The Recession and the Academic Job Market

Emily Lu | September 2002

From the September 2002 issue of AWP Job List. © 2004 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with the permission of AWP.


Although the Modern Language Association (MLA) reported growth in the number of academic job openings in English in 2001, the academic job market will likely tighten in 2002-03 due in part to the current economic recession. The economic downturn has already affected hiring at public colleges and universities, and some private institutions are facing reductions in their operating funds. Community colleges, who have seen a boom in their enrollments, may be hardest hit by the recession. The Chronicle for Higher Education (CHE) reported in July, 2002 that some community colleges may be forced to turn students away due to state budget reductions.

Additionally, MFA and PhD students in English may be facing a tightening job market due to an increase in the number of students earning their PhDs in English. MLA reported that the number of students granted PhDs in English rose by 4.7% to 1,070 in 2000, the last year for which data is available. Although the number of entry-level academic openings increased 5.3% from 637 in 2000 to 671 in 2001, there are still too few entry-level openings for the number of graduates. These graduates are also competing with recent PhD graduates who have not found full-time academic positions and with the 7,230 students who are conferred Master’s degrees in English each year.1 AWP estimates of these 7,230 students, 1,200 graduate with MFAs in Creative Writing.

A recent article by David Laurence in the ADE Bulletin, indicates that higher education institutions only absorb about 400 new PhD recipients a year into tenure-track positions.2 But, Laurence states, “Every year since 1995 the system’s more than 140 English doctoral programs have granted degrees to more than 1,000 persons…” Laurence’s information comes from interpreting 10 PhD placement surveys conducted by MLA over the span of 20 years (from 1976-77 to 1997-97).

Overall, there was 2.5% increase in job openings from 959 positions in 2000 to 983 positions in 2001 according to MLA. The total number of new academic jobs listed in AWP Job List increased from 354 in 2000-01 to 429 in 20001-02. The 2.5% increase reported by MLA represents a slowdown in growth from the previous year. Job openings rose by 6% from 1999 to 2000 according to MLA. According to the MLA’s “Count of Position in the October 2001 Job Information List (JIL)”:3

Each year since 1998 the number of positions listed has been significantly higher than in the years 1992 to 1997. It seems apparent, however, that recession has brought this latest period of improvement to an end. Informal reports from departments suggest that some positions announced in the October 2001 JIL have been withdrawn because of budget restrictions, especially in public institutions…

MLA predicts that the total number of announced opening in 2001-02 will be 15% lower in English and 16% lower in foreign languages, compared with 2000-01.

This slowdown in hiring follows several years of growth in the humanities disciplines. Although finding a job in academia was far from easy in 2000-01, many people in the field had reason to be “mildly optimistic” as Gabriela Montell put it in a report on the academic job market in December 2000.4 Montell reported that from 1997-2000, the number of advertised positions in English rose by 37%. The growth in job opportunities for faculty in the humanities in the past few years was not only limited to the field of English. The American Historical Association reported in December 2001 that the number of history jobs at colleges and universities in 2001 reached its highest point in 30 years.

The CHE has reported several times since January 2002 on how the recession has affected hiring in academia. Scott Smallwood reported that at the MLA conference in New Orleans this past year, several searches were canceled because of budget cuts.5 Many states have cut back on spending for higher education and some public institutions including the University of Virginia, University of Arizona, and the University of South Carolina instituted faculty hiring freezes during the past year.

Although several schools are facing hiring freezes, this does not necessarily mean that departments are not hiring at all. At the University of Arizona, for instance, departments could hire if they could show that hiring would not cause them to exceed their department’s budget. And Smallwood reported that, “Not every freeze is total, and often a ‘freeze’ means only that permission to hire must come from top administrators…” Several schools conducted faculty searches during these hiring freezes, but approval to fill these positions was often contingent on funding.

In June, David W. Breneman, Dean of the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia wrote that, “In February, Raymond Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association, reported that the total deficits of 41 states are twice the level reached in the previous recession. Similarly, state budget cuts for higher education appear to be running higher than in previous downturns, while tuition increases at some public institutions are truly exceptional: 15 to 30 percent or more.”6

According to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, college and university endowments lost an average 3.6% of their previous value in the 2001 fiscal year. CHE reported that “many financial officers are facing an actual loss in the contribution to operating funds from their endowments for the first time in a generation.”7 To make matters worse, some public and private colleges have reported a decline in annual giving to their institutions. Some small private institutions have had to close or merge with other institutions this past year. These mergers and closings will impact the job market.

Ted Muenster, president of the University of South Dakota Foundation estimates, “We’re probably in for a five- or six-year transition now. It will take a while for us to account for these bad years, and to come out of them.”8

Community colleges are especially vulnerable in this recession. In October 2001, CHE reported that community colleges were seeing a boom in enrollment.9 Jamilah Evelyn reported that community college administrators predicted an even larger increase in enrollment this year due to the economic recession. Increasing tuition rates caused by budget cuts at many state schools have made community colleges attractive to more students and parents. With the recession, workers often enroll in the retraining programs that many two-year colleges offer. Furthermore, lower tuition rates at community colleges tend to attract more students during economic downturns.

