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Professionalization in Perspective

MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Professionalization of PhDs

Each year for the last thirty, doctoral students in languages and literatures have faced a strikingly similar situation on graduation: too few tenure-track academic positions for their numbers. Our best information suggests that the odds of new PhDs in language and literature finding full-time academic employment in their fields immediately after graduation have been no better than 50-50 and are often lower, while the odds of finding a full-time tenure-track position in the five years after earning the degree have been about two out of three (see app. 1). For complex reasons that have yet to be fully addressed, graduate departments are continuing to produce more PhDs than the colleges and universities of North America can permanently hire. According to a recent student survey, some graduates continue to be unaware of these employment realities and of other career options (see Wells and Fagan).

The history of this oversupply is the history of our profession, one marked not only by an extraordinary expansion of higher education between 1955 and 1975 but also by the increased desire of institutions to be recognized for research achievements and the concomitant request of faculty members for more research time and less time in the classroom. The consequences of this shift have been multiple, but among them are both the turning to part-time and full-time adjunct teachers to fill the classrooms and the raising of the bar, so to speak: an increase in expectations for research productivity at all levels, from entry to tenure and promotion, for institutions of all kinds.1 As a result, those seeking to enter our profession have increasingly felt obliged to learn to become professionals before they even begin their search for a job. Facing a tight hiring situation, they understandably want to be as prepared as possible, and many do not think that they get sufficient assistance from their departments. (The recent poll by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students of current graduate students in English shows that the fostering of professional development in graduate programs received very low approval rates. See NAGPS.) The anxiety these students experience does not mark so much a crisis--for it is hard to speak of a thirty-year-long crisis--as a problematic continuity that has altered the practices of our profession.

The specific debate in the MLA over professionalization was sparked by the 1994 MLA president, Patricia Meyer Spacks, in a newsletter column on "the current plight of graduate students" faced with professionalization pressures. Decrying that students "who concentrate on turning out publishable papers can hardly center their attention on broadening and deepening their knowledge," this article provoked passionate responses, both negative and positive. Most important, these responses made it clear that professionalization was a problem not only for graduate students but for the entire system of higher education in the field. When Erik D. Curren, a former president of the Graduate Student Caucus, demanded that job advisers--and implicitly the MLA--"attempt to come to some consensus on what professional achievements candidates need to stand out" (59), he voiced the frustration shared by several generations of doctoral students.

The MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Professionalization of PhDs was formed in large part to answer precisely this challenge. Its aim was not to repeat the valuable work done in the late 1990s by the MLA Committee on Professional Employment. That committee's report eloquently lamented the problems caused by the "dual imperatives of access and research" (Final Report 21) and then proceeded to conduct a nuanced analysis of the system of teacher training and placement in higher education as well as of graduate and adjunct employment in order to make pragmatic suggestions for change. The committee on professionalization in a sense aimed to follow up on that report's argument for the need for graduate programs, on the one hand, to be more in tune with the realities of the academic workplace and, on the other, to find a way to acknowledge the experiences of those PhDs who have chosen to leave the academy to establish careers in what has come to be called the business, government, and not-for-profit (BGN) sector. The committee especially wished to revisit some of the findings of the previous report in the light of five more years of experience and the increased demand from students for action. Graduate students have made it clear that they feel it is the responsibility of their departments not only to train them in the content of the discipline but also to make it possible for them to get information about a wide variety of opportunities for future employment. Finally, this committee has sought to address what many perceive as a serious disparity between the graduate student word on the street about what is required to get an academic position and what hiring departments say they are looking for.

The committee was specifically charged with trying to assess (1) the growing pressure on the research productivity of graduate students and postdocs in the context of pressure on all levels of the profession, (2) the educational and professional value of various activities many graduate students pursue in order to enhance their credentials as job candidates, (3) the effectiveness of the teaching experiences of graduate students and postdocs, and (4) the desirability of current practices. Part of our charge involved trying to discover the actual practices of hiring departments, and here a timely collaboration with Walter Broughton and William Conlogue proved most helpful, as they conducted their survey of what search committees seek in job candidates (see Broughton and Conlogue). In its efforts to present a realistic analysis of the current situation, the committee consulted widely with members of ADE and ADFL, through sessions at the annual summer seminars over a number of years; it also consulted with graduate students (through informal surveys and meetings in Canada, the United States, and overseas and through submissions from groups, committees, and individuals representing the diversity of the student body), new assistant professors, and newly tenured professors (again through informal surveys and interviews). The committee itself consisted of members from these last three groups, plus people from different types of institutions who had been involved in hiring in their departments in recent years.

In order to explore the wide range of opportunities available to PhDs, the committee decided to address the academic labor market in all its segmented variety in terms of the kinds of positions available and types of institutions. But after much debate, we came to see the advantages of acknowledging the challenging nature of positions outside the academy in the BGN sector. The striking reality is that for the last thirty years PhDs in literature and language have had rewarding careers outside the academy. Repeated reports affirm that these PhDs experience greater job satisfaction than their colleagues who take academic positions (Nerad and Cerny 6; May and Blaney 75-76). Most also report that their doctoral years provided critical preparation for their careers outside the academy, for doctoral study taught them how to define a large, complex research project; how to work with a supervisor; how to organize and carry out research; how to take criticism; and how to revise and bring a major work to completion.

The Debates over Professionalization and Preprofessionalism

Professionalization as a sociological phenomenon is generally understood to involve

the development of skills, identities, norms, and values associated with becoming part of a professional group. Through this process, recruits [. . .] acquire both substantive and methodological knowledge and develop understandings of their roles that permit them to function as professionals in these fields. Also, by training newcomers, [. . .] professions seek to ensure that the work of [the group] will continue congruent with certain principles and practices. (Levine)

Professionalization in our field involves a complex process of acculturation that begins on day 1 of our specialized literary and language education. Through this process we learn to become researchers, teachers, colleagues. Professionalization is such a powerful form of socialization that, certainly by the time we are awarded the doctorate, and often long before that, many of us cannot imagine ourselves doing anything else. Our graduate education, therefore, both provides us with our formal intellectual training and socializes us into our professional lives (Gross).

