A Report on the Academic Job Market

Katherine Perry | August 2001

According to the Modern Language Association (MLA), job openings in English rose by 6% in 2000, from 899 positions in 1999 to 954 positions in 2000. Academics have reason to be "mildly optimistic" notes Gabriela Montell in "A Forecast of the Job Market in English" from The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE). Positions for writers increased as well. The number of academic positions in AWP Job List increased by 26% from 280 total jobs in the 1999–2000 academic year to 354 total jobs in the 2000–2001 academic year. Many of these jobs, however, were temporary positions. Although the academic job market has improved, it remains a highly competitive arena with many caveats, which may undermine any job seeker’s optimism.

In the same article in the CHE, the MLA’s executive director, Phyllis Franklin, points out that departments of English produced nearly twice as many new PhDs in 1999-1,024-as there are new entry-level, tenure-track positions-528. Franklin then reiterates the dilemma that "either the number of tenure-track, assistant-professor positions will have to increase significantly or the number of degrees granted will have to decrease a lot more in order to really make for better employment opportunities." Discipline also matters; in fields such as a creative writing, for example, the AWP Job List data shows a slight decrease in the total number of tenure-track jobs, from 50 in 1999–2000 to 47 in 2000–2001. Just as the number of new PhDs surpasses the number of new tenure-track jobs, the number of new graduates with MAs and MFAs surpasses the number of new full-time positions for them. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 7,722 master’s degrees were earned in English language and literature. AWP staff estimates that roughly a third of these master’s degrees were in creative writing. With 195 of AWP’s 325 programs responding to surveys on membership renewal forms, AWP found that, in the spring of 2000, 5,848 students of creative writing were enrolled at the graduate level (1,044 MA candidates; 2,561 MFA candidates; and 104 PhD candidates), while 30,289 undergraduates had enrolled in creative writing classes during the academic year. Each year, approximately 2,000 graduates with advanced degrees in creative writing compete for approximately 50 to 60 tenure-track jobs in creative writing. For those recent graduates who do find jobs in academia, it will most likely not be in creative writing-and chances are it will mainly be adjunct or part-time work. Similar predicaments are prevalent for graduates throughout most disciplines in the arts and humanities.

A recent report based on a survey sponsored by a coalition of 25 disciplinary associations-the MLA, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the National Council of Teachers of English among them-quantifies the growing numbers of part-time and temporary positions in academe. The news that adjuncts, part-timers, and graduate teaching assistants are sharing a large load of the classroom work, particularly in introductory classes such as composition, will not be surprising to most members of AWP, though they will find the factual data, to say the least, striking. According to the Summary of Data from Surveys by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), "freestanding programs in composition… reported the smallest proportion of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty at 14.6 percent. English programs reported just over a third of the instructional staffs in their department were full-time tenure track." The survey also reports surprise at the "relatively high proportion of graduate students serving as instructional staff or classroom assistants in the various disciplines." This number is especially high in departments such as composition, where graduate students accounted for 42.5% of classes taught.

A recent study by the MLA also supports colleges’ dependence on part-time instructors, independent of type of institution, public or private. According to the report, "full-time, tenured, or tenure-track professors at doctoral institutions teach only 30.5 percent of English courses… in departments at associate-degree colleges, full-time, tenured, or tenure-track instructors teach 31.8 percent of English courses." In an article by Ana Marie Cox in the CHE, English professor Cary Nelson, from the University of IIllinois at Urbana-Champaign, remarks that he has "made the argument before that you can go to Yale and basically get the same instruction you’d get at Long Island Community College because higher education is relying on the same labor pool. So you have the institutions with the highest self-image and the greatest amount of pride and the greatest amount of cult prestige aligned, in terms of their labor policies, with institutions at the bottom end of the ladder."

Except in a few specialized fields like teaching composition and teaching English as a second language (if you earn a PhD in these specialties, you will likely secure a tenure-track job upon graduation), the supply of qualified professors in English and writing far surpasses the demand, and this may have eroded the overall perquisites and prospects of the profession. Many compete for a few jobs that provide modest economic gain. The average salary for professors of English is approximately $50,000 annually. The recent boom in our nation’s economy did not necessarily mean prosperous times for academics, who saw little salary gains. The CAW report "tears away the veil of lies about the new economy-that if you get a good education and become an expert in the knowledge economy, you will get a good job," says Richard Moser, a national field representative of the AAUP, in the CHE’s report on the study. "Here we have some of the most highly educated professionals in the country, and they’re barely making minimum wage." According to the Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession 2000–2001, prepared by the AAUP, the real value of faculty salaries was scarcely higher than the academic year before despite the strong performance of the economy. Moreover, the troubling salary disadvantage of faculty relative to similarly educated professionals persisted. Might this be the end of a stretch of four consecutive years of real salary gain? Perhaps, and for two compelling reasons. First, the recent tightening of state budgets threatens the real salaries of faculty at public universities, where more than two-thirds of full-time faculty are employed. Second, recent history has taught us that even a mild recession which many economists predict for 2001 can adversely affect faculty salaries.

