Author Archives: David Laurence

Opportunity Costs of the PhD: The Problem of Time to Degree

The road to a PhD in a humanities discipline is long—for graduates who completed degrees in 2012, 9.0 years long, the median time from first entry into graduate school to receipt of the degree (Doctorate Recipients, table 31). That nine-year median is not just long in itself; it is significantly longer than the median for 2012 graduates in social sciences (7.7 years), life sciences (6.9 years), physical sciences (6.7 years), and engineering (6.7 years). Only 2012 graduates in education, with a median 11.8 years to degree, take more time to complete their degree programs than graduates in the humanities.

As long as a nine-year path to the PhD may be, the class of 2012 humanities degree recipients took less time than any classes since the 1970s. The 2012 median of 9.0 years is notably shorter than the 9.5 years recorded by humanities graduates who received degrees over the five years 2006–10, and it is strikingly shorter than the record-high 10.7-year median for graduates who received humanities degrees between 1986 and 1990. (The median for 2011 graduates was 9.3 years, in case you were wondering.) In fact, since 1990, median time to degree (measured from year of entry into graduate school) has been falling across the disciplines. Figure 1 shows the history of time to degree in the four broad disciplinary areas of the arts and sciences over the fifty years from 1961 to 2010. The source is a custom report that NORC, the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) contractor, developed for the MLA from the raw SED data on time to degree from 1961 to 2010. The custom report grouped degree recipients into ten five-year clusters—1961–65, 1966–70, 1971–75, and so on to 2006–10—breaking out five major disciplinary fields (humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, life sciences, and engineering) and, within the humanities, three SED subfields (history, foreign languages and literatures, and American and English literature). Progress to the degree lengthened across all the arts and sciences disciplines during the 1970s and 1980s. But it lengthened most for graduates in the humanities. Graduates who received humanities PhDs between 1986 and 1990 spent 2.5 years more in graduate school than humanities graduates who completed degrees two decades earlier, between 1966 and 1970. And humanities PhDs who received degrees between 1986 and 1990 spent over four years more in graduate school than their 1986–90 counterparts in the physical sciences, three years more than those in the life sciences, and two years more than those in the social sciences.

Fig. 1
Fig1_time to degree

As of 2012, the most recent year for which SED data are available, the gap between the humanities and other disciplines is smaller but remains substantial: over a year longer for humanities PhD recipients than for PhD recipients in the social sciences and over two years longer than for graduates in the life sciences and the physical sciences (fig. 2).

Fig. 2
Fig2_time to degree

How one views these data on time to degree will vary, depending on what one thinks the data reveal about the risks and opportunity costs of attempting to enter the academic profession. Do we think time is an abundant or a scarce resource for students in their twenties and early thirties? Do we think it unreasonable to expect graduate students to invest a decade of a working lifetime and life span to earn a PhD?

In retrospect, we can see how the lengthening path to the PhD documented in SED data from the 1970s and 1980s coincided with concerns voiced at the time about the way a depressed academic job market was deforming graduate education, placing increasing pressures on graduate students for professional activity, especially publication, that up until then had been demanded only later. John Guillory captured the contemporary sense of what was happening in his 1996 essay “Preprofessionalism: What Graduate Students Want”:

What the market demands, incredibly, is a graduate student who is already in some sense a successful professional before that student can be considered for a position as a professor. In such a context, “professional desire” is contorted into the form of prematurity, of desiring something now—professional success—that can only be had later. This prematurity is phantasmic: it telescopes professional careers into the time period of graduate school and conflates graduate education with self-marketing, as though getting a job were somehow the culmination of a successful career. (4)

That preprofessional pressures for graduate students to publish would operate to lengthen time to degree I take as axiomatic. The same period, 1970 to 1990, was also notable for a rising bar for tenure and promotion and increased demands for publication that motivated a transformation of the tenure-track assistant professor position, especially in doctorate-granting research universities. The work and life of faculty members on probationary appointments changed from what had been a distinctly junior status quite sharply differentiated from the privileged standing tenured professors enjoyed. As the job crisis in the 1970s made assistant professor positions scarce, it also made them more privileged and protected, more like than unlike the senior professorial ranks in the conditions of their work. It became common for university departments with graduate programs to limit the exposure of their assistant professors to committee and other service obligations. Assistant professors came to have the same (lighter) teaching load as their tenured seniors, the same or sometimes even greater access to research leave, and the same exemption from teaching the required composition course and other introductory courses.

For actors on all sides—whether graduate students or faculty members in their dual roles as advisers to graduate students and members of search committees making hiring decisions—the sense that the bar for earning tenure was getting higher likewise worked to raise the bar for entry to a tenure-track position. To be competitive, graduate students afforded themselves the time to make the entry ticket of the dissertation as close as possible to a monograph manuscript ready for the publisher.

