Humanities Job Woes

Market looks tight and getting worse for job seekers in English, foreign languages, history and philosophy. But a major social science field -- economics -- is doing a lot of hiring.

January 4, 2016

Early January is the time when thousands of new Ph.D. job seekers flock to the conventions of major disciplinary associations. The lucky ones have an interview or two lined up. This year is looking to be quite tight in major humanities fields. But one social science field -- economics -- is having an exceptionally good year, with the supply of new jobs far outpacing the number of new Ph.D.s.

Within humanities fields, the Modern Language Association released its annual jobs report last week, and the number of faculty positions is down for the third year in a row. The American Historical Association hasn't finished its job report yet, but expects the results to be released in February to show a decline in the number of available positions. Bloggers who track new academic jobs in philosophy are reporting that this appears to be a tight year in that field. The Society for Classical Studies does not have a comprehensive study, but is more optimistic than other fields, noting that the number of departments recruiting at its annual meeting this month is up to 33 from 30.

Gloomy Numbers From the MLA

The MLA's annual report on its Job Information List has found that in 2014-15, it had 1,015 jobs in English, 3 percent fewer than the previous year. The list had 949 jobs in foreign languages, 7.6 percent fewer than 2013-14.

This is the third straight year of decline in jobs listed with the MLA. And those declines have reversed the gains made in English and foreign language jobs after the severe declines that hit the disciplines after the economic downturn that started in 2008. The low point for jobs in that economic downturn was 2009-10. But the job totals for English this year are 7.7 percent below the English positions of 2009-10. The job totals for foreign languages are 7.3 percent below those of 2009-10.

Not all faculty jobs in English and foreign languages are listed with the MLA, but its job listings (like those of other disciplinary associations) have generally been seen as a good barometer of the job market.

A historic strength of the MLA list has been tenure-track jobs. Of the 2014-15 English listings, 67.3 percent were tenure track, up by less than a point (0.8) from the year before. In foreign languages, 50.4 percent of the listings were for tenure-track positions, down 2.1 percentage points from the prior year.

While English jobs in the MLA database have historically been more likely than foreign language jobs to be tenure track, the levels for both English and foreign languages are down significantly from where they once were when more jobs were listed. From 2004 through 2009, 75-80 percent of English jobs and 60-65 percent of foreign language jobs listed with the MLA were for tenure-track positions.

Almost all positions listed with the MLA are for full-time positions -- the association's analysis doesn't provide insight into the job market for part-time positions, on which many colleges rely for introductory writing and foreign language instruction.

The MLA analysis also shows the specializations requested both in English (where there are both writing and literature specializations) and for foreign languages. In the tables that follow, figures do not add up to 100 percent because some search committees don't separate out by specialization, while others list multiple areas.

Specializations in Writing and English Jobs

Field % of Listings
-- Composition and rhetoric 33.6%
-- Technical and business writing 10.1%
-- Creative writing and journalism 18.1%
-- British 25.8%
-- American (chiefly U.S.) 21.8%
-- African-American 5.5%
English other than British or American 6.9%
Other minority 6.6%

Specializations in Foreign Language Jobs

Language % of Listings
Arabic 5.9%
Chinese 7.0%
Classical 0.7%
French and francophone 22.9%
Germanic and Scandinavian 16.7%
Hebrew 1.8%
Italian 5.4%
Japanese 5.0%
Korean 1.1%
Portuguese 4.2%
Russian and Slavic 4.4%
Spanish 37.2%
Other languages 3.1%

More Jobs for Econ Ph.D.s

It's a good time to have a new Ph.D. in economics and be seeking a job in academe. Or outside of academe.

A new report by the American Economic Association found that its listings for jobs for economics Ph.D.s increased by 8.5 percent in 2015, to 3,309. Academic jobs increased to 2,458, from 2,290. Nonacademic jobs increased to 846 from 761. (Not all jobs are classified in the two categories.) Economics is a field in which new doctorate recipients have long been recruited not only by colleges and universities, but by government agencies, consulting firms, banks and other organizations.

The association's annual jobs report is released in advance of the group's annual meeting, which opened Sunday in San Francisco.

Not all positions in economics are listed with the association. But the AEA study is generally considered a reliable indicator of the state of the job market, even beyond its own listings.

What may be most significant for the discipline is that the growth in open positions far exceeds the levels of 2008, when the most recent economic downturn hit. Many disciplines have been considering it a success to get back to 2008 levels.

Economics, like most disciplines, took a hit after 2008. Between then and 2010, the number of listings fell to 2,285 from 2,914. But this year's 3,309 is greater not only than the 2008 level, but of every year from 2001 on. The number of open positions also far exceeds the number of new Ph.D.s awarded in economics.

As has been the case in recent years, the top specialization in job listings is mathematical and quantitative methods.

That area was followed by (all regularly among the top five): financial economics, microeconomics, macroeconomics and international economics.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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