The Academic Job Market Is Bad for All of Us

Prestige hierarchies, inequities, and narrowing disciplines are taking a toll on the job market and all of higher education.

By Ted I. K. Youn


Nearly 1 million full- and part-time faculty members teach at some 3,400 colleges and universities in the United States.1 At some point, all of these faculty members have participated in the academic labor market as a buyer or a seller. Social scientists often characterize the higher education market as inefficient and idiosyncratic. Yet conventional rules governing terms of exchange are inappropriate and unworkable in academia. In this article, I examine the structure of the U.S. higher education market and explore how major shifts in it over the past half century have increased inequality and stratification among faculty members and institutions.

Typically, an employer aims to offer a wage coinciding with the level of skill an employee will bring to the productive process, and an exchange takes place between seller and buyer to determine the appropriate wage. In the academic market, however, the major currency is prestige. The employing institution seeks to secure the most prestigious individuals who are recommended by familiar and reliable sources. For faculty members, it is more vital to secure an appointment in a prestigious institution than it is to secure a higher wage. Prestige is thus an important source of professional reward.

Keeping this point in mind and looking at changes in the higher education job market since the mid-twentieth century help one understand how it has become increasingly fractured and differentiated by a hierarchy of institutional categories and ever-narrowing disciplinary involvements—which makes for different professional networks among different categories of faculty, different tasks and conditions of work and reward, and very different career paths.

Boom and Bust

After World War II, enrollments surged when returning soldiers enrolled in colleges and universities, and the enrollment rate continued to move steadily upward throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, with the baby boom period of increased birth rates. The launching by the Soviet Union of the satellite Sputnik in 1957 contributed to interest in higher education and stimulated expanded support for it by the U.S. government, especially for graduate education and major research universities. Between 1957 and 1967, higher education enrollments grew at an average of 9 percent annually, while research funding of universities grew nearly 10 percent a year in real terms.

In the late 1970s, however, an excess of PhDs and stagnating enrollment led to what is commonly known as the “new depression” in higher education. Echoing public anxieties about an oversupply of educated citizens, Harvard economist Richard B. Freeman published The Over Educated American in 1976, expressing frustration about the employment prospects of highly educated Americans.

Perhaps one of the most important books on academic labor markets published in this period was Allan Cartter’s 1976 book, Ph.D.’s and the Academic Labor Market, in which he predicted that an oversupply of highly specialized talent would severely depress academic job markets in the 1980s and seriously affect the future of the U.S. economy. In fact, the large expansion of higher education enrollments in the 1960s and the ensuing contraction did have some unintended effects on the academic system.

In response to the “new depression,” the number of doctorates awarded in the 1980s by leading universities declined almost as rapidly as numbers had risen in the mid-1960s. In their 1989 book, Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply, William G. Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa described a “roller-coaster” pattern of expansion and contraction in many fields of graduate education in the 1980s. In an article in the January 22, 1989, issue of the New York Times Magazine, Michael Sovern, president of Columbia University, worried about the future ability of major U.S. universities to replace outstanding faculty. And when the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation sponsored a meeting of leaders of American higher education in spring 1988, concern about PhD shortages was reportedly the most pressing issue for participants. By the mid-1990s, however, it had become clear that such shortages had not materialized, and many observers called for a more systematic assessment of the academic market, a need that Bowen and Sosa’s book had foreseen.

Higher education gradually recovered from the enrollment depression; since the mid-1990s, undergraduate enrollments have even increased modestly. Still, most observers agree that an expansion of higher education on the scale experienced in the 1960s is unlikely to recur in the next several decades.

For faculty, the fluctuations in enrollment produced greater variation in demand for their services than any other factor, such as the changing rate of retirement. The replacement rate among faculty, or the rate at which they exit the university, including by retirement, has not fluctuated much over the last decade. Moreover, as Bowen and Sosa concluded in their 1989 book, the replacement component of demand will probably not change appreciably through the first decade of this century.