The downward trend in time to degree since 1990 is every bit as interesting as the prior upward trend—and may be more of a challenge to understand. Certainly, around 1990 time to degree and the closely related matters of attrition and completion rates emerged as prominent topics in the policy discussion around the economics of doctoral education. In Pursuit of the PhD, William G. Bowen and Neil L. Rudenstine’s 1992 follow-up to the 1989 Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences, by Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa, brought renewed attention to the economic issues in doctoral education—of high costs to universities, high opportunity costs to students, and questions about the investments (and returns on investment) of fellowship programs like those sponsored by the Danforth Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The Graduate Education Initiative that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation undertook through the 1990s explicitly made shorter time to degree a prime objective and called attention to long time to degree and high noncompletion rates as problems graduate education needed to address (Ehrenberg, Zuckerman, Groen, and Brucker). More recently, the Council of Graduate Schools’ PhD Completion Project reflects and amplifies the concerns administrators and funders have expressed about the large investments of time and resources doctoral study has typically demanded from both the students who undertake it and the institutions that sponsor it. The data suggest that these discussions and initiatives may have had an effect.

A median summarizes a distribution with an equal number of values higher and lower than the single median number. As part of the MLA’s request for historical data on time to degree, the office of research asked NORC to develop frequency distributions detailing the number of graduates who took differing amounts of time, from six years or less to more than thirteen years. The distributions behind the medians turn out to be illuminating. As shown in figure 3 and figure 4 (in which the distributions have been aggregated to show time to degree in five groupings from six years or less to more than twelve years), the medians mask the real locus of action over the past fifty years, which has been at the extremes of shortest and longest times spent in graduate school. In the first three five-year temporal groups—1961–65, 1966–70, and 1971–75—a quarter of humanities graduates took six years or less to complete their degree programs—about the same portion that took more than twelve years. From the 1980s forward, the segment taking six years or less dropped to 10%, while the segment taking more than twelve years expanded to almost 40%, falling back to just under 30% from 2000 on. Figure 4 shows the same information but groups degree recipients across the ten time periods together according to the number of years they spent in graduate school.

Fig. 3
Fig3_time to degree

Fig. 4
Fig4_time to degree

As figure 4 may reveal most clearly, over the fifty years the biggest changes were a pronounced drop after 1975 in the percentage of humanities graduates who took six years or less to complete their degrees and a corresponding increase in the percentage taking more than twelve years. Changes over time in the three middle groups were modest by comparison.

Interestingly, a pattern almost identical to the humanities is evident across the disciplines. The life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences, however, start in the 1960s with far higher percentages of graduates finishing in six years or less and end in the 2000s with far lower percentages taking more than twelve years to complete their degrees (fig. 5 and fig. 6).

Fig. 5
Fig5_time to degree

Fig. 6
Fig6_time to degree

A review of the history and historical trends still leaves us to grapple with the question of direction for the future. Figure 7 focuses attention on the 2006–10 group of program graduates and compares the disciplines by the percentage of those that had the shortest and longest time in graduate school. The figure reveals the large and even startling disparity between the humanities and the other arts and sciences fields. The percentage of 2006–10 graduates completing degrees in six years or less (the green bars) is three to four times greater in the sciences, engineering, and social sciences than in the humanities. And the percentage of 2006–10 humanities graduates taking more than ten years to earn a PhD (the red bars) is more than double the percentage in the sciences and engineering and 1.5 times the percentage in the social sciences.

Fig. 7
Fig7v3_time to degree

Circumstances where, whether by choice or necessity, 40% of a field’s PhD recipients end up taking more than a decade to earn their degrees seem unsustainable. Shrinking the surprisingly large group of degree recipients in language and literature who take an inordinately long time seems imperative. On the other hand, when thinking about practical measures to respond to this imperative, we need to recognize how the data hide individual histories, with their complex mix of circumstances. There is much we would wish to know and understand that these data do not and cannot tell us. As students pass beyond a fourth or fifth year, how do they support their graduate studies? If they are self-funding five or six years or more of doctoral education, how is lengthy time to degree intersecting with the troubled state of academic labor and the adjunct academic workforce? The data do, nonetheless, remind us forcibly why it is important for local programs to keep track of doctoral candidates and their progress to the degree.

David Laurence

Works Cited
Bowen, William G., and Neil L. Rudenstine. In Pursuit of the PhD. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

Bowen, William G., and Julie Ann Sosa. Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply, 1987 to 2012. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989. Print.

Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2012. National Science Foundation. Natl. Science Foundation, Jan. 2014. Web. 9 May 2014.

Ehrenberg, Ronald G., Harriet Zuckerman, Jeffrey A. Groen, and Sharon M. Brucker. Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.

Guillory, John. “Preprofessionalism: What Graduate Students Want.” ADE Bulletin 113 (1996): 4–8. Web. 9 May 2014.

Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 2

The shrinking share of the faculty workforce with tenure or eligibility to earn tenure is well known and, among those in the academic community at least, widely deplored. Even in four-year colleges and universities, the percentage of faculty members holding full-time tenured or tenure-track appointments has dropped from 51.3% in 1995 to just 33.4% in 2011 (US Dept. of Educ., Fall Staff Survey data files).

