If you’re looking for bad news about the humanities job market, it’s easy enough to find. From the New York Times to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the past year’s headlines heralded grim prospects for graduates with new PhDs. Tough economic times have forced hiring freezes at many colleges and universities. Faced with shrinking retirement funds, older faculty may be delaying retirement, prompting worries about the number of future openings for junior scholars. The Modern Language Association (MLA) predicted a 37 percent drop in faculty job listings from 2009 to 2010—the sharpest single-year decline in 35 years. Even before the current recession, the proportion of full-time, tenure-track academic jobs was decreasing. Nationwide between 1975 and 2007, tenure-track faculty declined from 56 to 31 percent in all fields. Meanwhile the ranks of part-time and non–tenure track faculty—who labor for lower pay and no benefits or job security—grew from 43 to 68 percent. 

Read job-search stories from recent UChicago PhD students

In his widely-read essay, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” Thomas H. Benton argued that there are so few tenure-track jobs—and so many candidates—that the minority who snag positions “might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.” Decrying the bleak outlook for academic job seekers, Louis Menand criticized graduate humanities programs for inadequately preparing PhD students for the future. “If doctoral education in English were a cartoon character,” wrote Menand in The Marketplace of Ideas (2009), “then about 30 years ago, it zoomed straight off a cliff, went into a terrifying fall, grabbed a branch on the way down, and has been clinging to that branch ever since.”

Although the job market is challenging, humanities doctoral education hasn’t zoomed off a cliff at Chicago. A better metaphor, perhaps, is that a team of ambitious, determined coaches is training graduate students to descend the cliff strategically, with eyes wide open. And while faculty and administrators are aware that a tenure-track job may not await every candidate, the odds of career success improve, they say, for those who are focused, flexible, and prepared.

Preparing the pipeline

Whether it’s a passion for Elizabethan poetry, ancient philosophy, or Chinese ceramics that first lures a scholar to pursue an academic career, it takes more than intellectual interest to get a PhD and a teaching job. Once in the pipeline, national studies show that only about half of the students who start humanities doctoral programs actually complete them—and half of those who finish take eight years or more to do so. At Chicago, the median time-to-degree in the Humanities Division is just over eight years, but attrition rates from doctoral programs compare favorably to the national average at 26 percent.

Gone are the days—if they ever existed—when a firm handshake and two dissertation chapters were enough to land a young scholar his first university teaching job.

What factors help students to succeed professionally? The relationship between financial support, timely degree completion, and job outcomes for graduate students is a complex one, according to a major study by the Mellon Foundation detailed in Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities (2010). In the past, it was common practice for humanities departments to accept a certain number of doctoral candidates without fellowships, arguing that competition for funding would ensure the survival of the fittest. More recently, the trend at top-tier institutions has been to admit fewer students and guarantee funding for all who enroll, at least for the first five years of study. Chicago launched the Graduate Aid Initiative in 2007 to provide five years of funding for all incoming doctoral students and did so without reducing the size of PhD classes. Responding to last year's economic downturn, however, the Humanities Division shrunk its incoming PhD classes by 30 percent—but offered five-year fellowship packages to 100 percent of admitted students. In the near future, the University hopes to restore PhD class sizes to pre-recession levels while still maintaining funding for all.

The Graduate Aid Initiative and related efforts “are all aimed at supporting our PhD students better at the earlier stages and reducing the time to degree,” says Martha T. Roth, dean of the Humanities Division. “The more we can impress upon our graduate students how important it is that they produce their scholarship and their contributions in an efficient, timely manner, the more likely it is that they’ll get their first jobs.” At the same time, the burden isn’t only on students: “We have to have a record as an institution for doing it right,” says Roth. Preparing PhD candidates for successful careers involves not only financing but “mentoring them and giving them proper teaching experience so that they’re better equipped for the job market in all manner of institutions,” from research universities and liberal arts colleges to government agencies and business enterprises. "We also want them to know that the value of a PhD extends beyond academia," she adds. To prepare students for the academic job market, departmental and University-wide investments in mentoring and teaching support have become increasingly important.

Departmental efforts

Gone are the days—if they ever existed—when a firm handshake and two dissertation chapters were enough to land a young scholar his first university teaching job. Today, even job seekers with stellar recommendations, superb teaching experience, and finished dissertations find that the competition is fierce.

