Why Is It So Difficult to Be Accepted Into an English Grad Program?

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Since the 1960s and 1970s American colleges have become more democratized, opening their doors to more students and offering in many cases what are still known by some as “remedial” courses to students who come in not “college ready.”   The hope is that such measures will help those who have not shared the same advantages of their wealthier peers to obtain a college degree.  At the same time, English graduate programs are shrinking their acceptance rates so that is is not uncommon for a program to take on five to eight new students a year.  A larger program might take fifteen students.  As a result, competition is fierce and to be accepted applicants must demonstrate a commitment to the discipline by explaining their specific professional goals and demonstrating a level of competency through submitting writing samples, indicating that they have already begun to professionalize by publishing or attending conferences, etc.

This may sound elitist–why can’t grad schools be more democratic and accept more students into their English programs?  Why only select those who have already demonstrated professional competence in their field?  Why not offer “remedial” courses and allow some students to stay a few more years in the program learning what others already learned when they earned their BA?  (Please keep in mind that “remedial” is the term many colleges use simply to describe what is part of the democratization process, and it’s not meant to be read as pejorative.)  Surely it’s worth spending more money, even a couple tens of thousands of dollars, on such a project.  The answer is bleak and it has to do with the job market.

Everyone “knows” that jobs in the humanities are hard to get, especially if you’re talking about jobs for someone with an English Ph.D.  However, the numbers are worse than you probably think and, when you see them, it’s hard not to wonder why people bother putting themselves through the agony of English Ph.D. programs at all.

To begin to understand the academic job market for English graduates, we first have to understand that colleges in the U.S. have a hierarchy.  The hierarchy  looks something like this:

  • full professor
  • associate professor
  • assistant professor
  • lecturer/instructor
  • adjuncts
  • grad students/GAs/TAs

Full professors and associate professors are typically tenured, meaning they have job security until they retire.  Assistant professors are tenure-track, meaning they can achieve tenure by publishing, conferencing, heading committees and doing other service, and receiving positive student and instructor reviews.  Lecturers are non-tenured.  Adjuncts are non-tenured, part-time, receive low pay, and typically receive no benefits.  GAs and TAs are grad students who receive a small stipend for teaching (maybe $18,000/yr, slightly more if they are lucky or in a better-paying field than English).

Tenured jobs in the academy are increasingly shrinking (and English departments are shrinking, too, because they have trouble competing for spending money when they go up against STEM departments).  Adjunct jobs, meanwhile, are increasing.  A study on adjuncts, or contingent faculty, The Shifting Academic Workforce: Where Are the Contingent Faculty?, notes that in 2013,” contingent faculty accounted for at least half of all instructional faculty across all types of institutions, ranging from 50% at public research universities to more than 80% at public community college.”  Graduates from English PhD programs will more than likely end up as adjuncts initially, maybe for years.

Adjuncts used to be what their name implies–additional faculty who held full-time jobs in their field or industry, who then taught a class at a college on the side.  But now adjuncts are being used instead of full-time, tenured faculty.  Why?  Because they’re cheap.  In 2013, NPR reported that adjuncts make between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. In March of 2016, Inside Higher Ed reported that adjuncts, on average, receive $2700 per course.  At this rate, if an adjunct somehow manages to get four or five courses, they’d still only be making up to $13,500 a year, and that’s without any benefits.   Plus they often work without being offered office space or a voice in the department when policies are debated, and they have no stability from one semester to the next as they can simply not be rehired for no cause.  Further, adjuncts often only achieve as much money as they do by working more than one job.  Kevin Birmingham notes that 89% of adjuncts work at more than one college and 13% work at four or more.

The personal stories offered by adjuncts as they try to live are often moving.  In June 2015, a piece in The Guardian revealed how the writer received $15000 and no benefits for teaching five courses.  He made better money and got benefits working retail.  Kevin Birmingham in “The Great Shame of Our Profession” tells of one adjunct who reported selling her plasma twice a week so she could send her child to daycare.  Slate reported in 2015 that up to 25% of adjuncts may be receiving food stamps (and these are people with MAs or PhDs, remember).

Keeping  in mind that tenure-track jobs are nearly impossible to get these days, grad schools can’t afford to take in students who under-prepared and may sink to the bottom of the job market pool.  They will spend their lives as adjuncts, working multiple jobs for low pay and no benefits, and without any job security.  If they become sick or pregnant, they could lose their job.  If not enough people sign up for their class at the last minute, it could be cancelled without warning.  If their university has a policy that they could be considered for a higher-ranking job after teaching, say five years, the university has the option of randomly not rehiring them the year they would have achieved enough experience to ask for a promotion.

