Monday, September 17, 2012

Do PhDs Expire?

cross-posted from Dagblog

Last week the annual job list for college literature professors went live, in an annual ritual I've blogged about before. And it looks like the worst list for Shakespeareans in history.

Two years ago, I used this space to explain how the 2008 crash had killed the already far-too-small job market for new PhDs, and how poor the rebound was two years later:
When the financial crisis hit in 2008 ... [w]hat had been about five dozen jobs teaching Shakespeare or Milton became four dozen, or less, although there were still the same hundred and fifty or two hundred or two hundred and seventy-five people trying to get them.

[In 2009] there weren't even four dozen jobs advertised in the fall. There were still 200 smart young Shakespeareans, Miltonists and Tamburlaine experts out there looking for work. In fact, there were more, because the forty or so who'd gotten jobs the previous year had been replaced by two or three times that many new PhDs.
 And in 2010 there were only about two dozen entry-level jobs for my younger Renaissance colleagues. Four years on from the crash, it's worse than ever: the initial job list has only 13 entry-level tenure-track jobs teaching Renaissance lit in North America. There were 19 jobs; three are outside the country; three are senior positions for people who are already well-established (as in "full professor at the University of Chicago" established). That leaves thirteen for new PhDs who want to stay in the profession and have a middle-class salary. Thirteen. Some more jobs will trickle in over the next few weeks, and there will be a smaller round of listings in the spring (if the listing can, indeed, get any smaller), but thirteen jobs for a year's crop of Renaissance lit PhDs is a famine. And it isn't just one year's crop of PhDs, but all of the accumulated jobless graduates from the past few years.

As if all this wasn't grim enough (and some other subfields are having better luck than Renaissance is, but not much), this year two universities that are hiring decided to declare that people who hadn't gotten tenure-track jobs during the crunch years were now persona non grata.

Colorado State advertised for a job teaching pre-1900 American literature, but specified that applicants had to have gotten their doctorates in 2010 or later. Their explanation was that it was an entry-level job with an entry-level salary, and they were trying to screen out people who'd already been on the tenure-track for several years. That part is fair enough. But their language obviously ruled out people who hadn't gotten a tenure-track job, and who'd been toiling away as adjuncts or lecturers since, you know, the whole economy cratered. An uproar ensued (see great posts from SEK, Historiann, Dr. Crazy, and what the heck, more SEK) and Colorado State changed the wording of the ad. It further turned out that Harvard's Comparative Lit department had published a job ad asking for PhDs from 2009 and later, and they too changed that wording. But the cynic in me doubts that someone who's been teaching college off the tenure track for more than a year or two will end up with the Colorado State job. (That someone who's been teaching off the tenure track for more than three years would land the Harvard job is out of the question.)

The ugly question, "Does a PhD expire?" has two answers: one for search committees, and one for job applicants. To search committees, I say: it is obtuse and inhumane to screen out job candidates because they've been underemployed in an irrationally savage employment market.  We all know that there are talented and deserving people without steady jobs, because there are many more talented and deserving people than there are steady jobs, so don't turn away qualified applicants for no damned reason. Just read their CVs. Yes, you have hundreds of CVs to read. Screening out the adjuncts and lecturers won't shrink your pile in a meaningful way. It will only shrink your heart, and blind you to potential hires who could help your department enormously.

But for the talented and deserving people working away out there, trying to find a job with a future in our profession, I have hard news.

PhDs do expire. Absolutely. But you have to let them.

I have two graduate degrees, in two related but distinct fields. One of my degrees has expired. I could not get a job, nor apply for a job with a straight face, on the basis of that degree. It is, at best, an interesting thing on my CV, but only to someone who is already interested in me because of my other degree, which I have not allowed to expire. One of my degrees has value as a job credential and the other has not, because I have maintained the professional value of one and not the other.

My first graduate degree is expired because I have not published in that field for years. It had expired by the time I got the second degree. (All my publications in the first field are from the years I was studying for that degree. My last publication is from the year I graduated and switched fields. It couldn't be more legible on my CV.) I no longer practice that discipline. I don't teach it, although I have taken over a beginner's class when the scheduled teacher fell through. But I would not teach an advanced course, let alone a graduate course, or direct even an MA thesis. I don't do that anymore. My qualifications have lapsed. On the other hand, I am working in the field where I got my second terminal degree, and that degree has kept its value as a job qualification because I continue adding value to it.

What about those tenured people who haven't published in years? Why haven't their PhDs expired? The answer is that they have. None of those people could get another job in the field. They can hold onto the jobs they have, but they can't even apply for others. Is it unfair that they hold onto those jobs? Sure. (Although sometimes not; I think that there are sixty-somethings who no longer have the fire in the belly for new research projects but who are nonetheless entitled to a professional autumn as teachers.) But the question isn't what's fair. It's what's best for you. And if you do not yet have a job, you need to keep your doctorate up-to-date by continuing to do work in the field.

In the humanities that means writing and publishing, no matter how heavy your non-tenure-track teaching load is. If you got your degree in 2008 and don't have a peer-reviewed publication since then, search committees won't give you a pass because you've been teaching so much comp. They have plenty of applicants who have been publishing more recently than you have, including applicants who were teaching the same brutal loads that you have. If you haven't published since you got the degree, departments will view that degree as nothing more than a technical qualification. It will no longer be a sign of your actual qualifications, no longer a reliable predictor of success. Not publishing suggests to search committees that you won't publish, and they are not crazy to think that. This isn't a job market where you can get credit for qualifications that are not in evidence. A degree that hasn't been followed up by published research will be construed as a sign that you're finished as a researcher. If that's an unfair assumption, it's also the only assumption that hiring committees can feel confident in making.

Getting your degree is an achievement you can be proud of. But more importantly, it is an indicator of your potential for future achievements as a scholar. And you need to keep demonstrating that potential by achieving more things. Your degree has as much value on the academic market as you give it. Use it or lose it.

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