Graduate departments are generally understood to be "the primary socialization sites," but "professionalization continues during the early years of employment" (Levine). Perhaps the most significant change in the last thirty years in our field has been a shift to the years of graduate training of certain aspects of professionalization that previously occurred only after employment. The distance between then and now can be measured in Gerald Graff's observation: "When I got my doctorate in the early sixties, jobs were so plentiful that my utter lack of savvy about all these matters [of professional preparation] didn't matter, whereas today it would disqualify me" (1192). In other words, what John Guillory once called preprofessionalism--the "penetration of graduate education by professional practices formerly confined to later phases of the career" (92)--has become the normal level of professionalism expected by hiring committees.

Debates over both how and when to prepare graduate students for the profession have focused on the increased attention that they are giving to making themselves competitive for the job market. While acknowledging the burden of such preparation, many people have pointed out that it is now part of the normal and indeed required preparation for a life in the academy or, for that matter, outside it (Nelson; Graff). A recent call for recognizing the importance of employment in the BGN sector has also led to disagreements about the preparation of PhDs in language and literature. In the last few years, Robert Weisbuch, himself a PhD in English and now president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, has urged fieldwide recognition of employment opportunities for humanities PhDs in the BGN sector. He argues that thirty years of under- and unemployment in the humanities has created a "culture of defeatism" that can be changed if we take advantage of a range of possible employment opportunities. Committed to opening up possibilities for PhDs outside the academy--and giving the sense of freedom that comes with such an expansion--the initiatives of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation are beginning to alter the perspective of some graduate students about where they will seek employment and how they will need to be prepared for it.2

Nevertheless, the study by Maresi Nerad and Joseph Cerny of English PhDs ten years after the granting of the doctorate confirms what other studies have claimed: that the overwhelming majority of students who undertake doctoral study in the humanities have an academic career as their employment goal. Yet the shortage of opportunities in English and foreign languages (Spanish excepted) has meant that this goal remains unattainable for substantial numbers of talented aspirants. Unfortunately, many PhDs begin to explore the full range of employment opportunities available to them only after they have been unable to find a suitable academic position. As a consequence, that decision is usually experienced as one of defeat and personal failure.

Given the intensity and elaborateness of the public discussions on this topic in recent years, how can we explain the continuing resistance to professionalization in general and to professional training of graduate students in particular that we have witnessed so often in our consultations? One possibility is that ours has been a profession with a strongly anti-institutional ethos built into it since the 1960s. That we tend to distrust formal skills (which can be credentialed) and favor personal qualities may be the heritage of Romantic ideology. As Bruce Robbins has noted, the term professionalization is often seen as a synonym for selling out, for being co-opted, even corrupted. Our "entrenched anti-institutionalism" makes us reluctant, argue Graff and Andrew Hoberek, to "imagine graduate education as the professional training it presumably is" (243). But our refusal to accept the formalization of professional development has actually reinforced elitism, despite greater diversity in the student population. We need only ask, Who loses when one is simply supposed to know how to be a professional from watching one's parents or other models? It is therefore not only "disingenuous" but also perhaps unethical to "ignore professional and institutional structures as if these are latter-day elements or foreign imports" (Wicke 53).

Given graduates' criticisms about either the lack of professional training or the specific kinds actually offered by their programs, the question that arises is, Whose responsibility is it to prepare students for the multiple career opportunities that await them at the end of their training? Clearly doctoral institutions and departments bear the greater part of that responsibility, but just as obviously students themselves must accept that they have a significant role to play. Certainly the profession as a whole must come to terms with the reality of its history and current circumstances.

The Role of PhD-Granting Institutions in the Professional Development of Graduate Students

The MLA's studies indicate that placement in tenure-track jobs has been relatively stable (but low), while the number of PhDs granted has increased. The MLA's statistical representations for 2001-02 for the academic search in English and foreign languages (reproduced in app. 1) allow us to project employment prospects from past experience and help explain why so many talented graduates have used their skills and training to develop careers outside the academy.

Universities that grant doctorates in the humanities should take responsibility for the difficulties faced by the graduates they produce. Whatever their institutional motives for training more PhDs than the academic market can absorb, they owe their graduate students the same career counseling they provide to undergraduates. Graduate departments, supervisors, and mentors will inevitably be the major sources of information and guidance for students about the range of career possibilities open to them, but the expertise of these advisers is in most cases limited to the academic profession.

Therefore university career centers should be strongly urged to extend the services they provide undergraduates to graduate students. Information about the BGN sector can most effectively be provided there. Departments have the responsibility to make students aware that there are opportunities for employment outside the academy, but they are not themselves the best sources of information about those opportunities and should not be expected to be. What they can do is insist that students learn from the outset about employment options of all kinds--in the academy, in a variety of institutions, and in the nonacademic world as well. Graduate students should not have to turn to the option of BGN employment when it almost inevitably feels like a consequence of failure.

In addition, PhD-granting institutions should consider the need for interdepartmental mentoring of graduate students of color, since such students are often isolated in their departments. Support groups and assistance regarding both possible discriminatory practices and targeted professional opportunities would also be helpful.

The Role of Graduate Departments in the Professional Development of Graduate Students

The committee recognizes that many, if not most, departments already have in place some form of professional training for their students. What concerns us are the repeated remarks by graduate students and, even more significant, recent PhDs that either they were not aware of these programs or they did not participate in them. There are at least five areas that the committee felt should receive greater attention than they are presently receiving.

