AWP’s 2014–15 Report on the Academic Job Market
Daniel D’Angelo | December 2015
Since 1988, AWP has published annual reports on the academic job market and the plight of adjunct faculty members. Since 1995, our website has provided free, continuous public access to these reports.
The State of the Academic Job Market
In the 2013 edition of this report, Dinty W. Moore, professor and director of Ohio University’s creative writing program, said, “In forty years of working in the arts, I’ve never met a starving artist. People find ways to survive if [creative writing] is important.”1 Moore’s words illustrate a resilience and passion that creative writing graduates share throughout the ups and downs of their careers, whether it is navigating unreliable adjunct work or negotiating vast but potentially alien-seeming nonacademic opportunities. Over the last two decades, this annual report has chronicled the massive expansion of creative writing programs, and though the rate of growth at the graduate level has lessened, undergraduate programs continue to proliferate rapidly, according to AWP’s Guide to Writing Programs. This report has also marked the failure of professor salaries to keep up with the economy, and, perhaps most notably, the difficulty in competing for scarce, coveted tenure-track creative writing professorships. Last year’s report brought us news on the yet-again tough academic market, the shocking rises in salary for administrative positions at universities, and the unionization of adjunct professors. In 2015, professors, for the first time in years, saw salary growth that kept up with inflation, and some states allocated substantial new funding for education. Additionally, the adjunct labor union movement has spread across the nation and continues to gain support. Even so, the hard numbers are that for 171 tenure-track creative writing jobs offered last year, 3,000–4,000 MFA/PhD students graduated that same year.
The percentage change in state-appropriated funding for higher education in all states from 2008–09 through 2012–13 is something to behold: Louisiana’s funding shrunk by 51%, Arizona’s by 59%, and New Hampshire’s by nearly 62%—the average drop across all states was 16.2%. The good news: in 2014, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, state and local support raised higher-education funding overall by 5.2% in America. This was the second year that funding actually went up, though funding levels are still lower than they were in the previous decade. Oregon’s public universities saw funding jumps from 13% to 28%. Hans Bernard, associate vice president for state and community affairs at the University of Oregon, says part of the new spending plan is to hire more faculty. At 21%, Illinois saw the largest overall increases in state support for higher education. Kentucky and West Virginia saw the largest decreases in funding, at only 2% apiece.2
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in its annual economic status report, marked last year as the first year since the Great Recession that the average change in salary for all professor ranks exceeded the cost of living by at least 1% (just barely, at 1.05%). The overall change in faculty salaries was 1.4%, at a time when inflation itself is low. Meanwhile, tuition rose in all sectors, peaking for four-year public and private institutions, at 10.02% and 9.22%, respectively.3
The main thrust of the AAUP’s report was an act of myth-busting. Tuition continues to rise, not because of “overpaid” faculty or soaring benefits costs, but from years of cuts to state funding and the dwindling of endowments. When assessing how traditional academic institutions can compete with for-profit and online competitors that drain their otherwise expected enrollment, the report’s authors, John Barnshaw and Samuel Dunietz, wrote, “Data clearly indicate that reducing the number of full-time faculty is more likely to hasten a traditional institution’s demise than to provide a sustainable model for the future.”4
A healthy sign for MFA graduates hunting for academic jobs: AWP’s Job List saw postings for 171 tenure-track, creative writing-related positions, which almost doubles the number of creative writing positions posted back in 2008–9 and easily passes last year’s mark of 112 positions. The Job List, in fact, saw all-time highs for job postings in both academic and nonacademic categories (1,169 and 1,274, respectively). However, continuing a trend that began around the last recession, the list features more nonacademic jobs than academic ones—this is not so much a comment on the difficult academic job market as it is AWP’s effort to connect creative writers with as many different opportunities as possible, at a time when politicians and even the general public decry the value and marketability of liberal arts degrees. Even though from 1994 to 2004 and 2004 to 2015 there has been an explosion in BA/BFA creative writing programs, the number of new graduates outpaces the number of new tenure-track jobs created by the growth in numbers of undergraduate and graduate writing programs.
