Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Careers in English... or lack thereof

by Peter Neiger

With a struggling economy and job market, more and more recent college graduates are having trouble finding work. It has always a burden to find a tenure-track position and this year it is more difficult than usual.

All you need to do is take a look at a recent copy of the Modern Language Association Job List where English departments at research universities and liberal arts colleges advertise available positions. This year only 55 positions have been advertised. The problem becomes obvious when you contrast that with the 1257 graduates from 2007 who now hold a PhD in English. 2007 was not an outlier, in fact it was only slightly higher than 2006 or 2005 that produced 1182 and 1006 new graduates respectively.

Fewer and fewer students are enrolling in courses within specialized areas of English, making it difficult for administrators to justify taking on additional faculty to teach these courses. As the demand by institutions for English PhD's decreases and the supply of candidates increase this will place downward pressure on the salary of English professors. It is possible that the salary offered candidates will actually not be enough to justify the time and money spent pursuing a PhD to begin with.

Mark Bauerlein at Minding the Campus sees this as a vicious trend that could seriously deteriorate the quality and variety of education offered at universities across the country.
If jobs are simply not to be found in certain fields, graduate students won't enter those fields. That will make them even less popular, producing fewer enrollments in upper-division courses in Romanticism et al, and reducing the presence of authors in those fields in general education courses at the lower-division level. We will steadily lose John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History in the curriculum.
While the long-term impact of having a large number of potential professors but no job waiting for them has yet to be seen, one can theorize potential consequences. Lower salaries for professors may push students into other fields that are less reliant on an academic career. It is also possible that for-profit universities may spring up and begin to utilize the cheaper labor to produce more PhD programs in these areas. Regardless, this trend is likely to continue as the push for more and more college graduates increases and focus remains on getting a degree and not an education that will allow the student to get a job and create value.

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