More than 90 percent of all faculty vacancies are created by replacements, including retirements. Although there are some variations among institutional categories (research universities versus liberal arts college, for example), the overall rate of replacement seems to be steady. As stated above, fears in the late 1980s and early 1990s that colleges and universities would face a massive wave of faculty retirements and ensuing faculty shortages were unfounded. Perhaps the most significant change has been that many of the vacancies left by retirees seem to have been filled by part-time or non-tenure-track faculty. Colleges facing budgetary difficulties often leave vacated faculty positions unfilled, and many institutions postponed recruitment plans in the late 1980s.

Out of Balance

On the demand side, enrollment shifts caused by a decrease in interest among undergraduates in studying the arts and sciences between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s did not lead to a comparable drop in faculty positions in those fields. Combined with increased interest in preprofessional courses of study, this decline caused serious imbalances in the distribution of faculty load, especially among less selective liberal arts colleges (the Liberal Arts II category of the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education). For example, many faculty members in English departments found themselves teaching fewer upper-level courses and more introductory or required general education courses in which large numbers of students must enroll.

Bowen and Sosa point out in Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences that between 1971 and 1985, the share of degrees conferred in the arts and sciences declined from 40 to 25 percent. Recent evidence suggests a slow recovery in arts and sciences enrollments, but problems of imbalance will probably continue to affect the humanities more than
other fields. More students are now inclined to enroll in preprofessional courses than in traditional humanities courses, including literature and modern languages.

Between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, the demand for new faculty shifted noticeably among academic fields. Rapid growth occurred in areas such as computer science, management, and engineering at the same time that the market in humanities and the social sciences was weakening. These changes widened wage differentials among academic disciplines, leading to higher wages in technical fields such as computer science, management, economics, and engineering.

Although interest in such fields will probably remain high among undergraduates, the recent supply of new doctorates is making some notable changes in higher education and the academic profession. The 1993 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, published by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, reports that the 172,000 new faculty members hired between 1986 and 1992 (constituting a third of full-time faculty in higher education) are more diverse demographically than the previous generation. Specifically, the data show an increased share of women and ethnic minority groups. Compared with the preceding generation, the new entrants also include more non-U.S.-born faculty, more faculty from diverse educational backgrounds, and more faculty who have had previous careers.

More important, many new faculty members are employed in fields other than the traditional arts and sciences, especially outside leading research universities and selective liberal arts colleges. PhDs in English literature, for example, are now hired to teach journalism and technical writing in professional schools, while PhDs in psychology teach human resources management in business schools. This general trend will likely continue.

In addition, although most faculty still spend more time teaching than doing research, the new generation of doctorates seems more oriented toward research than their senior counterparts, according to The New Academic Generation: A Profession in Transition, a 1998 book by Martin J. Finkelstein, Robert K. Seal, and Jack Schuster. National surveys report a growing emphasis on research even among new PhDs employed in comprehensive colleges and universities, where teaching requirements are typically much heavier than at research universities or selective liberal arts colleges. Why has this happened? It has occurred partly because the oversupply of PhDs in the 1980s raised expectations for scholarship by new faculty members. Opportunities for academic promotion among untenured faculty have declined substantially since the 1980s across all types of institutions, and the length of time faculty must wait for promotion has increased, elevating the level of competition.

In Academic Labor Supply, published in 1990, economist Ronald G. Ehrenberg suggests that adjustments had begun to occur on the supply side. Slowly but steadily, for example, more arts and sciences PhDs have become available in job markets. Such supply-side adjustments became possible as enrollments steadily increased. Although no solid data are available, William G. Bowen and Neil L. Rudenstine report in their 1991 book, In Pursuit of the PhD, evidence of a shortening of the average time spent to obtain a degree among leading graduate training institutions and a small but steady increase in the completion rate of PhDs among major research institutions.

