Bleak News on the Front Lines

January 4, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- Already down hundreds of job openings, the Modern Language Association discovered, at its annual meeting here, that it was also down hundreds of graduate students.

Attendance dropped from the 8,000s to the 7,000s -- and much of the drop appeared to be among those entering the profession. With convention job interviews thin on the ground, many grad students and new Ph.D.'s found somewhere else to go in the week after Christmas.

At the 2008 conference, one could hardly stroll through the exhibit hall without bumping into a cluster of glum new or soon-to-be Ph.D.'s, each with a sadder story than the last: some had scheduled five interviews, but were left with just one or two in the wake of widespread hiring freezes; others had shown up to an interview only to be told that the job might not actually be available after all.

In 2009, by contrast, it was the fortunate job seeker who could afford to attend the convention at all. Many of those who came did so without having scheduled a single interview. “I applied to a number of MLA jobs, but I didn’t get any interviews,” said a new Ph.D. from a well-regarded California university. Smiling determinedly, she added, “I just came for fun, and I’m having fun.”

Indeed, stoic resolve was the order of the day for many of the younger scholars in attendance. After at least two years of unrelentingly gloomy news for academe in general and the humanities in particular, many grad students and new Ph.D.'s who did make it to the MLA this year seemed determined to make the best of it, no matter how bad “it” might be. One soon-to-be Ph.D. from a Massachusetts university said that, although she didn’t have any interviews, she had come to “get accustomed” to the convention – “I thought if I came here for the first time as a job seeker, it’d be so overwhelming,” she said.

Such resignation to another year of job hunting – and the hope that next year would be better – was nearly universal.

“I got one interview this year and I feel so lucky,” said a grad student in English from an Ivy League university. Normally, she said, 40 to 50 percent of sixth-year Ph.D. candidates from her department were able to land jobs, though some of those would be off the tenure track. Last year, by contrast, only one sixth-year had gotten any position at all. A sixth-year herself, this grad student said, "If I get a job offer, I'll finish this year. Otherwise, I'll defer."

Others were more openly bitter. “I’m on my second book contract and I didn’t get a single interview,” said a Ph.D. from a top-tier West Coast university. And a job seeker from a prestigious British institution confessed, “It is incredibly demoralizing going from defending your dissertation and then 10 days later going to the MLA and getting nothing… I came out of desperation."

Not every story was so bleak. Three grad students from a flagship public in the Midwest, all in their eighth year, reported that each of them had interviews for jobs in their field, medieval literature. One said that she'd felt "very supported" by the university throughout her time as a graduate student, and the others concurred, adding that the "professionalization" of their program (including assistance with C.V.'s and 2-2 teaching loads) had been key. Moreover, these students said, medieval literature was having a relatively good year, with just 150-200 applicants for over 20 jobs -- a comparatively promising ratio. The three agreed that they felt "very hopeful."

Such good fortune, however, was clearly the exception; far more graduate students reported having no interviews -- and that was only among those who'd decided to attend the convention.

"Make sure you say you talked to someone who had zero interviews. Zero!" lamented one Ph.D. candidate in Spanish literature, making a circle with her thumb and forefinger to emphasize the point. Asked whether she thought the market was any better for jobs in Spanish, which tends to have more job openings than other foreign language fields, she shook her head vehemently, and her companion -- a new Ph.D., also in Spanish -- agreed: "It's terrible."

And there was no doubt that for every interview-less job seeker who attended, there was another (if not two or three) who'd decided just to stay at home. In the words of one second-year graduate student from a University of California campus, who'd attended the convention to present a paper, "I think I'm the only person from my entire department who came, and I'm not even looking for a job."

MLA executive director Rosemary Feal agreed that the scarcity of jobs was a major factor in the convention's notably reduced attendance. "That’s right, that’s exactly it. They say, 'you know, if I don’t have a job interview, I can’t justify spending this money.' And even though we give grants [to grad students who want to attend] – this year we gave $300 grants to around 300 students – it’s not enough for everybody.

"I think it’s tough for people to have to make these decisions, to attend. So we’re very grateful for everyone who did make the effort to come."

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