- The academic job market has been in a sharp decline for over 40 years.
- In the near future, we may begin to see this decline stabilize, and even manifest into growing numbers of academic jobs.
- The primary problem in academic work is the unavailability of well-paid and secure work.
One of the primary reasons students go to graduate school is in the pursuit of an academic career of teaching and research.
Over the past several decades, the job market for academic jobs of this sort became perilous. To what extent will such perilousness persist into the future? Will it worsen, or will new circumstances arise that increase the odds of acquiring work?
And perhaps most importantly: how did things get so bad?
How did the academic market become so precarious?
The precariousness of the academic job market did not occur overnight. Particularly with humanities degrees, it has been referred to as an “unfolding catastrophe.”
According to the New York Times, in 1995, 930,000 people were employed as college professors, and from those employees, roughly 400,000 either were tenured or on track to obtain tenure.
A decline in tenured professors and tenure-track positions began slowly in the 1970s, speeding up in the 1990s when enrollment rates exponentially increased. This required universities to hire more professors.
However, most of these new positions were, and now, still are, adjunct positions, which are low in job security and which pay significantly less than their counterpart tenure-track positions.
For colleges, it was simply cheaper to opt for hiring more contingent employees, as opposed to full-time professors whose requirements for employment are far more costly.
In 1994, a new federal law outlawed the widespread practice of requiring professors to retire at age 70. The effects of this accumulated as the baby boom generation aged. The oldest tenured boomers turned 70 in 2016, just in time to not retire and not create room for millennials hitting the job market with newly minted Ph.D.s. (New York Times)
Likewise, despite how perilous the academic job market has become, student enrollment in graduate programs designed for obtaining academic work has been steadily increasing for decades.
The current state of the academic job market is one where too many people are competing for too few positions. And, unfortunately, most of these positions are not secure and pay very little relative to the high skills required for success in academic work.
In addition, job losses and pay cuts are commonplace in academic work, adding drearily to such perilousness.
What will the future of academic work be like?
According to Inside Higher Ed, “In today’s campus economy, and into the foreseeable future, contingent faculty positions in the humanities – adjunct appointments and short-term contractual jobs – will be the norm.”
Within academia, the general consensus is that the job market has been horrible for years, and because of that, there’s no reason to believe things will improve in the future.
However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, things might not be this simple. Just because something is perilous currently does not mean that it will be forever.
According to BLS, postsecondary teaching jobs are actually expected to grow at a faster rate than most jobs from now until 2030. Roughly 156,700 jobs will be added, estimating a 10-year occupational growth rate of 12 percent.
Now, by itself, this doesn’t change the primary problem in academic work, which isn’t the unavailability of work, but the unavailability of well-paid and secure work.
This is likely to change over the next 10 years. As the BLS states, most of the people in tenured positions will begin leaving those positions, either because they will retire, enter new occupations, or they will pass away.
The BLS’s occupational growth rate for postsecondary educators is not, by necessity, going to only be for adjunct positions. With baby boomers leaving the academic workforce, we may see an increased demand for tenure-track positions in academia in the near future.
This is not a guarantee. Rather, it is a good reason to reduce the all-too-common pessimism that accompanies the pursuit of academic work.
In light of the uncertainty surrounding academia’s future and the guarantee of continued enrollment in graduate programs, graduate schools are beginning to develop programs to account for the potential for unemployment after 5-7 years of intensive skill-building.
For instance, CareerWell is a program offered to graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill “to equip students with the key business skills and professional networks that are needed to launch successful careers in a rapidly changing labor market, heighten their job security and advance their career prospects.”
Other institutions of higher education offer comparable programs or workshops, such as New York University, and University of Pennsylvania.
Hence, while academic jobs themselves may only see either no or merely slight improvements over time, an academic route for its own sake can still lead to developing the right skills for the future of work if you seek out the right resources, such as these programs and workshops.
The academic job market has been in a sharp decline for over 40 years. However, in the near future, we may begin to see this decline stabilize, and even manifest into growing numbers of academic jobs.
Academic workers are wise in offering future of work programs and workshops on the occasion that this does not occur. Students should feel less pessimistic due to the BLS’s positive projection on post-secondary teaching jobs, but, they would still be wise to take advantage of university future of work programs.
Given the historically perilous nature of the academic job market, one statistical projection is not enough to justify saying that the academic job market will heal.