Taking a different look at academia, salaries of liberal arts graduates, according to a 2014 report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), were found to be surprisingly higher during peak earning years (for workers aged 56–60). In part because liberal arts graduates are more likely to pursue graduate degrees (such as MBAs), their average salary of $66,185 during those peak years is about $2,000 higher than graduates with professional and preprofessional degrees like nursing and criminology. Katharine Brooks, executive director for personal and career development at Wake Forest University refers to the divergent long-term career arcs of, say, nurses and social workers as “the difference between a 50-yard dash and a marathon.” Melissa Korn wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “It might take liberal arts students a little longer to settle on a particular career path than it does for graduates who were gunning for accounting or nursing jobs from freshman year, but they often take similar jobs in the end, including in finance, education and social work.” However, humanities and social science graduates still earn about two-thirds what engineers make—right after graduation and during those peak earning years.5
Frank Advice from Creative Writing Program Directors to MFA Students & Graduates
For this report, creative writing program directors Bonnie Culver and Allison Joseph—at Wilkes University and Southern Illinois University Carbondale, respectively—weighed in on the state and status of writers thinking about pursuing work in academia. While both agree that universities no longer seem like such obvious, ideal places for writers to find employment, they remain upbeat about creative writers’ prospects. “The academic job market is the most unwelcoming I’ve ever seen it in my 20-plus years at a university-level instructor,” said Joseph, who also serves as editor and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review and moderates the Creative Writing Opportunities (CRWROPPS) group through Yahoo.com.6
Joseph describes the ideal creative writing professor candidate for today’s tough academic job market as someone who “publishes well, can speak about pedagogy in more than one field… and who has interdisciplinary interests in related subject areas—literature, film, ethnic studies.” But should that ideal candidate even consider the academic market? In Joseph’s view, universities of late seem to lessen their emphasis of humanities and the arts in their missions. On whether or not writers should look first at universities for their careers, Joseph says, “I do feel that time has passed, and that writers do need to think of teaching in alternative settings—in urban literary centers like the Loft, in prisons, and in programs like 826 Valencia.”7
Yet, despite advice one receives while completing an MFA, bleak academic career outlook, and the burdens of student debt, many graduates still feel drawn to academia. Currently serving as Chair of the AWP Board of Trustees, Culver asserts an imperative for MFA programs and AWP: “We cannot, in good conscience, continue to offer such degrees with vague hopes of employment based upon a myth that an MFA guarantees employment in the academy. We need to offer a broader range of possibilities for these graduates. MFA graduates should know the actual, not the mythological outcome of earning such degrees to make informed choices following graduation. The degree offers far more possibilities than following the teaching path.”8
Joseph agrees that AWP and MFA programs can help greatly by continuing to provide a large platform and a network for writers, but she maintains “the onus is on the individual and his or her ultimate sense of personal persistence” when it comes to finding a job and making a career.9
The State of Adjunct Labor: Advocacy Across the Nation
Centering in metropolitan areas across the country, and building on the momentum of adjunct advocacy efforts from the past two-to-three years, adjuncts and graduate student assistants have continued to form unions. Their new national advocacy group, which also counts students and parents in its ranks, is the New Faculty Majority. It’s no wonder, when part-time teachers constitute 76.4% of US faculties that the movement continues to grow.10
The unionization movement, over the past three years, has led to some colleges and universities agreeing to fairer contracts and employment standards for adjuncts and lecturers—the American Federation of Teachers was able to complete a contract with the University of California system for a pay raise for lecturers from an average of $3,000 per course to $10,000, in addition to improved working conditions.11 Over the course of a year-and-a-half struggle, George Washington University part-time faculty and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) managed to negotiate a raise from $2,700 to $3,400 per course. The union’s deal also won better job security for part-timers, which is just another source of struggle for adjunct instructors. The GW union victory inspired several other Washington, DC-area schools to join the cause, creating what’s referred to as the “metro organizing strategy,” which has proven effective nationally in organizing adjuncts and building leverage.12