Providing a Comprehensive Sense of the Profession

Departments should consider how they reveal, through their practices and policies, the value they place on various professional activities: research and publication; undergraduate teaching and broad humanistic education; continuing education of secondary school teachers; new developments and changes in the field; the study of rhetoric and composition, creative and expository writing, and applied linguistics and language-acquisition theory. All these are part of our profession. For language departments, this broader model would include not only providing research specialization and teaching practice but also ensuring that their graduates have superior-level proficiency in the target language (and in English), an understanding of the basic principles of second language acquisition and of communicative language pedagogy (including content-based instruction), and a significant experience of total immersion in the language and culture. For English departments, this broader model would include providing knowledge about the teaching of composition and general education courses.

For all literature and language departments, an expanded sense of the professionalization process for graduate students would involve the ability to connect research and teaching, the opportunity to present one's research in house (and to be critiqued), the ability to present one's scholarly work to an undergraduate audience, and perhaps a fuller understanding of the service component (what it is, why it is important, how it is defined in various institutional contexts). Departments can help students develop a sense of belonging to a larger professional community by offering opportunities for them to gain at least some experience in academic citizenship and to learn about such things as faculty governance, the concept of academic freedom (its scope and history), and the university as an institution.

Departments should emphasize in their practices the specific skills and knowledge necessary for the academic profession, but they should also remind students frequently that, whatever disciplinary specialization they are developing, they are also pursuing a humanistic, liberal arts training. They will continue to develop their capacities to reason, to analyze, to communicate, and to gain self-understanding through an education that continues from the undergraduate years to graduate school, an education that underwrites their ability to work effectively in institutions both inside and outside the academy. Opening up the sense of what constitutes the profession should also include consideration of issues like the professional importance of work in after-school programs, at not-for-profit organizations, or in the community at large, aspects often important to women and minority students, among others.

Graduate departments should organize sessions with alumni who work in a range of roles and types of institutions (non-doctoral granting institutions, small liberal arts colleges, community colleges) or who have careers in the BGN sector. Such sharing of experience and advice is helpful to both students and faculty members. As the Preparing Future Faculty program has shown, internships in other types of institutions can also be productive ways of allowing students to develop contacts as well as to see how the skills and knowledge acquired in graduate school apply to a range of institutional contexts (see Gaff, Pruitt-Logan, Weibl, et al.).

Providing Directed Information and Guidance

Students often feel that they do not know enough to make decisions about their careers. Departments can assist by providing a bibliography of published and electronic materials, even housing a collection of relevant works that students can consult. There are multiple sources of information available about the academy--both about its current constitution and about placement possibilities--from a variety of professional organizations, including the MLA. This kind of information, plus departmental data about everything from completion rates to the positions their graduates have moved on to, should be made available to students so they can more easily make informed decisions about career possibilities. For instance, the Survey of Earned Doctorates and the MLA's surveys of PhD placement and annual analyses of the Job Information List provide important information about academic opportunities. The ADE and ADFL online job counseling service is also most helpful (see app. 2). Other MLA reports, such as that of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing, printed in this issue of Profession, should be brought to the attention of graduate students.

Departments should inform students about sources of information on job openings: the MLA Job Information List and the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, for employment in the academy. Departments should work with university career centers to ensure that the relevant information about the BGN sector is made available as well and should encourage students to use such resources at these centers.

Departments should analyze how their graduate programs relate to those of other nearby and competing institutions as well as to trends in the national market as a whole. They should then provide this helpful information to students. Equally useful are efforts by departments to develop and maintain contacts with alumni working in the BGN sector. We believe that departments should evaluate the success of their graduate programs by their students' job placement and satisfaction--in a wide range of employment possibilities.

Establishing or Formalizing Professional Development Programs

Many departments already assign a faculty member (with appropriate time compensation) to serve as director of job placement, and we urge all to do so. This person should inform students about the procedures involved in looking for an academic position (e.g., preparing a curriculum vitae, soliciting letters of recommendation, writing letters of application, taking part in convention and on-campus interviews and presentations, and negotiating job offers). This person should also direct students to the appropriate resources at the institution's career center so that candidates can prepare similarly for the employment search in the BGN sector (e.g., preparing a résumé, researching and approaching possible employers, learning interview procedures, and negotiating job offers). The director of job placement would clearly have to be familiar with current job placement practices and statistics.

Student demands for more systematic, reliable, and consistent advice and information indicate that departments should formally require them to attend professional skills workshops or seminars. Useful sessions could discuss the expectations of the profession once one has obtained a position (so that students can decide if they indeed want to enter the profession); the standards, mechanics, and etiquette of publication and conference presentations; the job search in all its complexity, from where to find listings to how to write a convincing letter of application, from how to prepare a teaching dossier to how to conduct oneself at an interview. As we discuss in more detail later in this report, the Broughton and Conlogue English department survey results suggest that there is often a disparity between what students believe is required of them in the job search and what hiring committees seek in candidates. We would agree with the often expressed view that no professional skills program can ensure that an applicant will get a particular position, given the many variables, but we believe that departments could do more to make the experience of both career development and the job search less anxiety-provoking and considerably more equitable through increased transparency combined with more direct information and advice.

Career Mentoring

The single message the committee received most often from students concerned the importance and value of mentors in professional preparation, in helping them learn the ropes. Students who, for a variety of reasons, did not have immediate models for career development from their own lives were particularly emphatic about the need for professional mentoring. In most departments, supervisors can (and do) act not only as research advisers but also as mentors for both teaching and career development. But other faculty members should be involved, even if only on an informal basis, because professionalization is the collective responsibility of the department. What is specific to the notion of career mentoring? As career mentors, faculty members would consciously help students prepare for their professional life in the academy and direct them to university career centers where they could learn about professional opportunities outside the academy. They would promote well-rounded professional development--by example as well as instruction--and provide students with concepts of what the profession's meaningful emotional and intellectual rewards can be.

