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Fixing the job market in two modest steps

Jan 30 2012

Another January, another set of hand-wringing about the humanities job market. So, allow me a brief departure from the digital humanities. First, in four paragraphs, the problem with our current understanding of the history job market; and then, in several more, the solution.

Tony Grafton and Jim Grossman launched the latest exchange with what they call a “modest proposal” for expanding professional opportunities for historians. Jesse Lemisch counters that we need to think bigger and mobilize political action. There’s a big and productive disagreement there, but also a deep similarity: both agree there isn’t funding inside the academy for history PhDs to find work, but think we ought to be able to get our hands on money controlled by someone else. Political pressure and encouraging words will unlock vast employment opportunities in the world of museums, archives, and other public history (Grafton) or government funded jobs programs (Lemisch). These are funny places to look for growth in a 21st-century OECD country (perhaps Bill Cronon could take the more obvious route, and make his signature initiative as AHA president creating new tenure-track jobs in the BRICs?) but the higher levels of the profession don’t see much choice but to change the world.

Like most non-combatants, I tend to agree in general with the concrete aims of both Lemisch and Grafton. Still, there’s something I always find too transparently self-serving about their arguments. Contra Grafton and Grossman’s title, they’re not modest at all. Both stances can actually seem quite grandiose in their claims for history. If only we had the courage to proclaim how important history is, Congress would fund it; if only we were clearer about the immense benefit a Ph.D. education can give to someone seeking alt-ac employment, the world would beat a path to our doors. Never mind that the size of the profession is set not by idealism, but by a combination of university economics and a close attention to market share; every family member is a blessing, and we must care for them all. The fault may not lie in the stars, but the only fault in ourselves is that we are underlings.

There used to be an alternative that didn’t take ourselves so seriously: let’s call it contractionism. It called for the immediate limiting of new entrants to Ph.D. programs, and a continuing balance of Ph.D. numbers with new tenure track jobs. Thanks largely to Rob Townsend’s valiant data collecting at the AHA and chart-making in Perspectives, this once seemed like a serious plan held back only by collective-action problems. But no longer. It probably gives Marc Bousquet too much credit to say he single-handedly made contractionism disreputable in early 2010. But since his series of posts, originally against Townsend, making arguments against it alternately flawed (contractionism is discredited because, like Ronald Reagan, it focuses on the supply side)* and incisive (it would take 20 years for contraction to filter to the job market), support for limiting the number of Ph.D.s seems weakened. (My own program, which is also Grafton’s, enrolled 31 new students last year, up from 25 before the financial crisis; numbers across the board, though, are slightly down.)

*I would think that if anything is supply-side economics, it’s the conviction that indeterminate production of Ph.D.s should be expected to create its own demand.

Even if contractionism won’t work, I miss its modesty. So let me put forward a new proposal. It’s quite a simple two-step plan. It involves only money we have, and doesn’t rely on others creating miraculous new opportunities. (Though once we get that going properly, it could work hand in hand with those.) If we did enact both of these reforms, we’d be far better off than we are now, and quite soon. If you know anything equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual, let’s hear it.

Step 1: Eliminate all post-docs.

The job ‘crisis’ is now over thirty years old, but two things have changed in the last fifteen. One was the provision of living-wage stipends to large numbers of enrolled graduate students, which was a basically unalloyed good. The other was the appearance of post-doctoral opportunities, previously mostly confined to the sciences. I think a lot of humanists think (or more accurately, feel) that setting up a new postdoctoral program helps the system in the same way that higher grad stipends do. Not so.

To the contrary: they create a disastrous incentive structure that undoes the good of higher stipends. In the science, this has led to a situation where the only sane reason to stay on the academic track is the desire for a green card; but at least in the sciences a Ph.D. can take 4 years. As post-doctoral positions in the humanities multiply, it pushes the paper qualifications of new applicants higher and higher (and their ages older and older). The ABD hire is rapidly disappearing; some entry-level jobs now require a Ph.D. 9 months before the start date. For this to happen, there must be some large store of accredited individuals in a holding pen somewhere. And increasingly, those pens are post-doctoral programs.