To assist their students, several Chicago humanities departments have taken a hands-on approach. [image 3]About 15 years ago, the Department of English Language and Literature created a job seekers’ committee, led by two faculty members, to guide PhD students through the job search process. Typically, eight to ten advanced students are “seriously looking” for jobs in a given year, says Melissa Gill, the department’s graduate program assistant. Each fall, they can attend workshops to sharpen cover letters and résumés and hone writing samples, teaching statements, and dissertation abstracts. Before the MLA convention, candidates do mock interviews with faculty; if they land a second interview, they get help preparing for job talks, campus visits, and negotiating offers.

The Philosophy Department takes a similar, workshop-based approach, tailoring sessions to the specifics of the discipline. Before students go on the job market, Professor Gabriel Richardson Lear reminds them that “they need to have the story that their dissertation tells in place.” Faculty support is crucial, but Lear believes that students can also draw strength from each other during the search process. Working in teams to develop job talks or fine-tune interview responses “builds a spirit of camaraderie,” she says. “It’s lonely on the job market and you need to have friends.”

Are these investments paying off? In 2009, five out of six candidates in philosophy found academic jobs (“and good ones,” adds Lear). In English, seven out of 13 students on the market landed teaching positions or postdoctoral fellowships; several more found other positions in academia. Faculty support is crucial, but students also draw strength from each other. Although the University has not gathered data systematically—and students’ own reporting is uneven—exit surveys conducted by the University’s Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS) since 2006 indicate that recent PhDs in the Division of the Humanities are finding academic positions consistent with their goals. Even so, says Gill, the current climate has left job hunters feeling “vulnerable and stressed.” Approaching the search process strategically—and collectively—can restore students’ sense of control: “They find it helpful and comforting to know that they have support.”

Learning to teach

Paradoxically, even after seven or eight years of graduate school, humanities job seekers must sometimes prove to employers that they know how to teach. Coming from an elite, private institution like Chicago means “there’s going to be doubt in the minds of most hiring bodies that this candidate knows anything about teaching,” says Elizabeth O’Connor Chandler, AM’72, director of the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “It’s because we’re so research-intensive.”

To address the issue, the center offers workshops and seminars for novice and experienced instructors. A certificate program in university teaching helps graduate students “to reflect and write persuasively on their experiences in teaching,” both “to articulate for a hiring committee what they know” and demonstrate what their students have learned, says Chandler.

The economic downturn has increased demand for the center’s services and motivated more students to develop their teaching skills. In 2009, January to March was prime time for students to come in seeking help with job talks. In 2010, “we’re not doing that so much anymore,” says Chandler, because those on the market had fewer interviews. Students are using the opportunity to refine their teaching portfolios and craft statements of teaching philosophy; they can also have the center’s trained consultants videotape them in the classroom and provide feedback. 

Anecdotally, job seekers report that those efforts have “a big impact,” says Chandler. At any time, 75 to 100 graduate students are intensively working with the center to prepare for the academic job market—and Chandler also goes out to departments to give tailored workshops and pedagogy courses.

Beyond academia

Doctoral students can add more weapons to their arsenal at the University’s Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS). The office sponsors workshops on every facet of the job search, from preparing a CV to negotiating an offer. As a sign of the times, recent sessions on postdoctoral fellowships and “Adjuncting 101” have been especially popular. CAPS also coaches job seekers on how to talk about their scholarly work without jargon; how to market themselves to research universities, liberal arts colleges, and employers outside academia; and how to turn a dissertation into a book.

At any point in their studies, PhD students can seek guidance from CAPS via Webcasts, conferences, or confidential, one-on-one counseling sessions. Lesley Lundeen, CAPS’ assistant director of graduate services for the Humanities and the Divinity School, is one of four staff who work exclusively with graduate students. She and her colleagues all have personal and professional experience in doctoral programs (Lundeen was a graduate student in Classics) and outside academia. 

In 2009, the marked drop in advertised positions—and the added stress of having some jobs pulled mid-search due to budget cuts—was especially hard for Humanities students. “The level of tension and fear was palpably higher when students were walking into our office,” says Lundeen. She is not a therapist, but distraught visitors "If I do something else," students think, "what were all those years for?" have availed themselves of the Kleenex box on her desk while soul-searching about their options. “Throughout the job process, we tell students that there’s only so much you can control,” she says. First-time searchers may be particularly unaware of the factors influencing whether they have a real shot at a job, from internal politics to what defines a “fit” at the school where they are competing. 

