Academic Job Market Crisis: 1970 – ?

Today, I’ve been reading through Washington Post articles on the academic job market crisis, starting in the 1970s.   Yup, the job market crisis has been going on for longer than I’ve been alive.   As an historian, I’m interested in understanding the backstory on the current job market crisis.  I want to know what was said and written as the job crisis unfolded in the 1970s.  I want to know how individual people responded and adapted to the economic realities of “no jobs.”  I’m curious to know how professional organizations and universities respond.  What about faculty?  But more than anything, I want to know why, in 2016, we’re re-inventing the wheel.   Or are we hampsters running on the wheel?  There’s a wheel/stagnation/failure-to-move-forward metaphor that needs to be deployed here.

Today isn’t my first dive into the archives.  But every time I spend an afternoon researching the history of the job market crisis, I’m both fascinated and perplexed.  We’re still having the same conversations.  We’re trying the same solutions to the “problem” of too many PhDs, not enough tenure track jobs.

I’ve got lots of questions swirling in my head, but the primary one is: why didn’t the reforms of the late 1970s/early 1980s take root?  There were altac/postac career panels at the AHA and MLA annual meetings.   Elite universities offered summer programs to retrain PhDs for non-academic careers, and graduate deans celebrated the transferability of skills and knowledge of humanist PhDs.   There are stories of poverty and hardship, of people working as part-time faculty for crap wages and no job security.  There is talk of unionizing. In one of the articles I read today, a Columbia PhD in literature decided to become a welder.

So. What happened?

Well,  as I write this, I’m looking at a chart on the job market for History that Rob Townsend put together from his own research, and he was kind enough to share with me. The chart shows we’ve seen periods of gradual increase in jobs, followed by devastating “busts.”

So, maybe the uptick in jobs that occurred in the late 1980s  was enough to erase the 15 years of academic job market trauma.  But, that “rebound” lasted only about 5 years and then there was the”downturn” in the early 1990s followed by a gradual “recovery” in the early 2000s, followed by the “bust”of 2009  and the steady decline in jobs to the present.

But, even if there were relatively “more jobs,” there couldn’t be enough tenure track jobs for everyone that wanted one, could there?  I’ve yet to meet an academic who said  “oh, when I finished my PhD, I had a pick of jobs” (probably because I don’t know anyone who got their PhD in the 1950s).  In fact, even friends and colleagues who graduated during the period of “more jobs” talk about a tight market and how lucky they were to get jobs.

So, here’s some highlights from today’s research.  It’s pretty obvious why I’ve chosen these quotes.

If you’re one of the people who came through the job market of the 1970s, I’d love to talk with you.  And, if you kept in touch with friends who found non-faculty careers, I would love to chat with them, too.

Or, if you want to direct me to resources/archives that could be useful to me as I begin researching and writing on this topic, that would be most welcomed.  I’m @lilligroup on twitter or you can email me at marenwood [at] lilligroup. com


Here’s a quote from an article discussing the plight of job seekers at the 82rd American Historical Association annual meeting in 1974.

“Historians Face Bleak Job Field,” Washington Post,  31 December 1974, pg A2

The convention had concluded several hours before, but Dr. Bruno Schlesinger, of tiny St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., still had a line of Ivy League-educated historians waiting to see him today.

Schlesinger wasn’t giving away gold, but to the troubled academics he had something as valuable  – a job … Schlesinger had one of 100 available jobs for some 800 unemployed persons who were seeking work here.”


A seminar on “alternative employment” offered standing room only.  Academics heard about possible jobs in such areas as retailing.

“We’re still turning out 1,000 PhDs a year and there are only about 100 job openings a year,” said Esteen Hardee a job adviser with the AHA.


And from the 1976 AHA meeting:

“History PhDs Hit by Job Shortage: Academics at Convention Here Besiege Employment Center,” Washington Post, 30 December 1976.

Last year the number of new doctorates in history exceeded the number of available junior faculty jobs by more than 4 to 1.  With the backlog of historians who haven’t gotten jobs, the Historical Association estimates that only about one-sixth of the history PhDs in the country have the teaching and research jobs that they are trained for.

Among those who do have jobs, an increasing number are academic vagabonds, travelling around the country with one-or two-year appointments, teaching part time or without hope of tenure.

