Benton’s “Dodging the Anvil” and Reinventing What You Can Do With an English PhD

Thomas H. Benton (pen name for William Pannapacker) wrote a real gem on The Chronicle’s website on January 4, 2010 titled, “Dodging the Anvil” (i.e., the anvil of doom already and always falling on the poor head of Wily E. Coyote). The article is about the continuing horror of humanities graduate students to find gainful employment within the academy. He writes:

Even with some cyclic ups and downs, following the U.S. economy, the academic job market has been in a depression since the early 1970s, and—just as we were beginning to accept that things were not going to improve—we are now confronted with an even more desperate situation for the humanities job seeker. If we regard the Modern Language Associations Job Information List as representative of the humanities, then we are seeing the most rapid decline in advertised positions since the MLA started keeping records, 34 years ago “MLA Newsletter,” Winter 2009. Last year, at the beginning of the recession, the number of positions advertised in English declined by 24.4 percent; this year it is down by an additional 40 percent. Last year foreign-language positions were down 27 percent; this year they are down by an additional 52 percent.

via Dodging the Anvil – Advice – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This was a year and a half ago, and I suspect that things are as bad or worse now. Benton works through the difficulties of getting a job, and he also offers a few suggestions about how to obtain a job despite the mess that things are in now. However, the suggestions that he makes are obvious–be the best from the best school and have the best luck–something that he readily admits. Things are just that bad right now.

Benton does wonder at the end of the piece about the possibilities of finding employment outside of the academy. He thinks that it might be high-time for humanities PhDs to re-invent themselves for a variety of jobs. This is something that I have already had some experience with a graduate of Georgia Tech with the mystifying, “B.S. in Science, Technology, in Culture.” It was certainly a rigorous and preparatory program, but I had to devise my own ways to tell others about what I did there and how it prepared me for the programs that I applied for afterwards.

Now, it might be necessary for many of us to consider how we might do a similar thing with English Literature PhDs in order to work at many different kinds of jobs. I believe that this will be extremely difficult in its own right, because many employers will be afraid of hiring someone with such a high terminal degree for a job that on the surface does not need someone with that kind of training. It might come down to other work that PhD holders have done (e.g., blogging, non-academic writing, internships, tangible self-employment that demonstrates other skills, etc.).

Personally, I am still in this game for the long haul to be a professor, but the terrible job reports are keeping me painfully aware of the necessity of having a plan b, c, d, . . . etc.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.