However, many community colleges are seeing budget cuts 4, 5, or 6%, and many states are no longer providing appropriations based on enrollments. According to a later article in CHE, “This slump coincides with a growing college-age population and a massive number of laid-off workers and others frustrated with a sluggish job market who are seeking retraining at two-years colleges.”10 A few community colleges have had to turn away students because of a lack of open seats.

According to the article by Smallwood, mentioned earlier, “Ernst Benjamin, the former director of research at the American Association of University Professors says that when the economy heads south, people head back to colleges. But just as enrollments are rising, money disappears for higher education—especially at the public institutions where the budgets are dependent on tax revenues.” Benjamin goes on to say that spending on higher education is often slower to recover even after the economic picture looks brighter.

Who then picks up the slack as more and more people head back to college?

A prominent section of the employment opportunities website at Northern Virginia Community College reads, “Northern Virginia Community College is in an indefinite hiring freeze for full-time faculty positions and classified staff positions. However, NVCC is still recruiting and hiring for adjunct faculty, hourly wage employees and restricted positions.”

At Massachusetts Community Colleges, enrollment increased 5% last year, but state funding was cut by almost 6%.11 To trim costs, many of Massachu- setts’s community colleges have decided to hire more adjuncts instead of hiring full-time faculty. Many other two-year colleges are doing the same.

The University of South Carolina Philosophy Department hired several one-year visiting professors to teach courses after two searches were canceled due to a hiring freeze.

In January 2002, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a series of articles on how the recession was affecting hiring at four institutions.12 Because of a hiring freeze that left several faculty positions unfilled at the University of Ari- zona, some upper-level courses had up to 90 students this past spring. Upper-level classes at University of Arizona are normally capped at 35 students. Some introductory courses, normally capped at 90 students, swelled to 300 students.

According to Jennifer Jacobson, “Because of bad times, the university has allowed a number of its tenure-track positions to die by natural attrition, as faculty members have left or retired…”13

The increase in the number of students enrolling at public and private institutions coupled with budget reductions will likely translate into larger classes and heavier workloads for professors. A staffing survey conducted by the Modern Language Association in 1999 (the most recent year data is available) concluded that “while undergraduate enrollments have grown, the size of the professorial faculty has not grown proportionately.”14

Budget cuts also mean that tenure-track positions, especially senior tenure-track positions, will be harder to come by.

Georgia’s Board of Regents decided recently to allow more full-time lecturers to teach at their state universities. This resolution increases the number of allowable non-tenured lecturers from 2% to 10% of full-time faculty. According to the Department of Education, the number of full-time faculty members in positions not eligible for tenure jumped from 11% in 1987 to 18% in 1998.15 Tenured full-time faculty faculty generally cost colleges and universities more than non-tenured full-time faculty.

Both University of Arizona and East Tennessee University are hiring faculty members on a case-by-case basis almost entirely at the assistant-professor level according to Jacobson. At East Tennessee University, the university is hiring mostly in the areas of digital media, computer science, and marketing and management, where there is the most student demand for courses.

The increase in the use of adjuncts and non-tenure track full time faculty is not good news for job seekers. The average salary for full-time non-tenure-track English faculty was $33,559 according to “The 1999 MLA Survey of Staffing in English and Foreign Language Depart- ments.” The average starting salary for assistant professors in English was $38,300 at public institutions and $36,619 at private institutions according to the same survey. The average faculty member holding the non-tenure-track rank of instructor earned $28,027 at public colleges and $31,405 at private colleges.

According to a 2001 NEA Higher Education Research Center Update, part-time faculty earned in 1999 an average of $12,595 from their institutions.16 Full-time faculty earned an average of $57,802. Part-time faculty “averaged 7 years in their current faculty position.”17

A survey conducted by the College and University Professional Association found that the average faculty salary in 2001-02 for English language and literature at public and private four-year institutions was $54,856 and $51,892 respectively.18 This survey found that English Compositions professors were the lowest paid faculty members at public colleges where they earned an average of $48,503 in 2001-02. English composition professors at private colleges earned $44,616, just above the average faculty salaries for library science ($44,206) which was the lowest paying field according to the survey.

MLA found in the 1999 survey that there was a wide pay range for adjuncts, who are paid on a per course basis, but that most adjuncts made between $1,200 and $2,500 per course. (19.3% of adjunct faculty made between $1,200-$1,500 per course; 25.2% made between $1,501-$2,000 per course, and 20.4% made between $2,001-$2,500 per course.) Only 29.6% of faculty earned more than $2,500 per course, and 5.5% of adjunct faculty earned under $1,200 per course. An adjunct teaching four classes a semester during the academic year at $2,000 per course would make a modest $16,000 a year.

