Thomas Benton has a fierce, eviscerating article in Chronicle Careers about grad students and unemployment. I agree with a lot of his points, although I think, in turn, that a certain amount of healthy optimism in this field is necessary for survival. We do have to believe, as grad students and postgrads, that we'll find a place in this hostile system from which to 1) change things for the better, 2) continue to do good, valuable work, and 3) help future students. But, at the same time, there's a lot of inflated praise and unrealistic expectations out there. Here are some of the critical highlights from Benton's piece:
"The reality is that less than half of all doctorate holders — after nearly a decade of preparation, on average — will ever find tenure-track positions."
"The follow-up letters I receive from those prospective Ph.D.'s are often quite angry and incoherent; they've been praised their whole lives, and no one has ever told them that they may not become what they want to be, that higher education is a business that does not necessarily have their best interests at heart. Sometimes they accuse me of being threatened by their obvious talent. I assume they go on to find someone who will tell them what they want to hear: 'Yes, my child, you are the one we've been waiting for all our lives.'"
"They don't know that you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself exiled from the profession."
"With the prospect of an unappealing, entry-level job on the horizon, life in college becomes increasingly idealized. They think graduate school will continue that romantic experience and enable them to stay in college forever as teacher-scholars."
"Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members."
Although I agree with a lot of what Benton is saying, I also have misgivings about simply telling students that they're crazy to enter graduate studies. And all of these critical points are debatable, at least in my experience so far. Yes, we are in a recession, but that isn't news, and academia has been dealing with financial crises for at least the past several decades. Having watched several friends go for technical training, land jobs outside academia, and work successfully for years--only to be unexpectedly laid off without compensation--I feel like humanities grad studies is certainly not the only hostile, competitive job market. Training does not necessarily equal a livable wage, no matter what field you're in.
Universities will always take the path of least (financial) resistance in terms of hiring. A certain amount of money will be allocated by deans for searchers, and departments will then have to assess 1) which teachers they need in which areas, and 2) how to conflate/collapse certain pedagogical areas together in order to hire someone cost-effectively who can do a variety of different things for them. This is why you see positions like 'Queer studies with emphases in ethno-history and area studies, with sub-specialty in minority literatures.' Break a position like that down, and you're looking at about five different teachable areas. If departments had enough money to hire people in every needed area, they certainly would, but they have to bargain and make difficult choices. When I was the grad student rep on a hiring committee, I lobbied as much as I could for positions that I thought were valuable and necessary--global feminisms, queer studies, critical race studies, disability studies--only to be told that it wasn't economically feasible. Often, departments have 'wish lists' that they've been compiling for years, with needed positions that are just waiting for funding, and these are affected by retirements, sabbaticals, and other faculty departures.
When students ask me if they should pursue grad studies, I usually tell them to come up with a list of concrete reasons why they'd like to enter the field. This doesn't need to be ironclad, but they should be able to visualize something more realistic than the 'romance' of delivering brilliant papers at conferences and getting lots of time to read. In actual fact, I'd say I've spent the last 10 years or so reading close to 100 pages per day, often more. My eyesight has gone from bad to worse, and when I was doing my comprehensive exams, I had a variety of physical ailments from overwork and lack of sleep. So, the labor required to finish MA and PhD degrees is considerable and debilitating. Students should think very hard about this. And they need to prepare themselves for years of relative (i.e., First World) poverty, lack of medical insurance, lack of child support/daycare, and definitely lack of sleep.
That said, I don't necessarily believe that it's somehow quantifiably 'harder' to find a job now than it was 10-15 years ago. There are less positions, certainly. I'd say about 30% of tenure-track job postings were cut last year in the United States due to financial instability, and that includes massively endowed schools like Duke U, which we often conceptualize as being somehow immune to economic crisis. Jobs are being cut all over the place, and the market is saturated with over-qualified applicants who have taught, given papers, published, won awards, and are, in many ways, indistiguishable from each other. It's very difficult to even get a preliminary interview at a mega-conference like MLA and AHA, let alone a campus interview. This does seem pretty grim.
In terms of optimism, I can only speak from my own experience. I've been lucky enough to receive generous funding from a variety of inter- and extra-departmental sources, and I've been able to get interviews. Being a grad student gave me the flexibility to get a lot of writing done, to travel, to interact with lots of brilliant people, and to teach a variety of courses. I've learned so much from my students and colleagues, and on a more personal level, I've been able to figure out things about myself that I doubt I would have had the opportunity to in another field. I like the person I've become as a result of all this hard work, and I can't, in good conscience, tell a student not to pursue grad studies simply because there's a good chance they won't get a job.
A job may appear that's unexpected: teaching a subject you never thought you'd teach, in a city you've never been to, maybe in an entirely different country. But we all have to be open to changing our perspectives, leaving our inscribed comfort zones, and doing something that seems different and terrifying. Although the first 7 years or so of graduate academia are fairly safe and proscribed (aside from financial instability), the period directly following earning a PhD can be the most terrifying and disorienting of all. But that can also be a good thing. When human beings are under terrific pressure, they tend to make extraordinary decisions about their own lives. And without this tension, we might miss an opportunity that, although scary, is precisely right for us.
I think Gayatri Spivak is right about academics having to leave their safe Western comfort zones. If we're going to change the system of academia for the better, we need to learn new languages (both concrete and theoretical), move to new places, teach in a variety of different environments, and give ourselves permission 1) to fail, and 2) to be scared. That's all we can ask of any profession.