Many students have responded to the economic crash by postponing plans to go on the job market until they feel fully ready. CAPS has also seen an uptick in the number of doctoral candidates considering opportunities beyond academia. “We do encourage students to career-explore,” says Lundeen. Besides helping with self-assessment and brainstorming, the office offers formal sessions on careers in journalism, public service, the nonprofit sector, pre-K–12 teaching, and government.  [image 4]Still, “there’s so much emotion that’s caught up in the sense of identity of being a scholar,” says Lundeen. When students begin revising their original plans, “the first thing that pops into their heads is, ‘If I do something else, what were all those years for? Were they a waste? Am I failure?’”

Counselors try to remind them that the PhD is excellent preparation for work in varied fields, and that graduate school in the humanities provides “many, many skills that employers are interested in,” says Lundeen. “Often a student will come in and say, ‘The only thing I know how to do is read—and maybe teach.’” CAPS reminds them that they have research skills and “the ability to acquire, synthesize, and present information quickly and clearly; to give feedback; to organize committees; to write, edit, publish, and multitask. There is a certain level of collegiality, too, that you must have in academe—people and relationship-building skills.”

Balancing act

Pessimists like Thomas H. Benton see graduate education in the humanities as “professional training for a job that you are not likely to get, after a decade of discipline, debt, and deferred opportunity.” And even the optimists admit that doctoral work is a delicate balancing act. Students must maintain enthusiasm and self-esteem, but keep a realistic sense of their prospects in a difficult job market. They must plunge into coursework, teaching, and research while picking up extra skills that might be useful if a tenure-track job isn’t in the cards. Those with fellowships feel pressure to finish the PhD before their funding runs out, and those without adequate financial support must find jobs, or loans, to make ends meet. 

For students at Chicago and elsewhere, “The job market is so confusing and so strange,” says Eurie Dahn, PhD’09, now an assistant professor of English at the College of Saint Rose. “There are a lot of deserving people out there who haven’t been successful or who are still looking.” During low times in her own search, she says, “My friends told me that you had to separate the idea of your worth from the outcome of the job market. I thought my work was decent, yet I wasn’t getting a lot of interviews.”

Justin Jesty expects to finish his PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations this spring while on a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale. He is still looking for a job. Last year, he turned down an offer on the East Coast to stay “within weekend commuting distance” of his wife, who found a tenure-track job in Seattle. Even for well-prepared candidates, Jesty believes, the search process can be frustrating and its outcomes random. “You put a lot of work into developing your own research and your own area of expertise, and then it’s hit or miss whether anyone is looking for that,” he says. “It’s a matter of trying to weigh a future that you can’t really be sure of.”

POSTSCRIPT:  Searching, Finding, Moving On

Recent Chicago PhDs Share their Job-Search Stories

[image 0] SEARCHING

Justin Jesty began his PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC) in 2001 and expects to finish in 2010. His dissertation focuses on the cultural history of postwar Japan and the relationship between art and activism.

In the beginning: Jesty, 35, admits that he started graduate school without a clear picture of the job market for humanities PhDs. “I didn’t realize that getting a job was so tenuous—that people sometimes didn’t get jobs.”

Sticking together: Jesty is married to Heekyoung Cho, a literary scholar who is also on track to finish her doctorate in EALC this spring. On the market a year ago, they both landed tenure-track jobs—but on opposite coasts. She accepted an offer from the University of Washington; he turned down a position at William and Mary so they could eventually start a family and be “within weekend commuting distance.” This past year, they took postgraduate fellowships at Yale and Jesty narrowed his search for a job to the West Coast: “I applied to four places and didn’t hear back. So we’ll see.”

His Plan B: “Looking forward, I’m going to have to start thinking seriously about other possibilities apart from teaching.” Jesty has considered library school, working for a foundation or cultural institution, and independent scholarship. “I have a lot of connections in Japan and opportunities to publish in Japanese.”

Advice for job-seekers: Get out and meet people. Let faculty know what you’re doing. Above all, “Don’t narrow things down for yourself. Apply for everything that you’d want if you were offered the job. The people that get back to you are not the people you think will when you’re doing applications.”


[image 2]Jake Lauinger, PhD’07, spent eight years pursuing his doctorate in Assyriology as a student in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). His dissertation examined the archaeological and archival context of cuneiform tablets at Alalakh, an ancient site in modern-day Turkey.

Early on: “Like many graduate students, I didn’t think too much about the job market at the beginning of my PhD studies. I was too busy trying to keep my head above water, to assimilate a mass of new information, and to get accustomed to new ways of thinking.”

