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Whither the Humanities PhD?
Symposium Looks at Job Market, Graduate Program Downsizing, Non-Academic Careers

By Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
Posted April 7, 1999

Photo: Musician

Performing is one career option for music PhDs. Jane Scherr photo.

Two messages -- that earning a PhD in the humanities is more often a labor of love than a wise career choice, and that PhDs should consider non-academic jobs -- came through loud and clear at a March 29 symposium on "The Future of the Humanities PhD."

Sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities in cooperation with the Graduate Division, the symposium presented eloquent speakers from campus and beyond.

Leading off was Maresi Nerad, director of graduate research, who reported on findings of a national study she has conducted with Joseph Cerny, vice chancellor for research, and others. The study followed the careers of some 6,000 PhD's from 61 U.S. universities in six disciplines from the time of doctoral completion (between 1982 and 1985) and 1995.

At the symposium Nerad focused on the 814 English PhDs in the study, noting that they took an average of 10 years to complete doctoral studies, finishing at an average age of 35 -- the oldest among the six disciplines.

While 80 percent of the English PhDs surveyed wanted to become professors at the end of their doctoral education, only 53 percent were tenured by 1995, the study found. Another 6 percent were in tenure-track positions and 16 percent were still in untenured, year-to-year positions as instructors. More than 10 percent were employed in business, government and nonprofit jobs. Less than 1 percent were involuntarily unemployed.

However, despite the less-than-perfect job placement rate, more than 90 percent of the English PhDs in the study felt their doctoral education was worth the effort and would do it again, Nerad reported.

Asked for advice for doctoral programs, study participants' most frequent response went something like, "take fewer students and offer more support," said Nerad. Another was, "teach graduate students how to be good teachers and reward good teaching."

Survey respondents faulted the lack of help from faculty, their department and campus career services in finding a job -- a situation Nerad described as a "culture of neglect."

Judging by the high levels of job satisfaction among non-professorial English PhDs and the lack of tenure-track academic positions, Nerad recommended that English departments stop assuming that the only successful outcome for PhD students is to become a professor.

Based on her research Nerad also recommended that applicants, new doctoral students in the humanities and faculty be informed about career prospects in academia and elsewhere; that student placement be seen as a collective departmental responsibility; that internship opportunities be offered both within and outside academia; and that PhD students be trained for jobs that actually exist.

"PhD programs in the humanities should not be downsized but adjusted for a changing world," Nerad concluded.

Samuel Otter, associate professor of English and chair of the department's graduate program, had a somewhat bleaker outlook on the academic job market.

"There's a significant gap between the number of PhDs produced and the number of academic jobs available," he said. Otter added that only 55 to 70 percent of Berkeley's English PhDs find academic jobs, often after looking for two or three years. "And Berkeley has one of the highest placement rates in the country," he noted.

As a consequence of the gap, Otter said, major English departments nationwide, including Berkeley's, are reducing the number of graduate students. Berkeley also warns its English graduate student admits that they will face a very difficult job market, he said.

Otter agreed with Nerad that graduate students need exposure to non-academic careers and internships and he supported the idea of offering on a regular basis career management workshops, like the one for English doctoral students presented last fall by the Graduate Division.

Thomas Bender, University Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at New York University, noted that the crisis is not a lack of energy and creativity in the humanities, but in the employment situation and the cultural standing of the humanities.

"There's a lack of connect between society and higher learning," he said, ... "an inability to explain what the humanities are and why they should be part of education."

Bender said that compared to earlier generations, "we seem painfully hesitant" about making changes in higher education. In the 1880s, he said, about a third of PhDs went into non-academic careers, mainly as public servants. He said about the same proportion of his own PhD students have gone into interesting non-professorial positions, such as archivist, editor, writer and journalist. "It's important," he said, "not to devalue alternative careers -- and we probably shouldn't even call them alternative."

Bender also called for a re-commitment to teaching by tenure-track faculty, noting that their teaching load has fallen by 50 percent and that you can reach far more minds by teaching than by writing a monograph.

Sandria Freitag, former executive director of the American Historical Association, said that the gap between humanities PhDs and jobs for them needs to be addressed on the national level.

She also noted a "serious lack of fit" between what history PhD students study and available academic jobs. Most U.S. history departments focus on 20th-century America, she said, while most academic history positions today call for expertise in world history, comparative history and non-Western history.

Freitag noted the alarming increase in academic adjunct, part-time and one-year appointments, saying the overuse of non-tenure-track faculty was creating an academic "second-class citizen." She recommended that humanities departments gather and release statistics on both adjunct faculty and placement of PhD students.


April 7 - 13, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 29)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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