An Economist’s Critique of Job Market for English Ph.D.s

Paper argues that the hiring picture, while challenging for all, is truly miserable for those from non-elite doctoral programs.

January 8, 2015
Getty Images

As English professors and would-be English professors gather today in Vancouver for the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, a new paper argues that the job market for English Ph.D.s may be even worse than people realize.

MLA leaders make no claims that the job market is in good shape, and their recent survey found that the number of faculty jobs in English appears to be down 8.4 percent from a year ago. (The MLA reports that the picture isn’t much different for foreign language Ph.D.s, but the new paper is on English Ph.D.s.)

The new paper argues that English is a field where the perceived prestige of a Ph.D. program has a huge impact on where its new doctorates land. As a result, the good jobs that are out there are not in fact likely to be available to most new Ph.D.s and the searches to fill those positions are much less open to all than faculty members may like to think, the paper says.

The paper, by Dave Colander, a professor of economics at Middlebury College, with research assistance from Daisy Zhuo, has just appeared in the journal Pedagogy, published by Duke University Press. (An abstract is available here.) Colander admits that his perspective may be more quantitative than that of some English professors, but he writes that the numbers point to the real challenges facing new Ph.D.s.

“Economists live by quantitative data; specialists in English are less enamored by them,” he writes. “Thus I was surprised to discover that in terms of aggregate data on job placement, the Modern Language Association has provided better aggregate information on job placement than has the American Economic Association. In part the better data in English reflects different circumstances in the fields.

"In economics essentially all graduates can get jobs as economists, while in English that is far from the case. In English, over the last 35 years, less than half of graduated Ph.D. students have gotten tenure-track academic jobs upon graduation. The result is a large pool of residual job seekers, which places even more pressure on the job market for existing students.”

In the study, Colander and Zhu first look at the differences in the recent job placement rates of graduate programs as they are rated by U.S. News & World Report. Here he finds that those in top ranked programs are more likely than others to land coveted tenure-track jobs at universities with graduate programs, or tenure-track jobs elsewhere.

Job Placement of Various Tier Programs




Tenure-Track Positions

Tenure Track Teaching Posts

Postdoc Fellow-

Others (High School Teacher, Editor, etc.)

Univer-sities with Grad Prog-

Liberal Arts and Comm. Colleges

Foreign Univer-sities

Graduate programs by rank (% of total grads)







1-6 (8%)







7-28 (23%)







29-62 (22%)







63+ (46%)





















Then the paper goes further and analyzes who lands the jobs at the top-ranked universities with graduate programs.

Of those in the top six programs, 12.4 percent land jobs at universities whose graduate programs are ranked among the top 28. For those in the bottom half of all doctoral programs (who collectively make up nearly half of new English Ph.D.s), only 0.21 percent land jobs at those same 28 universities.

“The data are pretty straightforward,” the paper says. “While students in top-10 programs might have a reasonable chance of getting tenure-track jobs at a national research university or national research liberal arts colleges, the chances for such placements are essentially nil for students graduating from lower ranked programs. If students from lower ranked programs do get tenure-track jobs, they will most likely be at schools where the primary focus is on undergraduate teaching to students with weak academic backgrounds.”

Further, the study notes that these data probably understate the extent of the paucity of English jobs. “The actual situation facing Ph.D. candidates may be considerably worse than the available data suggest. Specifically, these data do not provide information about attrition, especially how many students started the program and might have completed their Ph.D. but chose not to because there were no jobs,” the paper says.

“This number could be large,” the paper adds. “For example, one program that provided job placements for their students listed 35 students who have received tenure-track appointments from 1998 to 2010. Elsewhere on their website they note that 12 students start the program each year, but they don’t provide information about how many of those original students left voluntarily (as opposed to failing exams, say) and so could have gotten a Ph.D.”

What to do about this? The paper calls for much more transparency by departments about what happens to all of those who start doctoral programs (a measure the MLA has been urging as well).

But the paper both defends departments that admit students in this job market and raises questions about current practices.

In defense of departments, as long as they provide accurate information about job placement, the paper cites economic theory. “[F]rom an economist’s ‘free choice’ perspective, as long as students going into graduate study of English know the job market situation, graduate programs have no reason to be concerned about these results,” the paper says. “Students can be seen as choosing to study English not to prepare for a job but as a lifestyle choice. From their behavior (that is, their continuing to enroll), an economist would argue that the gain that they get from studying English is so great that they do so while fully accepting that it will not lead them to a tenure-track job.”

But even if departments are more transparent about job data, the paper says, there is something wrong with offering programs that ostensibly prepare people for careers when (based on the prestige of the program) one has no chance of getting that job. And the preparation may be minimal for the jobs new doctorates could get. The paper argues for recognizing the “vocational” reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. and adjusting doctoral programs accordingly.

Earning a Ph.D. may be a “luxury consumption good” for those who want those years studying literature, the paper says. But what about after they graduate?

“The majority of English graduate programs are preparing their students for jobs at research-focused universities, but most of their graduates do not get such jobs, and cannot expect to get such jobs,” the paper says. This suggests that a significant change in the content and structure of many programs is called for, with much more specialization in programs that train English generalists appropriate for more teaching-focused academic jobs and private sector jobs. They would provide far less preparation of students for academic research jobs that few of their students will get.

So if students are going to get jobs teaching composition to students who didn’t receive good writing instruction, the paper says, departments should train them for that, or for interdisciplinary faculty jobs or for non-academic jobs, but for jobs they might actually find (if they aren’t among the lucky few at the very top-ranked programs).

Russell A. Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University who chaired an MLA task force that in May called for major changes in doctoral education, said via email that there was much in the Pedagogy paper that was very consistent with the recommendations of the panel.

In particular, he said, the panel and MLA leaders generally have been pushing doctoral programs to be clearer about job placement and the range of job options new Ph.D.s have. Further, he said that he strongly agreed that departments should evaluate their doctoral curriculums in part based on the kinds of jobs graduates are finding.

Berman also applauded the paper for drawing attention to the differing experiences of graduates of programs at different places on the prestige hierarchy. “A gem in the paper is the demonstration (of what was perhaps always tacitly assumed): the top-ranked schools only hire from each other. So while there is the fiction of a 'national' search, it is really only within a very limited caste,” Berman said.

Where Berman was more critical was of the paper’s division of English Ph.D.s into those who seek out vocational jobs versus those who can continue their study of literature. Berman said that the reality is that many of those who succeed at top universities care deeply about teaching, and that many of those who are great teachers at colleges that are not top ranked continue to have important research interests.

“I disagree is with the stark distinction between vocational and avocational ... rationales for graduate study, which is really the basis for the proposal for a division of labor among grad programs: some focused on research (which corresponds to [Colander's] notion of avocationality) and some on writing (vocational)," Berman said.

This division "underestimates the organic connection between research and teaching: both, additionally, represent skills transferable to other career paths. The separation of the two functions will ultimately undermine the quality of both -- which is another aspect of the deleterious consequences of casualization in which non-tenure-track have much reduced access, if any, to resources that support research."


Back to Top