Quit Lit, the loose collection of ‘On Leaving Academia’ essays written over the last forty years, concerned the imbalance in the academic job markets, especially in the humanities and social sciences, after the post-war Golden Age ended, leaving too many PhDs chasing too few faculty openings.
The earliest examples appeared in the mid-70s, when demand for new professors suddenly went slack. One of the first examples of Quit Lit, The New Academic Hustle: Marketing A PhD
, opens with this grim assessment:
In 1970, there were approximately 900 new academic slots for 585 PhDs in sociology. But by 1975, 501 new PhDs were competing for approximately 250 jobs. […] The 1970s have produced “the worst job market for PhDs in American academic history.”
The piece, written in 1977, details the new travails and humiliations of the job market, but concludes by recommending universities offer more post-doctoral positions, on the assumption that newly minted PhDs just needed to shelter in place until the hiring imbalance cleared up.
Most early Quit Lit was like this. It was not yet clear that the Golden Age had ended – it was not yet clear that the Golden Age was merely an age, in fact. Constantly rising demand had been the norm for as long as anyone could remember, so it was easy to assume the bounteous hiring climate would eventually return. And because Quit Lit was usually written by people who didn’t get those jobs, the complaints could be (and frequently were) written off as sour grapes.
The first big change in the genre came with William Pannapacker’s So You Want to Go to Grad School?
, in 2003. Pannapacker (writing under the pseudonym Thomas Hart Benton) insisted that the supply of faculty jobs would never
again rise to meet demand, so undergraduates interested in the humanities should be advised not to go to grad school, period, since there would be no worthwhile jobs for them after.
It pains me to tell some of my best students that the structure of employment in the academy has been hidden from them – that many faculty members make less than fast-food workers and have no health benefits.
Pannapacker’s essay went off like a bomb. After 25 years of Quit Lit writers insisting, with increasing impatience, that hiring needed to return to normal, Pannapacker said the mismatch between supply and demand wasn’t a problem. It was just a fact. Since Pannapacker was employed as a professor, his views couldn’t be written off as sour grapes. He kept writing essays on the same theme for years after, and publishing them in The Chronicle of Higher Education, house organ of elite academia.
As conventional wisdom shifted, however slightly, from treating scarcity of professorships like a crisis to treating it like the new normal, Quit Lit increasingly included advice for alt.ac (alternatives to academic) careers, and more calls for graduate schools to explicitly prepare students for jobs outside academia. These exhortations had only limited success, and the continued mismatch between hopeful rhetoric and helpless PhDs was the subject of the next big essay – and for my money, the definitive Quit Lit piece – Rebecca Schuman’s Thesis Hatement
Subtitled “Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor”, the author doubles down on Pannapacker’s thesis, palpably enraged:
Don’t do it. Just don’t. I deeply regret going to graduate school […] I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.
What sets Thesis Hatement apart, in addition to being blisteringly well-written, is that Schuman was writing after the 2008 financial collapse, and after Occupy Wall Street had put the figure of the indebted college grad on the national stage. Her piece appeared in Slate, a further step towards the public awareness of the economic realities of academic employment.
Schuman had also read Pannapacker:
Other well-meaning academics have already attempted to warn you, the best-known screed in this subgenre being William Pannapacker’s Graduate School in the Humanities? Just Don’t Go
. But this convinced no one. It certainly didn’t convince me!
Because Schuman had to contend with the ineffectiveness earlier warnings had on her, it gave her own offering a Cassandra-like urgency.
The central thesis of this newsletter is that the academy undergoes constant, incremental transformation. It looks like stasis to outsiders, but things do change, and in this case, the accumulated admonitions of Quit Lit began to convince students that tenured jobs would never again be abundant.
The next important piece of Quit Lit – and to my eye, the piece that both completes and ends the genre – was Erin Bartram’s 2018 essay The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind
. As the title suggests, the theme is not rage at the nature of academic employment, but grief that she had tried to find an academic position and didn’t.
The grief she writes about so movingly is what is left after dealing with the simple facts of her circumstance after her last shot at a tenured job fails:
I discussed it with non-academic friends, explaining over and over again that yes, this is the way my field works, and no, it wasn’t surprising or shocking to me, and no, I won’t be able to “come back” later, at least in the way that I’d want to, and yes, this was probably what was always going to happen.
When I say that The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind ended Quit Lit as a genre, I don’t mean there will be no more Farewell to All That essays. (Many more have appeared since 2018, in fact.) Instead, I mean that the whole gamut of opinions has now been expressed.
It took 40 years, between the publication of New Academic Hustle and Sublimated Grief, for the weak job market to become so familiar that Bertram, seeing her beautiful dream fail, could bluntly declare that this is how academic hiring works, that that having a PhD but no job wasn’t surprising or shocking, that “this was probably what was always going to happen.” When you internalize that degree of uncertainty before even starting out, the principal emotion left is not anger but sorrow.
There are three possible approaches to an imbalanced job market.
For several decades, Plan A, at least as far as faculty was concerned, was to increase supply. If there were not enough good academic jobs, then the nation’s colleges and universities just needed to fix that unfortunate situation. This did not happen.
