College Guide


January 12, 2012 6:56 PM Buyer’s Market for College Hiring

By Daniel Luzer

It’s a tough time to be a recent PhD. With American colleges, both public and private, suffering funding problems, it’s hard to get tenure-track positions at elite universities.

It looks like, in many ways, however, it’s a great time to be on the hiring committees at some lower-tier schools, who can now take advantage of the economy to attract some rather prestigious junior faculty.

According to a piece by Brenda Medina in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

With job offers scarce in many fields, small, teaching-intensive colleges and regionally oriented state universities have been able to snag recent graduates of the nation’s top programs, the kinds of candidates who would have probably gone to work at more-elite universities just a few years ago.
The math of the job market is in these colleges’ favor, with universities producing more Ph.D.’s in many fields, like history, sociology, and mathematics, than the number of jobs available in each of the last two years. Some colleges have also structured job openings to make them even more attractive to top candidates.

Many professors are apparently surprised by the quality of the applications they’re receiving for one-year positions at places like Oregon State and Northern Arizona University.

And recent graduates of PhD programs from places like Cornell and Brown are happy to take those positions, even if they’re not tenure-track. There are many temporary positions available.

According to Rosemary Feal, director of the Modern Language Association, this is an increasingly common career path for recent PhD graduates. As she explained to Medina:

For too long… Ph.D. programs have been training their students mostly for tenure-track positions that are research-oriented. “Most programs do not have enough ways to prepare their students for the jobs that exist now,” she said.

That’s one way of thinking about it. But who wants to uproot his whole life for a one-year teaching contract in Flagstaff, Arizona?

Feal seems to ignore the possibility that if there aren’t very many tenure-track positions, maybe universities are just producing too many PhDs.

It’s all well and good to say that one-year teaching positions at Northern Arizona University are “the jobs that exist now” but those jobs exist only because there are so many people willing to take them. If there were fewer PhDs, universities would have to offer them better positions.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Anonymous on January 12, 2012 10:10 PM:

    "If there were fewer PhDs, universities would have to offer them better positions."

    Bravo. This needs to be said.I clicked the link you have about "too many PhD"s and noticed that the original article talked about humanities and social sciences. This may be news to a lot of people worrying that the US is losing its edge in STEM fields, but there are also too many PhDs in life sciences. In our field, it is really necessary to do a postdoc before getting a faculty position. Of course, most postdocs will never get a faculty position, but, well, no matter. See, since we have too many people using trainees for labor, it's pretty easy to get a postdoc position. Therefore, our PhD grads can always get a "job", so, like no problem, right?

    About a decade ago, the National Research Council urged universities to train fewer PhDs, and the report was mostly ignored. Well, the NRC just met again, and this time they said that despite the recession, despite the flat funding for research, despite the fact that tenure track positions are being eliminated and old guys (mostly guys) are not retiring to make space for the new, just keep at it.


    Your tax dollars at work.

  • dave mazella on January 14, 2012 12:18 PM:

    This dynamic has been at work since the 70s, and simply reflects the scaling back of support for public education and access since the glory days of the GI Bill.

    Saying that "universities produce too many PhDs" doesn't take into account the desire of administrators, taxpayers, and legislators to maximize the amount of teaching and research conducted by the lowest-paid, non tenure track at their institutions. Obviously, this does not reflect the interests of students or rank and file faculty.

    Senior faculty deserve blame for this, too, since their workloads are preserved by cheap "permatemped" labor, as Marc Bousquet has persuasively argued. The problem is that many institutions have reduced their grad program size without improving the chances of their graduates, since they themselves insist on using cheap post-doc labor instead of hiring t-t faculty.

  • Walter Sobchak on January 16, 2012 12:54 PM:

    The alternative would be to abolish tenure, and allow colleges to force retirement of senior faculty with fully vested pensions. Enormous quantities of deadwood could be landfilled, and full time jobs could be open ed for the productive teachers.

  • edububble on January 16, 2012 4:24 PM:

    It's been this way for at least 30 years in all but a few microdisciplines. The external benefits of being a professor are so high that people will endure years of penury for the chance to be one of the lucky few.