U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Career Opportunities

I’ve been following with interest the discussion on this blog and elsewhere about the state of the academic job market in history. I put a few thoughts in a comment on Tim’s post below, but I thought I’d expand on them in a post.

Let me start with some caveats: I have not studied this problem systematically. Like most of the other folks commenting on this issue, I rely on the professional organizations for my data and my own experience of the profession for further evidence (while recognizing that the plural of anecdote is not data). I haven’t read Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works though it’s been on my seemingly endless to-read list for some time. My understanding of his views is based on reading shorter pieces by him, such as his recent blog entries in this conversation, as well as reviews of the book. I apologize if I have, therefore, misconstrued any of his positions and welcome clarifications from those more familiar with his book.

I share Bousquet’s concerns about the casualization of academic labor. And I agree that there is no substitute for addressing the demand side of the academic job market, organizing, and fighting back against the dominant trends in the structure of academic employment. Though I fear that this is easier said than done (about which I’ll have more to say in another post), I am extremely grateful that people like Bousquet’s are leading the good fight. Incidentally, if you’re an academic and you’re not a member of the AAUP (on whose council Bousquet serves), stop reading this post and join now. I’ll wait for you here…

Welcome back!

While I’m happy to join Bousquet on the ramparts of the demand side, I remain puzzled by his position on concerns about the supply side of the academic job market. It seems to me that one can think one of three things about the number of PhDs currently being produced in a field (let’s talk about history, since this is a history blog): 1) we’re producing too many history PhDs; 2) we’re producing too few history PhDs; 3) we’re producing roughly the right number of history PhDs. Which of these three positions one takes will naturally depend upon how one defines the right number of history PhDs. And I agree with Marc Bousquet that we should absolutely resist the temptation to assume that the number of tenure-track jobs (or even the number of jobs period) that are currently available is the same as the ideal number of PhDs seeking employment. Indeed, I take his central concern about supply-side talk to be that it tends to take the demand side as a given. With this, too, I agree. Worrying about the supply side can be no substitute for attending to the demand side structures. And, indeed, supply-side worries can help naturalize demand-side changes that we ought to be actively resisting.

The problem is that I don’t see any alternative conception on Bousquet’s part of what the right number of PhDs is. Instead one gets the sense that he objects to any concern at all about how many PhDs are being produced. This is, I take it, the point of associating such concern with Reaganomics (e.g. “This is the sort of thing that used to get said all the time by disciplinary-association staffers — as what I call part of a ‘second wave’ of thinking about academic labor, emerging out of discredited supply-side thought dating back to the Reagan administration.”) But Reagan-era supply-side economics was a theory of macroeconomics that argued not for limiting the supply-side, but doing the opposite, i.e. lowering perceived barriers to the production of good and services. The microeconomics of the academic job market don’t have much to do with this, but to the extent that we want to draw a metaphorical connection, the idea of limiting the production of PhDs, whatever its merits, seems to me to have very little to do with the “discredited supply-side thought dating back to the Reagan era.” This sounds to me like argument by pejorative.

In fact, I think that there are very good reasons to limit the production of history PhDs, especially in the short run. First, the size of PhD programs tends to be determined by a series of factors that has next to nothing to do with either the actual or the potential demand for people with PhDs. Having a PhD program tends to add to a department’s prestige. At most institutions, the larger the program, the better it is for the department within the institution. Graduate students also provide a supply of cheap labor that helps limit the size of of faculty teaching loads (or that substitutes for less qualified people, e.g., undergraduates, teaching instead).* Mentoring graduate students can, of course, be very personally fulfilling to historians. Factors that limit the number of PhDs produced by a department tend to include student demand and the availability of funding and/or assistantships.

None of this has much of anything to do with employment demand for the PhDs being produced by the department. At this point I should pause and note that while I have taught for three history departments with PhD programs, I have never had a tenure-track appointment in one (my current, tenured appointment is in an undergraduate-only unit). So there are perhaps conversations taking place in meetings in which I have not been involved that took the question of job opportunities for my various departments’ future PhDs into consideration when thinking about how large the PhD program ought to be. But I certainly never heard any such conversations. And I know for a fact that, at least back in the 1990s, when I taught at one of these three departments–a flagship midwestern state university with a fine history department–it did not even track the record of its PhDs on the job market.

And while I take Bousquet’s point that a restructured demand side might need a substantially larger number of PhDs than the current casualizing market does, in the context of the current market, we are producing a vast reserve army of the unemployed that helps to ease the process of casualization, as there are always unemployed and underemployed PhDs willing and available to take the ever worsening deals offered to them by universities and colleges in the hope that they will eventually get something better. Far from denying the need to organize, I think that reducing the pool of history PhDs would substantially improve our bargaining position.

