Ph.D. students plan for a difficult job market

As upperclassmen scramble for recommendation letters and update their resumes in preparation for this fall’s interview season, many are only dimly aware that their teaching assistants and graduate fellows may also be engaged in a desperate job hunt.

Jobs in academia are notoriously difficult to find, especially in humanities-related fields. According to the American Historical Association, the 2003-2004 academic year saw a 6.5 percent increase in the number of history doctoral degrees issued, while the number of advertised jobs for historians decreased by 1.8 percent. While the extent of the problem varies among the reports, most doctoral students, regardless of their disciplines, said they are troubled by the difficulty of finding good academic jobs after graduation.

Jay Driskell GRD ’07, an organizer for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization who studies job markets, said the problem is not so much a lack of academic jobs as a lack of full-time professorships with benefits. In 2003, Driskell said, the number of part-time jobs available in academia was roughly equal to the number of full-time jobs.

“My sense of it is that the job market is pretty bad now, particularly for history,” Driskell said. “And it’s gotten considerably worse in the last 15, 20 years.”

Part-time jobs of the type Driskell mentioned are non-tenured positions, often temporary and without benefits. Driskell said the lack of full-time jobs is troubling because scholars require fiscal and career stability to make significant contributions to their fields.

“[The lack of full-time jobs] will reduce the number of quality works that are produced in my generation by scholars,” Driskell said. “And that will reduce the quality of the field of history.

Driskell also said that, by the time they receive their doctoral degrees, many graduate students are either considering having a family or have one already, which gives them a further need for stable and secure employment.

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said the increasing number of part-time teaching positions is more a result of individual institutions’ hiring practices than of malice on the part of the academic system as a whole.

“Each institution has to be responsible for the way it hires faculty,” Butler said.

Despite the rise in frequency of part-time jobs and adjunct professorships, Butler said he does not think the academic market is significantly more difficult to enter now than it has been in the past.

“The job market has been tough for 25 to 30 years, and that started in the 1970s and it’s had various ups and downs, but generally speaking it’s been tough and rigorous,” he said. “Yale students compete very vigorously and very successfully for jobs.”

Mary Johnson, Director of Career Services for the Graduate School’s MacDougal Center, cited surveys of recent Yale graduate students conducted five years after they received their degrees. Approximately 75 percent of Yale humanities doctoral degree graduates receive academic jobs within five years, and around 70 percent of social sciences doctoral degree graduates are in the same position, Johnson said. The percentage of science graduates with academic jobs is lower, but many science graduate students go on to pursue careers in industry, she said.

According to the surveys, 84 percent of Yale doctoral degree holders with academic jobs hold some form of tenure track positions after five years. Yet while the numbers look promising over all, some fields, such as the languages, are prohibitively competitive.

“Few colleges ever create new positions in language and literature — in terms of tenure track positions,” said Evan Cobb GRD ’07, who is getting his Ph.D. in German Language and Literature. “In any given year there’s probably about 100 new people or so graduating nationally [with German Ph.D.s]. In a good year, there’s probably slightly more than 10 tenure-track professorships open.”

Cobb said high competition for a small number of job slots leaves students in smaller fields high and dry and often discouraged as they watch older students graduate and fail to find a niche within the market.

“The hard thing is, you watch your really bright colleagues graduate, go into the job market, and just get beaten down,” Cobb said. “It’s really demoralizing in that regard, because it has nothing to do with them. Your colleagues are really bright and really capable, but it’s just that the jobs aren’t there.”

Faced with the chaos and disorientation of the job search process, some students, like Aaron O’Connell GRD ’09, said they remain relatively unfazed.

“The prospects of getting a job don’t frighten me, but I don’t have any illusions either,” O’Connell said. “It’s a question of keeping things in perspective. Even if you don’t get a job, you get six years to read books and teach the brightest minds of the generation. It’s a gift.”

But O’Connell said he is still early in his graduate education, and he might become more nervous later on.

“Ask me again [if I'm concerned] when I’m getting ready to go on the job market,” he said.

Other graduate students said they feel more relaxed about the proposition due to the relative popularity of their fields in the business job market. Kevin Gold GRD ’09, a computer science graduate student focusing in artificial intelligence, said academic jobs in machine learning techniques — his area of interest — are easier to come by, thanks to companies like Google that actively pursue recent degree recipients.

“Between Google and Microsoft, a lot of talented people are getting snapped up,” Gold said. “In terms of getting a job, I’m fairly confident, perhaps undeservingly so, that if I wanted to leave academia I could get a job in the industry.”

Although Gold said he is still worried about getting the right job — one in his area of interest and close to his girlfriend — he also said his education will ultimately leave him in a more employable position than that of many humanities doctoral degree holders.

“If I was studying symbols in Jane Eyre — I mean, who would buy that?” Gold said.

Although Yale graduate students expressed concerns about the highly competitive job market they face, some students at smaller colleges and universities said they are unconcerned about the future. Altough Jason Rickman, a second-year doctoral student in philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said he is concerned about finding a job, he said he does not think it will be difficult to make a living.

“It might involve a few years of teaching at community colleges,” Rickman said. “It might mean that you have a job at a state teachers’ college for your tenure track job … I want to be able to pay back my loans, to have a house and have students, and that will make me happy.”

Many graduate students said their devotion to the academic lifestyle is one of the main reasons they have such a difficult time figuring out what to do if they do not get university jobs.

“A lot of people become more committed to having this kind of career,” Charles Keith GRD ’08 said. “You grow apart from the possibility of just stepping apart from the academic life and doing something else. The further you get into it, the more stake you have, and the more difficult it gets to consider just going to law school.”

In the end, graduate students seemed to agree that a certain amount of equipoise was necessary to approach the job search.

“It takes a certain amount of zen,” Cobb said. “My experience has been watching a lot of upper years go on the market, not find a tenure track job and feel like they’re personal failures. It’s not like you’re an intellectual failure if you can’t find a job right out of the gate.”

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