I can no longer in good conscience recommend graduate school to all or even most students who consider it, and the reason is very simple-- the academic job market is terrible. According to the Modern Language Association, the professional organization for English and foreign languages, the most recent crisis in employment opportunities for English Ph.D.s began around 1990, a time when recession throughout business and industry made the academic slump at least relatively understandable. What is more disturbing in 1998 is that the country is now experiencing unprecedented employment rates and economic prosperity but the academic job market has not followed suit. According to MLA statistics, since 1975 the number of advertised positions in English have gone through two major slumps and one significant upswing.1 The first low point was in the early 1980s when, for instance, in 1982-83, the year I applied to Reed, there were 1,296 positions advertised in the Job Information List, published by the MLA. From this nadir, job listings climbed dramatically until 1988-89, when there were 2,025 jobs listed. Since that peak, the listings have been in a precipitous decline, reaching 1,056 in 1993-94; they have more or less leveled off in the most recent years, but at a level below the previous low of the early '80s.|
The reasons for the dismal outlook for academic jobs are no doubt multiple and beyond the scope of this article to analyze fully, but there are a couple of factors worth mentioning. First, there is the disjunction in the relationship between the number of jobs available and the number of Ph.D.s produced. In the late '80s, when the academic job market looked brightest, there were many predictions that the rapid increase in positions would continue into the '90s. Perhaps because of this expectation, graduate programs began to turn out more Ph.D.s, producing an even greater surplus, when the numbers of jobs not only did not increase but positively and sharply declined. Throughout the '80s, the number of English Ph.D.s in a given year were steady, ranging in the low to mid 700s. Beginning in 1989-90, a sharp upward trend developed, with 796 in that year and 1,080 in 1994-95. The lowest number of positions advertised in over 20 years was 1993-94, but 943 Ph.D.s were awarded, about the same number as were produced in the boom years of the late 1960s and about 200 more than in the previous worst job year, 1982-83.
Another important factor affecting the number of academic jobs available is the level of public funding. According to a Rockefeller Institute of Government study, cited by MLA president Herbert Lindenberger in his recent report on professional employment, state funding for higher education decreased significantly between 1990 and 1994. "Whereas expenditures for prisons and welfare increased during these years, they remained constant for elementary and secondary education, while the percentage for higher education decreased from 14 percent to 12.5 percent. The study concluded that higher education has come to serve as a 'cash cow' to finance other state needs."2
In the face of this gloomy hiring picture, my conversations with students contemplating graduate school now stress realism. Even encouragement to the best and brightest is coupled with the warning that many very talented and accomplished graduate students will not find a job, even with flawless records, publications, and the best letters of recommendations from a top graduate school. There are three questions I have found it useful to have students think about in this context: why do you want to go to graduate school, what do you want to study, and where do you see graduate school taking you professionally? In response to these questions, there are two attitudes among students that are especially common and problematic, but they also often provide the basis for the most productive discussions. One is the assumption that graduate school is the right path because studying is the only thing the students can imagine themselves doing. This blinkered attitude can have disastrous consequences. Successful completion of graduate school requires more definite, positive reasons for continuing. "Why not go on" is an attitude that will quickly and easily be eroded by the rigors of hard studying at great financial costs, especially when there is little of the Reed-like feedback our students treasure and expect.