BOSTON -- It wouldn't be an annual meeting of the Modern Language Association without stressed-out job-seekers waiting for interviews, others depressed over the lack of interviews and plenty of stories of adjuncts who are overworked and underpaid. Complaints abound about the brass ring of the tenure track becoming increasingly elusive for many.
But at one session here, panelist after panelist described success stories about launching academic careers. This wasn't a panel of the Yale Ph.D. superstar getting hired on the tenure track at Columbia. Nor was it a panel of literature Ph.D.s describing six-figure salaries working for Google or Apple. These were English and language Ph.D.s working in academe and finding full-time work -- not all on the tenure track and not all in traditional teaching positions, but in jobs in academe that the panelists said reflected the interests that drew them into their doctoral programs.
While some of the panelists worked as adjuncts or visiting professors, all described strategies of seeking meaningful work beyond the tenure-track jobs of their (former) dreams but also beyond the all-too-common approach of trying to line up as many part-time teaching gigs as possible as a way to pay the bills and wait out the economic downturn. The conviction of these panelists was that the jobs that might have been their dreams at one time weren't about to come open but that they were determined not to work course by course. (And the standing-room-only audience seemed to have many people anxious for tips on how to do the same.)
"I have friends who are adjuncting who are completely distraught about academe," said Belinda Wheeler, assistant professor of English at Paine College, in Georgia. "They are thinking about throwing away their Ph.D.s and working at Starbucks. I would hate to see that happen, but that's what happens when you are on the adjunct treadmill."
But even as the panelists here were optimistic about the possibilities for careers in the humanities today, several said that they had to take initiative themselves to make these careers happen -- and that most graduate programs aren't coaching students on how to navigate the realities of job-hunting today.
One theme was the importance of looking for opportunities that may not be at research universities. Joseph L.V. Donica applied to 150 colleges and universities and ended up with two offers. One was for a lecturer position at a "prestigious state university." The one he took was as assistant professor of English at Wiley College. He knew little about it and had not thought about teaching at a historically black college until the Wiley job materialized, but he found a vibrant community on Wiley's campus in Texas.
Donica said, however, that successful candidates at teaching institutions need to be excited about teaching things besides their research specialties (his is American literature). "God forbid we should teach composition," he quipped to knowing nods in the crowd. (The MLA attracts plenty of rhetoric Ph.D.s who want to teach writing but also literature Ph.D.s who know that there are jobs in composition.)
Thomas Lawrence Long described a traditional job search that went nowhere for about a decade after he earned his Ph.D. in English in 1997. He now has a full-time job that was never advertised (or even existed) until he proposed it, based on discussions with people there. He is associate professor-in-residence at the School of Nursing at the University of Connecticut, where he works with doctoral students and faculty members on writing issues. He proposed the position -- and he thinks more English Ph.D.s should do the same, rather than just accepting the shrinking number of traditional jobs.
"It is painful for us to admit that the two models that have dominated doctoral programs in the U.S. for a century have failed," he said. "They are the venerable medieval guild model, in which both quality and supply of doctoral graduates are strictly controlled by members of the guild, and the more recent American industrial factory model, in which there is no control of supply with the assumption that there will be some position somewhere for doctoral graduates."
What new Ph.D.s need to do to survive, Long said, is think about analogies (how do their skills fit in other parts of the academy?), resilience (preparing for a long haul), and entrepreneurship (thinking of jobs that don't currently exist).
Stephanie Murray, who earned her Ph.D. in English last year from the University of Chicago (in the subfield of early modern English drama), had been working as an adjunct while finishing her doctorate, and she's married to a creative writing professor who was doing the same. "It was clear one of us needed a real job, the kind that comes with benefits and lasts more than 10 weeks," she said.
The job she landed was as an academic adviser at Carnegie Mellon University and her approach was heavy on the "analogies" strategy that Long had described. The job ad was for someone "who was not me," she said. She had no relevant experience in job titles, "but I knew how to be a student and I know how to talk to students." She talked her way into the job, was promoted twice (in academic administration), and now has landed a job as a teaching-track professor.
Do Grad Programs Understand?
While these panelists and others talked with pride of their career paths, they also talked about how ill-informed many graduate faculty members are about these opportunities.
When an audience member, who identified herself as an incoming placement chair for her department, asked what she should do differently, Murray was quick to answer. "Undo the idea that anything but the tenure track is a failure," she said. The best way to end up on the tenure track, she said, is to cast a wide net for good jobs of all kinds. Others on the panel and in the audience talked about rewarding careers at community colleges, but talked of how their graduate advisers knew nothing about or looked down upon that option.
Monica Jacobe, associate director of the Institute for English as a Second Language and American Studies at the College of New Jersey, said at another panel that had she looked only for traditional teaching positions, she would be an adjunct today. She is in a full-time position, she said, because she picked up administrative skills during graduate school. So why, she asked, do graduate programs insist that the only appropriate training is as a teaching assistant?
"Teaching a 30th section of freshman composition shouldn't be considered an apprenticeship," she said.
Jacobe proposed that all graduate programs try to "mentor the whole student," which she said would mean getting English and language Ph.D. students involved with mentors throughout the university. Right now, she said, English graduate students are, at their programs' direction, "living in their silo."
Further, she said that graduate programs should rethink the "narrow training and specialization" that may be the exact opposite of what students need for the kinds of academic administration jobs that exist today. She noted that the degree of specialization common today "doesn't even work well for contingent faculty careers."