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Sympathetic Labor Pains for Recent Ph.Ds

I’m so glad I’m not in San Diego right now, because watching the academic job market in action always makes my head hurt. It also gives me flashbacks to my underemployed days, which are no fun either. Writing about it doesn’t exactly improve my mood, but I’ve been feeling like doing just that ever since I read the summary of the new AHA jobs report earlier this week. If you haven’t seen it, the news isn’t good:

In the 2008–09 academic year job advertisements fell by 23.8 percent—from a record high of 1,053 openings in 2007–08 to 806 openings in the past year. This was the smallest number of positions advertised with the AHA in a decade. To make matters worse, a subsequent survey of advertisers indicates that about 15 percent of the openings were cancelled after the positions were advertised. And while we have not finished taking advertisements this year, it will come as no surprise to anyone following the ads that job openings continue to decline.

Even as the number of openings fell sharply, the number of new PhDs reported to the annual Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians increased by more than 17 percent, from 741 in the 2007–08 academic year to 869. This was the largest year-to-year increase since we began tabulating this information in the Directory in 1975.

Demand down. Supply up. That’s a recipe for a lot of labor pain.

Perhaps the reason for the glut of applicants is that (via C. Vann Winchell – Fess up! You read him too!) the Wall Street Journal has named “historian” the fifth-best job in America. However, as one of the criterion they used in ranking vocations was “employment outlook,” the new AHA job report strongly suggests to me that the creators of that list are on drugs.

Marc Bousquet has read the AHA jobs report too and seems to have some of the same reaction that I did to the WSJ....

What raised my eyebrows–and those of many others doing scholarship in academic labor–was his insistence that the labor market for faculty in history is a matter of an “oversupply” of persons holding doctorates, and that the profession needs to control “the supply side of the market,” ie, “cut the number of students” in doctoral programs.

This is the sort of thing that used to get said all the time by disciplinary-association staffers–as what I call part of a “second wave” of thinking about academic labor, emerging out of discredited supply-side thought dating back to the Reagan administration. Thanks to the third wave of thought arising from graduate students and contingent faculty in the academic labor movement, you just don’t hear so much of this sort of thing anymore. In most fields, it’s pretty well understood that the real issue is an undersupply of tenure-track jobs, ie, that the issue needs to be addressed from the “demand side.” There’s no real oversupply of folks holding the PhD because what’s happened is an aggressive, intentional restructuring of demand by administrators–in many fields, work that used to be done by persons holding the PhD and on the tenure track is now done by persons without the terminal degree and contingently. Increasingly, even undergraduates are are playing a role in this restructured “demand” for faculty work, participating in the instruction of other undergraduates.

I won’t disagree with Marc on the notion that the restructuring of the academic job market for historians is a huge part of the problem. Anyone who cares more about education understands that it is better to have more tenure-track faculty teaching in their department and should support conversion of adjunct to tenure-track positions on that grounds alone. This is not because adjunct faculty are necessarily inferior teachers. It’s because professors who have job security and make a living wage can concentrate on teaching more even if they do do research and sit on committees. Would you teach better if your load was 5-5 rather than 2-3? Of course not. It’s the same principle.

Nevertheless, the degradation of academic labor in general doesn’t necessarily mean that the supply side of humanities Ph.D.s shouldn’t be more in line with demand. Every tenured professor in America could get radicalized tomorrow, but if history graduate departments keep churning out more Ph.D.s there’s still going to be a lot of pain before the ensuing revolution ever takes effect.

Marc asks a lot of good questions about the AHA’s supply numbers, to which the best I can do is refer him to the guy who helped crystalize my views on the oversupply of history Ph.Ds, Ralph Luker. Back in 2007, he wrote a post called “Wherein I Name a Dozen or More Doctoral Programs in History that Ought to be Shut Down.” Here’s the conclusion:

Most of the doctoral programs that I’ve cited are small. Closing them might not dramatically reduce the glut on the job market for young history professors. But they are marginal programs, at best, and would better serve their constituencies by concentrating on offering the best M.A. programs in history that they can muster.

The key phrase there is “serve their constituencies.” If you can place your people in full-time jobs then by all means educate them. If you can’t, don’t. Notice how Ralph wasn’t suggesting the end of graduate programs – just Ph.D. programs. You don’t need a Ph.D. to teach history at a community college, which is probably why they don’t seem to show up in the AHA’s data.

Playing the lottery costs a buck and is usually over in an instant. Going to graduate school is a lot more expensive (even if the funds do go to education in both instances) and the opportunity costs last a lifetime. Sure, some people will win the fifth best job in America when it’s over, but it’s the people who won’t hit the lottery after the convention in San Diego (or who have already lost) who need more attention from the people who teach them.

Read entire article at More or Less Bunk (Blog)