Insofar as the extra time lets hiring committees better distinguish between applicants, it’s a fine thing. But it also creates perverse effects. First and foremost, it makes the tenure track job market more and more into a waiting game; the interplay between pigeon-holed job descriptions and endless benches to warm on create a system where many faculty can eventually get a job if they don’t let their resumes get too clogged by things that aren’t teaching and publishing.

This is called rationing by queue. It’s familiar from Wal-Marts before Thanksgiving and Disneyworld after 8:30am, but the most famous example are the post-Soviet bread lines. The prices for bread are not high enough to make the poorest starve, so scarce bread goes those who are willing to spend the most time waiting for the bakery to be open or the shipment to arrive:

Fig. 1: Outside the Chicago Sheraton, Jan. 7, 2012

Now, rationing by queue can be a good thing if we want to protect a commodity from market pressures. Disneyworld would be less magical if you had to pay a variable rate for each ride; liver transplants are less just if the wealthiest can buy themselves to the head of the line. The textbook economic solution to the oversupply of Ph.D.s would be to let the benefits associated with a tenured job (pay, security, workload, respect) plunge until finally everyone just gave up. To its credit historians have not let this happen; but the continuing attack on all of those perks from administrators, politicians, etc., is a direct result of those market forces pushing on the profession. Rationing by queue isn’t working at stopping market forces, and in the meantime we’re rewarding waiting too strongly.

Adding a new postdoctoral position is not baking more bread; it’s buying concrete to make the sidewalk longer. True, more people can stand in line. But that just makes the situation worse for the next babushka who wants a sandwich; anyone who has better things to do than spend nine years standing in line is going to give up. And we’re out the money for a sidewalk.


So OK: we eliminate the post-docs. Great for the long-term prospects of the profession. But short term, all we’re doing is throwing a bunch of people onto the street. Some of them will end up in adjuncting jobs (structurally similar to post-doctoral positions, though less often defended), and some will be out of luck. But remember: this is about using our resources: and taking all that post-doc money plus some more, we can do good, not harm.

Step 2: Using money from graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, initiate a massive program of buy-outs at different professional stages.

Instead of spending what little money we have to make the tenure-track market worse, why not use it to make it better?

A program of buy-outs would serve many of the same purposes as contraction, but would make the decision to leave a choice of the individual, and sidestep the problem of which departments would have to shrink. Those departments not training for the tenure track would be relatively unaffected; those that are would be only indirectly affected. Unlike contraction, it would immediately relieve the crush on the job market.

Here’s how it would work. Postdoctoral fellowships review committees would stay as they are, and would review applications with statements and letters of recommendation. But instead of paying you to come apply to jobs, they would pay you more (since it wouldn’t include overhead like office space or health care) to simply check out of the profession. Instead of a $30,000/year, plus another $10K (say) building and health care overhead for two years, they would pay $65,000 up front for three things:

  1. A firm commitment to never seek tenure-track employment in a history program.

  2. A commitment from each of your committee members and department chair to not send letters of recommendation on your behalf to tenure-track jobs. They would be compensated for this as well–probably around $5K for the primary advisor. The point would be ensure compliance, and to promote conversations between students and advisors about whether they should take the option. (They also get all the departmental service points, if such things exist, they would have received for advising the dissertation to completion).

  3. All of your dissertation-related intellectual property. It would be placed into a public domain (no attribution necessary) repository managed by the AHA. Archival photographs, out-of-copyright scans, notes and completed, unpublished chapters—it all goes into the digital commons. This a) makes it harder for you to welch on your commitment to leave academia; b) builds up a great base for open materials for future teaching, research, dissertation proposals, etc; and c) gives the selection committees a good incentive to choose well in buying people out. (This one might be a harder sell, so we could make it only possible on a sliding scale).

Ph.D.s would not be required, but the point would be to pull people off the market who look like prime candidates for tenure track jobs; that’s how these reviews would work.

If you are a currently enrolled grad student, you could apply for one of the buy-out fellowships; but you could also convert the remaining cash value of your stipend anytime after reaching ABD status. So if you had 2 years @ $25K with six course sections, say, you could deduct the marginal cost for a TA (call it 12K?), add 33% for health care and other overhead, and walk out with $50,500 and a master’s degree. Once again, some money–5%?–would go to advisors. This would strongly increase everyone’s incentives to talk clearly and openly about their academic prospects after reaching candidacy; just the point that many students, now, see no alternative but staying the course.

