March 7, 2009
Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times
By PATRICIA COHEN
Chris Pieper began looking for an academic job in sociology about six months ago, sending off about two dozen application packets. The results so far? Two telephone interviews, and no employment offers.
“About half of all the rejection letters I’ve received mentioned the poor economy as contributing to their decision,” said Mr. Pieper, 34, who is getting his doctorate from the University of Texas, Austin. “Some simply canceled the search because they found the funding for the position didn’t come through. Others changed their tenure-track jobs to adjunct or instructor positions.”
“Many of the universities I applied to received more than 300 applications,” he added.
Mr. Pieper is not alone. Fulltime faculty jobs have not been easy to come by in recent decades, but this year the new crop of Ph.D. candidates is finding the prospects worse than ever. Public universities are bracing for severe cuts as state legislatures grapple with yawning deficits. At the same time, even the wealthiest private colleges have seen their endowments sink and donations slacken since the financial crisis. So a chill has set in at many higher education institutions, where partial or full-fledge hiring freezes have been imposed.
A survey by the American Historical Association, for example, found that the number of history departments recruiting new professors this year is down 15 percent, while the American Mathematical Association’s largest list of job postings has dropped more than 25 percent from last year.
“This is a year of no jobs,” said Catherine Stimpson, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University. Ph.D.s are stacked up, she said, “like planes hovering over La Guardia.”
The anticipated wave of retirements by faculty members who are 60-something is likely to slow as retirement savings accounts and pensions wither, administrators and professors say. That means that some students who have finished postdoctoral fellowships and who expected to leave for faculty positions are staying put for another year, which in turn closes off an option for other graduate students coming up the ladder.
“I was encouraged to aim very high initially, but as I have watched more and more jobs pulled, I am worried about whether I can even get a postdoc,” said Vanessa Svihla, 33, a graduate student in science education at the University of Texas, Austin. She is defending her dissertation next month. “Amidst all the normal stress of finishing a dissertation and trying to get publications out, hiring freezes are a bit overwhelming,” she said.
Although some people think that graduate school is a good place to wait out a crash, some undergraduates said they had either canceled or postponed plans to enter graduate school this fall because of the bad economy or their inability to get student loans.
Aisha Hadlock, 21, a senior at Oberlin College who majored in Islamic studies, decided to delay graduate school for at least a year. “I don’t have the financial means to support myself through grad school in this economy, and grants and loans are so hard to get right now,” Ms. Hadlock said. The types of programs that offer generous financial aid “will be overrun with applicants,” she added.
Andrew Delbanco, the chairman of the American studies program at Columbia University, said that the system producing graduate students was increasingly out of sync with the system hiring them.
“It’s been obvious for some time — witness the unionization movement — that graduate students are caught between the old model of apprentice scholars and the new reality of insecure laborers with uncertain employment prospects,” Mr. Delbanco said. “Among the effects of the financial crisis will clearly be shrinkage both in graduate fellowships and in entry-level academic positions, so the prospects for aspiring Ph.D.’s are getting even bleaker.”
Many in the humanities fear that their fields are going to suffer most. Humanities professors are already among the lowest-paid faculty members, according to the Humanities Indicators Prototype, a new, decade-long effort to establish a database of information led by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
What’s more, nearly half of all the positions are part time — with no job security and no benefits — a situation that many educators expect to worsen.
Many students now finishing their doctorates began working on them when the economy was in much better shape. It often takes about nine years to complete a dissertation in English, said Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard, explaining that students have to devote so many hours to teaching and making money that they don’t have time left over to write.
William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who writes a column for The Chronicle of Higher Education under the name Thomas Benton, has frequently tried to dissuade undergraduates from pursuing a graduate degree in the humanities. He is convinced that the recession will push universities to trim the number of tenure-track jobs further.
Columbia, so far, has resisted an all-out hiring freeze, but there have been cutbacks in the budget in general and for each department.
The Humanities is the hardest-hit sector:
In the past 30 years, public and private money dedicated to the humanities has also significantly declined. The budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities is roughly a third of what it was at the high point of 1979, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Humanities Indicators data, though stimulus money may raise that figure.
Only 13 percent, or about $16 million, makes its way into scholarly projects. And unlike the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health, the humanities endowment does not give awards to postdoctoral students.
Of course the humanities don’t require labs and expensive equipment, but as Leslie Berlowitz, the chief executive of the arts and sciences academy, notes, the humanities suffer more from across-the-board cuts because those professors are much less able to generate financing outside of the university, unlike the hard and social sciences. Such scholars also find fewer job opportunities outside of academia.
Again, I didn't really learn anything in this article that, as Michel de Montaigne would have said, I could not learn from my own experience. The prospects for next year look bleak. I think something will loosen up in 2-3 years, however. I don't know why--let's call it artists' intuition.