Step by step, success: Lauinguer’s first foray onto the market, in 2005, was too early; just halfway done with his dissertation, he was a finalist for a position at a top-tier university but wasn’t offered the job. After graduating, he spent two years as an assistant professor at Roanoke College, a liberal arts school. He then competed successfully for a Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Research Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, to gain more time for research. That led to his most recent offer, a tenure-track position in Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University.

The few, the proud: The number of academic openings in ancient history and Assyriology is very small, says Lauinger. “This past year, I applied for the one position advertised in my field in the U.S.A., which  happily, I got."  Although senior and junior Chicago faculty coached, mentored, and recommended him along the way, "I never felt there were any guarantees, so I feel extraordinarily fortunate—and relieved—to have this opportunity.”

Eurie Dahn, PhD’09, began her English doctoral studies in 2001. A specialist in early twentieth-century American and African American literature, she is finishing her first year as an assistant professor at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York.

Search strategy: “I got help from four different places,” says Dahn. At CAPS, she went to workshops and polished her CV. The English Department’s job seekers’ committee “gave us all kinds of advice and told us to keep calm.” Her dissertation advisers read over her job materials and so did her friends, who were a major source of encouragement.

Secret to success: In two years on the job market, Dahn, 30, sent out numerous applications. Often, she says, “I found myself straining to make myself sound like someone they would want to hire.” From the beginning, the job she eventually got “just felt right. It was a magical combination of fit and luck.”

Eye-opener: “Everyone told me, going in, that there weren’t that many jobs in the humanities. I said to myself, ‘Oh, they’re just exaggerating. It’s going to be OK. I love it anyhow.’ Gradually I started to recognize that there were people ahead of me whom I admired who weren’t getting jobs. And I started to realize that my perception of the job market was rather naive.”

No regrets: “I don’t think people are going to change their habits. If they really want to go to grad school, they’re going to grad school.” Dahn advises people who take on the endeavor to be realistic. They should work hard, publish, get teaching experience, and persist—but remember that “grad school isn’t necessarily just about getting a teaching job.”

[image 1] MOVING ON

Anne Stephenson, PhD’07, began her art history doctoral program in 2001. Trained as an architectural historian, she is currently the campus outreach coordinator for Clean Air – Cool Planet, a New Hampshire–based nonprofit that focuses on global warming.

Free agent: Stephenson wrote an “unusual” dissertation on the greening of Chicago’s historic bungalows. The topic was "hands-on" and prepared her to work on contemporary issues. But as an academic, she says, “I knew I would always be struggling and finding topics that didn’t fit in my discipline as well as they should.” Encouraged by mentors outside her department, she researched sustainability issues and got certified as a green building consultant while still in graduate school.

Finding a niche: In her job, Stephenson, 31, helps campuses reduce their carbon emissions and runs a fellowship program for students: “I found a real niche in the college and university sustainability movement.” Higher education institutions contribute just three percent to the nation’s greenhouse gas footprint, “but they represent a much greater opportunity in terms of training students to lead the low-carbon future.”

Job tips: At Chicago, Stephenson trained herself to network. “I went to every green drinks and sustainability mixer that I could, but I think I had to tell somebody in my department what an informational interview was.” She praises today’s students as more job-savvy. “It’s valuable to be able to say what you do in ten seconds. You need to be able to walk up to people, shake their hand, and introduce yourself at a cocktail party.”

Thinking ahead: This past year, Stephenson had a part-time postdoc at Unity College in Maine, supporting the school’s efforts to “bring buildings down to carbon neutrality” and working with undergrads in a new sustainable design and technology major. The arrangement is the “best of both worlds” and a way to explore future options. “I do miss teaching. In some ways I think I would have a better chance on the academic market now than I would have two or three years ago.”

Where Did You Go from Chicago? Send your comments, job-search tales, and advice for today’s students in the Humanities Division to tableau@uchicago.edu.  We’ll share selected responses with readers.


Thank you for the link to the Thomas Benton article. I think it is an important point of view for undergraduates to hear. I don't know that it would have dissuaded me from going to grad school, and probably won't have any affect on current grad students. The heart wants what it wants. But it is good to have his perspective represented in your article here.

Blane Conklin
PhD, NELC 2005

Thanks for pasting this article here.

Most of the views strikes my heart deeply, I am PhD. student and studying very hard recently years, but sometimes I don't know where are going.

Very glad to have to see your great article and the perspectives here.