2010-11 Report on the Academic Job Market

Sara Flood | November 2011

From the November 2011 issue of AWP Job List. © 2011 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with the permission of AWP.


In the midst of concern over a prolonged economic recovery, the Modern Language Association (MLA) reported in September that the academic job market stabilized during the 2010-11 academic year. The report indicates a modest increase of jobs advertised in the Job Information List English edition from 2009-10 to 2010-11. The total count of 1,190, which rose by 90 listings from the previous academic year, represents a growth of 8.2%. This figure, however, remains well below MLA’s 2007-08 peak of 1,826 posted jobs.1

Advertisements for foreign language jobs, which are also posted and tracked by MLA, followed a similar trend this year. Listings increased by a moderate 73 (7.1%). Tenure-track positions grew in number and proportion as well. After falling drastically, by a count of 297 fewer posts between 2008-09 and 2009-10, they increased again in 2010-11 by 101 (16.1%) and made up 70% of the total.2

Statistics from the AWP Job List also suggest some initial recovery in the job market. The number of new academic jobs recorded in the 2010-11 Job List database increased by 370 (162%) from the previous year. Of these listings, tenure-track job posts rose by 120 and made up 32.7% of the total academic jobs. The number of tenure-track jobs in creative writing increased by 30 and represented 34.2% of all tenure-track jobs, as compared to 40% the previous year. Rather than indicate a trend, this marginal decrease in percentage appears to result from the substantial increase of posted jobs overall. Perhaps even more significant is the increased number of nonacademic job postings on the Job List, which rose by 382 (193%) in the past year (see table 1 and figure 1).

Though the greater number of advertised jobs seems to signify improvement, these relatively modest turnarounds do little to cast the academic job market in a favorable light after such major upheavals. MLA’s figure of 1,190 job posts still represents one of the lowest on record for the past 36 years, with the lowest ever being 1,075 jobs advertised in 1993-94. Likewise, MLA’s 2009-10 foreign language department job count of 1,022 was the lowest ever recorded.3

Humanities departments nationwide continue to experience budget cuts and an overall decline in hiring resources. Professors have experienced growing pressures to defend themselves and their salaries, and full-time opportunities continue to get replaced with low-salaried adjunct and contingent positions. In addition, PhD students in humanities are taking a longer time to graduate before entering an unwelcome market. Rebuffed by the weak economic climate, the slow and often insubstantial recovery of humanities departments, sapped budgets, and an abundance of graduates competing for a varying number of jobs, graduate students in the humanities hoping to eventually land a professorship may find it wise to reconsider their career goals in the coming years and explore their options outside of academia.


Table 1: Number of Positions Listed in AWP Job List

Figure 1: Number of Positions Listed in AWP Job List

A Question of Confidence in Humanities Departments

With the academic job market still at an uncertain stage in its recovery, many prospective PhD candidates face risky decisions about whether or not to pursue a degree. This is not a humanities-specific concern. An article in the New York Times says enrollment of new students at U.S. graduate schools dropped slightly from 2009-10, citing the economy as a primary reason people hesitate to quit their jobs and go back to school. Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, told the New York Times that the rising costs of education and the burden of the recession may discourage prospective students from pursuing higher education. Lamenting the unsettling drop in graduate student enrollment, she said, “Both historically and in recent years, there’s been an inverse relationship between the economy and graduate student enrollment. But now, they’re both down. If we get to the point where only people with significant bank accounts can afford graduate education, the country is doomed.”4 As an added complication, the cost of higher education continues to rise, increasing by roughly 50 percent in the last decade even as family incomes fall, according to Karin Fischer of the Chronicle of Higher Education, who speculates that this conundrum may force more students to consider a degree solely for its “real-world value.”5

These trends and attitudes may contribute to a growing lack of confidence in humanities and fine arts departments. Harvard Professor Louis Menand predicts that when fewer students pursue English and humanities degrees, the fields will suffer as a whole: “Well-prepared and well-motivated students continue to apply to PhD programs and… the job pool is stocked with qualified candidates. But the bad publicity about jobs and time to [earn a] degree is likely to have an effect on the entrant pool. College students will judge a career in the academic humanities to be a high-risk proposition and will choose another path.”6

Though Menand believes that such a decline appears to worsen in a recession, he also argues that the movement of students toward other areas of study has occurred for quite some time.7 In other words, the weakening of humanities departments may not just be a temporary trend. According to University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Conn, the shifting of undergraduates away from English and other humanities and toward “more pragmatic” fields has been underway for the past 40 years, with 17.4% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in humanities in 1960, as opposed to 8% in 2004. Though the actual number of students enrolling in humanities programs has remained relatively constant, due to the boom in college enrollment over the last few decades, the percentages still indicate a significant downward trend.8

However, Conn also argues that the same humanities departments facing drops in enrollment are still graduating too many PhD students who in turn spend too long working on a degree, which, in most cases, does not guarantee employment.9 In 2010, the New York Times reported that PhD students in the humanities take an average of more than 9 years to complete their degrees, given the associated costs, flimsy contracts, and lack of benefits and security.10 All this, combined with the fact that there is simply less aid being granted to PhD and master’s candidates, may eventually lead to program deterioration as well as increased hiring of adjuncts relative to tenured positions.11 Universities often denote more money to nonhumanities departments, and the average salaries of English professors are, in general, lower than the average salaries recorded from all disciplines, as shown in table 2.