All that being said, the devil is in the details….and here I must say that I don’t have a strong sense of how one should go about equitably limiting the number of new history PhDs. Jonathan Rees endorses Ralph Luker’s view that some marginal PhD programs should be simply shut down and replaced with MA programs. This seems like a sensible idea in principle, though the incentives for particular PhD programs to go out of business are pretty weak. And I’m not sure who could be empowered (or who we’d be comfortable with empowering) to tell them they have to go. Moreover, there’s no particular reason to assume that an overproduction problem is best solved by eliminating entire programs rather than shrinking but retaining programs. There’s a good case to be made that a greater number of programs (with a greater number of faculty supervising PhDs) increases the diversity of the discipline in any number of ways. All of which is to say that, while I tend to think that we ought to be reducing the number of newly minted history PhDs, I don’t know the best way to do so.

Sometime later this week I’ll return with a few thoughts about the challenges of addressing the demand side.
* Bousquet uses this fact as an argument against limiting the number of PhDs:

[J]ust imagine the shrinkage of grad programs.

Who would do the work that grad students were doing? On what terms? Would they be more qualified or less? At some institutions administrations will want to replace grad student discussion leaders with undergrads. What would be a proper replacement for the grad student discussion leader? A teaching-intensive faculty member? In that context are teaching-intensive faculty “historians” to the AHA? Ditto small colleges and community colleges?

In the end, any actual shrinkage of doctoral programs leads you right back to the tough questions that “job market theory” initially bypasses–because those doctoral programs are that size for a reason: the students are working!

Here, as elsewhere, Bousquet seems to assume that the only reason to discuss the supply side is to avoid discussing the demand side. I agree with him 100% that shrinking graduate programs would necessarily entail a restructuring of academic employment, i.e. addressing the demand side. I just don’t see this as much of an argument against shrinking the size of PhD programs.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben: Having read about this extensively over the past 4-5 years, and having read (and disagreed with) Ralph Luker’s call to eliminate some programs, I’m of the opinion that a temporary (say 5-year) reduction in admissions (say 20%?) to existing PhD programs would go a long way toward helping restore the equilibrium. But I should quickly add that this should be done ~alongside~ and effort to increase demand on many of the terms Bousquet outlines. – TL

  2. Tim,

    Would you mind reposting the link to your disagreement with Luker? The link in your comment goes back to the comments on this post. I should say that while I think that there are probably a good number of PhD programs that could productively be eliminated, I am much less sure than Luker apparently is which these are. And, as I note above, I don’t know any good mechanism to make them go away.

    How would you propose to coordinate your across-the-board reduction? And how would you arrive at the right percentage and the right number of years?

  3. From Lauren Kientz (she’s having trouble accessing comments right now):
    Friends and I were interviewed at the AHA about the state of the history job market. We spent a long time talking about the way faculty job searches work, how they are different from non-academic searches, and how no matter what, we are in this field because of our passion. We knew going in it would be hard. That said, yes, it is difficult to get a job and we have to be flexible with where we live and teach. They cut out all the caveat and just used the last bit.

  4. Ben–quickly, because I meant to do a piece summarizing some of the reaction to my AHA posts, and to the parallel enthusiasm for (my old MLA Grad Student Caucus comrade) Bill Pannapacker’s “just don’t go” piece, but then lost the little time I’d set aside… it might be a while before I do the “‘Just Don’t Go?’ Go Where?” piece that needs to be written by someone (any takers? Historiann?)

    Anyway. I really appreciate your kind words for the book (as well as those of Andrew and Tim).

    I just want to say regarding your worries about my potential dismissal of questions of the number of admittances, quality of programs, etc: not to worry, I don’t dismiss those concerns. Here’s what I wrote Jon over at More or Less Bunk:

    … I absolutely don’t think there’s a reason not to pay some attention to the supply-side line of ideas–they’re fine as far as they go, and often they have merit independent of any putative labor-market impact. What I object to is the huge, magical-thinking reliance on them to solve what are clearly demand side issues.

    IMHO, it’s going to be easier, and more practical for professional associations to address the questions of demand. The percentage of faculty holding the PhD is down across all fields–dunno how about history in particular, but it can be looked up. Raising the percentage of history faculty who hold the PhD a few percentage points would likely soak up all the “surplus people” pronto. (Plus would make grad school less of a competitive nightmare, raise completion rates, lessen service burdens for the tenured overclass, etc etc.) Grad programs would get better, and be compelled to think more about teaching-intensive faculty.

    Just imagine what would happen if some history faculty without the PhD had a reason to begin studying for one: the faculty might change–but so would the programs they flooded into…

    Whereas beginning a process of creating a controllable people pipeline guessing at the number of jobs available ten years down the line–arduous, potentially way antidemocratic and creating a faculty of (even more) privilege, and fraught with potential for error: futures markets are crazy enough when they’re next year–but ten years down the line?

    Ah, I said briefly. Argh. Thanks again for the very kind words.
    Solidarity, M

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