In 2013, before adjunct unionization took off nationally, Northeastern University ran an anti-union campaign by hiring a notorious union-busting law firm, Jackson Lewis, to rout the protests of adjuncts. Ultimately, in 2014, Northeastern’s nearly 1,000 adjuncts successfully unionized. In an article published at Vitae, a website for academic faculty and administrators, Josh Boldt argued that the only way to truly bust adjunct unions is for universities to simply pay them better, and make more of them into full-time workers. “If adjunct unionization continues to catch on as it has in Washington, DC, and Boston, it won’t be long before all major U.S. cities have active adjunct unions,” writes Boldt, predicting in 2014 the state of adjunct unions in 2015. Going on, he cites SEIU’s Adjunct Action group’s victories across the country.13 SEIU’s Faculty Forward website features updates to recent successful adjunct unionization efforts in St. Louis and Chicago, as well as a petition to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan that demands investment “in the classroom—not corporate colleges.” SEIU claims to have effected unionization in 18 different state and metropolitan areas, and counting.14
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Adjunct Project, using crowdsourced data reported by adjuncts themselves, determined from January 2014 to April 2015 the average pay of adjuncts was $2,943 per three-credit course.15 A bold part of SEIU’s Faculty Forward mission statement: a demand for $15,000 per course in total compensation, including salary and benefits.16 In keeping with the advocacy effort, the 2014–15 MLA Job Information List published best practices for hiring and compensating part-time instructors, including the recommendation of minimum compensation of $7,230 for a 3-credit-hour semester course. The MLA’s guidelines to departments that hire adjuncts: there should be a limit to the number of adjuncts who can be hired related to the number of tenured or tenure-track faculty; the normative department faculty should consist of tenure or tenure-track faculty positions; departments that routinely have adjuncts teach a large part of undergraduate course offerings should reconsider their staffing practices; adjunct faculty should receive prorated salaries based on a fair full-time salary figure, as well as basic benefits like health insurance. The plight of the adjunct is clearest when seeing that the MLA also recommends that part-time teachers be given mailboxes, office space, clerical support, adequate introduction to their assignments and departments, and that they should be eligible for professional development incentives, like raises and research and travel funding. Just last year, the AAUP also launched a part-time faculty advocacy initiative, the One Faculty campaign.17
Justin Miller, in an article this past summer for American Prospect titled “When Adjuncts Go Union,” says the Affordable Care Act has not, as hoped, eased the strain on adjuncts. “University human resources departments are now hypersensitive to making sure that part-time instructors don’t work enough hours to require the universities to provide them with health insurance.”18 (The AAUP backed up this claim in its own reports.)
Miller highlights the deal struck between part-time instructors and Tufts University—their adjuncts’ new contract, which Miller calls a model for SEIU’s Faculty Forward campaign, affords as much as a 40% pay increase per course, guaranteed interviews for full-time openings, higher minimum pay for adjuncts with at least eight years of service, as well as compensation for work outside of the classroom, in addition to other benefits. Another piece of the agreement: more accountability for the work that adjuncts do, which is a plus for both the school and for adjuncts. However, Miller rightly points out that Tufts is a wealthy private institution. What concessions can public institutions make? “Paving the way for a new reality in academia,” writes Miller, “will likely require a multi-pronged approach—through unionizing forces, coalition-building, legislation, and ultimately innovative new employment models that don’t demoralize faculty.” 19
Picking up STEAM
While STEM in the US is still the buzz in national discussions about investing in education and catching up to other nations in math and science, the argument for mixing Arts into the acronym is gaining support. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) is promoted by the organizations you’d expect, like Americans for the Arts, but, surprisingly, also by individuals such as Larry Quinlan, the chief information officer at Deloitte. In a June article at Slate, Anna Feldman explains one of the arguments against STEAM, “As [it] becomes increasingly prominent, some have argued that the addition of an ‘arts’ component distracts from the focus on the hard sciences…. STEM already suffers from a major problem with student engagement, and… changing STEM to STEAM would distract from the issue.” Feldman’s stance, ultimately, is not about de-emphasizing science and math in order to afford more art studies—it’s about sparking imagination and innovation that applies creative and artistic thinking to STEM projects.20
Feldman explores a curriculum that puts science and math hand-in-hand with the arts. Now, that doesn’t quite give the arts a platform of its own, but it’s one way of justifying requests for new (and renewed) arts program funding. If STEAM means more focus on, and more classes in, creative arts, it could mean more academic job opportunities in K–12 and at the college level, for creative writers. She concludes, “With STEAM, the pressure is off to become a scientist or engineer—you can become a designer, digital artist, coder, art director, and scientist and engineer all at the same time…. We can be better engineers by learning how to think artistically, and we can re-engage artists with science by letting them see how STEM can work in the arts.”21
Liberal Arts Degree-Holders Suddenly in Demand in Unexpected Fields
