The great PhD scam
by Jordan Ellenberg
Except for a brief boom in the late 1980s, the academic job market in the
humanities has been shrinking for 20 years, and the flow of new PhDs has been
on the rise for almost a decade. The National Research Council estimates that
923 people received PhDs in English in the 1993-'94 academic year (an increase
of 20 percent from the trough in 1986-'87) and of these, only 42 percent are
known to have tenure-track academic jobs now. The numbers for foreign languages
are approximately the same.
Where are the rest? About a fifth are in non-tenure-track full-time positions;
in other words, still on the market, this year or in years to come. Six percent
have left the academy altogether. Ten percent are unemployed. Another eight
percent are untrackable. And 10 percent hold part-time appointments: these are
the adjunct faculty, working semester to semester, without benefits, often
teaching courses at two or three colleges at once.
According to the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts make
up close to half of college faculty members in the United States. With little
time for research or publication, adjuncts are cut off from the main avenues
for professional advancement. "I'm working like a dog just to have enough money
to live on," says John Maguire, 49, who taught six English comp courses last
fall, split between Berklee and Babson College. This semester he has five
courses; next summer -- a comparative vacation -- just two. It adds up to about
$39,000 a year, with no benefits. (According to Maguire, Berklee has agreed to
a contract providing benefits to part-time workers, but is delaying
implementation by "dither[ing] about the language.") Is he here on the market?
"Yeah," he says. "Just like I'm on the market to win the Megabucks."
With such poor prospects ahead, why do new hopefuls keep entering the
pipeline? It's certainly not the comforts of graduate school. Suppose, for
instance, you start the English PhD program at Boston University. First of all,
you can't just start; if you don't already have a master's degree, you'll have
to complete BU's one-year MA, for which you will almost certainly have to pay
tuition: at the moment, $20,702. After that, you've got about a 50-50 chance of
being allowed to enter the doctoral program. (One BU student told me that the
passage from the first program to the second was presented to him as "a
formality" -- the university, he says, "uses that large MA class to fund
itself.") For your first four years of doctoral study, you'll teach one course
a semester and receive a $9500 stipend.
After that, the money disappears. Theoretically, you've finished your
dissertation and are ready to graduate. One student estimated that one in five
people are done after four years; another said she'd known one such person,
ever. Suppose you're not done. You can still get a job as a lecturer and try to
finish your degree while making $2600 a course -- no benefits. You'll be
fighting for the lecturerships not only with your colleagues but with PhDs from
other schools who didn't get full-time work, whom you'll probably begin to
resent and hate, both because they're competing with you and because they
remind you of a possible future you're trying to ignore. Students at BU feel
their situation is worse than the norm, but it's not much better anywhere; at
Yale and the University of California, it's been bad enough to drive the
graduate students to strike.
Jordan Ellenberg is a writer living in Somerville.