Saturday, March 14, 2009

Academic Job Shortage

The recession has forced universities to modify their budgets to meet the enormous degeneration of their endowments and shrinking state budget appropriations. They are taking a variety of measures, most of which come down to lowering the costs of salaries and fringe benefits (chiefly health care) that account for most of the university budget.

In some universities, even the richest, this has led to hiring freezes. The problem is compounded because older faculty, who for the past generation have been living in a post-pension world, have been saving for their own retirements, typically through TIAA-CREF and private investments. Because the portfolios of those faculty have lost money, many older faculty are putting off plans for retirement.

And for the past generation, universities and colleges have been steadily shrinking the percentage of their faculty who are on the tenure track, turning instead to long- or short-term non-tenure-track faculty -- full or part time fixed term and adjunct teachers. These are often very good teachers, but they have high teaching loads, diminished salary expectations, little chance to engage in the sort of research and publication that would help them get into the shrinking tenure track. For universities, this turn away from tenure is not just about lessening job security. It is no accident that the declines in the robustness of faculty governance have come along with the shrinking of the tenured faculty.

These facts of the academic economy mean that there are likely to be fewer jobs for newly graduating PhD's, who have spent the past five or ten years in graduate school, working hard at very low salaries, postponing a lot of pleasures and plans in the hope of finding a great tenure track job. The recession means that for an even larger percentage of these students than usual, tenure track jobs just are not going to be there.

I love university teaching, and I'm one of the lucky ones -- lucky partly because I entered the academic job market long ago, when there were plenty of jobs opening up as the baby boom began to come to college.

There are still good jobs at colleges and universities.

But there are also alternatives, and some enterprising souls are apparently beginning to organize to face the new academic economy. I have to admit that as a graduate advisor, I really don't know how to advise my students to consider jobs outside the university -- and in fact the university uses success in job placement at tenure granting institutions an indicator of success for its graduate programs. Placement has become part of the job of graduate departments and faculty -- academic job placement.

These reflections are prompted, as I am sitting in a hotel room in Annapolis, Maryland, by two letters to the editor of the New York Times in response to an earlier Times article about the crisis of jobs in the humanities. One letter writer tells us of the many web sites and listservs created to help new PhD's find non-academic jobs.

Beyond Academe is a web site for historians looking for non-academic jobs. The site reports that "In 2004, the American Historical Association released a study on the career patterns of PhDs in history who had received their degrees between 1990 and 2004. Only 32% of these PhDs had obtained and currently held a position in a History Department."

At doctoral departments in my field -- rhetoric and communication -- we like to think that the most able students will always find the best jobs, and perhaps that is so. I like to think so. Students graduating from my own department have been getting very good jobs in recent years, and of course I think that they should. But it might not be a bad idea to explore in an organized fashion how to help our students discover all the alternatives.

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