Under ideal circumstances, colleges and universities are among the best workplaces to support long writing careers. However, MFA graduates should not (and do not) feel like it’s either academia or bust for their writing life, especially when the professional skills of writers are useful in building careers that afford time for, while also utilizing, their creative passions. Bonnie Culver shares an increasingly common and ultimately supportive sentiment: “All colleges, especially those colleges rooted in the arts and humanities, are being pressured to become more ‘trade oriented’ in their curriculum. With that said, the urge to create has never been stronger.” According to Culver, while English majors continue to shrink, the fastest-growing majors and minors at the undergraduate level are creative writing.22
The workforce continues to need good writers and shrewd, creative thinkers. Recent findings show that some industries have satisfied their need for engineers and developers—now they need liberal arts grads. In July, Forbes published a rather surprisingly titled article, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket.”
“Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger,” writes George Anders in Forbes. “Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists….” The article goes on to describe work from MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who argue that “today’s tech wave will inspire a new style of work in which tech takes care of routine tasks so that people can concentrate on what mortals do best: generating creative ideas and actions in a data-rich world.” And, according to Anders, in this environment for liberal arts grads, “the pay is good; the stock options, even better.”23
Recent research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cited in Forbes, predict that by the year 2022, jobs in education and sales will far outpace software engineering jobs, which will see only 3% growth. In making his point, Anders examined data on the 62,887 Northwestern University grads from the past decade with profiles on LinkedIn. He narrowed his view to the 3,426 who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Once there, pursuing careers in “sales and marketing, education, consulting, business development and a host of other specialties… the people who majored in psychology, history, gender studies and the like… quickly surpass the totals for engineering and computer science.” The same story goes for recent graduates of Boston University and any of the University of California campuses. The people without tech degrees are finding a market that welcomes them, and pays well, too. While software development jobs go down the path of automation, liberal arts majors trained in sociology, literature, creative arts, history, and philosophy find new and unexpected opportunities.24
By a Firm Foundation in the Humanities, Writers Make It Work
In a 2013 blog post for The New York Times, Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida Atlantic University (and a prominent literary theorist, who published a book in 2014 titled Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution, which includes more than a few ideas writers considering the academic job hunt could appreciate), shared his defense of the humanities. His defense was actually something of a nondefense.
The title of his piece, emphasis mine: “A Case for the Humanities Not Made.” In it, he argued that, in the face of seemingly precarious funding, and a not-soon-to-change emphasis on STEM fields—whether or not it includes the A-for-Arts—degrees in the humanities should scarcely need to be defended for their immediately demonstrable value. They certainly won’t be saved by lists of buzzing abstract ideals—“democracy, culture, social progress, whatever,” he writes.25
Fish, once an opponent of academic labor unions but now an outspoken ally, weighs commentary from colleagues on the decline of, and loss of faith in, the humanities and the ways we defend them. He agrees it may take magic wands and serious new funding to fix academia. He suggests proponents of liberal arts need much clearer roadmaps to higher status in marketable and viable futures in higher education policy discussions. In reminding us why the humanities are fundamental to an education, he writes, “[To] rise to an era’s great challenges. That of course is precisely how the academy, and especially the humanist academy, has traditionally been conceived—as a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results.”26
Though it couldn’t hurt, creative writers do not need an endorsement from the President of the United States—an admitted fan of great writing and great writers—see his recent conversation with Marilynne Robinson (the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and essayist, whom President Obama presented, in 2012, a National Humanities Medal). Let Mr. Obama’s initial address to Marilynne Robinson serve as a throwback to a time (was there ever one?) where novelists and statesmen convened, where the politician sought out the literary folk for the dint of their intuition and wisdom: “It’s wonderful to see you…. [to] have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in… about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in.” The defense, in English departments, job fairs, or adjunct labor strikes, of what creative writers offer to any society is tedious, but so is denying or stifling it. Not much later in his conversation with Robinson, touching on political disunity and the problems, economic and social that the country faces, Obama refers to “this nagging dissatisfaction that spurs us on.”27 Writers, if they can find work and carve out time to write, will make good books and good money out of any dissatisfaction. If society maintains a love for good books and enables (re: funds) literary culture, that is not such a bad deal either.
