News reports, such as this one in the New York Times, appear from time to time reporting on the lack of tenure-track posts in the current economic climate. Searches are being cancelled. Tenure-track positions are being downgraded to term positions. Senior faculty are postponing their retirements. And those completing PhDs are panicking, or at least being encouraged to panic by media who have perfected the art of fear-mongering.
It’s the economy, stupid. Or is it?
This is not new. When I was working as a policy analyst for SSHRC back in 2004, one of my colleagues looked at historical data on the employment of PhDs and discovered that no more than 50% of them ever went on to tenure track positions. Even at the height of the new universities boom (in Canada) in the 1960s, about half of all PhDs did not get academic positions. And the trend had been roughly flat despite economic ups and downs. It was not at all clear that the general economic climate had much effect on the proportion of PhDs that went on to academic careers.
The reasons for this are complex. Certainly some people complete a PhD but are disillusioned by the process and decide not to remain in academia. Others never had any intention of doing so and go on to successful careers in other sectors — government, business, or non-profit. Some intend to pursue academic careers but have difficulty securing a position. Some take on adjunct and sessional work and are disillusioned by the poor working conditions and pay. Others find equally stimulating work in university administration.
What is surprising is that this is not common knowledge and that we don’t have better systems to support graduate students in their transition from university to careers. Particularly, careers outside academia. In fact, Thomas H. Benton’s advice in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go, seems to be the dominant response to the facts of the academic labour market.
However, Benton’s advice contains this interesting nugget:
[Bright undergraduates] seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect — a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete — and, as a result, they don’t make any fallback plans until it is too late.
I know that, when faced with a young person proposing to pursue a career as “a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete”, many of us would discourage that young person. Not only that, but we would think that it was a responsible thing to do. Although we are taking a rather large hat pin to the dreams of that young person, we are usually well intentioned.
When we give this discouraging advice we are “saving” them from a life of economic hardship, rejection, and struggle. We want better for them. We know that very few people make a living as actors, writers, or professional athletes. We know that even people who are very talented and work very hard might not make a living in those professions. So we instruct the young person in “hard economic reality”.
Benton is not alone is proposing that fewer bright young people pursue graduate studies. If an academic career in the humanities is indeed like being an actor, freelance writer, or professional athlete, and he makes a convincing case that it is, why aren’t more of us discouraging young people from pursing this career path?
What about “fallback plans”?
This is where I disagree with Benton and all those who suggest that the solution to the problem is to train fewer PhDs. I agree that bright undergraduates need real knowledge about the academic labour system. They need to know that aspiring to be an academic, especially in the humanities, is more like aspiring to be an actor than it is like aspiring to be a banker or a lawyer.
I disagree about discouraging them.
But then I don’t think we should be discouraging budding actors or professional athletes either. If someone has a passion for a particular field and some demonstrated talent in that area, then the last thing we need to be doing is discouraging them. While being a lawyer or a banker might seem more economically secure, doing a job you do not love and might even resent is soul destroying.
Furthermore, no career is guaranteed to be secure. The recent economic turmoil has not spared bankers. Many jobs are competitive. And those who are passionate about what they do are much more likely to succeed in any field.
A professional sports example
I happen to be acquainted with someone who aspired to be a professional athlete. As a teenager, my university roommate’s brother was an excellent hockey player. He was also academically capable. He won a scholarship to an excellent US university based on that combination, playing hockey and earning a degree. I remember talking to him in this phase of his life and his attitude was that if he could earn a living playing hockey he didn’t care if he ever made it in the NHL.
He went into university with his eyes wide open. He knew he was good. He also knew that he probably wasn’t good enough to have a career in the big leagues. But he was going to play hockey at the highest level he could for as long as he could.
He still has a career in hockey. He supports a family. And he loves his job. He never played in the NHL. But he has a successful career coaching university hockey. And some of the players he’s coached have made it into the NHL.
Should he have been discouraged from pursuing a career as a professional athlete? Absolutely not. He has a successful career as a professional athlete. And while it is not the one most teenage hockey players dream of, it is a lot closer than being a banker.
Broadening the options
The fact is that one can pursue graduate study in the humanities and social sciences (or even sciences and engineering) even if an academic career is not your goal. Similarly, you can start out with the goal of a career as a humanities professor and change your mind along the way for numerous reasons. I’m pretty sure that my friend’s brother didn’t start out with the goal of becoming a university hockey coach. He played the best hockey he could. He was open to opportunities. And he made the most of the opportunities he had.
What happens if we take seriously Benton’s point that “they don’t make any fallback plans until it is too late”? Only let’s change “fallback plans” to “other options” because being a government historian, for example, isn’t necessarily a less valuable career. It is just a different career, that requires similar training.
What would the other options look like? What information do aspiring academics need in addition to knowledge about the nightmare that is the academic labour system? How do we support graduate students as they make the transition into the labour market?
To the extent that we are involved in the recruitment and retention of graduate students, it behooves us to honestly prepare them for future careers which may or may not be like our own.
Not just humanities
The casualization of academic labour and exploitation of bright, passionate young academics is not limited to the humanities. Social scientists are not immune. Academic science labs and science classrooms are full of untenured PhDs equally disillusioned with the system. It is too easy to fall into the anti-intellectual cultural denigration of the humanities as “useless”. The problems are much more widespread.
In fact, the situation in the sciences might be made worse by the greater availability of research funds from both government and industry. Anyone whose salary is paid out of such “soft” money knows the myth of the secure academic career. Working conditions for such scientists are also affected by the difficulty of arranging maternity leave or even regular salary increases reflecting experience and length of service.
This post was edited Jun 30, 2015.