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December 17, 2009 5:42 PM The Trouble with That PhD…

By Daniel Luzer

One longstanding discussion in higher education has to do with the risk inherent in obtaining a humanities PhD. Unlike the situation in more, well, practical disciplines (engineering, math, the hard sciences) the jobs for people with academic degrees in the humanities just aren’t there. As Thomas H. Benton wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education back in January:

Just to be clear: There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.

Well, it just got worse. From Inside Higher Ed:

The Modern Language Association’s annual forecast on job listings, being released today, predicts that positions in English language and literature will drop 35 percent from last year, while positions in languages other than English are expected to fall 39 percent this year. Given that both categories saw decreases last year, the two-year decline in available positions is 51 percent in English and 55 percent in foreign languages.

Schools just aren’t hiring for tenure-track positions. The MLA has for years been concerned with colleges’ reliance on adjunct faculty to teach humanities classes, explaining in 1994 that “the expansion of the adjunct ranks in language and literature departments over the past two decades threatens the integrity of the profession and instructional programs.”

While it’s unclear what the threatened “integrity of the profession and instructional programs” has done to actual teaching (have English classes gotten worse?) it’s certainly trouble for people with those PhDs.

While there are companies out there purporting to help unemployed academics, the job prospects are weak now. Going to law school used to be an option but now even lawyers are having trouble finding jobs. This leaves what? Management consulting?

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