For six years, Rebekah slaved at Boston University for her PhD in American Studies. Her plan: work in New York as a museum curator. She pictured chatty, engrossing interviews with like-minded creative types. “Everyone would be so pleased” with her PhD, she thought. Yet eight months after graduating, Rebekah is unemployed and considering a gig at a public library that requires only a GED.
The demand for humanities PhDs has long been tight—for four decades, the number of jobs requiring them hasn’t kept pace with the number of people earning them. But by all indications, recent university hiring freezes and evaporating grant money have reduced the world’s most elite degree to junk-bond status.
“I have thought, ‘Am I going to have to be a waitress?’ Everyone in the field thinks about what else they can do.”
On the Modern Language Association’s Job Information List, a bellwether for PhD employment trends, the number of job postings is down 21 percent, the steepest decline in the list’s 34-year history. One attendee of last month’s annual MLA convention in San Francisco, where doctorate graduates can score interviews for tenure-track professorships, found the event rendered “somber” by the scarcity of opportunities. The same air permeated last week’s American Historical Association conference. “Job candidates who a year ago had goals of four or five interviews here were thrilled to have one,” reported InsideHigherEd.com.
“This is certainly the largest dip [in jobs] we’ve seen, percentage-wise, since we began tracking in the 1970s,” says Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA. “It really is disheartening to see so many well-prepared people in search of so few jobs.”
Rebekah could be a poster child for the current PhD despondency. She’s written more than a hundred networking and cover letters during her eight-month job search, and trolls 44 employment websites on a daily basis. Three jobs that fit her specialty recently opened—then two of them were canceled when grant money dried up. “I went in for the interviews, then got word that the searches had stopped,” Rebekah says. “I do have moments of regretting [getting a PhD] because now I’m applying for assistant curator jobs that I could’ve gotten beforehand.”
She even applied for a job as an archivist for the Girl Scouts of America. “As a kid, I was kicked out of the Girl Scouts, which I obviously didn’t mention in my letter,” she says. “I never heard back. It was probably obvious that we weren’t exactly a match.”
“It took six years to write my dissertation, but getting employed feels impossible right now. There’s something a little sick about that,” says “Liz,” another freshly minted PhD who didn’t want her name used. After spending a decade earning her English PhD at UC-Berkeley, she began her job search in September by applying for 40 different tenure-track positions; she’s since received notice that those searches have been canceled. “There are a lot of folks in despair. Several PhDs I know are in counseling.”
“I’m frightened,” says a lecturer in the Boston area who earned her PhD last year and remains unemployed in her field. “These are huge numbers, all related to the economic crisis. I have thought, ‘Am I going to have to be a waitress?’ Everyone in the field thinks about what else they can do.”
Notably, many on the job market refused to provide their names for this story. In the competitive world of academia, paranoia runs high. “It’s extraordinarily insular,” says Christine Hong, a postdoctoral fellow at UC-Berkeley. “I don’t see how someone complaining about how dire things are would necessarily be fatal for them, but I understand the paranoia.”
Some new PhDs, especially those saddled with debt, are considering junking their degrees altogether.
“I have dissertation friends with kids who just wind up being stay-at-home moms,” says a humanities PhD student and mother of two. “You wind up doing Plan B, whatever that is.” She’s applied for roughly 25 tenure-track positions, only to hear back that many of the searches have been canceled. One rejection notice said the position drew 700 applications.
“Every single academic, especially in the humanities, has a tinge of buyer’s remorse” about their PhD, she says. “You see your peers in law or business school make down payments on homes and buy cars and go on vacation. But as a PhD student, you’re in your 30s, still renting an apartment and driving a ’84 Corolla. It’s not cute.”
According to former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the downward spiral began when Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, announced that the troubled economy had forced the university to take “a hard look at hiring.”
“That was a catalyst,” says Trachtenberg, author of The Art of Hiring in America's Colleges & Universities. “Harvard is the North Star, and considered the richest institution in the country. So every other college president in America could then say, ‘If this is going on at Harvard, you can understand that we, too, need to be more cautious.’ It’s a trickle that has turned into a drought…In terms of the hiring freezes, I haven't seen this in a long time. And absolutely, it's related to the recession and the loss of endowment income.”
State schools with smaller budgets have always been a tougher nut for PhDs to crack. “But what’s unusual is how private schools are saying the same thing,” says Robert Townsend, assistant director for research and publications at the American Historical Association. “They’re pinching pennies on pencils—small stuff. Candidates have plenty of reason to be upset and concerned.”
Those not giving up entirely are taking whatever they can get. Liz, like many PhDs, says she feels like she’s taking a step back by working as a teacher’s assistant, a position typically held by students who just got their bachelor's degrees. But she swallowed her pride and took the job anyway. She starts this month.
“I’m considering leaving academia,” she says, rattling off the other odd jobs she’s taken on: tutor for high-school students, a grader for the Educational Testing Service. “I never romanticized the profession. I never imagined myself at some top research institution, with assistants scurrying around doing work for me. But I did imagine that I would have a job. Sure, I haven’t bused tables yet. But I might.”
Kai Ma is a writer and columnist whose work has appeared in New York magazine, Newsday, Nerve, and Time Out New York. She began covering race and Asian-American communities after helping to produce “Matters of Race,” a PBS documentary that explored the impact of ethnicity in one of the most diverse hospitals in Los Angeles. In South Korea, she also reported on North Korean defectors and their adjustment into capitalist Seoul.