This kind of deliberate career mentoring can intervene in both the unconscious socialization process of professionalization and the informal machinery of advice and rumor. It can therefore help level the playing field for all students. There are specific issues that arise in mentoring students of color, because they will often seek out faculty members of color as mentors. We believe that this mentoring should not be seen as the sole responsibility of faculty members of color; but departments should recognize and reward the often extensive mentoring work done by these faculty members by reducing teaching or other service loads.

The danger many perceive in the older, traditional form of mentoring is self-replication. A number of recently hired people spoke to committee members about the sense of failure they were made to feel by their dissertation supervisors (from PhD-granting institutions) when they accepted a position at another type of school or when they moved outside the academy. They had clearly disappointed their supervisors. Self-replication should not be a measure of success for graduate departments, supervisors, or mentors. The wide range of opportunities open to PhDs in our field demands that expectations--of students but also of faculty members--be broadened, not narrowed. Diversity of all kinds should be embraced as an opportunity for growth.

Making Teaching Important

Both ADE and ADFL members and the Broughton and Conlogue report have emphasized that teaching experience is a crucial element in professionalization and in the job success of graduate students. But teaching too much or teaching only beginning language and composition courses is not helpful. Therefore, departments should limit the amount of classroom time expected of graduate student teachers and provide them with opportunities to instruct in a variety of courses. In this way, students can build a teaching repertoire that is appropriate to a range of academic positions. Where possible, graduate students should be given the opportunity to teach a course of their own design.
One way to have teaching recognized as important, as some departments have shown, is to provide systematic and mentored teaching instruction in order to introduce students to, prepare them for, and support them during their teaching assignments. Suggested mechanisms include providing teaching mentors for students or offering them credit or noncredit seminars in appropriate areas (such as the teaching of composition, foreign language pedagogy, the use of technology in teaching, or the teaching of literature and culture). Departments should provide students with opportunities to talk about, practice, and receive comment on activities such as leading discussions, lecturing, constructing a syllabus, creating assignments, reading and responding to student writing, having students discuss and edit classwork in groups, having language students work in small groups, teaching with multimedia materials, and dealing with student plagiarism and academic dishonesty. In this context, departments can inform graduate students of the expectations, the obligations, and the rights that inhere in the institutional and professional position of the classroom teacher.

If they have not already done so, graduate departments should put in place mechanisms that will assist students in producing a documented record of their development and experience as teachers, including not only student evaluations but also evaluations by teaching mentors, supervisors, and other faculty members. Such mechanisms can provide an opportunity for faculty members to offer suggestions on a regular basis to students and to write a full and detailed letter for each student's dossier about the student's abilities and accomplishments as an undergraduate teacher. Departments should also try to offer opportunities for students to have their classroom performances observed or even videotaped. Students often find it helpful to work with other students and faculty members to review drafts of their statements of teaching philosophy.

The Role of Graduate Students in Their Own Professional Preparation

Taking Charge

If professional acculturation begins on day 1 of graduate school, then students can (and do) start shaping their careers--and expectations about the profession--from this moment on. Despite the real difficulties involved in the job search at the other end of the process, there are things students can do en route to take control, either individually or collectively, of their own professional preparation. There is no alternative to self-reflection, self-knowledge, and information. The committee does not want to downplay the seriousness of the academic job situation or the responsibility of graduate departments and institutions to make students both aware of and ready for multiple employment possibilities. But students too have responsibilities as well as opportunities, both of which entail thinking about careers early in their graduate years and researching the process in the same way that they would undertake academic research--taking into account the range of possible institutions (not only the familiar doctoral-granting sort, in other words), BGN possibilities, and local opportunities. Most important are keeping one's options open and having a backup plan.

Practical information can be found in publications, such as the MLA Guide to the Job Search (Showalter et al.), that provide students with a working knowledge of the process and the various stages involved in obtaining academic employment. (See too the list of articles and Web site addresses in app. 2.) In the same way, students can take advantage of existing programs (such as the Preparing Future Faculty pairing of graduate students and teaching colleges or the Woodrow Wilson Foundation's BGN sector initiatives [see, resp., www.preparing-faculty.org and www.woodrow.org/phd/]) and already existing networks (their undergraduate institutions' networks and professional associations such as the MLA, the College Language Association, the National Association of Black Graduate Students, etc.).

Students should be encouraged to seek intellectual connections both inside and outside their departments, especially if they feel isolated, for any reason, in their programs. Likewise, they can attend departmental workshops intended to help them learn the ropes--sessions on topics that might range from how the tenure system works to how to convert an excellent seminar paper into an article. Seeking out mentors--for teaching and career advice (perhaps to supplement the research supervisor's contribution)--especially if the department does not provide a systematic mentoring setup, is another way for them to take control of professional preparation. Students can also provide peer mentoring to incoming students. At a number of universities, we learned, students have worked collectively to organize their own professional development seminars and invited faculty members to contribute their experience and expertise.

The committee discovered that students already think about professionalization in terms of publishing and conference participation, but there are other, often more important, aspects that they should also consider. For instance, they can seek a variety of teaching experiences, either in their institutions or elsewhere, since the Broughton and Conlogue English survey tells us that such breadth is an important consideration for hiring committees. Likewise they can actively seek--or demand--opportunities to develop pedagogical and technological skills. This kind of professional preparation is no less important than turning their best term papers into conference papers and articles, as the next section discusses. Not only can and should students take charge of their professional preparation but they should also always remember that any advice they are given requires personalizing. People must make the choices that best fit their career plans, intellectual interests, and the employment opportunities likely to be available to them.