It is often assumed or asserted that the growth of the non-tenure-track academic workforce, and especially the corps of part-time teachers who form the largest and most vulnerable part of that workforce, has been more or less the direct result of the hypertrophy of a doctoral education system that has permitted or even promoted a self-destructive overproduction of PhDs far in excess of the number for whom higher education can provide tenure-track opportunities. The implications and consequences for our PhD employment problem of the emergence of a majority non-tenure-track academic workforce, however, are less straightforward than may at first appear.

The United States Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) provides robust data on PhD production each year since 1958, disaggregated by broad discipline (humanities, social sciences, life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, and education) and for many humanities subfields (including history; English, French, German, Spanish, and several other language and literature fields; comparative literature; classics; philosophy; and religion). There is no correspondingly detailed source of systematic information about the faculty and its development over time, disaggregated by discipline. The human resources components of the United States Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) provide an annual census of institutional employees, including employees with faculty status. But (except for distinguishing nonmedical from medical school faculty since 2003) the IPEDS human resources surveys count faculty members only in the aggregate. So—the bad news—we have next to no national, systematic sources of information about the growth or contraction over time in the number of tenure-track faculty lines at the level of the disciplines. (The Humanities Departmental Survey [HDS] that is part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators Project attempts to make a start at gathering information on this question. HDS-1 was completed by a representative sample of humanities departments in 2007–08; HDS-2 was fielded in 2012–13, and a report is in development.)

Counts of faculty employees from the IPEDS Fall Staff Survey do tell us that, looking at degree-granting four-year institutions and the faculty as a whole, the tenured and tenure-track faculty position is not disappearing. Figure 1 shows the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members that four-year institutions reported on the Fall Staff Survey in 1995, 2003, and 2011. The number grew, albeit modestly, with all the growth between 1995 and 2003 coming in the tenure-track category, presumably because during those years movement from the tenure track to tenure did not quite keep pace with retirements. The pattern reversed between 2003 and 2011, when 95% of the growth in the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty members came in the category of full-time faculty members holding tenure and only 5% in the tenure-track faculty. (Click on the chart to see a full-size version.)

Fig. 1
14_T_TT

I focus on four-year institutions, since that is the sector of higher education on which doctoral students most set their sights. Of course, as noted above, data for the faculty as a whole leave in darkness what’s happening at the level of the disciplines. Still, it is useful to remind ourselves that the evidence does not support claims of a wholesale abandonment of tenure across four-year postsecondary institutions.

But, then, over the same period since 1995, the Fall Staff Survey documents gigantic increases in the number of non-tenure-track and especially part-time faculty members (fig. 2), compared with which the modest growth in tenured and tenure-track positions amounts to practically no growth.

Fig. 2
15_NTT

So despite the small numerical increases on the tenured and tenure-track side of the ledger, there has been a huge drop in the percentage of faculty members holding tenure or on the tenure track (fig. 3). (Remember, these data are for employees with faculty status in degree-granting, four-year institutions. Graduate student teaching assistants are not included.)

Fig. 3
16_TT_NTT_PCT

Looking at the numerical quantities side by side—as shown in figure 4—makes clear how the institutional demographics have altered since 1995, so that in the aggregate, even in four-year institutions, the part-time academic workforce has come to far outnumber the tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Fig. 4
17_TT_NTT_N

Putting these pieces together, adding data on student enrollments, and including two- as well as four-year institutions, we see in figure 5 a higher education system in the midst of profound demographic change. Since just 1995, the student population—the blue line—has grown 1.5 times. The faculty population—the orange dots—has grown about 1.6 times. But over 90% of the increase in the size of the faculty has come in the form of non-tenure-track positions—the red diamonds. By comparison, the tenured and tenure-track segment of the faculty—the green squares—has seen zero population growth.

Fig. 5
18_enrollments_faculty

The non-tenure-track academic workforce, however, long the fastest-growing and now the largest part of the faculty by far, is not composed primarily of graduates of doctoral programs, according to data from the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF:04—unfortunately the last in the NSOPF series). Based on a sample of 35,000 faculty members in 1,080 two- and four-year degree-granting not-for-profit postsecondary institutions, data from NSOPF:04 remain the sole systematic, national source of information about faculty members and their characteristics—the degrees they hold, the type of institution where they have their primary employment, and the discipline in which they teach, as well as their tenure status and full- or part-time employment status. Using the Department of Education’s DataLab online interface to query NSOPF:04 for the highest degree faculty members hold, by tenure status and the type of institution where they are primarily employed, we see how disparate the tenure-track (including tenured) and non-tenure-track groups are in their degree qualifications (fig. 6). (Graduate student teaching assistants were not included in the NSOPF sample.)

Fig. 6
19_Degree_qualif_1

According to NSOPF:04, a doctorate is the highest degree held by only 30% of the full- and part-time faculty members teaching off the tenure track in a four-year institution and by a small percentage of all faculty members teaching in a two-year college, whether on or off the tenure track. Overall, as estimated from NSOPF:04, less than a quarter of the faculty population employed off the tenure track holds a doctorate; most hold a master’s degree. Across the disciplines, a master’s degree is clearly the standard degree qualification for teaching in the first two years of college, whether those first two years occur in a two-year or a four-year institution.

