have any idea what their summer plans were.) Maybe the sample I knew were atypical, for one reason or another, but I suspect most academics use significant portions of their summer to work on research (both for publication and to stay current in their discipline, or parts of it), or on teaching preparation."
FURTHER UPDATE: More on this subject here.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE: The long, parenthetical remark about the peculiarity of suggesting that the "Invisible Adjunct" was appointable to a post as an academic historian based on her blog (!) prompted another drop-out from academe to froth at the mouth (my new policy is not to link to frothers, but the details of the frothing don't much matter). This, in turn, led to an interesting correspondence with a philosopher who had frequented the Invisible Adjunct ("IA") site. He comments:
"Your apparent dissing of the IA (I know you didn't really diss her) strikes
a nerve in people in [the frother's] position because the IA's blog was a forum in
which people could mourn the loss of their cherished academic futures. Yes,
it was full of self-pity, but mourning is like that. I think it was overall a healthy phenomenon, since it provided an occasion for people to think constructively about their predicament and to 'work through' it. It was far more constructive than some of the stuff I saw [other] rejects from the profession (e.g. 'philosophical counseling')....With your bluntness and your notoriety as an 'establishment' figure in academia...you're bound to irritate these mourners."