We might be able to open it up to junior professors, as well; nothing helps the job market as much as flushing out the people actually in the jobs. We’ll have to get some econometricians on board to set the rates properly for them (which will rely mostly on their tenure prospects). Senior faculty, on the other hand, we’ll leave out; universities already have a great incentive to force them into retirement and replace them with younger, cheaper replacements.

The reserve army of the unemployed used as contingent faculty will not be eligible. But since many people who would have entered that pool will have been bought out, the buyouts will help them all immediately. Raising the market-clearing rate for qualified adjuncts will improve conditions for those who remain; and as their price goes up, in marginal cases it will allow departments to make stronger cases for new tenure-track lines. Bought-out Ph.D.s could still teach in adjunct positions; in many cases, they might find it rewarding personally or a way to tide over a rough financial period. But with the brass ring permanently revoked, many fewer would choose to.

1. This would lead to lots of people attending graduate school for two to three years, then pocketing the buyout money and leaving.
Great! We’ve just achieved some of the benefits of contraction while still exposing more students to the possibilities of academic history, and showed the other students and faculty in those programs alternatives to the 7-year forced march towards tenure.

2. The buyouts could take the best historians out of the pool, leaving us with a generation of assistant professors whose chief virtue is that they were unable to conceive of doing anything else with their lives.
Maybe: but that’s exactly what queue-rationing is doing right now. We already lose all people who want to save for their retirement in their 20s, live with their spouse every year of their 30s, or live in the same metro area as their aging parents in their 40s. If the goal is to get the best professors, our first priority needs to be change the compensation scheme to make those things possible, not to reinforce the status quo. In the short run, things might get a bit worse. But in the long run, we’ll have a better chance of attracting and keeping the best people possible.

3. There’s not enough money in the system to make this work.
We’ll have to see. At the very least, we’ll have the benefit of shutting down the post-docs. If it doesn’t prove enough to make the market easier, than maybe we start putting some of that money towards internships or something instead. But it’s not clear that there’s money in the federal government for a new WPA, or in the broader society for collaborative public history jobs, either.

4. This is a neo-liberal call to submit to the market.
To the contrary: this is a call to take control of the commanding heights of the market. The surest way to let market forces (adjunctification, falling salaries and number of tenure slots, etc.) decimate the profession is willful blindness to its operations; that has been the preferred choice of most humanists for the last thirty years. Why not try something new?


I can’t decide whether or not this is an ironi…

Anonymous - Jan 1, 2012

I can’t decide whether or not this is an ironic “Modest Proposal.” The word “modest” in the title makes me suspicious.

In any case, I like it. You are *so* right about “rationing by queue.” Personally, though, I remain an old-fashioned contractionist.

Yeah, me neither. I think Stanley Fish has left us…

Ben - Jan 1, 2012

Yeah, me neither. I think Stanley Fish has left us all on edge about authorial intent.

[This is Ben pasting in, with permission, an anony…

Anonymous - Feb 3, 2012

[This is Ben pasting in, with permission, an anonymous comment received over e-mail]

Provocative stuff as always, Ben. Though I’m not sure you are targeting the right part of the system by looking generically at all “postdocs.” (Obvious disclaimer that I have recently been applying to a lot of postdocs etc etc.)

How much queue-rationing is really going on via the postdocs? I’m not as convinced as you are that there is such a misalignment between the number of people who can get postdocs and the number of people who can get tenure-track jobs. Many postdoc competitions are exceedingly competitive–600, 800, 1,000 applicants for 3-6 spots, at the worst–and it seems that, for many people, the barrier between Ph.D. and postdoc is just as daunting as that between post-doc and job.

So how many people are really getting into that “holding pen,” and how many of those who do end up not finding longer term positions? I’d love to see some kind of analysis of just how many people the “humanities postdoc holding pen” can really support, because if I had to guess I would suspect that the number is like well below 50% of all people completing Ph.Ds.

Plus, a lot of postdocs are interdisciplinary, open-call competitions that tend to value work that is methodologically innovative, that speaks to themes of relevance across a variety of fields, that attends to questions that have been overlooked by the academy, etc. This would seem to me to actually do a good job of keeping people in the game who are likely to be successful later on. And, indeed, people who get the good humanities postdocs (the “Societys,” Mellons, Humanities Centers, etc.) seem to have a very good track record of getting tenure-track jobs.