Separating Rumor from Fact about the Job Search

The word on the street is apocalyptic: there are hardly any jobs, and to get one students must have c.v.s of the dimensions that used to get people tenure--or even promotion to full professor. Such is the rumor, recognizably (and understandably) driven by anxiety. The reality is somewhat different. There are jobs, even if there are not enough for all in the academy, and to get one students need to have c.v.s that show their engagement with a variety of elements of the profession, but not to the extent or depth that rumor would have it. There is always great variety in the demands or desires of different types of jobs and institutions. More important, there are elements of the job search whose significance students may have underrated--such as the application letter--but that hiring committees claim are crucial. While everyone would agree that it is important for students to enter the intellectual debates in the field through a few peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations, it is quality, not quantity, that matters, and the quality of the dissertation remains crucial. Students should not, therefore, spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy on what will be considered only a part of their qualifications for a position. In making the following suggestions to balance student perceptions with search committee realities, the committee has used as its major sources of information, on the one hand, graduate students themselves and, on the other, ADE and ADFL members who have served recently on hiring committees and the Broughton and Conlogue survey of English department search committees.

We have often mentioned Broughton and Conlogue's survey, "What Search Committees Want," in this report, but it is in the particular context of separating rumor from fact that the report has been most useful to us. The authors identify the criteria faculty members in English departments say they valued in searches conducted in 1999-2000 and 2000-01. (Our meetings with ADFL members suggested that foreign language departments look for similar characteristics in their searches.) These researchers discovered that in the initial screening of candidates search committees gave the highest ratings to the following criteria, here listed in order of importance: a candidate's "potential for making a positive contribution to the institution as a whole," "letter of application," "general teaching experience," and letters of recommendation. In judging the next stage, the on-campus interview, search committees gave the highest ratings to the following criteria, again listed in order of importance: "performance at interview with the search committee," "potential for making a positive contribution to the institution as a whole," "candidate's ability to relate well to students like ours," "general teaching experience," "performance during colloquium," and "candidate's ability to get along with other faculty members." What is significant is how radically this list differs from the word on the street. What can and should candidates do with this new information?

In analyzing the initial screening stage of the hiring process, everyone we spoke to insisted on the value and importance of a personalized and well-focused letter of application. A well-crafted, intellectually engaging, and personable letter is a major consideration for search committees, even above the particular information about publications, for instance, presented in the c.v. or the letters of recommendation. An account of the candidate's research that shows its significance for both the individual and the discipline is important as well. Search committee members also repeatedly stress that applicants must match their strengths to the job description and to the needs of the department and university to which they are writing. The letter of application is where the candidate's "potential for making a positive contribution to the institution as a whole" becomes evident. As one English department chair of a liberal arts college put it, "Show us that you care about the same things we care about." Such showing can be more difficult than it seems, if students have experience only of a doctoral-granting institution. Homework is needed, in short, to tailor the letter to the institution. The amount of space devoted to teaching, research, and service--as well as what one says about each--depends on the type of institution to which one is applying. Search committees in liberal arts colleges report that they often have difficulties finding appropriate candidates for their positions because the letters are all geared to the needs and demands of the research institutions from which the students have graduated. But if students have a precise reason for applying to a particular institution--even such things as a personal connection with the school or region--they should say so in their letter.

The second area in which rumor and fact seem out of line with each other is the interview process that takes place at the second stage of the job search. If an invitation to either an MLA or on-campus interview is extended, then candidates need to go into even higher gear to prepare for the particular institution and department. They should inform themselves about the values and mission of the institution and about the student body, especially if either differs from what they are used to. They should study the organization and content of the curriculum and think about how to teach upper-division courses offered in that department, perhaps developing sample syllabi in preparation for the interview. They should tailor their research presentation to the type of institution in which they will be speaking. If candidates do research and teach material dealing with minority groups, gender issues, or the language or literature of other nations and are not a member of that group, gender, or nation, they should be prepared to talk about their qualifications in the field in specific terms. They should also be ready to discuss their specialized work with nonspecialists.

At the interview stage, hiring committees say that they care less about who wrote the letters of reference or what school the candidate graduated from or how many conference papers have been delivered. Departments look more for evidence of well-rounded professional development (i.e., of quality teaching as well as research) and a potential to integrate well into the institution as a whole. Each department and school has a specific culture, and successful candidates are most often those who are perceived by the hiring faculty members as future colleagues in terms of both intellectual and personal fit and as being able to meet the demands of teaching, research, and service--that is, as colleagues who will be tenurable down the line and who will want to stay on through the tenure process and beyond.

In short, while the amount of preparation needed may appear daunting, undertaking it allows students to have some control of an important part of the hiring process. Being able to counter rumor with informed knowledge about the process means being able to deal more effectively with the very real challenges of seeking employment.

The Role of the MLA in Assisting Departments and Graduate Students with Professional Development

Over the years the MLA has provided important leadership in the professional training of graduate students--through its many publications, committee reports, and convention sessions--and the committee would like to see the association continue this leadership role with particular attention to the following areas.

Affirming and Promoting Equity and Diversity through Professional Development

We would like to see the MLA continue its support in this area by promoting the idea that professional development issues are also issues of equity and diversity. Our realization of who suffers most when such development is left to chance or tradition has led to our sense that as a profession we must insist on this specific ethical aspect of formal professional mentoring and training.

Providing Information to Undergraduate and MA Advisers

Assuming, as we do, that the MLA will continue to collect valuable information on the profession and make it available to its members, we would also like to urge the association to make sure that this information reaches both undergraduate and MA program advisers. In this way, students can be provided early on with realistic and accurate information that will better equip them to make appropriate career decisions.

