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For Job Hunters in Academe, 1999 Offers Signs of an Upturn

Many institutions report a surge in hiring fortenure-track posts

January 29, 1999
By Denise K. Magner

Copyright 1999, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Posted with permission on This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.

Flip through the employment ads of almost any professional journal these days, and you'll find something academe hasn't seen much of in years: tenure-track jobs.

Last month, the Modern Language Association reported that its overall job listings in English were 28 per cent higher than they were a year earlier-with a 34-per-cent increase in the number of junior-level positions on the tenure track. Meanwhile, employment ads in history are up 13 per cent and have reached their highest point since the early 1990s. Faculty positions advertised in Job Openings in Economics, or JOE, are up 18 per cent. And in mathematics, an employment register listed 400 positions this past November, up from 250 a year earlier.

Signs of renewed vigor in the job market emerged as early as two years ago. But its long weakness during the '90s has wreaked havoc on the careers of hundreds of Ph.D.'s, and it's not clear whether a modest upswing in openings will bring the majority of them any relief. "It's not suddenly become a job seeker's market," says Jim Maxwell, associate executive director of the American Mathematical Society. "It will take several more years of improving conditions before I think you will see the job seekers back to where they were in the late '80s."

The trouble is, there are far more applicants than openings in most fields. In history, for example, departments have produced more than three Ph.D.'s for every two junior-level positions advertised, for the past five years. New Ph.D.'s are competing with a huge backlog of doctoral recipients who have spent years in temporary teaching and research jobs, hoping to land a tenure-track position. And both groups are also competing with assistant professors who did find tenure-track jobs but are looking for better ones now that the market has picked up. Labor experts had predicted that the outlook would improve once state institutions began hiring again in a significant way-and they are. The California State University system hired 1,000 new tenure-track professors last year, and plans to hire another 1,000 this academic year-about double what it could afford in the mid-'90s. The University of Wisconsin at Madison hopes to recruit 32 new faculty members, on top of its normal round of hiring. The State University of New York at Binghamton will fill more than 30 tenure-track posts by the fall, for the second year in a row.

The initial interviews for most faculty positions take place at the annual meetings of scholarly societies, and those meetings are just winding up this month. In the next few weeks, Ph.D.'s will begin to hear whether they have made it onto the shortlists of candidates who are asked to visit campuses for morein-depth interviews.

"This year I'm seeing more people having more interviews," says Lennard J. Davis, a professor of English at Binghamton and graduate director in the department. "But it's modest. I have one student who had gone on the job market last year and had maybe two interviews, and this year she has three or four."

His own department is hiring a tenure-track professor in African-American literature and is negotiating with the university to hire a second, in medieval literature. "We've had so many retirements, we'd have to be hiring three people a year for the next five years to make up for the losses of the last 10 years," Mr. Davis says. "Even though things are getting a little bit better, everyone is still operating under a siege mentality." Two factors are giving institutions more openings than they have seen in a while, professors and administrators say. The first is the departure of growing numbers of senior professors who were hired in the 1960s and are retiring. Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the Cal State system, says he expects a major wave of faculty retirements to hit his institutions in the next year or two-a prediction echoed by administrators on other campuses.

The second factor is a healthy U.S. economy, which has bolstered state budgets for higher education and beefed up endowment income, enabling administrators to recruit tenure-track professors, instead of trying to save money by hiring low-paid temporary instructors. At the University of Minnesota's main campus, the College of Liberal Arts is recruiting 41 new tenure-track faculty members, for the third year in a row. "At the end of this third year, we'll have hired about 100 new people over all, out of a total faculty of 500," says Michael Hancher, the college's associate dean of faculty. "We're not expanding wildly. It's a matter of having enough money to not seize on the departure or retirement of faculty as a way to balance costs. People are getting replaced, and there's a restoration of what had been lost before."

In the years to come, whether institutions will hire new assistant professors to replace most of their retiring senior professors, if not all of them, is anyone's guess. Some people doubt that a bulge of faculty retirements will have a lasting impact on the job market. "What's happening all over the country is there are going to be a lot of retirements in the next few years," says Katharine E. Maus, a professor of English at the University of Virginia and director of job placement in the department. "I interpret this as not so much an improvement in the job market as a little spike. Once those people get replaced, then you don't need new faculty for a while." The people who are landing jobs are often in "hot" fields, says Henry Silverman, chairman of the history department at Michigan State University.

"Last year we hired someone in Caribbean history," he says. "This year we're hiring someone in modern American Jewish history. Next year we hope to be able to hire someone in Latino history. So we're allowed to hire in these specialized fields, but it's more difficult to create new positions in American or European history, or to follow through on replacing retired professors in those areas. The argument from the administration is, We can always find a graduate student or temporary faculty member to handle those sections."

The job market for college professors is actually made up of many smaller markets. Some disciplines have fared far worse than others in the hiring drought of the '90s, and some have barely suffered at all. One such field is computer science, where Ph.D.'s are inundated with job offers and universities are having a tough time competing with industry for talent. Denison University is hoping to hire an assistant professor of computer science this year. "We got 10 applications, but only four were truly appropriate," says Joan Krone, head of its mathematics-and-computer-science department. Mathematicians have not been so blessed. In 1996, the unemployment rate for new Ph.D.'s in the field reached nearly 15 per cent-its highest point ever. Since then, however, the rate has dropped below 3 per cent, and professors see other, subtle signs of improvement. Just a year ago, when the College of Charleston advertised two tenure-track openings in mathematics, it got 700 applications. This year, the college has three openings, including one for a senior professor, but together they attracted only 500 applications. Deanna M. Caveny, chairwoman of the college's mathematics department, says she expects to face stiffer competition for top candidates now than she has in years.