Some of the blow after 1975 could have been cushioned if tenured faculty had returned to smaller salaries and larger teaching loads, in order to share limited resources more broadly. Instead, the rise of contract faculty spared the tenured from reductions in job quality. (Whether, in another timeline, tenured faculty might have expressed solidarity with contract faculty depends on your view of historical contingency.)
Plan B is reducing demand: advising students not to go to graduate school, reducing the number of PhDs issued. This would obviously be effective, but is still regarded with horror in some quarters. In an ironic twist, Rebecca Shuman, shortly after Thesis Hatement, wrote Thinning the PhD Herd
, about Johns Hopkins’ plan to increase graduate stipends in its PhD programs by reducing the number of candidates they accepted.
Shuman, herself only recently convinced of the realities of supply and demand in the academic market, is puzzled that some of the greatest objections to the plan came from the students themselves. They did not want more material support at the expense of membership in a shrinking industry – they wanted the size of their departments to be unrelated to later demand for their services.
Which brings me to Plan C, being honest with the students. Though academics, who have often been in learning institutions without pause from the age of 5, sometimes portray the precariousness of non-tenured jobs as unique injustices, there are whole sectors of the economy that require serious training and have far more capricious job markets. My first career was as a theater artist, and when I told my politely horrified parents that’s what I wanted to do with my life, they were the first of several people to give me a talk whose expression varied but whose content was always “The world doesn’t owe you a living.”
I heard that continuously while I was studying. I still remember Ming Cho Lee, my set design instructor, giving us an impassioned lecture about Jo Mielziner, easily the most famous designer of his day. Ming wanted us to know that after a long and storied career, people’s tastes had changed in the ‘60s, and Mielziner stopped getting work. You could tell Ming considered this outcome a sin and a shame, but he needed us, his adoring students, to understand what we were signing up for. His message was not “We need to reform American theater so all designers work.” His message was, quite literally, “That’s showbiz.”
In terms of career outcomes, signing up for a history PhD is now closer to enrolling in drama school than enrolling in law school. As Pannapacker recommended 20 years ago, every professor who knows a bright undergraduate heading into a shrinking academic market should at least make sure that kid knows the world doesn’t owe them a living.
Plan B and Plan C are not incompatible – it is possible to both reduce PhD programs and warn students about the market. Both B and C, though, are incompatible with Plan A. If you think someone is coming to save you, sitting tight is a good option. Collectively, higher education, and especially fields where grad school mainly trains you to be a professor, have been sitting tight for a long time. We cannot even have a conversation about academic employment until it becomes widely understood that no one is coming to save us.
For three centuries, academic jobs in America were both lousy and rare. In an agricultural nation, they were a consolation prize for the terminally bookish, paying little and often requiring a move to a small town to join a new college long on hope but short on assets.
Then, after World War Two, academic jobs got good – pay went up, teaching load went down, students and research dollars flooded in. As brains started to be worth more than brawn, being an egghead even got a little classy. Faculty jobs also got uncharacteristically plentiful; between 1960 and 1970, more faculty lines were added
than had been added between 1636 and 1959.
In that brief, beneficent time, getting an academic job was a matter of doing the work. There were still star students in the country’s PhD programs, but the difference between being brilliant and productive versus being adequate and effective merely marked the difference between being hired at Fancy Pants College, MA versus a satellite campus of Oklabama State. That all ended in the mid-70s; the difference between the star PhD students and the rest no longer meant the difference between a great job and a good job, it meant the difference between any job and no job.
The members of every profession believe society owes them far more than they ever receive. It was our misfortune that for a brief, glorious period we were actually given everything we thought we deserved and then some. Instead of recognizing that absurd payout for the triple cherry spin it was, we became convinced the Golden Age was just how academia worked.
Quit Lit paralleled the end of that era and the rise of the dualized economy
for faculty, with a small number of excellent tenured jobs, and everyone else employed on a spectrum from stable full-time contracts, to the itinerant life of the adjunct, to no work in the field. And just as the world changed in 1975, it changed again in 2008. The period between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of the Great Recession, characterized by sluggish enrollment growth and crowded job markets, now looks like a dreamscape compared to the 2010s, when enrollment started actually shrinking and more colleges closed than opened
every one of those ten years.
We mourned the Golden Age for forty years, a decade longer than it actually lasted. So long as there was an expectation, however unrealistic, that colleges and universities could restore tenured jobs for most faculty, the actual conditions of non-tenured faculty could be regarded as regrettable but temporary.
After forty years of valorizing a brief period of unsustainable abundance, we may finally be ready to abandon faith in Plan A, the restoration of something that could never have lasted in the first place. And the one thing that may keep us from reading pieces in 2047 full of nostalgia for 2007 is COVID. Whatever else we take from that crisis, it has cast business as previously usual in high relief. If COVID leads faculty to take stock of the actually existing industry, we may not need another four decades to adapt to life in a shrinking market.
Whatever comes in the next decade – including, I am predicting, unionization not just as the normal case by headcount but as a key feature of faculty self-conception – will happen slowly, but in the nation’s colleges and universities, 2030 will likely be as different from 2020 as 1980 was from 1970.