A Bleak Market

Looking for a tenure-track faculty job? You can't escape today's economic realities, writes Eliza Woolf.

August 13, 2010

It’s August and the number of advertisements for full-time, tenure-track jobs has yet to increase at a steady rate. My friends and I, all humanities Ph.D.s, scan h-net, Inside Higher Ed, and The Chronicle of Higher Education on a daily basis looking for leads. After laboring for low pay and little security over the past several years, we’re no longer seeking part-time, non-tenure track contractual work, visiting professorships, or temporary fellowships. We’re ready for the big time; it’s now or never.

So far we’ve nonetheless come to the following collective conclusion: things are looking very bleak indeed for the 2010-11 academic job market, especially for Ph.D.s in history, English, American studies, religious studies, and the like.

Of course, after two years of plummeting faculty job openings, canceled searches, and gloom-and-doom forecasts, this news doesn’t come as a big surprise to any of us. Based on the steep, even record-setting decline of 2008-09 job advertisements and many subsequent cancellations, for example, both the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association predicted substantial drops in tenure-track job listings from 2009 to 2010 — by as much as 37 percent.

In the interim, thousands of A.B.D.s and newly minted Ph.D.s are joining the queuing backlog of increasingly desperate job-seeking junior scholars, many of whom received their degrees as long ago as 2006 (and now have books forthcoming) and are still looking for full-time, tenure-track positions. These are the same post-2006 Ph.D.s who believed, or were told, that if they placed their first book under contract with an academic press, published enough peer-reviewed articles, won enough fellowships, gained enough teaching experience, networked at enough national conferences, and accepted enough visiting faculty appointments, their time would eventually come. Surely it was only a matter of time, right?

Well, after four years or so on the market, I’d say their time for tenure-track employment has come ... and gone, although I genuinely hope this is not the case.

Allow me to focus for a moment on my own discipline. Among historians and those in related fields, observed Robert Townsend in the January 2010 issue of Perspectives, the number of Ph.D.s conferred during the 2008-09 academic year rose between 17-20 percent, resulting in approximately 1,100 new Ph.D.s entering the history/humanities job market over the past year. The average number of applicants per advertised position remains on the rise, particularly in fields such as U.S. and European history, just as tenure-track openings are growing fewer and further between.

“The number of job openings in history plummeted last year, even as the number of new history Ph.D.s soared. As a result, it appears the discipline is entering one of the most difficult academic job markets for historians in more than 15 years,” Townsend concluded. And things are, unfortunately, “unlikely to improve” any time soon. The tenure track itself is also eroding out from under us, as more and more universities are choosing to cut costs by appointing part-time instructors rather than regular full-time faculty.


To cap it all off, in the May 2010 issue of Perspectives, Townsend noted a depressing stagnation of salaries for regular full-time historians across academe over the past academic year. Wage increases, amounting to less than 1 percent for the average faculty member, are at a 15-year low. (And these numbers, which are based on contracted salaries as of October 2009, do not necessarily include furloughs.) History salaries, moreover, are no better than those of English faculty members and those in related fields, and academics across the board are facing cost of living and health care increases this year, even as faculty salaries remain relatively stationary.

So let me get this straight:

  1. There are hardly any full-time, tenure-track jobs out there for humanities Ph.D.s (not to mention those in other disciplines)
  2. Loads of new graduates are champing at the bit to try their hand on the academic job market
  3. Competition for faculty job openings is at an all-time high, and part-time gigs are often just as competitive
  4. Publications, even single-authored books, offer no guarantee of entry-level, tenure-track employment
  5. Faculty salaries suck

Hmm. I for one am feeling less than optimistic at present. It’s certainly true that job seekers everywhere, whether academic or nonacademic, are facing a very difficult employment market in 2010-11. Owing to the significant depths of the recession, the U.S. economy has not grown fast enough over the past year to create the number of new jobs required to meet the demand.

But this knowledge doesn’t make me feel better: it simply means that finding regular full-time employment in the near future — inside or outside academe — will be an uphill battle. Limited job prospects in industry only add to the stress of my current predicament. If I, and others like me, have reached a career crossroads, in other words, neither direction offers a smooth transfer or a sure payoff. How can I prepare for an academic job, or transition to a nonacademic position, that doesn’t in fact exist? Consulting all the career advice books in the world won’t make jobs relevant to my humanities Ph.D. materialize out of thin air. In the meantime, I still have to pay rent and credit card bills, buy food, keep the electricity and AC going, fuel my trips to conferences and interviews and so forth, and defer my student loan payments for another year while the interest continues to accrue.

I have a word document on my desktop titled “Jobs-Apply for 2010-11” (meaning academic jobs); it contains only one job opening at the moment. Perhaps a hundred or more other Ph.D.s and A.B.D.s out there have the same lonely job advertisement listed in their “apply for” folder too. As applicants seeking work during a truly bleak job market cycle, how can we — and especially me! — compete for this faculty position?

In my next column I’ll address the top 10 ways to stand out among the hordes of applicants for a tenure-track opening. While we, as lowly applicants, may not be able to control the academic job market, or ever understand what goes on behind closed doors, we can at the very least increase our chances of professional success by presenting ourselves well on paper. If there are readers out there who would like to offer their 2 cents on this matter of great importance to many job seekers, please feel free to drop me a line.


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