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Humanities doctoral students face tightening job market

Although some on campus attribute having a Stanford degree to cushioning many of the recession’s effects on employment, doctoral candidates studying the humanities still face a number of difficulties.

“Hiring freezes because of budget cuts, especially at state universities, have made a difference across the board,” said English professor Ramón Saldivar, who works as a job placement officer for his department’s doctoral students. “There are definitely 30 percent–almost 40 percent–fewer jobs than last year.”

Stanford humanities PhDs have faced a fierce job market as more applicants are vying for fewer tenure-track positions. (ANASTASIA YEE/The Stanford Daily)

However, the picture for Stanford graduates is not nearly as bleak as for students from other programs, Saldivar said. Of the 12 doctoral candidates in the English program graduating this year, only three are likely to not find a job placement, a number Saldivar said was “not unusual.”

“Our graduate students are, of course, concerned about the job market,” he said. “They worry about it with some anxiety, but they’re also optimistic they’ll be okay. The record shows there’s good reason for the optimism.”

The tightening of the job market over the past several years, however, has caused a backlog of job applicants, pitting older graduates who didn’t find employment against recent graduates. This increase in the number of applicants combined with a slashing of positions has created a tougher job market.

Many doctoral candidates hope to earn a tenure-track position in academia, but universities have learned to get by with fewer hires.

“At this stage, it’s fairly daunting,” said Ben Miller, a third-year doctoral candidate in philosophy. “Even if you’re quite good in your year, there might be all these people from the year before who’ve had an extra year to polish.”

Philosophy students face a disadvantage that other humanities departments may not, Miller said.

“The Stanford name doesn’t so obviously have the same kind of pedigree [in philosophy],” he said.

Stanford’s location creates a “distinct outsider feeling,” since the American Philosophical Association is situated in the East. As a result, many job interviews take place there as well.

Although Stanford graduates might fare better than others, the tight job market has added lag time between graduation and finding a job. Many graduate students now have to apply over several consecutive years before being hired, said assistant professor of English Saikat Majumdar, who also works as a placement director for English and modern literature students.

While this lag provides students with extra time to perfect their resumes and publish more of their work, it also adds a heavy burden for those who do not have a steady salary in the meantime.

Reacting to employment concerns, more doctoral students in the humanities chose to apply to postdoctoral fellowships or become adjunct professors. According to Majumdar, there are distinct disadvantages for those who choose the latter track.

“An adjunct professorship doesn’t pay much, it doesn’t leave much time for research,” Majumdar said. “A postdoc is a full-time position. It has a better salary.”

Faced with seemingly bleak options, some students have shaped their plans more creatively to become more attractive candidates in the world of academia. Students in “newer or more marginal fields” such as minority literature or digital humanities often have greater employment success that those who study more traditional topics, Majumdar said.

But he also noted that students should not necessarily change their field of study for the promise of higher future salaries.

“You should do what really excites you, so I don’t think you should define your scholarship for marketability,” he said. “But that said, it doesn’t hurt to look externally. You have to have a dialogue between the two.”

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