Maybe grad programs wish they could be more democratic, but they know that that is, in a sense, unethical when the market is glutted with qualified candidates and that only three job postings or an entire eight postings! might go up that year* in a specific field .  So they accept maybe five to eight students a year, knowing the competition is fierce and they can only send the best of the best.  Some graduate schools accept more than eight students, of course, but there are some who believe that these schools are contributing to the problem of the overcrowded job market and providing their students with false hope.

If we want graduate programs to become more democratic, the entire academy would have to be overhauled so that there were more tenure-track jobs and fewer adjunct jobs.  Or at least decent pay for adjuncts.   Contrary to what you might read on the Internet, however, soaring university costs are not a result of overpaid tenured faculty.  Most tuition money goes to administrative costs such as athletics, student organizations, counseling, etc.  Do you think students would be willing to either pay more tuition or lose some administrative costs to pay adjuncts more?  Will we ever see students protest for increased adjunct pay?

Krysta 64

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7 thoughts on “Why Is It So Difficult to Be Accepted Into an English Grad Program?

  1. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Jeez selling plasma for childcare- that’s just terrible. I really don’t know much about this but it sounds tough (being neither from the US or in higher education anymore). My experience is limited to the UK, I’m afraid, where money is distributed to the faculties that require more funding- so fees from the humanities pay for the sciences. I personally am of the opinion that you should get what you pay for- but not sure how that would apply here- it seems like it’s already a costly system!

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    • Krysta says:

      I’ve spoken to one or two people from the U.K. who seemed utterly baffled by the U.S. system and how much debt students tend to acquire, but I admit I don’t know much about how the U.K. does things.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          I think the U.S. should be baffled, but we seem to have accepted the narrative that “it’s all the tenured faculty’s fault.” Even though there aren’t that many tenured faculty and it’s not their fault. I suspect we could change things if students would demand that administrative costs be lowered, that administrative workers stop receiving exorbitant bonuses and ridiculously high salaries, and that their instructors receive a living wage in exchange. But I’m a cynical person and I truly doubt that anyone with any power will ever stand up for the adjuncts. Tenured faculty might since they’re harder to fire, but they haven’t done it yet, so….

          Liked by 2 people

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            Yeah I’ve heard that narrative before- don’t really get where that comes from- I guess it’s just an easy scapegoat for an overly expensive system. Yeah I’m pretty cynical too- so I get what you mean :/

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  2. fairydancer221 says:

    For all the protesting I see at my university and in the general community, I don’t think college students at my school are going to protest for increased adjunct pay. But at my school we’re upset about rising tuition costs that seem to mostly go toward athletics and paying certain people very high salaries.

    The issue with having to demonstrate professional competence to get into graduate school sounds like other career fields. There always seems to be a gap between the reality of what skills and experience someone just starting has and what employers are looking for in entry-level. I think The Secret of My Success is about the same problem if I remember correctly. This expectation just continues forever and ever. The only advice I’ve heard is to put yourself out there and get in touch with faculty at the school you want to go to ahead of time.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think with grad schools it’s not so much that they are expecting overly competent people but that they can’t accept many people in the first place because their own reputation is tied up in the performance of their future job candidates. There’s a New York Times article (“Why Yale Graduate Students Are on a Hunger Strike”) that says that in 2015 there were 361 jobs for 1183 English PhDs. That means only 30.5% of grads in 2015 could get a job in their field (and they’d also be competing with other PhDs who graduated earlier and were working as adjuncts). So it’s not quite like those places that think “entry level” means five years’ of supervisory experience. It’s that the schools are very aware that they will look bad if they don’t get their graduates jobs so they have to find the most competitive to go for those 361 jobs. Otherwise I’m sure many schools would love to take in more grad students since this could allow them to offer more courses, put out more graduates and thus get more prestige, etc.

      I don’t expect we’ll ever see college students ask for their instructors to be paid a living wage since most students are too concerned with their own finances, as you say. Of course, you could take the salaries of some heads of schools and finance like 50 adjuncts and still leave the head a more than generous salary. But the administration is never going to accept that they might have to take a pay cut–it’s always the departments who have to take the cuts.

      Liked by 1 person

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