Different Rules

Economic studies of labor markets usually focus on factors affecting adjustments in supply and demand and look at wages as a principal mechanism for reconciling supply and demand. In academic markets, however, wages are typically inflexible and suppressed—they do not respond to change in supply and demand but are set instead by many organizational conditions and structural constraints, such as pressure to reduce budgets at public universities. How have the cycles of change discussed in this article affected individual careers and opportunities in the academic system? What difference have these cycles made for the nature of the academic profession?

For one thing, as most of us know from our own experience, the number of contingent positions, or part- and full-time non-tenure-track appointments, has risen dramatically over the past two decades. Although it is difficult to document the precise proportion of part-time faculty members, estimates from various sources range from 30 to 46 percent of the American college and university teaching faculty. Financial uncertainties in a rapidly changing environment may have influenced many institutions to recruit more contingent faculty to deal with increased demand. In any case, the career path for contingent faculty members differs from that of their tenure-track colleagues, and they are subject to a different set of administrative rules. Below I discuss other changes affecting individual faculty careers and the academic profession.

Downward mobility through the prestige hierarchy. In academic markets, institutional prestige is an important source of exchange. Both buyers and sellers of academic services attempt to maximize its value. Faculty mentorship and the prestige of the graduate training institution (two variables that are highly correlated) help to determine the location of initial employment and later career success in academia. Typically, the higher the prestige of the institution at which the PhD is earned, the greater the likelihood that a new graduate from that institution will be recruited by a handful of similarly prestigious universities or colleges. As enrollment growth declined, however, so did the likelihood of such recruitment. In a period of oversupply, new PhDs trickle down through the hierarchy of prestige and find employment at institutions that are less prestigious than the ones at which they trained.

Greater balkanization of academic labor markets. Academic labor markets are partitioned according to whether faculty engage mainly in research, research and teaching, or primarily teaching. The mix of tasks influences employment mobility and rewards. For example, entry into a career dominated by undergraduate teaching would probably limit one’s chance of a later research career at a research university. A career as a part-time faculty member would offer different forms of rewards and career trajectories. Varying structural factors and widening reward gaps have increased this balkanization of the academic labor market over the past four decades and, in doing so, generated greater inequality in higher education.

Greater differentiation of career lines. An advancing division of labor usually leads to greater segmentation in professional careers. In higher education, academic subfields and institutional locations have come to determine career lines. Increasingly, these lines have become sharper. For example, the development of molecular biology established a special labor market in which molecular biologists look for jobs at research universities and four-year institutions; a special labor market leading to a different career line exists for those trained to teach technical writing in two-year colleges.

Mobility patterns from doctoral origin to the first job show no evidence that prior research productivity affects the prestige of the first job. As Paul Alison and J. Scott Long reported in 1987 in the American Sociological Review, after the first job, the major determinants of the prestige of the destination institution are the prestige of the doctoral institution and the prior job and the number of publications in the six years before the move. Although the issue of mobility is complex, evidence suggests that more faculty move to less prestigious institutions than to more prestigious institutions after the first job. In a tight labor market, it makes sense that more movers would move to less prestigious jobs. So in a sluggish period, one could probably expect a general downward movement in career lines.

Is it inevitable that market shifts must shape the academic profession? Taking a longer view, how might the evolution of markets affect the future of higher education? Although it may be difficult to establish a direct connection between cycles of change in academic markets and the current state of the academic profession, we are clearly seeing some dramatic transformations in the academic profession. Research and specialized scholarship remain tied to prestige and power at the top of the hierarchy. At the bottom of the hierarchy, academics must adjust to the demands of a wide variety of students at open-door institutions and ever-increasing local requirements. Between these two extremes are vastly different opportunities for individual achievement.

Social inequality is often examined through the framework of class structure or the study of power and privilege. What I hope to suggest in this article is a new way to understand in-equality, one that focuses on how the structure of the academic labor market has divided faculty careers and institutions in U.S. higher education.