Higher Education

economics and the English job market

Who can resist a job market post during MLA season? Not Inside Higher Ed, though this one points to some interesting research done by economist David Colander (with Daisy Zhuo) and published in Pedagogy. I suppose it’s a dog-bites-man scenario. Colander samples hiring and job placement at a group of English departments and comes to the conclusion that graduates of top tier doctoral programs (Tier 1 ranked 1-6 and Tier 2 ranked 7-28 as per US News & World  Report) are much more likely to get jobs at the top 62 doctoral universities (and the top liberal arts colleges) than graduates of lower ranked programs.

I know, surprising stuff, right? Though the actual numbers are very clear: according to the study, less than 2% of graduates from tier 3 schools land jobs at the top 62 universities. Basically what you see is that the top schools hire their own. 57% of the faculty at the top 6 schools come from the other 5 in tier 1. Nearly 75% of the faculty at tier 2 schools come from the top two tiers.

It’s not hard to imagine how this happens. Some might like to argue that it is a rational process. The best candidates are those who get into and graduate from the best programs. They’ve already been filtered, though the narrowness of the top six hiring one another does seem a little incestuous. (It would be interesting to compare this with other disciplines.) Others are more likely to see this practice as a problem. As onerous and outdated as the current MLA job search practice is, it was implemented to replace a far less fair, old boys network of hiring.  One could argue this study reveals that network is still in effect.

But I’m not here to contend with that issue today.  Instead I want to address faculty at tier 3 or 4 institutions. More than half of you got your degrees from schools in the top 2 tiers. If Colander’s study is accurate, your students aren’t likely to get jobs in the top 3 tiers or win prestigious post-docs. In the top 2 tiers it’s not unreasonable to train students with the idea that successful grads will go onto the positions much like one’s own: research-intensive, low-teaching, doctoral programs, and strong undergrads. But in tiers 3 and 4 this just isn’t the case, but you already knew that, right?

So here’s an extended quote from Colander:

the best explanation of the current job market situation is that English programs are populated with students who love the study of English and want to combine that love of English with some way to make an acceptable living. Students who are not independently wealthy need to have some way to combine their love—the study and teaching of English—with a job that provides sufficient income to live. For many students, even relatively low-paying part-time and adjunct jobs, combined with other part-time, better-paying private-sector jobs ideally using their English skills, are evidently preferable to giving up the study of English. From an economist’s free-choice perspective, if that is what students choose, a program focused solely on actual job training should prepare them for that life as well as possible. Training would be designed, among other things, to prepare students to put together the combination of jobs that is most likely in their future. This is not to argue that the situation they will face is a desirable one, or that the institutional structures governing academic employment should not be changed. But that is a separate issue; job training should focus on preparing students for the institutional reality they will likely face. To my knowledge, no programs do this.

Numerous possibilities exist to address this goal. Most people do not know how to write well, and if more English PhD programs provided training in preparing students to do freelance consulting, analytic writing and composition, rhetoric, copyediting, proofreading, general editing, or tutoring, in addition to the study of literature and literary criticism, their students would have a set of skills that are more marketable than those needed to advance in a research university. The very fact that job placement is thought of primarily in terms of tenure-track academic jobs is suggestive of the problem.

But then, if you’re faculty at one of these institutions, these things have probably crossed your mind. The suggestion that departments should design their programs to prepare students for their future lives as contingent labor is a little shocking (which is not to suggest the situation is desirable, ahem). Though it is easy to respond with anger to Colander’s suggestion, I think what is more to the point, perhaps with the cold, dismal eye of the economist, is what people, both students and faculty, are willing to sacrifice in the name of love: in this case, the love of literature.  Personally I don’t think I can go quite where Colander is going and set up a doctoral program that recognizes that many of its students will  have no better professional future than the one with which they entered the program. He tosses out the idea of non-academic jobs. Fine. Let’s put a pack of economists to the task of identifying current non-academic jobs for which a PhD in English (or some reasonably modified version of such) is a required or at least preferable qualification.

What is reasonable, at least to me, is thinking about how tier 3 and 4 institutions might revise their curriculum to prepare graduates for the kinds of academic jobs they do land.  Again, dog-bites-man I think.


2 replies on “economics and the English job market”

Thanks for posting this, Alex. A few thoughts:

* Someone from CHE emailed me today to ask for an interview to talk about some of the things I’ve said in different forums about the clear differences in the job market within “English” for different specializations, notably Comp/Rhet (and related fields like tech writing) and everyone else. Maybe you should talk to this person!

* Correct me if I’m wrong, but Colander makes the far too common assumption that Comp/Rhet ≠ English necessarily, right? That is, the job prospects for a comp/rhet person with an interest in (for example) DH and WAC work is really in a different field than a Shakespearean (or whatever)?

* Having said that, the “tier thing” makes a lot of sense. I’ve always been aware that as someone with a PhD from Bowling Green State that my chances of getting a job at a Research 1/”top tier” comp/rhet program were thin. But since there are by definition a lot more positions in the lower tiers, I don’t really see the problem– as long as you’re okay with a career focused on teaching and working with students and not doing a lot of posing at conferences or what have you.

* From that long quote, this part– “From an economist’s free-choice perspective, if that is what students choose, a program focused solely on actual job training should prepare them for that life as well as possible. Training would be designed, among other things, to prepare students to put together the combination of jobs that is most likely in their future”– made me laugh out loud. I can see it now: elective doctoral seminars and/or workshops in topics like how to make your own clothes; how to live in and/or work in your car; simple self-doctoring; dumpster-diving; preparing for work in retail and/or coffee shops; how to marry a rich person; etc. 🙂


Colander doesn’t distinguish at all among specializations under the rubric of English Studies. That makes sense to me. Given his sampling approach, this is a snapshot that makes a gesture at a bigger picture.

Here’s my 2 cents on the rhet/comp version of this.

1. Overall the rhet/comp and tech comm job markets have better numbers in terms of TT jobs vs. # of applicants than lit jobs. No surprise there. That said, I don’t think anyone should be jumping to start or expand phd programs in this area without some firm evidence.

2. There are only about a half-dozen departments in Colander’s top two tiers that generate fair number of rhet/comp grads: Penn St, Texas, Ohio St., Wisconsin, Illinois. (I didn’t count Berkeley as rhetoric is a separate dept.) So folks who go to these top schools mostly study literature and those schools mostly hire one another’s students. Not a lot of rhet folks in many of those departments, especially the Ivies. If you look at the 65 or so AAU universities, only around a quarter of them produce rhet/comp students in substantial numbers and I’d guess at least that many don’t produce any rhet/comp phds.

So I’m guessing that the writing hires, which do make up about 40% of the job market, probably do skew this data, because those hires are a lot less likely to be coming from Tier 1 or 2. For example, my alma mater, Albany is 91. My colleague Arabella Lyon’s (RPI) is 113. UB is 44. That kind of upward movement is uncommon according to Colander, but I imagine it’s much more common in rhetoric. Obviously RPI’s reputation in our field is far stronger than 113, but I can see how you wouldn’t be as likely to hire a Dickenson scholar from there.


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