March 6 - 13, 1 9 9 7
[Dead-end Degrees]

The great PhD scam

Part 2

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.

Part 3

Jordan Ellenberg is a writer living in Somerville.