A Surplus of Scholars Fight for Jobs in



A Surplus of Scholars Fight for Jobs in




Issue in Depth

January 16, 2000

The New York Times: Your Money





          By JANE HODGES


               HICAGO -- Like some other PhDs who attended the annual

               Modern Language Association conference last month in Chicago,

          April Overstreet, 31, is committed to pursuing a tenure-track job in



          "This is what I love to do, and I believe in the value of what I do," she

          said of her one-year post as a visiting assistant professor in the Spanish

          and Portuguese department of the University of Iowa. "Not a lot of

          people can say that."


          Scholars like Ms. Overstreet  need to believe in their work,

          because in one of the hottest  employment markets in

          decades, finding a humanities job in academia remains one

          of the toughest assignments  around. With universities

          continuing to rely on part-time  faculty in their English and

          foreign-language departments,   there is a short supply of jobs

          that lead to tenured positions.


          Ms. Overstreet, who is fluent in Spanish and proficient in French and

          Portuguese, is the very portrait of commitment to her field. She knew as

          an undergraduate that she wanted to pursue a PhD in Spanish, so after

          graduation she traveled to Spain for two years, supporting herself by

          teaching English and living in rural areas where she could perfect her

          language skills and absorb the culture.


          She then spent five and a half years earning her PhD at the University of

          Michigan, where she worked about 30 hours a week as a graduate

          student instructor in return for free tuition and enough money to cover her

          living costs. When she wasn't teaching, she worked on her dissertation --

          a study of picaresque themes in four Spanish novels.


          Despite all that training, Ms. Overstreet did not get a tenure-track offer

          from an institution she would consider joining. Instead, she found a good

          but temporary teaching position at Iowa, a job that pays $30,000. But

          because she remains in the job market, she must also further her research

          and keep filling out applications.


          As new PhDs flock to the annual language association convention

          for interviews, they compete not only with fellow graduates but

          also with those from previous  years who have failed to land

          tenure-track posts. Doctoral candidates spend as many as 10

          years completing their degrees, so it is difficult for them to

          predict what the job picture will be like when they graduate.


          Throughout the 1990s, more than twice as many PhDs were granted in

          these fields than there were tenure-track openings. In 1998, according to

          the language association, 1,718 PhD' were granted in English and foreign

          languages, but there were only 721 tenure-track jobs.


          In such a competitive market, it is not uncommon for a PhD in English or

          a foreign language to spend several years as a visiting professor or

          part-time faculty member, though some research concludes that after

          three years of that lifestyle, many PhDs lose their morale or their

          marketability. As the market remains tight, the academics themselves

          have stepped up the debate about how to handle the problem.


          "It's fair to say that in our community, there are two distinct points of

          view," says Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the language

          association. While some academics still say doctorates are meant only to

          prepare college teachers, a growing number say the degrees can be used

          in many other fields that require the ability to write, research and teach.


          Maggie Debelius and Sue Basalla, English PhD candidates at Princeton,

          decided against full-time jobs in academia. But then they had to translate

          their skills for use in the wider world. While the occasional public

          relations firm, nonprofit group or government agency will seek a PhD by

          advertising in the association's job listings, PhDs who plan to look outside

          academia usually need to take on their own career searches.


          To provide guidance, Ms. Debelius and Ms. Basalla have written a book

          scheduled to be published this fall called, "What Are You Going to Do

          With That?" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). PhDs are often unaware of the

          breadth of options beyond academia, they said. "We were talking about

          how sad it was to see our friends from Princeton taking bad jobs or a

          succession of one-years," Ms. Debelius said of the book's genesis. "It

          seemed such a waste of human potential."


          Ms. Basalla, a professor's daughter, said she decided in the mid-'90s that

          she did not want to teach after she received her graduate degree. Her

          parents agreed to support her for a year, relieving her of her part-time

          teaching duties, so she could complete the degree in 1997.


          After a year of job experimentation -- including an office position at the

          Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, focused on health care, she became

          a medical and health care journalist in Washington at FDC Reports, a



          Ms. Debelius, who expects to finish her dissertation this year, teaches

          part time at Georgetown University and works part time for a Web

          start-up called Lifeminders.com, which publishes e-mail newsletters. At

          Lifeminders, she realized that she liked spending part of her time outside

          academia. Now she plans to continue this double work life.


          For those looking for jobs, the language association offers a two-day

          course at its annual convention, taught by a job search expert, Howard

          Figler. Other organizations also offer help to PhDs looking for work. The

          Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J.,

          has enlisted companies ranging from Microsoft to McKinsey, as well as

          private schools, to consider PhDs for jobs with salaries in the $30,000 to

          $60,000 range. The Wilson Foundation tries to match job candidates

          and companies.


          The foundation also gives grants to schools that foster work experience

          outside academia for PhDs. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst,

          for instance, is using a grant to pay graduate students in English who

          serve as interns at local publishers and other companies.


          For scholars who are committed to a traditional academic career,

          learning to cope with the prolonged uncertainty of part-time or visiting

          professorships seems, for now, to be just another part of the job. Though

          a wave of university retirements is likely in the next five years, it does not

          mean that much will change in the short term.


          "It's the next stage of investment I have to put in," Ms. Overstreet said of

          her first year on the visiting professor circuit. "Being in academia is like

          being an artist. If you can possibly do anything else, you should."