Table 2: Salaries by Academic Institution Type & Faculty Rank

Adjuncts and the Decline of Tenure

The practice of hiring adjuncts rather than full-time professors has grown in popularity at universities nationwide, rising in part from budget cuts and the dependency of public universities on state funding.12  As resources disappear, class sizes grow, and graduate students continue to saturate the job pool, universities take advantage of the abundance of educated, unemployed labor and hired more for their money. The difference is steep, according to the New York Times, which sets the national pre-taxed average of teaching assistant stipends at a mere $12,000 and that of research assistants at $14,000.13 Similarly, the average difference in salary between a full professor and an instructor of English is nearly $29,000 (see table 2). From a financial perspective, it makes more sense and requires less of a commitment to hire an adjunct or teaching assistant at a low cost than to settle in long-term with a full professor for upwards of 20 years.14

Data collected from the AWP Guide in 2010 and posted to the AWP Job List shows even more shocking differences among average creative writing salaries. While tenured creative writing professors earn an average of $90,937 annually, salaries plummet to $66,980 for associate professors, $54,414 for assistant professors, and an incredible $5,239 average annual stipend for creative writing adjuncts.15 Considering these numbers, a typical institution could, in theory, employee 17 adjuncts—with no health benefits or retirement obligations—for the cost of one professor. While this might not represent the wisest decision, it is clear why public schools under budgetary pressure might consider it the safest.

In this tough economic climate, full-time faculty members experience cuts to their salaries and threats to job security as well. University of Virginia professor Margaret A. Miller estimates in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the average overall increase in faculty salaries is obscured by the growing gap between professor and president salaries, and that like PhD students, many professors are pressured to acquire their own funding and take on higher workloads to prove their value.16 In addition to salary and benefit troubles, many professors face challenges even to accountability, and they must defend not only their rights to collectively bargain, but also their productivity. “Changes in the American professoriate’s employment patterns and types, demographics, and work life,” says Miller, “are the greatest we have seen in over half a century.”17

Those seeking tenure-track jobs have faced additional hurdles, due in part to the recession—which weakens state financial support and leads to a slowing of retirement and older median age of tenured professors for reasons such as health benefits—but also due to trends existing even before the recession.18 A chart published recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that part-time and nontenured positions have grown faster than tenured positions for at least the past ten years, and not just in the humanities. From 1999-2009, the number of nontenure positions rose by 46%, part-time positions by 36%, and graduate assistants by 41%, whereas the number of tenured faculty positions rose only by 5% and tenure track by 22%.19 Cathy A. Trower, a research director at Harvard, explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education one reason for the current hesitation to hire professors on tenure lines. “In a tough budgetary environment, it makes sense that presidents want to reduce the number of professors who are with you until death, essentially,” she said.20

Though grim, this analysis reflects the growing complications of a system that may be in need of revision. Daniel Tobin, Dean of the School of Arts at Emerson College, emphasized that universities need to begin revising tenure systems. “My hope is that [tenure] will not go away,” he said. “It’s not good to make [the system] all tenure or no tenure, but it needs to be examined.”21

Table 3: Number of Degree-Conferring Programs in Creative Writing

Exploring the Possibilities of a Degree in Creative Writing

Though the 2010-11 figures from the AWP Job List look encouraging, it is still too early to tell whether they represent a temporary recovery or a more long-term trend. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there may be a shift within the next five to ten years in the job market that causes an increase in faculty openings, as older professors who have delayed retirement during the recession leave their posts, and as institutions make accommodations for the growing number of students in certain fields.22

Despite the evidence of a slight decline in university enrollment and the suggestion of a general movement of students away from humanities departments, the number of degree-conferring creative writing programs continues to rise. Table 3 shows that in the past year, the number of programs offering an MFA grew from 184 to 188. This change is relatively small, considering the previous year’s leap from 169 to 184. However, the boom of creative writing programs becomes more apparent when comparing the current total number of programs to the mere 15 that had been established by 1975.

However, any new creative writing jobs that result from the advent of new programs will hardly be a match for the influx of students these departments will inevitably graduate. While the interest in creative writing is heartening, this doesn’t change the fact that there is an abundance of students graduating with advanced degrees only to flounder in the academic job market. What might need to change is the expectation many graduate students still have that they will find employment as a professor once they’ve finished school.