Urging Institutions to Take Responsibility for BGN Sector Counseling

As a large professional body, the MLA can provide a strong voice to persuade institutions (not departments) that they have a special responsibility to support career development for doctoral students when it extends to careers beyond the academy. It should urge that the services of well-staffed and well-equipped institutional career development offices be made available to graduate as well as undergraduate students and that such offices sponsor well-thought-out programs designed specifically for doctoral students. Departmental faculty members possess neither the experience nor the expertise to advise graduate students about careers in the BGN sector; nor should they be expected to expend time attempting this complex task.

Concluding Remarks: Equity and Control

This report consciously offers no panaceas. Indeed, its focus has been on the harsh realities of the employment situation for PhDs in our field, in part no doubt because many of the committee members are or have been experiencing these realities firsthand. But the more knowledgeable both graduate students and their departments are about the current situation, we believe, the more likely they are to address it effectively. The desire to obtain a doctorate in language and literature is costly, not only in terms of time and money but also in lost opportunity, because on average it takes over eight years to earn a degree and another three to get a tenure-track position. If the past is a guide to the future, at least a third of the aspirants for these positions will end up finding other kinds of employment inside or even outside the academy, changing their goals completely--unless from the start they have had a broader sense of what professional opportunities exist. The word on the street is not wrong: it is tough to seek and get a job, and not everyone will succeed. But rumor is also misleading. The findings of the Broughton and Conlogue study corroborate the sense we got from extensive consultation that hiring committees value both research and teaching and that they are not looking for quantity of research alone. Quality matters, and so does a record that indicates promise in teaching as well as in scholarship. Even more important, the committees look for fit between the candidate and the department (and institution).

Over the last thirty years, what used to be called preprofessionalism has indeed become the norm of graduate preparation; that situation will not change in the foreseeable future. What can change and is clearly changing is the new sense that departments and institutions have of their responsibility to prepare graduate students for this reality. The committee feels strongly that equity and diversity demand that we not ignore this responsibility. As Robert A. Gross has articulated the problem, "It was one thing for female and minority Ph.D.'s to enter an arena from which they had previously been excluded, quite another to find their way through a maze of informal practices that was often impenetrable even to white males. The absence of female and minority role models on the faculty made that progress all the more difficult." But for all graduate students, professionalization happens inevitably; it is not intrinsically good or bad, productive or counterproductive. The process of consciously preparing to be a successful professional in our field is a part of that socialization, a part that can be managed effectively with the aid of appropriate information and guidance.

We trust that this report's overview and analysis will give both students and departments a more realistic picture of both the seriousness of the current employment situation and possible ways to deal with it. Its suggestions may take some of the pressure off graduate students and at the same time alert graduate departments to issues of equity they may not have considered before. The committee understands well the resistance on the part of some students to considering alternative careers: most entered their programs in the hope of becoming university and college teachers and scholars, as we ourselves did. Armed with more (and better) information, effective career mentoring and job placement advice, and a more balanced and fuller sense of what the profession means and is, PhDs in our field can take more control of their careers--and at an early stage of graduate school--informed not only about employment realities but about the full range of possible career opportunities. Those of us already in the academy must do our utmost to support them.

Linda Hutcheon, chair, University of Toronto
Wendy W. Allen, Saint Olaf College
Don Bialostosky, Penn State University, University Park
Anne Donadey, San Diego State University
Christopher M. Kuipers, University of California, Irvine
John B. Lyon, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh
Philip White, Centre College
Rafia Zafar, Washington University

Notes

1Two-year community colleges are the exception in not usually requiring a PhD or continuing research from their teachers.

2The MLA Conference on the Future of Doctoral Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 15-18 April 1999, acted as a forum for these debates.

Works Cited

Broughton, Walter, and William Conlogue. "What Search Committees Want." Profession 2001. New York: MLA, 2001. 39-51.

Curren, Erik D. "No Openings at This Time: Job Market Collapse and Graduate Education." Profession 94. New York: MLA, 1994. 54-61.

Final Report of the MLA Committee on Professional Employment. New York: MLA, 1997.

Gaff, Jerry G., Anne S. Pruitt-Logan, Richard A. Weibl et al. Building the Faculty We Need: Colleges and Universities Working Together. Washington: Assn. of Amer. Colls. and Univs., 2000.

Graff, Gerald. "Two Cheers for Professionalizing Graduate Students." PMLA 115 (2000): 1192-93.

Graff, Gerald, and Andrew Hoberek. "Opinion: Hiding It from the Kids (with Apologies to Simon and Garfunkel)." College English 62 (1999): 242-54.

Gross, Robert A. "From 'Old Boys' to Mentors." Chronicle of Higher Education, Career Network 28 Feb. 2002 <http://chronicle.com/jobs/2002/02/2002022801c.htm>.

Guillory, John. "Preprofessionalism: What Graduate Students Want." Profession 1996. New York: MLA, 1996. 91-99.

Levine, Felice J. "Professionalization, Certification, Labor Force: United States." International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Ed. Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Bates. Oxford: Elsevier, 2001.

May, Ernest R., and Dorothy G. Blaney. Careers for Humanists. New York: Academic, 1981.

NAGPS. "Overall Results, Language and Literature, English and American Programs." The 2000 National Doctoral Program Survey 17 Oct. 2001. 21 June 2002 <http://survey.nagps.org/compare.php?category=0&type=113>.

Nelson, Cary. "No Wine before Its Time: The Panic over Early Professionalization." Profession 2000. New York: MLA, 2000. 157-63.

Nerad, Maresi, and Joseph Cerny. "From Rumors to Facts: Career Outcomes of English PhDs: Results from the PhD's-Ten Years Later Study." Communicator 32.7 (1999): 1-12.

Robbins, Bruce. Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture. London: Verso, 1993.

Showalter, English, et al. The MLA Guide to the Job Search. New York: MLA, 1997.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. "The Academic Marketplace: Who Pays Its Costs?" MLA Newsletter 26.2 (1994): 3.