“It’s a horrible way to live,” said one professor in his early 30s who said he has had four different jobs in the past sic years. “I keep taking them because I keep hoping and I want to stay in there.  But I don’t know who long I can go on.”


Here’s an article from 1975 about the job market crisis:

“Job Drop Pinches Educators: Decline in Enrollments Jeopardizes Teaching Careers,” Washington Post, 12 Jan 1975, pg 4.

Fulbright Scholar and Ph.D in English from Columbia who always ranked near the top of his class, Fred Whitehead, 30, is in school again – learning to be a welder in Lawrence, Kan. …

For Whitehead and other unemployed faculty members, there is little relief in sight. “We’re just approaching the crisis point,” said Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, now chairman of the Carnegie Council on Higher Education. “We should have seen it coming in the 1960s,” said Kerr, who believes even an economic upturn cannot prevent the crisis in college faculty employment from extending “well into the 1980s.”


Here’s an article from on the job crisis in English/Foreign Languages from 1978 MLA convention.

“92 Degrees in the Charade: The PhD Job Hunt is a Losing Game,” Washington Post, 30 December 1978.

Here before your very eyes, a celebrated chronic condition springs to life: the PhD job gap.  For years, American’s universities have been spewing them out, then refusing to take them back in.  PhDs gotta teach. Teaching jobs are scarce.  So the doctor is out. Here at the Modern Languish [sic] Association you can see them twisting in the wind, no longer mere abstract statistics. … Many of them were reading the walls, which is just one step removed from climbing them.  There were jobs on the walls.  The wall said for instance that the University of Manitoba is seeking teachers of Ukrainian language and literature …

[One PhD student] was … peeved at the MLA.  He said that he had to borrow the $600 to come here from California to look for a job in his chosen field and this was annoying.  So was the non-member registration fee.  “It’s a racket for the MLA,” he said.  “Everybody who comes here begging for a job pays $40 and staying in one of these hotels costs $30 a day.”

For the first time, the association invited to its convention hirers who are not academic – people from business, publishing and journalism. “We have to assume that supply and demand will catch up,” said [Roy] Chustek [Coordinator of MLA’s Job Information Service], “and people will wise up and drop out.”


And here’s an article from 1982 describing programs at several elite institutions to train PhDs for non-academic employment.

The Retrofitting of the PhD: Growing Number from Academia are Retraining for New Careers,” Washington Post, 19 July 1982, pg B1

Calvin Hoy, 31, who holds a Columbia University doctorate and supports himself by working in a liquor store, is joining dozens of other PhDs across the country in returning to school – this time to be retrained for a job in business or government … This summer, Hoy and 41 other PhDs are spending six weeks and about $1,700 at the University of Virginia attending a crash program to learn something about business and their own marketable skills.  They are also making contacts they hope will lead to good nonacademic jobs.

“There’s only a PhD glut if you think all you can do with these degrees is teaching and research in universities,” said Clinton W. Kersey Jr,. coordinator of the U-VA. institute. “Business and government tell us they need people who are good analytical thinkings, good organizers, writers, and researchers.  These are the very skills that PhDs have … and they’re readily transferable.”

While there are no complete figures on what jobs they get, the Modern Language Association reports that in English and foreign languages, the fields it covers, just 40% of recent doctorates have found full-time college teaching jobs that could lead to tenure.  An additional 20 percent received temporary jobs, while the remainder taught part-time or left academia, the MLA said.

To Dexter Whitehead, dean of the graduate school of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, PhDs working outside their fields show that “the humanities and social sciences have a great deal to contribute to society.”  By helping more of them get good jobs, Whitehead said, the career change programs raise the value of the advanced degrees themselves. He said the programs also promise to strengthen graduate studies at a time when fewer top-quality students are enrolling.

“Maybe some people can afford the avocation of a degree in the humanities.  But really most [PhD] programs don’t prepare anybody to be anything except clones of the professor … Anyone who says the PhD is a good way to prepare for the business world is self-serving or dishonest or simply wants cannon fodder for his own graduate courses.” [– Lewis Solomon, an education professor a UCLA. He directed a five-year study of the job market for PhDs.]