The pattern is even more pronounced in the humanities (fig. 7), where NSOPF:04 shows well over 90% of tenured and tenure-track faculty members teaching in a four-year institution hold a doctorate, compared with just over 30% of humanities faculty members teaching full- or part-time off the tenure track.

Fig. 7
Degree_qualif_2

A doctorate is unquestionably the standard degree qualification for holding a tenured or tenure-track faculty appointment in a humanities discipline in a four-year college or university, whereas a master’s degree is standard for teaching off the tenure track or in a two-year college. Since 2000, humanities doctoral programs in United States universities have awarded approximately 5,000 to 5,500 degrees each year. Across all disciplines, doctoral programs have awarded about 50,000 new doctorates annually over the same period (SED). Meanwhile, master’s degrees number well over ten times that 50,000. In 2003 there were over 500,000; in 2011 over 700,000. Humanities master’s degrees numbered over 14,000 in 2011, up from just over 11,000 a decade ago (IPEDS completions component). Insofar as our PhD employment problem has a connection to higher education’s increasing reliance on non-tenure-track positions, the connection has much more to do with institutions expanding the labor pool from which they draw their teaching faculty in the face of an expanding undergraduate student population than with doctoral programs producing an oversupply of PhDs. As a response to the growth of the non-tenure-track academic workforce, at least, the prescription to cut the production of PhDs would seem to be aiming the wrong medicine at the wrong target.

The question remains, however, whether the doctoral education enterprise needs to shrink, given the doctoral program attrition rate of 31% that Ronald Ehrenberg and Harriet Zuckerman report in Educating Scholars (172), their study of programs that participated in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Graduate Education Initiative, and the ten-year noncompletion rates of up to 50% among humanities doctoral students that the Council of Graduate Schools reports from its PhD Completion Project. If those who leave doctoral programs without receiving a PhD (not to mention those working as graduate student teaching assistants or adjuncts while enrolled) are as much a part of the labor pool from which postsecondary education draws its teaching staff as those who complete the degree, the solution would seem to lie in reducing doctoral program enrollments rather than the number of PhD recipients per se. But doctoral candidates who leave PhD programs with a master’s degree form only a subset of students who receive master’s degrees, whether from departments where a doctorate or a master’s degree is the highest degree offered (IPEDS completions component). The paradox seems to be that master’s degree programs, which have occupational outcomes other than college teaching as their stated purpose, have in practice long placed a significant subset of graduates to (non-tenure-track, especially part-time) postsecondary teaching positions, while PhD programs, which have preparation for a professorial career as their stated purpose, have in practice long had a significant subset of their graduates go on to occupations other than postsecondary teaching.

Agreeing to the proposition that a measure of PhD population control would be a good thing still leaves unaddressed key questions of what the target number should be and why, which subspecialties to target and why, and how in practical terms the system of doctoral programs moves from here to there. In departments’ hiring to tenure-track positions, subspecialization comes to the fore. Fortunately, as I expect most would agree, no central mechanism exists to mandate the number of applicants programs may admit; the field specializations doctoral candidates will be permitted to follow; or the closely linked determinations of the topics, authors, works, and periods departmental curricula and degree programs will cover. Far from relieving programs of responsibility, the local and decentralized character of these decisions places both the authority to determine appropriate program size and the responsibility to take account of the realities of placement squarely on departments and their faculties.

Fifteen years ago, in 1999, Maresi Nerad organized a series of career-management workshops for a number of University of California, Berkeley, doctoral programs, of which English was one. The project arose as a result of what Nerad learned over the course of the research she conducted with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on career paths to 1995 of PhDs who earned their degrees between 1983 and 1985. Here is how one graduate student, Anne-Marie Harvey, described the experience of attending the workshop in a presentation she gave at an ADE Summer Seminar, as published in ADE Bulletin 124 (2000). (Four essays from the Bulletin about the Berkeley series, including Harvey’s, are available here.)

First, there was the mere fact of sitting in the same room with others from the Berkeley English department and talking openly, as a group, about careers besides college teaching, breaking the taboo that reigns among many graduate students on this topic. I felt immediately less isolated.  .  .  . By talking about other kinds of work, we turned down the brightness of the holy aura surrounding academic work. We considered the possibility that other work can be rewarding in similar ways.