The same report also analyzes data from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey to suggest that, on average, faculty members are underpaid, earning "roughly 26 percent ($15,299) less than the average highly educated professional."

The salary data, especially for part-time and adjunct faculty, is equally disturbing, especially when put this way: "Part-time teachers-almost all of whom have the master’s degree and many of whom have the PhD-would have to teach more than four courses per term to earn over $15,000 a year. Most could earn comparable salaries as fast food workers, baggage porters, or theater lobby attendants." According to the data, nearly one-third of part-timers earn $2,000 or less per course.

In addition to the salary gap between tenured and nontenured faculty members, a recent report by the National Education Association (NEA) also highlights the stark difference between the average salaries of professors at public and at private institutions. The report, based on 1998–99 data collected by the U.S. Department of Education from 18,000 faculty members at 960 institutions, says that tenured professors at public research institutions earned $17,000 less, on average, than tenured professors at private research universities. At public research institutions, tenured professors earned $26,000 more than their non-tenure-track colleagues; at private research institutions, this difference jumps to $31,000.

The frequent busts in the academic job market in the arts and humanities have compelled many departments and organizations to be candid about the situation. Since 1988, AWP has published perennial reports on the job market and the plight of adjuncts, and it has encouraged its programs to discuss these reports with students and prospective students. The MLA published a Report from MLA Committee on Professional Employment, which is available online at http://www.mla.org.

Like many programs across the nation, the creative writing program at George Mason University (GMU) has begun holding informal seminars for those MFA students interested in teaching. The first seminar-which emphasized practical skills such as writing c.v.’s and cover letters-was cooperatively organized between students and faculty. William Miller, Director of the Writing Program, notes the "discussion was the first sort of public addressing of the issues involved in post-graduate work. Most of us with jobs in academia know how that world works and need to share that information with our students, for whom it still can be an amazing and overwhelming place." "Once the process was demystified," says Kaia Sand, who received her MFA from GMU this past May, "I felt empowered."

Sand, who found a one-year sabbatical replacement position at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, advises those graduates determined to enter the academic job market to "set parameters and aim for the high end. It can get daunting," she says, "because you can’t try everything. You have to be realistic with yourself and, at the same time, still go for it. It can be a tricky balance." She also reiterates a comment made by almost everyone you would ask about interviewing: do your research. "Because I had researched St. Mary’s already," she says, "my interview was more like an honest discussion on why I wanted to teach there." Miller also suggests that graduates of writing programs "look to public arts programs, private foundations, the PR office of publishing houses-wherever good writing is valued-and see if you could be happy dong some work there that would help you along. Toni Morrison’s door to her career was through publishing, and the academy came only later, after all."

David Fenza, Executive Director of AWP, also encourages writers to consider a wide range of options. "We’ve seen publishing interns with MFAs go on to earn good salaries as technical writers or as editors. Once they decide to leave academe, they generally earn twice as much as the average adjunct, and they enjoy better benefits and have more time to write. Teaching four or five classes a semester as an adjunct while you serve on three or four committees is likely to steal your time and focus as a writer-it may also make you bitter, and tertiary bitterness will cripple you as a writer and as a person. The important thing is to value yourself and your time as a reader, writer, and thinker. What position is best going to enable you to write the next book? That sweeter position may not be in academe."

According to a recent national survey, colleges and universities are not always collegial places to work. Only 12% of the full-time faculty believes that they are rewarded for being good teachers, and only 36% of them also believe that faculty members respect one another. The last severe bust in the academic job market for graduates in English literature occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Interviews with scholars who earned PhDs during that time revealed that those who published new work prospered while those who merely taught remained adjuncts. Even though they held odd jobs as taxi drivers, train dispatchers, or administrators, the publishing scholars gained better qualifications to secure tenure-track jobs than those who taught heavy loads as adjuncts while publishing relatively little. "Publish or perish" is the old dictum, and it holds true now as much as ever, for scholars, for theorists, and for writers. Many searches for tenure-track positions in creative writing receive more than one hundred applicants. To succeed as a candidate for these positions, your having published one or more well-received books will be your best asset, though teaching experience will also be a requirement. Choose the job that will support you best as a writer. Ironically, you may need to leave academe to earn the best job in academe. Regardless of which professional path you choose-remaining in academe or leaving academe to return with published work-you will need to work hard, persevere, and remain patient and focused.

"When I tell my students that it took me 20 years to realize my dream, their mouths drop open," say Martin Lammon, President of AWP. "They tell me they can do five, maybe six or seven years, as if they were talking about doing hard time. Those two decades, I was working towards what mattered most to me, writing and publishing, completing my graduate studies, teaching three years in part-time jobs, three years in a full-time, non-tenure track job, and then six years in my first tenure track. In 20 years, I was 39 years old, but all that time I was working on what I loved. I tell my students that if they love to write and teach, if they’re dedicated to that dream, the job (not to mention the book deal) will happen. I also tell my students that I was a slow learner. I bet them that they can beat my 20 years by half."

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