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In the Chronicle: The Realities of Employment in the Humanities

posted by Christopher Howard — Apr 07, 2010

Peter Conn of the University of Pennsylvania writes a dense article for the Chronicle Review on the realities of unemployment in the humanities. Deftly sifting through various studies on employment, attrition, and other factors, this professor of English and education considers the situation from several points of view and offers possible and pragmatic solutions.

It’s no surprise to hear that full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities have been shrinking over the past decade in both public and private institutions. Conn widens the field of inquiry, for example, by looking at how the for-profit University of Phoenix—with more than 400,000 undergrads and 78,000 graduate students nationwide and internationally—has expanded the field of education while perhaps exacerbating the rise of part-time and adjunct professors. In addition, the number of humanities doctorates produced has increased almost 50 percent during the last twenty years, but the job market has remained flat or declined.

Conn notes that the federal ban on mandatory retirement in 1994 has contributed to an aging workforce that is reluctant to retire, especially in the present recession. Also, the “star system” that attracts well-known and thus higher-paid professors negatively impacts the lower ranks. Attrition is another concern: 43 percent of students never finish their PhD. Thus they linger in higher education longer than they should, drain resources, and add to the part-time workforce. Even if they finished they’d be consigned to a “dysfunctional job market.”

While Conn argues for fewer students admitted to doctoral programs, he recognizes that current professors would object because, on the whole, they enjoy teaching graduates over undergraduates, and those undergraduates still need their survey classes, which are often staffed by graduate students. He lists several other objections to his proposal of smaller programs, including the unfortunate situation of denying education to those who want it.

Other recommendations include having graduate programs give realistic pictures of postdoctoral professional life, whether that’s offering classes on the subject, maintaining an informational job-placement webpage (listing past successes), or promoting careers outside academia. Of the latter Conn writes, with admittedly soft data: “These women and men found somewhat more job satisfaction than did members of their cohorts who continued in academic careers, in part because they ended up in locations of their choice, and in part because they tended to make more money.” But at the same time, “My own conversations with graduate students over several decades indicate that most of them do not find the idea of nonacademic careers particularly appealing.”

Filed under: Education, Workforce