Mr. Maxwell, of the American Mathematical Society, says the oversupply of Ph.D.'s in the field has allowed departments to hire better candidates than they would otherwise have been able to afford. "Departments are all chasing the 250 to 300 Ph.D.'s from the top institutions, out of the 800 that are on the U.S. academic market," he says. Economics began to suffer from a surplus of Ph.D.'s about five years ago, says John J. Siegfried, a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University. But he sees two hopeful developments. The number of new doctoral students in economics has declined by 25 per cent since 1993, he says. "A ton of people who were hired in the '60s in economics are mulling over retirement," he says. "That's going to increase demand. Put that together with a falling supply, and this backlog of economists who show up year after year is going to start to dissipate."

But no one should expect it to completely disappear, Mr. Siegfried says. "Some people think a Ph.D. is a Ph.D., but I wouldn't hire some of these people to watch my cat," he says. "It's difficult to measure how much of the overflow is real-some are left out on the market for lack of positions, and some are people who would never get hired." It's the first group that professors are worried about. They say Ph.D.'s have had to adjust as the rules of the academic-hiring game have changed dramatically this decade. It is now the norm for Ph.D.'s to take at least three years to find their first tenure-track jobs. During that time, they are "seasoned" in a series of temporary posts that slowly bring them closer to the tenure track.

"In the '80s you had the sense that if you didn't get a tenure-track job out of graduate school, you were damaged goods," says Michael P. Steinberg, a professor of history and director of graduate studies at Cornell University. "But on the hiring end now, there are no longer any raised eyes when a C.V. has several temporary jobs listed."

He adds: "That's a fundamental change. I've seen several of our really good Ph.D.'s get wonderful jobs after two to three years if they have the stamina to hold out." Jeremy Varon thinks he has the stamina. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Cornell in January 1998, and is now a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "The modest increase in openings hasn't translated into optimism among job candidates," he says. He applied for a dozen tenure-track jobs this past fall and got one interview. "But they interviewed 23 other people for the same job, so who knows?" he says. Still, he wants to be a college professor, and he is making the best out of a "funky" situation. He has published articles in major journals in his field and has every expectation that his dissertation-on left-wing violence in West Germany and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s-will become a book. "I'm doing all the right things," he says. His field is modern European history, where there are many more job candidates than positions. "Intellectually and existentially, I'm ready to be a professor," he says. "I'm waiting for the opportunity."

So is Shara McCallum, but she is likely to get it sooner. She will earn her Ph.D. in English at SUNY-Binghamton in May, specializing in creative writing and African-American literature. She applied to 57 institutions and got 22 interviews, 19 of them at the M.L.A.'s annual convention last month. "It was pretty insane," she says. Already, three institutions have asked her to come to their campuses for a second interview, and one has offered her a job.

She thinks she has succeeded on the job market so far partly because she is in a hot field, partly because she has published work, and partly because she is of mixed ethnicity-her father is a black Jamaican and her mother is Venezuelan.

In offhand remarks, she says, people have suggested that her race explains why she has landed so many interviews. Maybe, she says, but it won't assure her a job. "I fall in an interesting position because I look white," she says. "So on paper, it probably helped me. I'm not sure how much it helped at the interview stage." It also helped, she says, that she was well-prepared to go out on the job market. She has taught courses in both creative writing and black literature, she has a book of poetry coming out from the University of Pittsburgh Press next fall, and she has a journal article due out next summer.

Her experience on the market is the exception, says Mr. Davis, the English professor at Binghamton, but he agrees that adequate preparation is one of the keys that opens doors in academe. "Absolute minimum, if you want to get a job," he says, "is two to three book reviews, at least two published articles, professional experience in the sense of attending conferences and giving papers, and best of all, a contract for your dissertation to be published as a book."

Still, some professors say students shouldn't accept just any tenure-track job. "I'd rather people take a one-year position at a decent university than a tenure-track job at a lousy university," says Ms. Maus, the English professor at Virginia. She urged a promising young Ph.D. to take a fellowship in England rather than a tenure-track post at a small Oklahoma college. Later, he wound up with a better tenure-track job in California.

"As long as people ultimately move into something permanent, temporary jobs are not a big problem," Ms. Maus says. "These jobs can give them lots of savvy and experience that they otherwise wouldn't have. But if there's no hope, if all you're going to get is a string of adjunct jobs the rest of your life, that's a different thing."

Lisa Samuels hasn't quite lost hope. For the past two years, Ms. Samuels, who earned her Ph.D. in English at U.Va. in 1997, has worked in "respectable borrowed positions," first as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Alabama and now at the University of Louisville. She's on the market again this year, but if nothing pans out, she says, "I'm thinking I probably need to cut my losses." Her annual salary at Alabama was $33,000, and at Louisville it's $32,000, but her graduate training left her $35,000 in debt. It's cold comfort that two of her brothers-both newly minted Ph.D.'s in English-are in the same limbo, working in temporary positions as visiting faculty members.

Then there's her third brother, the C.E.O. of two Internet companies in Silicon Valley. "We spent Christmas this past year at his 7,000-square-foot mansion on the ocean," Ms. Samuels says. He never went to college at all.

Turns out, seeking a Ph.D. in English was a bigger gamble.