Job Seekers Face Historically Weak Academic Job Market

Emily Lu | November 2010

From the November 2010 issue of AWP Job List. © 2011 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with the permission of AWP.


Job openings in English departments sharply declined 40% in the past two years, according to the Modern Language Association, indicating one of the worst job markets in the thirty-five years the organization has been tracking openings.1 In the wake of the economic recession, colleges and universities across the U.S. have been struck by a set of unfortunate converging forces that include decreased state funding, declining alumni donations, and falling earnings on private endowments. Over the past several years hiring freezes, layoffs, and the restructuring of departments have followed as colleges try to close budget shortfalls and gaping deficits. These factors are at the heart of the weak academic job market across all disciplines, but it appears that the humanities were facing hurdles even before the recession exacerbated the situation. These challenges coupled with current economic conditions have created circumstances that some educators are describing as a crisis in the humanities.

In addition to a dearth of academic jobs, scholars in the humanities are facing several institutional obstacles. The National Endowment for the Humanities’ budget, when adjusted for inflation, is about a third of what it was thirty years ago. NEH’s approximately $138.3 million budget in 2007 was roughly equivalent to 3% of the National Science Foundation’s $5 billion budget. These dwindling funds translate into decreased support for advanced research in the humanities.2 At the same time that funding for the humanities has been declining, the percentage of students majoring in the humanities has dipped. Although the number of humanities majors at colleges has remained fairly constant throughout the years due to steady growth rates in college enrollment, students appear to be flocking away from the humanities. In the late 1960s, almost 18% of students earned a bachelor’s in the humanities. By 2008, the percentage had fallen to 8%.3 In many cases, this too translates into decreased support as colleges and universities allocate funds toward other areas. And as academic presses fight to survive, scholars are finding it harder to reach audiences. It seems that humanities scholars have a disadvantage even here. According to a study undertaken by the National Humanities Alliance, it costs much more to publish a humanities or social science journal than to publish a science, technical, or medical one. According to the report, the cost per page of publishing a humanities journal was $526, almost double the $266 cost per page of publishing a science journal.4

A growing number of academics are concerned that taken together, these trends and factors are indicative of a countrywide crisis. Some are calling for reform in graduate school admissions and curriculum. Others are alarmed by the erosion of jobs and the growing practice of hiring adjuncts and graduate student teachers in place of full-time faculty. These discussions have become part of a larger debate about the role of the humanities at colleges and universities in the 21st century.


The Numbers

MLA’s recent announcement is worrisome. Figures, calculated from tabulating ads in the 2009-10 Job Information List and comparing the totals to those from the 2008-09 academic year, show a 20% drop in job announcements from the previous year. This year’s 20% decline follows an alarming 26% dive in jobs between 2007-08 and 2008-09, the largest single year drop since MLA has published these figures. At 1,100, the number of jobs announced this year is one of the smallest figures recorded. The all-time low of 1,075 jobs advertised occurred in 1993-94.5

Although academic job announcements in the AWP Job List database grew from 474 listing in 2008-09 to 593 in 2009-10, tenure-track creative writing job announcements fell 20%. The decline in tenure-track creative writing openings was more than 30% over the two-year period from 2007-08 to 2009-10 (see Table 1).

Job seekers in English departments are not alone in feeling the effects of a weak academic job market. MLA also tracks job openings in Foreign Language departments. Openings in Foreign Language departments dropped 40% in the last two years, and the 1,022 jobs listed is the lowest number in history.6 This grim news comes off the heels of an American Historical Association announcement that listings for history openings in the last academic year were the lowest in a decade.7

Table 1

Humanities’ Place in the University

During the recession, many colleges and universities restructured or reorganized departments, eliminating undergraduate majors and doctoral programs in the process. Florida State University suspended its anthropology major in 2009.8 At the University of Iowa, it appears that seven humanities programs, including American studies, film studies, and linguistics, are at risk after a faculty task force placed the programs in a category that would make them candidates for restructuring or elimination.9 On October 1, 2010, the president of SUNY Albany announced that the French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs were being eliminated.10

One of the most shocking announcements occurred this year when the University of Toronto revealed that it planned to close the renowned Centre for Comparative Literature founded by literary critic Northrop Frye. The center, established more than forty years ago, attracted hundreds of international students and was one of the first of its kind in the world. Under the University of Toronto’s restructuring plan, current students and professors will eventually be absorbed into a new School of Languages and Literature. Additionally, some existing humanities programs will be downsized or eliminated after the reorganization, and most language departments will be consolidated into the new school.11

Rachel Stapleton, a student at Toronto’s Center for Comparative Literature told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “It’s scary and even more so when you look at the attitude trends against the humanities. It’s scary to think that this is the attitude of the university toward the humanities.”12

