The Short Version
In the past few months a number of grad students, post-docs, and early-career faculty have asked me about the US academic job market during the Great Recession. They are rightly horrified by the likely job prospects they face in the coming few years. Covid-19 will be different, no doubt, but maybe the Great Recession can shed a little light.
The short version is it won’t be good. The next few years will be truly terrible. At some point things will improve, but I have no doubt they will be permanently worse post-virus. If you have doubts, just ask the faculty at the University of Akron (they’ve announced layoffs for over 20% of their faculty) or Concordia University in Portland (they’ve closed up shop completely).
I hate to bum you out, but here at DoW we believe in giving folks the straight dope. An academic job is great, but they’ll be harder to come by and look different for the foreseeable future.
If you haven’t before, now is the time to start investigating non-academic career options. There are lots of interesting jobs out there. Academia isn’t the only game in town.
I was lucky to get my tenure track position in 2007. Lots of friends were on the job market in 2008-2010 and I was involved with our department’s hiring during those years. I had a front-row seat to the Great Recession’s effects on the academic job market. Everything I say here will be about the United States. You’ll have to judge for yourself how much it translates to elsewhere.
For people who haven’t gone through the academic job cycle, you should know a little about the typical timeline for tenure track positions. This will vary by field, by institution, and even by the kind of position being filled. Even with this variation, the drawn-out nature of academic hiring becomes particularly important when judging the short- and medium-term effects of external events on faculty hiring.
The precise timeline varies by field and university, but they all follow roughly the same track. Sometime in the spring, the department submits a request to hire someone to start the fall of the following year (yes, more than a year in the future!). The position is approved in the summer or early fall and in the fall the job is advertised and applications are received. Depending on the vagaries of the field, the campus interviews could happen as early as mid-to-late fall semester, or as late as mid-to-late spring semester. Offers are made, negotiations occur, and when it is all said and done the new faculty member has signed on the dotted line by sometime in the spring semester and shows up before the start of the fall semester.
The Great Recession: Anecdata
My recollection of the academic job market during the Great Recession was that it went bad gradually and then suddenly. In spring and summer of 2007, it was increasingly clear the US economy was headed into a recession. University budgets would inevitably face cuts, but it wasn’t obvious how big the hit would become. In a not-so-serious recession, a university might go through it without too much pain. Indeed, historically, during recessions enrollments tend to go up as students stay in college rather than face bleak job prospects. The number of tenure-track job postings in my field in fall 2007 looked healthy.
In fall 2007 and winter 2008, that all started to change. There were runs on banks, wall street bailouts, and the economy was headed into a terrifying dive. Administrators could see the writing on the wall. In winter and spring of 2008 those positions advertised in the fall were being frozen left and right. While in principle a position can also be unfrozen, its much more likely to be canceled or replaced with a cheaper, temporary position.
I knew people who did on campus interviews, only to later be told that the position was now frozen. Suddenly it seemed like jobs were evaporating into thin air. People in their last year of graduate school, a post-doc, or visiting position were now scrambling for a job.
And people knew the next year would be no better. Folks on the market had mentors who clued them in the job market cycle. Everyone could see university administrators were not going to approve faculty hiring requests submitted in spring 2008 if they could possibly avoid it. Those of us with a tenure-track position felt lucky to hae dodged the guillotine.
For the next several years the job market was really tight. There were lots of excellent candidates who wanted an academic job but couldn’t get one. Many folks took temporary position after temporary position, trying to hang in there in the hopes things would get better. Many excellent people who would have been highly desirable a few years earlier scraped by and eventually moved on to non-academic jobs.
The Great Recession: Aftermath
Eventually, the market improved, but it was permanently worse than before. Even as the jobs dried up, departments kept cranking out Ph.D.s. The folks who found refuge in temporary positions continued to build up their teaching and research credentials. Budgetary moves to cover teaching with temporary positions, untenured teaching-only faculty, adjuncts, and the like became permanent new realities.
Altogether, the Great Recession ratcheted up the competition and expectations for a tenure-track faculty hire. The publications and teaching experience which would have gotten you hired in 2007 might well not even get you on the shortlist of candidates considered for a campus interview. This is still true today. The people who get onto our shortlist for campus interviews have a much stronger track record compared to me and my compatriots in 2007.The academic job market post-Great Recession? There are fewer tenure-track jobs, the same or more candidates, and the expectations are higher. Covid-19, like nearly all sequels, will be the same except worse in every possible way. Click To Tweet
That was what I saw happen, anyway. You can hope that my experience was atypical. Let’s look at the data.
The Great Recession: Data
Let’s examine the number of faculty positions advertised with the American Historical Society and the number of history Ph.D.s given:
The graph is borrowed from this article on historians.org. Your field will have different dynamics but I bet it’s not so different. Most professional organizations collect this sort of data. If you poke around you should be able to find similar information about your field.
In this case, the orange line is the number of history Ph.D.’s granted per year. The blue line is the number of jobs advertised with the American Historical Association. That won’t be all jobs, of course, but it is an apples-to-apples comparison year over year and tells us the trends of the overall job market in academic history.
As you see, there was a pretty steady climb in the 1990s and 2000s. Old farts were retiring, most universities had rising enrollments, and it seemed like things were slowly heading back to the good ol’ days (if they ever existed).
When the Great Recession hit, the number of available jobs jumped off a cliff. The job market has since recovered a bit but is still below where it was in the 1990s. Worse, the number of PhDs granted each year continues to climb! The competition gets ever stiffer for fewer and fewer jobs.
And don’t believe people who tell you that it’ll get better. It had been a decade since the Great Recession and history still is a disaster. Can you wait a decade or more hoping for things to turn around?
In my field (a non-lab science), the recovery was a bit better. We didn’t have the second drop-off in 2012 like history. But our job numbers are still well below the pre-Great Recession peak, and the number of Ph.D.s hasn’t dropped.
If you are in finance, engineering, computer science, or something else with a vibrant job market for Ph.D.s in industry, the story might be different. But for those of us who think of academia as their main source of employment, the situation is already bleak.
What About Post-Covid-19?
Covid-19 and the Great Recession are different beasts. For universities, the Great Recession was mainly an economic problem. Their budgets were hit hard as tax revenues went down, endowments shrank, and parents and donors were less able to write the big checks.
Covid-19 will be another body blow to university budgets. This time, however, it seems to be hitting enrollments, as well. And to serve the students who do enroll requires big investments in IT and in health and safety equipment for classrooms, dorms, and across campus.
Lots of smaller colleges were already on the ropes and a loss of enrollment and donations will be fatal. A number of colleges have closed, and many more will follow in the next couple of years. The regional public schools will also be hit hard. Politicians will no doubt press for “efficiencies” and the smaller and less prestigious schools will struggle to make the case they should be spared.
The bigger public and private schools as well as the wealthier small schools will muddle through. But they, too, will be hit hard. In the name of being creative and pinching budgets, universities will accelerate their use of online courses, non-tenure track teaching faculty, adjuncts, and the like.
One bit of good news is that it’s now obvious to everyone that online teaching is not at all close to replacing in-person teaching (it’s coming, but not just yet). A few years ago MOOC’s, software-based “self-instruction”, and the like were all the rage. Proponents claimed we were on the verge of students being able to learn easily and cheaply at their own computer for pennies. Instructors knew this was a pipe dream. Spring 2020 made this clear to everyone else. Human-to-human is going to be the main form of teaching for awhile yet.
The next few years are going to be really rough. I’m afraid it’s not going to get much better after that, either. When I talk with folks heading into the job market these days, I encourage them to start thinking about a Plan B.