Professors such as Daniel Tobin believe that it isn’t sustainable for so many writers with degrees to have jobs in teaching, particularly with the exponential growth of MFA students over the past fifteen years. “It’s not possible for everybody to get a job in academia,” he says. “Universities have to begin to admit that it’s not possible, that an MFA is not a promise of getting a job in teaching.”23

Bleak as the academic market may seem, graduates in creative writing do have other options. The near doubling of nonacademic listings advertised on the AWP Job List this year is one area that deserves attention. These listings primarily include jobs in editing, publishing, journalism, and freelance work. As publishing moves into a digital era, new opportunities for freelance writers, journalists, and bloggers are likely to arise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that job openings will increase steadily for writers and editors, particularly for those willing to gain experience with new media or who can claim supplementary experience in such fields as graphic design, Web, or multimedia.24

Worried graduate students might also take comfort in the evidence that the master’s degree is becoming a more sought-after qualification in many fields, and some sources even suggest that it will quickly replace the bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite for employment. According to the New York Times, roughly two out of 25 people age 25 or older now have a master’s. This proportion is the same as the number of people who had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1960.25 In the AWP Job List database, too, 84% of academic creative writing job openings specified a master’s degree or higher as a minimum requirement for employment.26

Though it is difficult to predict for sure what sudden turns the academic job market may undergo during the upcoming year, it is encouraging to find that jobs in the field seem to be getting back on track and that interest in creative writing degrees continues to grow. As institutions begin to stabilize financially, professorships are likely to open up and older employees retire. Newly graduated students may also opt to seek jobs in blossoming nonacademic fields, and it will benefit students in the long run to consider these options both prior to embarking on programs in the humanities as well as during their study, just as it would be wise for prospective students to take their personal financial situations into account before committing long-term to any field with an unstable job market. In regards to creative writing students worried about employment, Professor Tobin had this to say: “If [writing] skills are valued, then hopefully people can make a decent living doing the things they’re trained to do. Of all things, writers need to be carving out a space to be a writer.”27



  1. “Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2010-11,” The Modern Language Association of America, September 2011: 1-3.

  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Tamar Lewin. “New Enrollment Dips a Bit at U.S. Graduate Schools,” The New York Times, September 22, 2011, accessed September 22, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/22/education/22grad.html?_r=1&ref=education.
  5. Karin Fischer. “Crisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 2011, accessed September 22, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/A-Crisis-of-Confidence/127530/.
  6. Louis Menand, “The English Department: Imagined Futures,” ADE Bulletin 151 (2011): 9-10, accessed September 22, 2011, doi: 10.1632/ade.151.9.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Peter Conn. “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 4, 2010, accessed September 22, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/We-Need-to-Acknowledge-the/64885/.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Patricia Cohen. “The Long-Haul Degree,” The New York Times, April 16, 2010, accessed October 11, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/education/edlife/18phd-t.html?pagewanted=all.
  11. Peter Conn. “We Need to Acknowledge.”
  12. Sara Hebel. “Academics Face Questions About Their Pay and Their Product,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 21, 2011, accessed September 22, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/Academics-Face-Questions-About/128612/.
  13. Ann Carrns. “The Essential T.A.,” The New York Times, July 22, 2011, accessed September 22, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/education/edlife/edl-24TA-t.html?ref=edlife.
  14. Audrey Williams June. “Fewer Paths for Faculty,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 11, 2011, accessed September 22, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/With-Limited-Opportunities-to/128929/.
  15. Emily Lu. “Job Seekers Face Historically Weak Academic Job Market,” AWP Job List, November 2010, http://elink.awpwriter.org/m/awpJobs/articles/nov2010.lasso.
  16. Margaret A. Miller. “More Pressure on Faculty Members, From Every Direction,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 22, 2010, accessed September 22, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/The-Profession-More-Pressure/123918/.
  17. Ibid.
  18. “Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2010-11.”
  19. “Colleges’ Reliance on Part-Time and Nontenured Faculty Has Grown,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 21, 2011, accessed September 22, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Reliance-on-Part-Time/128508/.
  20. Jack Stripling. “Most Presidents Prefer No Tenure for Majority of Faculty,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 2011, accessed September 22, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/Most-Presidents-Favor-No/127526/.
  21. Daniel Tobin Phone Interview, October 2011.
  22. Audrey Williams June. “Fewer Paths for Faculty,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 11, 2011, accessed September 22, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/With-Limited-Opportunities-to/128929/.
  23. Daniel Tobin Interview.
  24. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Authors, Writers, and Editors, accessed October 11, 2011. http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos320.htm#emply.
  25. Laura Pappano. “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s,” The New York Times, July 22, 2011, accessed September 22, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/education/edlife/edl-24masters-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=edlife.
  26. AWP Job List Database 2010-11.
  27. Daniel Tobin Interview.

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