Another valuable effect of the workshop was the shift from a paradigm of helplessness and narrowing options to a paradigm of autonomy and choice.  .  .  .  I wish I had had the chance to go to one of these workshops years earlier, to gain a greater sense of myself as an autonomous adult with useful skills and to stop feeling quite so trapped by circumstances beyond my control.  .  .  .  If graduate students can leave behind the sense that they’re traveling down a narrowing and increasingly crowded path with a precipice on either side and feel instead as though they are advancing across a field, with choices about which way to turn, they’ll feel less desperate. They’ll become more confident teachers and scholars, they’ll write their dissertations faster, and they’ll engage in the kind of competition that energizes people instead of devastating and paralyzing them. (40, 41)

To me, that sounds like the right prescription for how doctoral programs and their students can think productively about life after graduate school, irrespective of what the placement statistics say or whether the paths graduate students explore lead them to careers as tenured faculty members or positions in postsecondary administration, secondary school teaching, government agencies, for-profit enterprises, not-for-profit organizations, or the many other professional occupations where doctorate recipients have made and will continue to make their livelihoods. The conversation about career paths and possibilities for humanities PhDs has recently gained new life in discussions at the MLA and AHA annual conventions and in projects like the AHA’s Malleable PhD, the MLA’s Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, and the Public Fellows program of the American Council of Learned Societies. Promising and important as these projects are, most crucial will be faculty members and graduate students finding the courage to speak up in their home departments. It’s way past time to break the taboo enforcing the academic career as the sole placement option that can be publicly acknowledged and discussed. We need to make a start now toward naturalizing a larger, more generous view of employment possibilities and career success in graduate education.

David Laurence

Our PhD Employment Problem, Part I

Our PhD employment problem is very simply described: there’s a mismatch between the number of graduate students earning doctorates each year and the number of tenure-track faculty positions available to them. There are too few tenure-track jobs for the PhD recipients who are qualified to compete for them. The problem is most commonly attributed to an overproduction of PhDs. But it can be understood and has been argued to be the result of an underproduction of tenure-track positions symptomatic of institutions’ increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty appointments.

Figure 1, with its red trend line tracking new PhD recipients and its blue trend line tracking jobs advertised in the MLA Job Information List, has formed our basic image of the depressed academic job market that has persisted since the 1970s. (Click on the chart to see a full-screen version. The curve representing PhD recipients is based on a query for graduates in “English and literature” from the United States Survey of Earned Doctorates [SED] data as maintained on WebCASPAR, a National Science Foundation [NSF] Web site of United States government data resources on higher education. “English and literature” is an NSF aggregate of several SED subfields, including English and American language and literature, creative writing, comparative literature, classics, folklore, speech and rhetorical studies, and, beginning in 2012, rhetoric and composition. The SED is the federal government’s annual census of new PhD recipients.)

Fig. 1
01_PhDs_Jobs

More than an image, this charting has served as our mental model for the job market and its troubles—especially the two episodes of acute crisis that become vividly apparent where the blue trend line for jobs plunges below the red trend line for PhD job seekers in the mid-1990s and most recently since 2008. I want to argue that this model is oversimplified and has led us to think too narrowly about PhD career paths, actual and possible.

Consider, for example, the record of initial employment placements across the fourteen studies of PhD placement that the MLA has conducted since 1977, as shown in figure 2. (The most recent study sought information about placement, as of November 2010, of graduates who received their degrees between 1 September 2009 and 31 August 2010.) This charting of MLA placement survey findings reminds us that the PhD employment (and unemployment) picture has always included several strands in addition to postsecondary faculty positions on and off the tenure track—including administrative posts in postsecondary institutions and employment outside higher education as well as postdoctoral fellowships.

Fig. 2
02_MLA_placement

The crisis episodes of the mid-1990s and since 2008 are clearly reflected in the sharp downturns in the percentage of graduates finding tenure-track placements and corresponding upturns in the percentage taking full- or part-time non-tenure-track positions. At the best, across the record of fourteen MLA surveys over three decades, just above half of a given year’s graduates have found placements to tenure-track faculty appointments in the year they received their degrees. In trough years, the figure has dropped below 40%. (Shown here are findings for graduates of doctoral programs in English. The picture for languages other than English is similar.)

Also striking in the record of the MLA placement studies is how unchanging and predominant placement to postsecondary teaching has been. Across the ups and downs of three decades, close to 80% of program graduates have consistently gone on to postsecondary teaching right after graduate school, whether as tenure-track assistant professors or as non-tenure-track instructors. The notable development has been an exchange of placements beyond postsecondary teaching in favor of placement to postdoctoral fellowships. Employment outside higher education, whether in K–12 education, government, not-for-profit organizations, or for-profit enterprises, has actually seen significant decline since the 1980s. The unemployment rate (graduates reported as not employed and seeking employment), which, after reaching 10.5% in the crisis of the 1990s dropped to 2.1% in 2006–07, increased to 4.2% in 2009–10. Again, what we are looking at here is placement of graduates directly after completing the PhD, within the same year a graduate received the degree. Interestingly, and in contrast to postdoc placements, placements to academic administration, where we might expect to see some indication of a turn to nonfaculty (or “alt-ac”) positions in higher education, has yet to break out on the MLA survey as a significant percentage of initial placements, reaching a peak at 3.9% in 2003–04 and dropping back to 2.0% in 2009–10.

The concentration of humanities’ graduates in postsecondary teaching positions immediately after completing doctoral study is striking in comparison with graduates in social sciences and sciences, as data from the SED make apparent (fig. 3). If a humanities degree recipient has a definite commitment to employment or postdoctoral study at the time they complete the SED questionnaire, chances are 8 in 10 that the commitment is to a postsecondary teaching job (whether on or off the tenure track), by far the highest among the five major disciplinary areas.