Although programs in the sciences, social sciences, and education have come under scrutiny, it appears that the humanities may be the area that is suffering the most at universities during the recession. Of the fourteen programs that are at risk at the University of Iowa, half are in the humanities.13 Several small philosophy departments in the fourteen universities that comprise the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (which does not include the Pennsylvania State University system) have recently come under scrutiny as well.14

Table 2

The Difficulties of Earning a PhD 
and the Erosion of Tenure-Track Jobs

The New York Times estimates that it takes on average more than nine years to complete a PhD in the humanities. According to Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, the system of financing that education is partly to blame for the time it takes to earn the degree. Students often find themselves in the position of financing their way through school by teaching undergraduate courses and by winning grants in a piecemeal fashion. This, coupled with the need to pass general and oral exams and to produce an original book-length dissertation, leads to a large attrition rate. About half of the students who enter into graduate programs in the humanities drop out. The average student who completes his humanities PhD is $23,000 in debt and thirty-five years old. The historically weak job market has added to the pressures of these students. According to the Times, a third of degree holders had no definite job (part time or full time, tenure or non-tenure) at graduation.15 As academic jobs in the humanities continue to dry up and frustration begins to mount, some students and teachers are questioning the current system of graduate humanities education and the staffing of academic humanities departments.

As Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard, writes in his new book The Marketplace of Ideas “there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get.”16

Although figures vary from source to source, in December 2009, the New York Times reported that only 27% of college instructors are full-time tenured or tenure track. It looks like that these numbers are growing due to the recession. In 1960, the proportion of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty was 75%. Gwendolyn Bradley, director of communication at the American Association of University Professors, commented, “When a tenure-track position is empty institutions are choosing to hire three part-timers to save money.”17 The difference in pay between adjuncts and full-time creative writing professors is staggering according to data from a 2009-10 survey of MFA Programs (see Table 4). The average stipend for creative writing adjuncts is $5,239 while the average salary for a creative writing assistant professor is $54,414. Tenured creative writing full professors earn on average $90,937.

According to a Humanities Departmental Survey conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007-08, 49% of instructors in English departments that responded to the survey are not eligible for tenure. The survey found that of the eight departments studied (Art History, English, Foreign Language, History, History of Science, Linguistics, MLA Combined English/Foreign Language, and Religion), English, Foreign Language, and MLA Combined departments have the smallest proportion of tenured faculty. The proportion of tenured and tenure-line faculty in the English, Foreign Language, and MLA Combined departments is only 51% while three-quarters of faculty in Linguistics and History and 69% of Art History faculty are in tenured or tenure-line positions.18

Not surprisingly, the number of tenure-track jobs shrunk in 2009-10 according to MLA’s figures. Of the 1,100 jobs posted this past year, only 65% were tenure line. From 2004-2009, the average percentage of tenure-track openings was 74%. This marks an almost 10% decline in tenure-line positions. In fact, although the number of total job listings fell this past year, the number of nontenure-track jobs actually increased. According to MLA, the actual percentage of instructors with nontenure-eligible jobs is higher. Because the vast majority of jobs advertised in the Job Information List were for full-time positions, the JIL figures do not provide insight or take into account the number of adjuncts teaching in English departments across the U.S.19 Statistics from the AWP Job List database (see Table 1) seem to confirm this trend. In 2008-09 about 38% of job opening announced in the AWP Job List were for tenure-track positions. In 2009-10 the percentage of tenure-track listings fell to 33% of total listings.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the recession has increased the number of adjuncts in English departments. Rosemary Feal, the executive director of MLA, told the New York Times that although the trend toward hiring increasing numbers of adjuncts has been around for the past three decades, the practice has become more pronounced in the past few years. For schools struggling with decreased state funding, lower endowment returns, and fewer charitable donations, hiring on a per semester basis has become increasingly attractive.20 There have even been some reports that colleges have been downplaying or underestimating the number of adjuncts that teach at their institutions. In 2009, the American Federation of Teachers accused some top ranking universities of inflating the percentage of full-time faculty members at their institutions to U.S. News and World Reports. That percentage has bearing in that publication’s ranking of institutions.21

In October 2009, the Chronicle of Higher Education gathered responses from a survey of 625 adjuncts in the Chicago area. 30% of respondents said their primary reason for working as a part-time adjunct was that they could not find a full-time job, and 33% worked at two or more institutions during the 2008-09 academic year. Only 18% reported that the total income they earned from their part-time adjunct teaching was greater than $20,000.22 “Students thinking of going to graduate school in English should understand that right now their chance of landing a job that provides them a livable wage is 50-60%,” said Feal.23 Another thing to consider, as Table 3 shows, is that the average salary of English professors and instructors, from adjuncts all the way up to full professors, is lower than the average salary for professors across all disciplines.

