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
- 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?