Fig. 3
03_SED_academia

Correspondingly, the SED data show how dominant postdoctoral study is in the sciences and also how the upward trend in placement to postdoctoral study that we saw in the MLA placement findings is shared across the disciplines (fig. 4). (Do the sharp increase in placements to postdoctoral study in science and engineering after 2008 and the equally sharp drop since 2010 reflect both early adjustments to the financial crisis on the part of programs and graduates and subsequent reduced allocations of government funding for research labs in these fields?)

Fig. 4
04_SED_postdoc

But how does the humanities’ overall placement record compare with that for the sciences and social sciences? Figure 5, drawn from the SED, compares the percentage of graduates in the different disciplines with definite commitments, whether to employment or postdoctoral study, across two decades, from 1991 to 2012. The SED consistently finds that the humanities have the lowest percentage of graduates reporting a definite postgraduation commitment to employment or postdoctoral study. But, no surprise, things have gotten a lot tougher for everyone since 2008. What may come as a surprise is the sharp declining trend for graduates in the life sciences and a trend for the humanities that is actually slightly positive (if by a considerable margin still lowest among the disciplines in the percentage of graduates reporting definite postgraduation commitments, although the distance between the humanities and life sciences has narrowed).

Fig. 5
05_SED_placement

It is illuminating to consider the numbers behind these percentage values (fig. 6). The life sciences have experienced dramatic increases in degree recipients, which have doubled in number since 1982 and show no sign of slowing down. Humanities degrees increased through the 1990s but, unlike the sciences, leveled off after 1997. (The most recent year for which SED data are available, 2012, did see a notable uptick in the number of humanities degree recipients.)

Fig. 6
06_SED_production

So the relationship between trends in numbers of graduates and trends in percentage of graduates finding postgraduation placements differs for the sciences on the one hand and the humanities and also education on the other. Figure 7 illustrates the story for life sciences over the two decades since 1992. (The blue and black trend lines for absolute numbers of graduates refer to the left axis; the red trend line for the percentage of graduates placed refers to the right axis.)

Fig. 7
07_SED_life sciences

The absolute number of life sciences graduates finding placements immediately after graduation has been increasing. But the number of graduates has been increasing a lot faster. So the percentage of graduates reporting definite postgraduation placements has seen a substantial decline of ten percentage points. It is now approaching 60%, where it had been 70% or above.

Compared with life sciences, PhD production in the humanities looks flat—as does the number of graduates finding placements immediately after graduation (fig. 8). And the two fields have actually gotten a lot closer in the percentage of graduates with definite commitments to employment or postdoctoral study than was the case ten or fifteen years ago.

Fig. 8
08_SED_humanities

Education shows yet another pattern (fig. 9), with a sharply declining number of graduates receiving degrees—down 25% since 2007—but accompanied by an equally abrupt decline in the number of graduates finding placements. Consequently, the substantial reduction in graduates with PhDs in education has not improved the percentage of graduates reporting definite commitments to employment or postdoctoral study (just under 70% in 2012).

Fig. 9
09_SED_education

But what about humanities PhD employment and careers in the long term? Figure 10 presents data from the 1995 Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), a United States government survey and companion to the SED that tracks a sample of PhDs from the time they receive their degrees to age seventy-five. In 1995, the last year data were collected for the humanities, the SDR found something on the order of 40% of the entire humanities PhD population working in positions other than postsecondary teaching.

Fig. 10
10_SDR_outcomes

Humanities participation in the SDR, which was funded with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, was lost when the endowment’s budget was cut in the mid-1990s (data are still collected for the sciences). The lack of current information about the employment sectors where humanities PhDs find work and what they are actually doing in their work has prompted several recent efforts, including projects being undertaken by the MLA and the American Historical Association (AHA) with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to track the current occupations of post-1995 PhDs and the 2012 survey Katina Rogers directed for the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI). The AHA has issued a report of findings from its study of PhD employment outcomes. The (very preliminary and subject to change) returns from the MLA’s effort are so far very much in line with the AHA’s findings for history PhDs, as shown in figure 11. A little under 60% of the PhDs we’ve located are working as tenured postsecondary faculty members. Just over 10% are in non-tenure-track faculty positions. Between 6% and 7% hold professional staff positions in postsecondary institutions; between 4% and 5% are deans, provosts, or college presidents (the “senior postsecondary administration” category on this chart); and a not insignificant 21% are working outside postsecondary education altogether. (These early results from the MLA’s research come from a subset of several hundred PhDs, all of whom earned degrees before 2000; consequently, for the purposes of this first, quick take, we did not attempt to distinguish tenure-track assistant professors.)

