Contradictions of Academic Capitalism

My employer reports that other employers are not absorbing the output of Ph.D.'s:

Coming just weeks after the Modern Language Association revealed historic drops in the availability of jobs for English and foreign language professors, the data show that while new English and foreign language Ph.D.'s may have a particularly tough time finding employment, they are by no means alone.

The number of jobs listed with the American Historical Association fell 23.8 percent in 2008-9 and the total jobs listed -- 806 -- was the smallest in a decade. And the 23.8 percent figure doesn't reflect the extent of the drop: A survey by the AHA of those departments that posted jobs found that about 15 percent of searches were called off after positions were listed.

And the American Economic Association, which started its annual meeting Sunday, is reporting a drop in new academic jobs listed of 19 percent in the 2009 calendar year. While plenty of new Ph.D. economists seek employment outside of academe, many of the companies that hire them are also facing financial turmoil. The drop in the association's job postings for work outside of academe was even greater: 24 percent.

Both fields are reporting stable or increasing production of Ph.D.'s, so demand for openings that do exist is expected to be particularly intense. Not all academic jobs are listed with disciplinary associations. But the associations' data -- which use slightly different time frames -- are considered excellent proxies for hiring trends; many of the jobs they do miss are off the tenure track, and thus are not those most sought by those on the market.

As it happens, a couple of people who know my work quite well made arrangements about three years ago under which I would (in spite of having no degrees at all) be admitted into a Ph.D. program in history at a prominent university. I was appreciative, and for a while did consider the possibility very carefully. Either of two long-term research projects I have been working on for some time now would make for a viable dissertation. It is kind of a pain to do them all by my lonesome, and I'd get something for the effort.

As things shook out, I let the idea lapse, in spite of feeling deep gratitude to the parties involved. It's complicated. I might change my mind and go ahead with it. But honestly, what is the incentive to do so at this point?

It isn't simply a matter of wanting to maintain fidelity to a certain model of intellectual life (neither Kenneth Burke nor C.L.R. James had more formal education than I've had). That, too, probably.But the whole market in credentializing seems profoundly dysfunctional, if only too stable, in some ways.I have friends who are on the track and obviously can't recommend any any alternative course. All I can do is worry about them. 

The only reason to hold back from the conclusion that things can't go on like this is the absence of any particular reason to think they won't. Sort of like capitalism in that regard.

January 4, 2010 10:11 AM | | Comments (2)



I got a Ph.D. because I couldn't imagine stopping going to school. Not that I didn't have career options before that, but that they were secondary to what seemed like an inevitable continuation of the professionalized student I had become over my young life. I still have a great deal of trouble imagining myself doing anything different, and yet I might have to reimagine myself at some point: as you note, this academic "market" is funky.

I like what I do, really, and value it, but my own failure of imagination nonetheless troubles me.

I don't think that's going to help you much, but it's the thought that came to me. The other thought I had is that most of us would kill to have you in a class, if for no other reason than to show the our overwhelmingly careerist, by-the-numbers students how it's really done.

Thanks -- not so much your failure of imagination, I suspect, as the reality of the iron cage. It's not as if good alternatives really exist. I don't blame people for sticking it out and cannot recommend my own course as a model for anyone.

That said, I would really like to get back into the classroom. I've done a certain amount of lecturing over the past couple of years, run a couple of day-long writing workshops, and sat in on a creative nonfiction class as a live specimen (or native informant maybe). By all accounts, these things went pretty well.

Given how incredibly isolated writing and research can be, I'd be glad to have more chances to do this, and need to figure out how to make it happen on a regular basis. Anyone with a clue is invited to give me one.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on January 4, 2010 10:11 AM.

Of a Certain Blockheadedness was the previous entry in this blog.

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