Humanities disciplines leave Ph.D. recipients with poor job prospects

by Kelly Hildebrandt

Students graduating with Ph.D.s in humanities disciplines are finding a poor job market with few opportunities in their academic fields.
According to a recent nationwide study by the Modern Language Association, only 33 percent of students who earned Ph.D.s in English in 1996-97 found tenure track jobs, while 38 percent of the Ph.D. graduates in foreign languages obtained a tenure track job.
At an MLA conference in late April, professors and administrators attributed the decreasing number of tenure track jobs to a heavier reliance on adjunct faculty and graduate students to teach classes.
Universities are increasingly producing more Ph.D. students than the market can handle, said Edward Schiappa, associate dean of the Graduate School. Departments often can’t afford to hire full-time faculty, so instead they rely on graduate students to teach classes.
“Graduate students become a cheap labor pool,” Schiappa said, adding that the University hasn’t fallen into this trap.
According to Forbes Magazine, students entering math Ph.D. programs in 1997 rose 4.7 percent. However, while schools continue to admit more students, the unemployment rate for math graduates is 8.8 percent.
University Ph.D. students aren’t immune to the decreasing number of jobs in academia. Although the problem is saturated in the humanities, some other departments, like economics and biological studies, experienced problems as well, Schiappa said.
Schiappa said the University is faring better than most schools.
“The problem is less unemployment than underemployment,” Schiappa said, explaining that many Ph.D. graduates are taking post doctorate fellowships or untenured positions.
Ruth-Ellen Joeres, director of graduate studies in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, said the market for students leaving the German Ph.D. program is bad across the country.
Joeres attributes some of the problems placing graduates to an ever-changing German curriculum. To procure a job, students are expected to do more, including gaining teaching experience and being published.
To prepare students for the job market, Joeres said they give seminars and do mock interviews.
Also, to help students find jobs, universities around the country are focusing more on opportunities for students outside academia.
The German department has followed suit. Just recently, the department had a seminar on alternative employment. Five speakers with German doctorates now employed in various fields, including law, spoke about finding a job outside of the university system.
“They are looking at it as what they want to do,” Joeres said.
The Department of Spanish and Portuguese is one humanities department that isn’t experiencing a job shortage.
“They distinguish themselves from the crowd so they can teach any course,” said Francisco Ocampo, director of graduate studies in the Spanish and Portuguese department, of the department’s Ph.D. students.
To prepare students for the job market, they teach beginning language classes and 3000-level classes in addition to doing research, Ocampo said.
Currently, the Graduate School doesn’t intervene in the individual departments’ graduate studies programs, but Schiappa said that may change soon.
This year, the departmental Policy and Review Councils put together a study to assess placement success in different departments to determine what the Graduate School can do to improve the situation.
In the future, the Graduate School may create minimum guidelines to enhance placement, Schiappa said. This would include making placement information available to incoming graduate students, he said.