Fig. 11
11_MLA_prelim

It’s interesting to look at these findings in relation to findings from the SCI’s 2012 survey, shown in figure 12, since that effort focused specifically on people with graduate degrees who were working in “alt-ac” positions—pursuing careers in postsecondary institutions but not as faculty members. (The SCI findings include ABDs and respondents who left graduate school with master’s degrees as well as those who completed the PhD.) Asked about the career they expected to enter at the start of graduate school, the SCI respondents overwhelmingly indicated a career as a tenured faculty member.

Fig. 12
12_SCI-1

And an equally overwhelming percentage of the SCI respondents said that when they started graduate school they were either certain or fairly certain that they would pursue a career as a tenured faculty member (fig. 13). Remember, for most of the survey respondents, their actual careers have taken them in other directions.

Fig. 13
13_SCI-2

So the evidence we possess points to two conclusions: people who enter the long and arduous path of doctoral study in the humanities do so having a postsecondary faculty career as their primary goal, and people who pursue graduate education in the humanities actually find careers in a far broader range of professional positions than postsecondary teaching, even if their first job after graduate school is a postsecondary faculty position on or off the tenure track. So the question isn’t whether doctoral study can lead to careers beyond postsecondary teaching—it already does and has for decades. The question comes down to the view doctoral programs and their inhabitants take of what has long been the simple fact.

But, given that graduate students in the humanities declare becoming a postsecondary faculty member as their predominant career goal and motive for undertaking doctoral study, it seems pertinent to our discussion to remind ourselves what is happening to the faculty. That is the topic for The Trend‘s next post.

David Laurence

More on That Northwestern Study: The Authors Speak, but Is Anyone Listening?

“Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” The three authors of the NBER working paper—David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter—spoke on 7 October at a colloquium organized by Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR), which Figlio directs. (A PDF of the paper is available for free at the IPR Web site.) As reported in the 8 October issue of the Daily Northwestern, their remarks underscore the point made in my blog post on their paper.

From Schapiro, president of Northwestern University: “In retrospect, I wish we had been a little clearer about the fact that we have non-lined faculty, but most of them are regularly renewed longtime professors here teaching full time for us and have been doing it forever. It’s a big difference [from] when I was at (the University of Southern California) and we called them ‘freeway flyers.’”

From Figlio: “The biggest takeaway message, in my opinion, is really [that] major research universities have these outstanding teachers teaching classes and we need to give these outstanding teachers more respect. We in the professoriate and maybe NU as an institution, but not just NU, need to recognize that if these people are doing such a good job in the classroom, maybe they should be even more integrated into the fabric of great research universities.”

New York TimesWall Street JournalChronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher Ed, and university and college presidents from sea to shining sea, are you listening?

David Laurence

One-Tenth of a Grade Point

The trend toward a majority non-tenure-track faculty has begun to attract serious economic analysis as—possibly—an institutional problem. You know something is up when administrators seek evidence that no damage ensues to students’ education from staffing practices and personnel policies that have created a higher education faculty with, in four-year institutions, only a third of its members employed in full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty positions (and under 15% in two-year colleges).

Enter the working paper recently released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?,” by David N. Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern University; Northwestern University’s president, Morton O. Schapiro; and Kevin B. Soter, from the Chicago-based consulting firm The Greatest Good. The paper examines first-term classes taken by first-year Northwestern University students across eight student cohorts, from fall 2001 to fall 2008, some taught by faculty members inside the tenure system and some taught by faculty members outside the tenure system. The authors ask two questions: Did the likelihood that a student took a subsequent class in the same subject vary by the tenure status of the instructor in the first course? Did the grade the student received in the subsequent course vary by the tenure status of the instructor in the first course? The paper states their core findings as follows:

[A] non-tenure track faculty member increases the likelihood that a student will take another class in the subject by 7.3 percentage points (9.3 percentage points when limited to classes outside the student’s intended major) and increases the grade earned in that subsequent class by slightly more than one-tenth of a grade point (with a somewhat greater impact for classes outside of the intended major). (9)

The conclusion that follows most directly from these findings should come as welcome news to MLA members, especially in the light of the exceptional character of the study’s institutional setting and the specific courses on which it focuses. It should surprise no one to have evidence that a cadre of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, most of whom have what the paper’s authors describe as “a longer-term relationship with the university” (9n8), perform well as teachers in the introductory courses that are central to the work Northwestern University hires them to do. Or that these full-time non-tenure-track instructors even improve—slightly—on the support colleagues inside the tenure system can offer students in these introductory courses, courses that are not as central to the work, including the teaching work, Northwestern University hires faculty members inside the tenure system to do. Perhaps the surprise should be how small the differential is rather than how large. We’re talking about one-tenth of a grade point on a four-point scale.

Of course, the study and its conclusions will be put to polemical uses that can be anticipated to respect none of the features that ought to make the study welcome and to indulge all the phony generalizations that are bound to make its findings damaging. Under cover of the conveniently elastic term “adjuncts,” results of a study confined exclusively to full-time faculty members are sure to be cited as showing what the findings emphatically do not show: that the widespread institutional abuse of part-time faculty members does no damage, whether to students’ education, to the faculty, or to institutions. Memo to the media: the findings of this study have nothing to do with faculty members whose status or function can properly be described as adjunct, even if institutions use a title like “full-time adjunct professor” to categorize them.