Weisbuch, Robert. "The Year of Full Employment." Chronicle of Higher Education 4 Sept. 2001 <http://chronicle.com/jobs/2001/09/2001090401c.htm>.

Wells, Kimberly Suedkamp, and Adam Fagan. "A Little Advice from 32,000 Graduate Students." Chronicle of Higher Education, Career Network 14 Jan. 2002 <http://chronicle.com/jobs/2002/01/2002011401c.htm>.

Wicke, Jennifer. "Publish and Profess: A New View of Professionalization." Profession 2001. New York: MLA, 2001. 52-57.


Appendix 1

Statistical Representations of the Job Search

An Explanatory Note

These models of the academic job search in English and foreign languages for the academic year 2001-02 were developed by the Modern Language Association. They are based on data, estimates, projections, and assumptions. The number of jobs available in four-year institutions rests on counts of announcements in the Job Information List and an MLA study of listings in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("New Information on the Number of Modern Language Positions Available in 1994-95," MLA Newsletter 28.1 [1996]: 2). The number of PhD recipients is a projection drawn from findings of the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates, which the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago conducts. The estimates of the number of people who continue to search for tenure-track assistant professor positions in the years after earning their degrees are based on a study of the career paths of those who earned PhDs in 1983, 1984, and 1985, which was conducted by Maresi Nerad and Joseph Cerny. Assumptions about the behavior of hiring departments (i.e., the number of positions departments actually fill) come from a study of search committees conducted by Walter Broughton and William Conlogue. The preference factor for hiring new PhDs rests on comments from MLA members and from members of the Association of Departments of English and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. Assumptions about the number of ABDs who seek employment are based on comments from the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession.

For the first time, these models make visible job seekers from both current and previous graduating classes of PhDs. Included in the new cohort are individuals who received doctorate degrees between July 2001 and 30 June 2002. The previous cohorts contain individuals who received doctorate degrees before 2001-02 and who continue to seek full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions in four-year institutions.

There are two models for the job search in foreign languages. One excludes statistics about the number of PhDs and advertised positions in the field of Spanish; the other includes Spanish. Because reports from the field indicate that the number of advertised jobs in the field of Spanish is greater than the number of available PhDs, the model that excludes information about Spanish is likely to provide a more accurate picture of the job search in the other languages. An accurate picture of the job search in Spanish cannot be developed just now, because information about the match between the jobs advertised and the PhDs seeking employment is not available. The MLA hopes to collect this information so that it can provide a model of the job search in Spanish.

Another point about these models deserves attention. Because information about the number of jobs available annually in two-year colleges is not available, the models focus on employment possibilities in four-year colleges and universities.

Although projections are always risky, these models seem reasonably reliable, in large part because of the consistency among the various studies that inform them. Inquiries about the models should be directed to David Laurence, director of English programs and ADE, at the MLA office.

 

The Academic Job Search in English: A Statistical Representation for 2001-02

     
Number
Percentage
Job Seekers
New cohort of PhD recipients
1,200
  Less new cohort members who accept postdoc positions
(   60)
  5
  Less new cohort members who do not pursue academic positions
(  120)
 10
    Total of new cohort who seek positions in four-year institutions
1,020
 85
Previous cohorts of PhD recipients
  From 1 year prior
  540
 45
  From 2 years prior
  360
 30
  From 3 years prior
  240
 20
  From 4 years prior
  160
 13
  From 5 years prior or earlier
  107
  9
    Total of previous cohorts who seek positions in four-year institutions
1,408
ABDs
  120
 10
Total number of job seekers
2,548

Positions Available in Four-Year Institutions
Listings in the 2001-02 MLA Job Information List
  Total number of positions listed in all four issues
2,000
  Full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions
1,100
 55
Comparable listings in the Chronicle of Higher Education not appearing in the JIL
  220
 17
Total number of full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions
1,320

Outcomes
Positions departments actually fill
1,162
 88
New cohort preference factor1
 10
Positions won by new cohort members
  505
 44
Positions won by members of previous cohorts and ABDs
  656
 56
PhDs in new cohort who do not obtain positions
  515
 50
PhDs of previous cohorts who do not obtain positions
  751
 53
Placement rate for new cohort
505 / 1,020
 50
Placement rate for all job seekers
(505 + 656) / 2,548
 46

This model of PhD placement covers only full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions in four-year colleges and universities. The new cohort includes individuals projected to receive PhD or DA degrees between 1 July 2001 and 30 June 2002. The ABD category includes all job seekers who do not receive a PhD or DA by 30 June 2002.
1A mathematical factor according new cohort members a slight advantage in the job search over degree recipients from previous cohorts. It is questionable how weighty an advantage new cohort members enjoy over members of previous cohorts. They may actually stand at some disadvantage.

 

The Academic Job Search in Foreign Languages, Excluding Spanish: A Statistical Representation for 2001-02

Number
Percentage
Job Seekers
New cohort of PhD recipients 423
  Less new cohort members who accept postdoc positions ( 13)   3
  Less new cohort members who do not pursue academic positions ( 42)  10
    Total of new cohort who seek positions in four-year institutions 368  87
Previous cohorts of PhD recipients
  From 1 year prior 190  45
  From 2 years prior 127  30
  From 3 years prior   85  20
  From 4 years prior 56  13
  From 5 years prior or earlier  38   9
    Total of previous cohorts who seek positions in four-year institutions  496
ABDs 42  10
Total number of job seekers 906

Positions Available in Four-Year Institutions
Listings in the 2001-02 MLA Job Information List
  Total number of positions listed in all four issues 700
  Full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions 385  55
Comparable listings in the Chronicle of Higher Education not appearing in the JIL  77  17
Total number of full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions 462

Outcomes
Positions departments actually fill 407  88
New cohort preference factor1  10
Positions won by new cohort members 185  45
Positions won by members of previous cohorts and ABDs 222  55
PhDs in new cohort who do not obtain positions 183  50
PhDs of previous cohorts who do not obtain positions 274  55
Placement rate for new cohort 185 / 368  50
Placement rate for all job seekers (185 + 222) / 906  45

This model of PhD placement covers only full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions in four-year colleges and universities. The new cohort includes individuals projected to receive PhD or DA degrees between 1 July 2001 and 30 June 2002. The ABD category includes all job seekers who do not receive a PhD or DA by 30 June 2002.
1A mathematical factor according new cohort members a slight advantage in the job search over degree recipients from previous cohorts.