So don’t you really mean that we should be making distinctions between different kinds of postdocs: between those that pay glorified grad stipends and those that pay (something closer to) a meaningful salary; between those that require 3/3 teaching loads (miscoded adjuncting) and those that offer modest/no teaching loads and considerable research support; between those that are limited, apprenticeship positions to work on senior scholars’ projects (“development of accounting practices in the antebellum United States”) and those that offer a kind of research flexibility that many scholars covet once they get tenure-track jobs?

So I just don’t see how getting rid of the good humanities postdocs really helps anybody. In which case, your proposal would seem to be more targeted at the various less attractive postdocs (those that are basically VAP positions; those that are one-offs and don’t have particular market-signalling power; those that are tied to someone elses research project). And I guess I’m on board with you on that point. But then the question is, how big is that pool, really?

If there is enough money to be found by taking it away from postdocs, it would have to come from taking it away from mostly the big, well-funded postdoc programs (read: appropriating all of Andrew Mellon’s money), which would seem to be doing something kind of useful…

UNLISTED CITATION: I admit to not having a clue about the rela…

Ben - Feb 3, 2012

UNLISTED CITATION: I admit to not having a clue about the relative numbers of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ postdocs. As you say, it’s frequently hard to tell ‘bad’ postdocs and adjuncts apart since both take similar advantage of a saturated market to get teaching/research work at rates lower than we’d all like PhDs to be paid. It would certainly be great to get rid of both of those, but we’d lose a lot of labor that couldn’t be replaced as cheaply.

As for overall numbers, I don’t have them. I suspect a lot of the benefit from this proposal would come not from the provocative post-doc part, but from the ABD buyouts and other systems to push people out of the field. (More realistically, I love the ACLS public fellows program along these lines.) But if the numbers are still insignificant (as they were a decade ago in English) my primary goal is to say we should avoid at all costs the science model of near-universal postdocs. But we’re well down that road–about a third as many history doctorate recipients report some form of ‘postdoctoral study’ as their plan on receiving the Ph.D. right now as report employment of any kind in the academic sector. (I can’t immediately find the Ph.D. breakdowns).

That means, more substantively, that I actually want to focus first on eliminating the big, prestigious postdocs of the last two decades. I’d argue the positives and less, and the harms greater, than you claim.

The key question is: who do they benefit? You say it preserves people who will do well ‘later on.’ Insofar as that’s true, though, I think it also helps people who do well right now: methodologically innovative, relevant work is the easiest stuff to sell in the current job market. (What more likely would need to be tided over is obscure stuff that might not find a possible opening in any given year). And this is one feature of postdocs I don’t mention: frequently, they go to people who get jobs right away or who already have jobs. This is great for them, but systematically means we’re at best reinforcing the winner-gets-all aspects of the current tenure system. Spending hundreds of thousands or low millions a year on helping the people who are doing the best in the profession is a crazy use of funds. (In Claire Potter’s honor, I’ll go so far as to call it “neo-liberal.”) Rather than give them an extra year of research, I think we should give them an extra year of university life by allowing them to get jobs ABD as they did in the past.

But I think it’s worse than just a dismal use of money. We’re in fact encouraging those who want tenure to spend yet another year schlepping around the country. (The more people take up post-docs, the more reasonable a two-book tenure standard for tenure comes to seem, for example–so even if you’d rather get straight on the tenure track, that comes to be an increasingly bad idea if you can get a research fellowship.) Encouraging this promotes the loss of people who aren’t willing to take on the burden of another move, and leads people to discourage promising students from going to grad school. Nor is it an evenly distributed burden: requiring another move falls particularly harshly on those with non-portable spouses and for people with primary child-care obligations, which raises gender equity issues pretty strongly.

One thing you might have to spell out a bit more: I don’t see any contradiction between good post-docs being hard to get, and them being a form of queue-rationing. If they simply allow the best people to polish up their work before going on the market, that’s the very definition of queue-rationing.

Will the buyout include a selection of delicious b…

Anonymous - Apr 1, 2012

Will the buyout include a selection of delicious babies? Sounds like a great idea!