Outlook Grim For Prospective Professors

Disappearing job postings prompt Ph.D.'s to mull a career change

The American Economic Association's job board recently sprouted a brand-new section: cancelled listings. Newly minted economics Ph.D.'s and postdocs looking for their next academic job will instead find pages and pages of frozen and suspended searches, more than 50 in all. It's the same story for classicists and archaeologists checking the American Philological Association's listings, which now start with a roster of misery—a rundown of all the positions that no longer exist. Job hopefuls in psychology, film studies, creative writing, and sociology have created wikis to swap news about spiked listings, a death register that includes opportunities at Dartmouth, Cornell, Harvard, Hofstra, Fordham, and nearly every open search in the SUNY and Cal State systems.

Never mind a hiring freeze. For those seeking jobs in academia, next year is looking more like a nuclear winter.

"Last year, about a quarter of the positions I applied for had their searches canceled, and last year's market didn't look as bad as this year's," says one aspirant, art historian Sandra Cheng. "I'm wondering how many of these positions I'm applying for are actually real."

Now a visiting assistant professor at Pratt, Cheng got her Ph.D. in May at the University of Delaware and has a résumé filled with fellowships and grants. She's seeking a traditional academic livelihood: research, travel, and teaching, at a university with tenure-track positions. But after a year of job-hunting and piecing together part-time positions, Cheng is wondering if the career she envisioned still exists.

"I do sense a permanent change," she says. "I wonder if this is the last leg for the tenure system."

At the American Historical Association's annual conference/job fair, held in New York earlier this month, researcher Sterling Fluharty presented a paper about the job market in his field with a blunt conclusion: "Job seekers in history need to think more about their employment prospects in non-academic fields." A grad student at the University of Oklahoma, Fluharty mined data and found that less than a third of those who earned a Ph.D. in history between 1966 and 1992 were tenured faculty as of 2003. Even before this year's market meltdown, the move away from offering full-time, tenured positions was accelerating. By Fluharty's calculations, within the next decade, 55 percent of all university history faculty members will be working in part-time positions.

As professionals in fields with weak demand head back to grad school to sit out the market for a bit, grad students are investigating their own options for staying out of the job fray. Katy Pearce, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in communications at the University of California Santa Barbara, had planned to wrap up her studies this year. But when she returned from a stretch of fieldwork in Armenia, she found that "everyone in my program that was expecting to go on the job market this year all bailed. They just weren't seeing anything being listed."

Pearce's program guarantees funding for up to four years, so she decided to delay graduation, focus on burnishing her publishing credentials, and hope hiring prospects in 2010 look brighter. But as schools cut back their undergraduate enrollments to bridge budget gaps, she's wondering if the demand will be there for new grad students and for professors to teach them.

"At the last conference I went to, I heard that one of the jobs that opened at Northwestern, 400 people applied for. Usually, 100 apply," she says. "So many assistant professors have gotten cut. For those of us just getting our Ph.D.'s, how can we compete against people who have already been an assistant for a year or two?"

Those odds have Cheng reconsidering her career path. She's thinking about detouring away from art history and going into academic administration—universities are businesses, and businesses always need managers to run them. But if she does stick with teaching, she'd like to land a school where she can concentrate on undergraduates. Cheng is queasy about the idea of encouraging future art historians along into a field unable to absorb them.

"For Ph.D.'s in the humanities market, it's almost like we really shouldn't make any more, because there's such a backlog of doctorates floating around out there and we don't have the jobs," she says. "The programs want more grad students to keep their departments floating, but is it really ethical, I wonder?"

 
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