For grad students, a grim job market

Tommaso Gazzarri GRD ’10 is a bestselling author in his native Italy. His translation and commentary on Seneca’s “De brevitate vitae” is the second-best seller (behind only St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica”) in the Classics section of the Internet Bookshop Italia. He is also in talks to write a second book for Arnoldo Mondadori, the largest publishing house in Italy, next spring.

In addition, he has successfully published an article on the ancient novel and has designed five courses in order to meet the different needs of different schools. He even has a blog on antiquities.

Nevertheless, he cannot find a job.

Gazzarri is one of many Yale doctoral students who, despite years of research and training at the oldest graduate school in the country, have failed to find work. With universities nationwide — including Yale — cutting budgets and putting hiring searches on hold, the job search process is becoming increasingly difficult, more than a dozen students and administrators said in interviews. Some doctoral students are suspending the job hunt until next year, others have accepted positions for which they are relatively overqualified, and some are reconsidering their career paths, even seeking a professional school degree.

“It’s now a full-time job to get a full-time job,” said Victoria Blodgett, director of Graduate Career Services. “We’re asking them to find a job at the same time they’re completely overwhelmed with finishing their dissertations. It can be a nerve-wracking time.”

Colleen Farrell GRD ’12, who is getting her Ph.D. in Medieval Studies, put it as only a medievalist could:

“There is definitely some talk about … whether this is the Black Death of tenure-track jobs,” she said.

‘MANY DIFFERENT PATTERNS’

Comparative literature doctoral students from Yale typically had a nearly perfect placement rate in the past, but not anymore, Director of Graduate Studies Pericles Lewis said.

Over the past six years, the department had a 90 percent job placement rate, Lewis said, with 80 percent of students taking tenure-track positions and another 10 percent in non-tenure teaching jobs. But only 60 percent of this year’s students found tenure-track jobs, Lewis said. The remainder elected to continue working on their Ph.D.s instead when they were unable to find positions, he said.

“Many years ago you would know that you would apply for a tenure-track job, get it, finish your Ph.D. and go to that job,” he said. “Now, you can finish your dissertation and go to a temporary job or postdoctoral fellowship. There are many different patterns now.”

While Director of Graduate Studies for History of Science and Medicine Daniel Kevles said the job market for humanities students is “terrible,” he noted that employment for graduate students is a privilege, not a right.

“There’s nothing in the laws of God or man that says you’re entitled to a job for which you’re trained,” Kevles said. “I think it’s a reasonably realistic expectation for students taking their Ph.D.s at major universities, but not for everybody who takes a Ph.D. in history or philosophy. … It’s been imperative for people to think outside the regular, tenure-track, academic job box.”

Still, the job market is beginning to show a glimmer of improvement, he said, adding that his department was able to place all of its doctoral students in the past hiring cycle.

Other departments, too, have held strong in terms of placement. The Economics Department’s placement rate stayed at around its normal 80 percent “for some magical reason,” said Truman Bewley, director of graduate studies for the department.

In some fields, the job market has still soured, but it has taken less of a beating than anticipated. The Modern Language Association, an eminent professional organization for literature and language scholars, released a report in December predicting 37 percent declines in the number of advertised jobs for teachers of English and foreign languages. In mid-March, the association corrected its figures — it now expects a drop in postings of about 27 percent for each discipline.

Rebecca Johnson GRD ’10 will become an assistant professor of English and humanities at Northwestern University next fall — one of three offers she received. Johnson said the tenure-track position is a solid fit for her, but acknowledged that at the end of the day, she did not have many options to choose from.

“Just about a handful of jobs were available,” Johnson said, adding that she felt lucky to be offered even postdoctoral fellowships, despite the fact that they are often considered less desirable than tenure-track positions in this job market.

NO PLACE TO GO

Indeed, many students will leave Yale this summer with no place to go. Gazzarri, who estimated he applied to 60 to 70 jobs, received zero offers. Giuseppe Moscarini, an economics professor and the job placement officer in his department, said that while many students used to have as many 45 interviews, now many get six or seven.

Gazzarri, a classical philologist, said he secured three promising interviews at a national conference in Los Angeles last year, but he said none of the jobs came through.

Though Gazzarri applied for jobs far and wide, seeking positions in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, he said the quality of advertised jobs was every bit as poor as the quantity of open positions.

“The few that are offered are, for the most part, temporary positions,” Gazzarri said. He said he intends to stay at Yale for another year to continue improving his dissertation, and will apply for teaching jobs again in the fall.

Although Yale has eased some of the pressures of the job search, some discouraged students are thinking of forsaking the academic life altogether. Farrell, who was a family practice physician before entering the Medieval Studies program at Yale, said she is considering reopening her medical practice.

Others who lack the professional experience to enter the normal job market have opted for professions with more demand, such as in law, consulting and government. And while individual academic departments are central to the job search for students, Blodgett said, they are not always attuned to professional opportunities off the academic track.

That’s where Blodgett comes in. Blodgett said she is one of dozens of career counselors at research universities across the country whose sole concern is the career paths of doctoral and postdoctoral students — particularly those looking outside academia. Though doctoral candidates have been looking for work outside the academic sector in increasing numbers over the past decade, Blodgett’s position is still somewhat new.

“Are they looking beyond the academy? I think so,” Blodgett said of this year’s crop of new doctoral candidates. “But more than being forced by the economic situation, they are thinking about being close to their family, in a good location and about the quality of academic jobs available. I think it’s important that doctoral candidates have lots of options.”

To help graduate students find these options, Graduate Career Services hosts dozens of lectures and workshops for graduate students on careers in academia — as well as in consulting, the Foreign Services and with the government. In October, Blodgett said, between 50 and 100 students flocked to Graduate Career Services for a of series 11 workshops on CV and cover letter tips and interview tactics.

Still, as Johnson, the Comparative Literature Ph.D. candidate, said, the gratification of getting a job in the tough market is immense.

“I felt really lucky to have any of these offers in front of me,” she said.

Correction: April 24, 2010

An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported that the approximately 40 percent of this year’s comparative literature doctoral students who did not find tenure-track jobs elected not to continue working on their Ph.D.s; in fact, these students did continue to work on their doctorates when they were unable to find positions.

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