The use of Graduate Teaching Assistants also plays a role in the staffing of English departments. The Humanities Departmental Survey found that English departments have the highest numbers of Graduate Teaching Assistants instructing courses. On average, there were 7.3 GTAs instructing courses per department in English departments. Foreign Language departments had a similarly high number of GTAs instructing courses. History departments had an average of only 1.2 GTA instructing courses although they had an average of 4.1 GTAs leading discussion sessions or grading papers per department. In contrast, only 1.5 GTAs on average in English departments were leading discussions sessions or grading papers.24

On the bright side, the study found that the number of students declaring majors and completing bachelors and graduate degrees in English are healthy. Among the humanities, English and History departments have the largest number of undergrads declaring majors and completing bachelor’s degrees. These departments also have a relatively high number of undergraduates completing minors. English departments have the largest number of graduate students per department and the largest number of graduate students overall in the humanities.25

Table 3

Is There a Solution to the Jobs Crisis?

Although many academics agree that this year’s job market is a perfect example of the growing problem of unemployment and underemployment for graduates of humanities PhD programs, there is division as to the root of the problem and the ways to solve the problem.

In April, the Chronicle of Higher Education asked fourteen academics whether the supply of jobs was the problem or whether graduate programs were admitting too many students. Reactions were split and varied.26

Marc Bousquet, associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, responded, “There are plenty of ‘jobs,’ if you want to call them that—part-time, insecure, second-class positions… On most campuses the majority of teaching is done by faculty outside the tenure system. It should be clear to all responsible observers that movement of a few percentage points toward the tenuring of teaching-intensive faculty members would cause the ‘oversupply’ of people with doctorates to vanish. Instead, a vast, sucking ‘undersupply’ would emerge.”27

Brian Croxall, visiting assistant professor of English at Clemson University agreed, “It is true that there are too many graduate students for the current supply of tenure-track jobs. But if all of the contingent teaching positions in our colleges and universities were converted to regular faculty positions, the problem would disappear.”28

Added Joseph Grim Feinberg, PhD candidate in anthropology, University of Chicago, “We should be careful not to act as if some uncontrollable natural force is causing a decline in demand for professors, when we know very well that the primary cause is a conscious policy shift undertaken by university administrators, who aim to cut costs and weaken faculty power by hiring low-wage adjunct and graduate-student teachers in place of full-time faculty members. This situation is made worse by a concurrent long-term trend, less often noted, to demand increasing quantities of labor from faculty members, which makes it easier to keep their numbers low.”29

Others feel that the problem might lie in the numbers of students admitted to programs and that institutions bear some of the blame for the current job situation. Jon Butler, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University, stated, “Academe is scarcely immune from our financial crisis. There are too few jobs. But we also have too many PhD programs enrolling far more students than even a healthy market could absorb. Every institution should examine its admissions numbers. Are students being admitted because a program can confidently predict robust, if not perfect, placement in desired positions? Or are students being admitted to satisfy institutional status aspirations—or a need for teaching, research, and laboratory assistants?”30

Robert B. Townsend, assistant director of research and publications at the American Historical Association replied, “The decline in the number of academic job openings over the past two years has been remarkable—the largest in the thirty-six years that the American Historical Association has been tracking such data. But even before the current recession, we have been cautioning students, program officials, and anyone else who would listen that the number of new PhDs was likely to exceed the foreseeable supply of academic jobs… To the extent that graduate programs only define their mission as preparing students for narrowly defined academic jobs, they are clearly admitting too many students. And despite the data, each department seems to feel little incentive to reduce the number of students because they tell themselves that other departments are the problem.”31

Croxall believes, “Since a doctoral program is, in many cases, especially in the humanities, an explicit training program for working as a professor, it is unconscionable to continue to admit students—or worse, to expand the number of programs—when a significant majority of students will be unable to find a position in the field for which they have trained. It is certainly possible to move outside the academy with a PhD, but it is a path that is seldom discussed adequately in any graduate program.”32

Croxall brings up another useful part of discussion. As Ms. Stewart of the Council of Graduate Schools says, “Humanities PhDs have focused exclusively on the academic job market. They don’t have anyplace else to go, or they don’t perceive that they have anyplace else to go.”33 Graduate programs rarely discuss career opportunities outside the academy. As Townsend stated in the CHE forum, “The history discipline is quite fortunate in that it is large enough to encompass a wide array of professional activities. Unfortunately, very few departments are structured to train their students for those diverse markets or honor students who achieve success outside of academe.”

