A Surplus of Scholars Fight for Jobs in
Issue in Depth
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
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."