How did it get to be November already? It was 70F here today, so it doesn't really feel like November, but my calendar's pretty clear that not only is it November, it has been for over a week now. Which means, of course, that Thanksgiving is almost here, and the end of the semester is close on its heels.
Of course if it's November it's also crunch time for job applicants and search committees. I'm on a search committee myself this year, and have not yet started to read the over 140 applications that have already come in (I am starting tomorrow, I promise!). Somehow it just seems wrong that Louis Menand's piece in Harvard Magazine came out just as most job application deadlines were hitting. I think we all knew that the job market in academe was bad and had been for some time, but had we all internalized these numbers? "Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent. On the one hand, a doctorate was harder to get; on the other, it became less valuable because the market began to be flooded with Ph.D.s." Or how about these? "People who received their Ph.D.s in English between 1982 and 1985 had a median time to degree of 10 years. A third of them took more than 11 years to finish, and the median age at the time of completion was 35. By 1995, 53 percent of those with Ph.D.s that had been awarded from 10 to 15 years earlier had tenure; another 5 percent were in tenure-track positions. This means that about two-fifths of English Ph.D.s were effectively out of the profession as it is usually understood."
t's hard to imagine that any of these numbers have gotten any better in the intervening years; so, as my chosen career has become more and more professionalized — harder to enter — it has also become less valued. And, as Menand also notes, "there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get." Many of those who don't get jobs will be women who sacrifice their careers when their partners find well-paying work, or when they choose to focus on family rather than face the job market one more time, or when they take adjunct positions that offer flexibility but no future. What are the costs to the profession — and to society — of closing the door on these qualified teachers and scholars?
I'm one of the lucky ones. I've got tenure in a place I love, where I can raise my children and pursue my passion. But what of those who don't? As I read application files this fall, I can't help but recognize that these pages represent years of work on the part of their authors, work that may not be rewarded with a tenure-track job, however worthy and hard-working their authors may be. My colleagues and I on the search committee joke that we hope most of our applicants are really obviously unqualified—that their letters refer to unspecified anger management problems, or that they have degrees in, say, microbiology rather than literature: that would make it easier, we know, to make the hard calls. But the reality is, qualified applicants will not make the cut, and we may even be the worse for it. We'll do our best—and, if recent history is any guide, we'll gain a terrific new colleague at the end of the process. But I hope that as we go through the process we'll continue to think about how we train our future colleagues, and how we prepare them for a future that may not include an academic job.