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Fixing the Humanities Ph.D. Job Crisis

Alas, there are no easy fixes.

September 14, 2021
 
 

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the cries of anguish from graduate students, especially those in the humanities, who feel that their prospects of ever getting a full-time tenure-track job are negligible.

There’s a pervasive sense among many doctoral students that a system that richly rewarded their professors with job security, diminished teaching loads and research support is stacked against them.

Calls for radical action ring out. Among the proposals:

  • Sharply reducing admission into humanities Ph.D. programs.
  • Encouraging, pressuring or mandating the retirement of older faculty members.
  • Radically reducing the number of adjuncts and lecturers outside the tenure system.

It is certainly the case that humanities departments, in particular, have overproduced Ph.D.s relative to the number of academic jobs -- although most departments that I’m familiar with have sharply reduced admissions in recent years. A number have shifted their focus to serving students of color and those applicants who don’t intend to pursue college teaching.

It’s also the case, somewhat surprisingly, that the overall increase in the number of faculty has kept pace with growth in the student body, even though it’s also true that more of those jobs are not tenure-eligible.

And the myth that the abolition of mandatory retirement led faculty members to hang on for years and years after getting Social Security turns out to be false. Most retire in their mid-60s.

The sad facts are these:

  • Cutting some graduate student stipends and adjunct positions comes nowhere close to paying for new tenure-track positions.
  • Given the collapse in the number of undergraduate humanities majors, justifying new (or even replacement) tenure lines is extraordinarily difficult.

Certainly, most four-year institutions find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Their top priorities are diversifying their faculty, hiring more professors in high-cost, high-demand disciplines and investing in emerging fields of study.

The sense that the job market for humanists is in crisis, of course, isn’t new. As Frederick A. Winter pointed out in these pages a few months ago, a barrage of reports and books publicizing the need for alternate careers has been a staple of academic literature since the 1970s. He’s certainly right: the humanities job crisis is a long-term, not a recent, development.

Something’s got to give.

Today, most of the burden of adaptation falls on the prospective Ph.D. students themselves. With minimal guidance from their faculty mentors, humanities doctoral students must decide whether to pursue an academic career, whatever the costs, or an alternate career.

The path for those totally committed to an academic career might involve a postdoc, a succession of one-year visiting appointments or a position at a community college or a public or private high school, driven by the hope that this will lead, eventually, to a full-time tenure-track job, somewhere, anywhere.

To remain viable in the job market, these graduates will also have to maintain a record of scholarly publication, conference presentations and grant submissions. This is a terrible burden to place on their shoulders.

Then there’s the nonacademic path. For every humanities Ph.D. who becomes a U.S. senator (like Ben Sasse) or Speaker of the House (Newt Gingrich), or a top congressional aide, the vast majority will struggle to find positions in cultural institutions, such as archives, museums, scholarly societies or philanthropic organizations, in publishing or journalism, or a nonprofit, where the opportunities are as scant as in the academy. Ditto for technical writer or researcher or higher ed administrator.

But, as Tony Davis, a contributor to Inside Higher Ed, wrote a couple of years ago, “You have to meet the world on its terms and not those of the academy.” There are indeed fulfilling opportunities for Ph.D.s outside the academy’s groves, but these require an entrepreneurial mind-set, relevant skills, a recognition that applied knowledge is a good thing and a desire to have an impact that goes beyond teaching. Examples I am familiar with include overseeing social studies or English for major school districts or joining a consultancy.

However, it’s immoral, in my view, to place the burden of adjustment and adaptation entirely on the shoulders of the doctoral students themselves. Academic departments mustn’t shirk their responsibilities.

What, then, should graduate programs do that they’re not already doing?

After all, many already deliver a variety of alt-ac workshops and alumni talks. Most doctoral programs now offer the option of pursuing an unconventional field of study or undertaking an internship. Many create career diversity fellowships or part-time teaching positions for recent (otherwise unemployed) graduates.

A host of books like have recently appeared -- like Katina L. Rogers’s Putting the Humanities PhD to Work and Kevin Kelly, Kathryn E. Linder, Thomas J. Tobin’s Going Alt-Ac: A Guide to Alternative Academic Careers -- that propose a variety of paths forward, both for individuals pursuing humanities Ph.D.s and the institutions training them. I found the personal advice offered clear-eyed and remarkably comprehensive.

But what should institutions do? Here are some of the suggestions that those authors offer. Departments should:

  • Familiarize students with a wide range of job options inside and outside the academy and help students map a variety of possible career trajectories.
  • Encourage students to undertake internships and job shadowing.
  • Integrate professional development across the graduate school trajectory and make sure to include résumé preparation and practice interviews.
  • Adopt more flexible program requirements and broader definitions of scholarship to allow students to prepare for a broader range of jobs.
  • Build bridges to potential employers outside the academy.

Let me offer four additional suggestions that I think make sense.

1. Take responsibility for preparing many more Ph.D. students for nonacademic careers. This requires understanding the kinds of jobs that Ph.D.s might qualify for and the skills that they need to obtain. It also involves working with departments and professional programs outside the humanities to ensure that your students can actually acquire those essential skills, and creating internships with potential employers.

2. Prepare humanities doctoral students for positions outside the traditional alt-ac job market. Don’t presume that the only opportunities for humanities Ph.D.s are in traditional niches, like librarianship, museum studies and public history.

One of my cousin’s sons, who received a Ph.D. in English from a top-ranked program, developed an expertise in natural language processing, computational humanities and narrative understanding that led not only to a job at a leading tech company but to an appointment in a top-ranked school of information science.

If your department is serious about alt ac, it needs to reconsider its own hiring practices. I find it appalling that most top-ranked departments in my discipline lack faculty with expertise in quantitative methods, demography, econometrics, the digital humanities or documentary filmmaking.

Remember: you can’t prepare students for fields where you lack expertise.

3. Expand opportunities for Ph.D.s within your college or university -- and give those Ph.D.s the opportunity to teach and conduct research. These might include positions in public affairs, student affairs, advising, instructional technology and design, educational innovation, learning support, and diversity, equity and inclusion. Offer these staff members the opportunity to teach (and pay them for this as an overload), make them members of their relevant department and give them 10-month appointments so that they can continue to pursue scholarly research.

4. Push back against the pressure to increase student-faculty ratios. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, a fellow student, who went on to become a prominent philosopher, said that if the University of California system had maintained the student-faculty ratio of the late 1950s, it could hire every single newly minted Ph.D.

I later did some checking, and using shifts in UC Berkeley’s student-faculty ratio, I discovered that this assertion turns out to be plausible. At Berkeley, as at most top-tier public institutions, a greater share of teaching responsibilities shifted to graduate students, postdocs and others, even as the student-faculty ratio rose.

Pushback is no panacea, but it is certainly one force that will discourage the trend toward reducing student-faculty interaction, especially in online programs.

Current faculty need to face up to a bitter truth: doctoral programs exist only partly to serve a genuine market need, to prepare graduates for academic jobs. These programs also exist for other, less savory reasons: to add to a department’s professional prestige, give faculty the chance to teach advanced courses, yes, and produce acolytes. State funding formulas that award much higher per-student subsidies to doctoral and professional programs have the ironic effect of incentivizing such programs.

Like much of higher ed, the primary beneficiaries of these programs are not the students, but tenured faculty. Which, in my view, means that those of us fortunate enough to teach in a Ph.D.-granting department have assumed a big ethical responsibility: to do everything we possibly can to prepare our graduates for a fulfilling career, whether inside or outside the academy.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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