As the statistics from the AWP Job List database show (see Table 1), there are jobs outside academe for writers. In 2009-10, the database listed 412 nonacademic jobs for writers. Job seekers should consider widening their search instead of focusing solely on elusive academic jobs.

Table 6

Are We Beginning to See Some Change?

In an April issue of the Chronicle Review, Peter Conn wrote, “The obvious conclusions, though many senior faculty members in the humanities seem reluctant to admit it, are these: As a profession, we are enrolling too many PhD students, we have been doing so for decades, we spend far too long in guiding them to their degrees, and we then consign them to a dysfunctional job market.”34

It seems that at the same time that universities began moving away from hiring full-time instructors, PhD and MFA programs proliferated (see Table 2). There are 336 graduate degree-conferring creative writing programs today compared with 52 in 1975. The New York Times outlines the difficulties in reducing the number of students in PhD programs. If enrollment in some programs drops too low, it’s difficult for programs to justify courses in specialized areas. In addition, doctoral programs bring prestige to universities and attract faculty. These programs are also often a source of cheap labor for staffing introductory undergraduate courses.35

In the CHE’s forum on the need to reform graduate humanities education, Mark C. Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia University, sums it up, “The job market dried up in 1970, and there have been few jobs ever since. But universities have been reluctant to cut graduate-student admissions because they need cheap labor to teach undergraduates and to assist faculty members with their research.”36

Even so, it appears that the number of doctorates awarded in the humanities has decreased in the last few years. The National Science Foundation found that there were 4,722 humanities doctoral recipients in 2008 compared with 5,112 in 2007.37

As some observers note, the current crisis in the humanities has forced scholars to confront the realities and challenges that they are facing, and this is a good thing. There is hope that the ensuing discussion will result in meaningful reform. Meanwhile some large universities, including Harvard, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Emory, and Northwestern, have reduced the number of doctoral students they admitted into fields in the humanities and social sciences this past year.38


A former Associate Editor of the Writer’s Chronicle, Emily Lu has been a professional writer and graphic designer for the past seven years. Currently a freelancer, she was most recently a Copywriter and Graphic Artist at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.


  1. “Report on the Job Information List, 2009-10.” Modern Language Association.

  2. “Humanities Indicators.” Humanities Resource Center Online: A Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  3. Conn, Peter. “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 4, 2010.
  4. Howard, Jennifer. “Pricey Cost per Page Hurts Humanities and Social-Science Journals.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 1, 2009.
  5. “Report on the Job Information List, 2009-10.” Modern Language Association.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Graduate Humanities Education: What Should Be Done?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 4, 2010.
  8. Glen, David and Peter Schmidt. “Disappearing Disciplines: Degree Programs Fight for Their Lives.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 28, 2010.
  9. June, Audrey Williams. “U. of Iowa Lists 14 Graduate Programs at Risk for Cuts or Elimination.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 17, 2010.
  10. Fish, Stanley. “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives.” Opinionator. October 11, 2010.
  11. Birchard, Karen. “U. of Toronto Plans to Shut a Distinguished Center as It Restructures Humanities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 13, 2010.
  12. Ibid.
  13. June, Audrey Williams. “U. of Iowa Lists 14 Graduate Programs at Risk for Cuts or Elimination.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 17, 2010.
  14. “Report on the Job Information List, 2009-10.” Modern Language Association.
  15. Cohen, Patricia. “The Long-Haul Degree.” The New York Times. April 16, 2010.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Stainburn, Samantha. “The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor.” The New York Times. December 30, 2009.
  18. “Humanities Departmental Survey.” Humanities Resource Center Online: A Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2007-08.
  19. “Report on the Job Information List, 2009-10.” Modern Language Association.
  20. Lewin, Tamar. “At Colleges, Humanities Job Outlook Gets Bleaker.” The New York Times. December 17, 2009.
  21. Stainburn, Samantha. “The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor.” The New York Times. December 30, 2009.
  22. “Highlights From The Chronicle’s Survey of Chicago-Area Adjuncts” The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 18, 2009.
  23. Lewin, Tamar. “At Colleges, Humanities Job Outlook Gets Bleaker.” The New York Times. December 17, 2009.
  24. “Humanities Departmental Survey.” Humanities Resource Center Online: A Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2007-08.
  25. Ibid.
  26. “Graduate Humanities Education: What Should Be Done?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 4, 2010.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Cohen, Patricia. “The Long-Haul Degree.” The New York Times. April 16, 2010.
  34. Conn, Peter. “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 4, 2010.
  35. Cohen, Patricia. “The Long-Haul Degree.” The New York Times. April 16, 2010.
  36. “Graduate Humanities Education: What Should Be Done?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 4, 2010.
  37. Cohen, Patricia. “The Long-Haul Degree.” The New York Times. April 16, 2010.
  38. Ibid.

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