New Ph.D.s confront daunting odds in job search

July 05, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

BENNINGTON, Vt. -- Getting started was easy for Elizabeth Coleman back in 1961 when, equipped with a brand new Ph.D. in English literature, she took a job at the State University of New York, at Stony Brook.

"Everything came wonderfully," she said, recalling her entrance into professional academic life. "I wanted to teach English and read philosophy. That's what I worried about. What to go into, literature or philosophy."

That first job, taken at a time when such positions were plentiful, launched a successful career. Today Dr. Coleman is president of Bennington College. That's the prestigious institution in rural Vermont that recently jolted academia by letting go about 20 percent of its faculty and abolishing tenure.

It is a radical action. Its purpose is to alleviate a $1 million deficit and increase lagging enrollment. Bennington, along with other private and public institutions, is being squeezed by a demographic dip that has produced a scarcity of new college students nationwide and, simultaneously, the withdrawal of much federal support for higher education in recent years.

The cutback in federal spending has forced colleges and universities to use more of their own dollars for student aid. It has strained their operating budgets, prompted them to eliminate programs and made it more difficult to justify new hires, especially for tenured positions. Like Bennington, other schools are resorting to new strategies for faculty -- more part-time positions, renewable "term contracts" of between one and three years' duration.

In view of all this, what advice might Dr. Coleman offer an $H ambitious new Ph.D. today aspiring to follow in her footsteps?

"The first thing you tell them is to get their head examined," she said.

Dr. Coleman is not being facetious about the gloomy job prospects for new Ph.D.s. She described their situation as "poignant."

Nicole Minnick speaks for many.

Dr. Minnick took her doctorate in French literature two years ago at the University of Maryland College Park. She has been searching for a steady teaching job ever since.

She has sent out 35 letters of application to institutions around the country. She attended five annual conferences of the Modern Language Association, where new and prospective Ph.D.s in her field troll for contacts leading to jobs. From all that she netted only four interviews.

Last year she didn't even go to the MLA conference in Toronto. There was nothing on the MLA's shrinking list of jobs she thought worth her effort.

"Is this what I expected when I got my degree? Not really," she said. "I already knew that tenure-track positions were being reduced, but I expected that at least I would be able to get enough teaching at one campus even if it was not a tenure-track position."

Numbers tell story

Statistics published by the Modern Language Association reveal the rate of decline. In the academic year 1988-1989 there were 2,146 jobs listed for Ph.D.s in English, and 1,955 for foreign language specialists in the United States and Canada. The current academic year projects only 1,132 and 1,088, respectively.

Though Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences have been hardest hit by the current circumstances, the picture is not bright in other disciplines. Matthew Crenson, acting dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University, reports that Ph.D.s in mathematics are having a hard time finding permanent positions.

Some scientists are having difficulties, too, according to B. Robert Kreiser, the associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors.

"It is my impression that jobs are not very plentiful, especially in physics as a result of a major downsizing of the defense budget in its research departments," he said.

Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said there is no way to measure how many Ph.D.s have failed to find work in their discipline. But statistics gathered by the MLA show that nearly 6,000 Ph.D.s in the humanities, English and modern foreign languages were granted in 1991, about 1,400 more than in 1985. That suggests that an expanding number of candidates were walking out into a rapidly shrinking market.

According to Patricia Meyer Spacks, president of the Modern Language Association and head of the English department at the University of Virginia, "As far as we can tell, this is worse than it has ever been. There was a bad period in the 1970s. Back then there were a lot of people with Ph.D.s driving taxis. But it wasn't as bad as it is today."

Tenure hopes derailed

Susan Wolfson endorses that impression. She is the placement director for the English department at Princeton, one of the top departments in the country. This year, out of 17 Ph.D.s in English literature, Princeton managed to place only three in tenure-track positions and five on short-term contracts.

"Up until two years ago, we were doing far better," she said.

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