 

The Academic Job Search in Foreign Languages, Including Spanish: A Statistical Representation for 2001-02

Number
Percentage
Job Seekers
New cohort of PhD recipients   700
  Less new cohort members who accept postdoc positions (   21)   3
  Less new cohort members who do not pursue academic positions (   70)  10
    Total of new cohort who seek positions in four-year institutions   609  87
Previous cohorts of PhD recipients
  From 1 year prior   245  35
  From 2 years prior   163  23
  From 3 years prior   109  16
  From 4 years prior    73  10
  From 5 years prior or earlier    48   7
    Total of previous cohorts who seek positions in four-year institutions   639
ABDs    70  10
Total number of job seekers 1,318

Positions Available in Four-Year Institutions
Listings in the 2001-02 MLA Job Information List
  Total number of positions listed in all four issues 1,400
  Full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions   770  55
Comparable listings in the Chronicle of Higher Education not appearing in the JIL   154  17
Total number of full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions   924

Outcomes
Positions departments actually fill   813  88
New cohort preference factor1  10
Positions won by new cohort members   343  42
Positions won by members of previous cohorts and ABDs   470  58
PhDs in new cohort who do not obtain positions   266  44
PhDs of previous cohorts who do not obtain positions   169  26
Placement rate for new cohort 343 / 609  56
Placement rate for all job seekers (343 + 470) / 1,318  62

This model of PhD placement covers only full-time tenure-track assistant professor positions in four-year colleges and universities. The new cohort includes individuals projected to receive PhD or DA degrees between 1 July 2001 and 30 June 2002. The ABD category includes all job seekers who do not receive a PhD or DA by 30 June 2002.
1A mathematical factor according new cohort members a slight advantage in the job search over degree recipients from previous cohorts.

Appendix 2

Useful Reading for Professional Preparation

Benjamin, Lois, ed. Black Women in the Academy: Promises and Perils. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1997.

Boice, Robert. Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus. Boston: Allyn, 2000.

------. The New Faculty Member: Supporting and Fostering Professional Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.

Caplan, Paula J. Lifting a Ton of Feathers: A Woman's Guide for Surviving in the Academic World. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.

Collins, Lynn H., Joan C. Chrisler, and Kathryn Quina, eds. Arming Athena: Career Strategies for Women in Academe. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1998.

DeNeef, A. Leigh, and Craufurd D. Goodwin, eds. The Academic's Handbook. 2nd ed. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Gainen, Joanne, and Robert Boice, eds. Building a Diverse Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Harman, Eleanor, and Ian Montagnes, eds. The Thesis and the Book. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1976.

Harvey, William B., and James Valadez, eds. Creating and Maintaining a Diverse Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

Henson, Kenneth T. Writing for Professional Publication: Keys to Academic and Business Success. Boston: Allyn, 1999.

Jarvis, D. K. Junior Faculty Development: A Handbook. New York: MLA, 1991.

Schoenfeld, A. Clay, and Robert Magnan. Mentor in a Manual: Climbing the Academic Ladder to Tenure. 2nd ed. Madison: Magna, 1994.

Smedley, Christine S., et al. Getting Your Book Published. Newbury Park: Sage, 1993.

Thyer, Bruce A. Successful Publishing in Scholarly Journals. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994.

Toth, Emily. Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1997.

Turner, Caroline Sotello Viernes, and Samuel L. Myers, Jr., eds. Faculty of Color in Academe: Bittersweet Success. Boston: Allyn, 2000.

Whicker, Marcia Lynn, Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld, and Ruth Ann Strickland. Getting Tenure. Newbury Park: Sage, 1993.

Web Sites (all were accessed 3 June 2002)

ADE and ADFL Online Job Counseling. MLA. <http://www.mla.org/resources/jil/job_counseling.htm>.

The Humanities at Work. Woodrow Wilson Natl. Fellowship Foundation. <http://www.woodrow.org/about/past.php/>.

MLA Job Information List. MLA. <http://www.mla.org/jil>.

Re-envisioning the Ph.D.: Ph.D. Resources. U of Washington. <http://www.grad.washington.edu/envision/phd/index.html>.

Reports and Links from the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession. <http://www.mla.org/resources/documents/comm_grad>

Specific Material on the Job Search

Bugliani, Ann. "The MLA Job Interview: What Candidates Should Know." ADFL Bulletin 24.1 (1992): 38-39.

Golde, Chris M. "After the Offer, before the Deal: Negotiating a First Academic Job." Academe Jan.-Feb. 1999: 44-49.

Heiberger, Mary Morris, and Julia Miller Vick. The Academic Job Search Handbook. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2001.

Kronenfeld, Jennie Jacobs, and Marcia Lynn Whicker. Getting an Academic Job. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1997.

Rose, Suzanna, and Mona J. E. Danner. "Money Matters: The Art of Negotiation for Women Faculty." Collins, Chrisler, and Quina 157-86.

Showalter, English, et al. The MLA Guide to the Job Search. New York: MLA, 1997.

Thomas, Trudelle. "Demystifying the Job Search: A Guide for Candidates." College Composition and Communication 40 (1989): 312-27.

 

 
© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 05/30/2013.