The authors are curious to understand how their results may speak to the debate about higher education’s staffing practices and the dramatic expansion of the segment of the faculty employed off the tenure track. They note that in the United States in 1975, “57% of all faculty [members] (excluding graduate students) were in the tenure system; by 2009 that figure had been cut almost in half to 30%” (2). Interestingly, according to the United States Department of Education’s Employees by Assigned Position Survey (EAP), in fall 2011 tenured and tenure-track faculty members made up 57.7% of all non-medical-school faculty members at Northwestern University, compared with 28.2% across all degree-granting institutions, both two- and four-year, and 33.9% across the four-year institutions. With respect to tenured and tenure-track faculty members, the faculty demography of Northwestern University today is comparable to the faculty demography prevailing across all institutions of higher education in the United States in 1975.

Moreover, according to the EAP, 64.8% of the Northwestern faculty outside the tenure system was full-time in fall 2011.  Among four-year colleges and universities, 70.3% of the non-medical-school faculty outside the tenure system was part-time in fall 2011, nearly the reverse of conditions at Northwestern. In the light of the decidedly exceptional demography of the Northwestern University faculty, efforts to generalize the results of this study to the wider universe of four-year colleges and universities are untenable or at best premature. Unless, of course, a right understanding of this study and its institutional setting really argues for returning the faculty to the conditions of tenure status and full- and part-time employment status prevailing across the system in 1975 and still prevailing at Northwestern today.

The most consequential implication of the paper’s analysis may be stated as follows. If non-tenure-track teachers are professionals who perform well in the work they are hired to do, shouldn’t this—now majority—faculty be included in institutional employment and compensation policies that treat them as professionals? Instead, it seems depressingly clear that the paper will be abused to rationalize the further immiseration of the large and rapidly expanding part-time segment of the non-tenure-track academic workforce, under the excuse that “the research shows” faculty members outside the tenure system teach at least as well and often better, irrespective of the size of their classes, their course loads, their compensation, their full- or part-time employment status, the working conditions they endure, or how little support they receive. Which leads to the question, How will the authors, most especially the president of Northwestern University, respond if their findings are used to assert such unjustified conclusions?

David Laurence

Mismeasuring the Humanities

In the wake of the release of The Heart of the Matter, a report commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that argues for the importance of the humanities and social sciences, and a trio of Harvard reports advocating humanities study, sympathetic voices have come forward to lament a purported decline in humanities study, to assess the cause of such a decline, and to prescribe remedies. Yet, as Ben Schmidt has pointed out, conclusions about trends in humanities degrees need to take into account broader changes in higher education. Citing the percentage of undergraduates receiving degrees in the humanities in, say, 1971, compared with the percentage receiving humanities degrees today omits at least two key parts of the picture.

1. The percentage value for “then” is inflated by the high percentage of women who were, until the 1970s, a semicaptive audience for study in the humanities (and also in education).

For example, in the late 1960s, nearly 12 of every 100 degrees earned by women were in English. For men, the figure was about 4.5 of every 100 degrees. By 1983, just over 4 of every 100 degrees women earned were in English, and the gap in the number of English degrees awarded to women versus men shrank from over 7 of every 100 degrees to less than 2. That is, as women gained entry to professions formerly closed to them, their choice of English as a major came to resemble men’s more closely, and the proportion of degrees they earned in English dwindled.

The other side of the coin appears in business degrees. In 1966, fewer than 3 of every 100 degrees earned by women were in business, compared with 20 of every 100 degrees for men. Twenty years later, in 1986, the figure reached 22 of every 100 degrees for women, and the gap between the rate at which women and men chose business as a field of study narrowed by 12 percentage points (over 70%), from 17 to 5 percentage points.

2. The percentage value for “now” can be artificially depressed if it is calculated using a too-restrictive aggregation for the humanities.

The 7% figure often cited as the percentage of college graduates who majored in the humanities in 2010 reflects a National Science Foundation aggregation that, for example, categorizes art history degrees with the arts rather than with the humanities and degrees in ethnic studies, women’s studies, and other area studies fields with the social sciences. While the assignments are debatable, a percentage value derived from a system that places them all outside the humanities should not be taken simply at face value.

Using a more capacious aggregation that includes academic studies in the arts and in humanities-connected programs in area studies, the Humanities Indicators has created an accounting showing that degrees in the humanities have steadily held a share between 10% and 12% for more than two decades.

A decline in the percentage of humanities degrees earned did occur between 1970 and 1986, but the decline affected all the liberal arts disciplines, not just the humanities, and it was short-lived. The humanities share increased from 1986 to 1990, and since 1990 it has remained unchanged for two decades. Taking the two dates 1966 and 2011 while completely ignoring the middle gives an inaccurate picture.

A numerical decline is not prima facie evidence sufficient to prove there has been a “fall” or “demise.”

A list of articles related to the recent reports appears on the From the President blog.

David Laurence