Writers hunt for the elusive career that suits and enables their literary passion, which may never make for an easy job hunt. “Writing is hard. Making a living as a writer is really, really hard,” says Culver. “The balance, however, can be found, but it is an individual balancing act. Some writers teach. Some edit, some sell insurance. MFA graduates should explore the full range of their options to live the life of a writer.”28
Daniel D’Angelo is a former associate editor at AWP. He lives in Arlington, VA, and holds an MFA in poetry from George Mason University. His poems have appeared in H-ngm-n, The Collagist, Alice Blue, and elsewhere.
- Sara Flood. “2012-13 Annual Report on the Academic Job Market,” the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. November 2013. https://www.awpwriter.org/careers/career_advice_view/2926/2012-13_annual_report_on_the_academic_job_market
- Ariana Giorgi, Sandhya Kambhampati, Lance Lambert, and Isaac Stein. “Almanac of Higher Education 2015,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. August 17, 2015.
- John Barnshaw and Samuel Dunietz. “Busting the Myths: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2014-15,” March-April issue of Academe , published by the American Association of University Professors. http://www.aaup.org/reports-publications/2014-15salarysurvey
- Melissa Korn. “Liberal Arts Salaries Are a Marathon, Not a Sprint,” The Wall Street Journal. January 22, 2014. http://blogs.wsj.com/atwork/2014/01/22/liberal-arts-salaries-are-a-marathon-not-a-sprint/
- Allison Joseph, email interview with Daniel D’Angelo. November 13, 2015.
- Bonnie Culver, email interview with Daniel D’Angelo. November 9, 2015.
- Amy B. Dean. “Unions Can Fix the Crisis Facing Adjunct Professors,” Al Jazeera America. February 4, 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/2/unions-can-fix-the-crisis-facing-adjunct-professors.html
- Justin Miller. “When Adjuncts Go Union,” The American Prospect. Accessed November 9, 2015. http://prospect.org/article/when-adjuncts-go-union
- Josh Boldt. “Off Track: How to Bust an Adjunct Union,” Vitae. Accessed November 1, 2015. https://chroniclevitae.com/news/254-off-track-how-to-bust-an-adjunct-union
- Faculty Forward website. Accessed November 16, 2015. http://seuifacultyforward.org
- Giorgi, et al. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Faculty Forward.
- “MLA Job Information List: English Edition, 2014-15,” Modern Language Association. Accessed November 17, 2015. https://www.mla.org/Resources/Career/Job-Information-List
- Anna Feldman. “STEAM Rising: Why we need to put the arts into STEM,” Slate. June 16, 2015. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/06/steam_vs_stem_why_we_need_to_put_the_arts_into_stem_education.html
- George Anders. “That Useless Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket,” Forbes. July 29, 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeanders/2015/07/29/liberal-arts-degree-tech/
- Stanley Fish. “A Case for the Humanities Not Made,” The New York Times. June 24, 2013. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/a-case-for-the-humanities-not-made/?_r=0
- “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa,” The New York Review of Books. November 5, 2015. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/nov/05/president-obama-marilynne-robinson-conversation/