There’s been much discussion and concern about the use of adjuncts in English Departments. Of the 2,182 out of 5,245 departments who responded to MLA’s survey, 91% employed adjunct faculty. Less than 20% of departments gave health benefits to part-time adjunct faculty members. 70% of English departments reported in 1999 that adjunct faculty received no health, retirement, or life insurance benefits at all. Part-time faculty made up 31.9% of instructors in these departments not including the graduate student TAs who accounted for 22.2% of instructors teaching in these departments. Tenured and tenure-track professors made up only 36.3% of the faculty teaching in the departments that responded. (9.5% of faculty were full-time non-tenure-track.)

In response to these work conditions, adjuncts are beginning to unionize in some parts of the country. Part-time faculty at UMass-Boston, NYU, and Washington State have formed unions, and adjuncts in Washington State have won a tentative $12-million settlement after more than 1,600 community college instructors filed a suit because they believed their colleges denied them retirement benefits for hours worked out-of-class.

David Laurence states that, “…before earning tenure a college graduate will spend, on average, eight years in a PhD program, 2.8 years in a non-tenure-track teaching positions (Nerad and Cerny 46), and six years in a probationary appointment. That is, pursuing a career position as a tenured English professor takes fifteen or more years of a college graduate’s life.”19

Still, there is some good news. The American Association of University Professors reported that this past academic year “was the fifth consecutive year in which the value of the average faculty salary rose and one in which academics saw the largest single-year jump in their real (inflation-adjusted) salaries since the mid-1980s.”20 The 3.8% average salary increase reported by AAUP was significant compared to the 1.6% rate of inflation between December 2000 and December 2001. This means that the average faculty members had 2.2% more purchasing power in 2001 than in 2000. But the AAUP report cautions that these increases will probably not translate into considerable increases in the year to come since budgets for the 2002-03 fiscal year were set at the time of the recession after most states had seen “constant or even declining tax revenues.”

Also, Jamilah Evelyn believes that there has been and may continue to be a hiring boom at two-year colleges.21 Evelyn writes, “community colleges around the country report faculty-hiring sprees unrivaled since the rush to fill new positions 30 to 40 years ago. The boom comes at a time when the prospect of a budget squeeze in higher education has officials of four-year colleges scaling down on hiring.”

Evelyn cites Maricopa County Community College in Arizona as an example. In 2001, Maricopa, one of the largest community college districts in the United States, had more than 100 openings for professors. According to Evelyn, as professors hired in the 1960s and ’70s start to retire, two-year colleges will need to fill a significant number of faculty openings. The American Association of Community Colleges estimates that 30% of the nation’s community-college faculty will likely retire or leave their positions by 2004.


  1. “Earned Degrees Conferred.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, August 30, 2002.
  2. Laurence, David. “The Future of English: The Latest Forecast.” ADE Bulletin, No 131, Spring 2002.
  3. “Count of Positions in the October 2001 JIL.” MLA Newsletter, Summer 2002
  4. Montell, Gabriela. “A Forecast of the Job Market in English.” The Chronicle for Higher Education, December 15, 2000.
  5. Smallwood, Scott. “The Tightening Job Market.” The Chronicle for Higher Education, January 11, 2002.
  6. Breneman, David W. “For Colleges, This Is Not Just Another Recession.” The Chronicle for Higher Education, June 14, 2002.
  7. Van Der Werf, Martin, Goldie Blumenstyk, and Audrey Williams. “Fallout From Wall Street Hits Colleges Hard.” The Chronicle for Higher Education, August 9, 2002.
  8. Ibid
  9. Evelyn, Jamilah. “Many Community Colleges Report a Boom in Their Enrollments.” The Chronicle for Higher Education, October 19, 2001
  10. Evelyn, Jamilah. “Budget Cuts Force Community Colleges to Consider Turning Away Students,” The Chronicle for Higher Education, July 26, 2002.
  11. Ibid
  12. Jacobson, Jennifer. “The Recession and Hiring at Lake Tahoe Community College,” “The Recession and Hiring at Central College,” “The Recession and Hiring at East Tennessee State University,” and “The Recession and Hiring at University of Arizona.” The Chronicle for Higher Education Career Network, January 7, 2002. <>.
  13. Ibid
  14. Laurence, David. “The 1999 MLA Survey of Staffing in English and Foreign Language Departments.” <>.
  15. Smallwood, Scott. “Georgia Regents Allow Universities to Increase Use of Lecturers.” The Chronicle for Higher Education Today’s News, August 9, 2002. <>.
  16. “Part-time Faculty.” National Education Association’s Research Center Updates: <>
  17. Ibid
  18. Walsh, Sharon . “Law Professors Again Get Top Pay, Faculty-Salary Survey Finds.” The Chronicle for Higher Education Today’s News, August 12, 2002. <>.
  19. Laurence, David. “The Future of English: The Latest Forecast.” ADE Bulletin, No 131, Spring 2002
  20. “The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession 2001-02.” American Association of University Professors at: <>.
  21. Evelyn, Jamilah. “The Hiring Boom at 2-Year Colleges,” The Chronicle for Higher Education, June 15, 2001.
Academic Positions in AWP Job List
Total New Academic Jobs Listed
Tenure-track Jobs Listed
Tenure-track Creative Writing Jobs
Nonacademic Jobs Listed


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