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Forget grad school!

Why the academic labour market may not be about to open up


 

For those taking the PhD plunge, the prospect of finding meaningful employment has always been a concern. Despite rosy predictions from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), the PhD job market may be heading into another tight period.

From the early 1990s to about 1998, the number of employed university professors (of all ranks) shrunk by 3,000, or close to 10 per cent. Many tenured positions were eliminated through retrenchment policies where universities calculated that paying out professors willing to retire early would lead to a more stable financial footing in the long run.Similar policies were implemented across the country and the average age of retirement for all Canadians dropped precipitously.

The trend eventually reversed, and between 1998 and 2006, about 22 per cent new faculty positions have been added, including a 37 per cent increase in tenured track appointments. The tight 1990s has, however, left the percentage of Canadian faculty aged 55 or older disproportionately higher than it otherwise would have been.

The AUCC assures us that at least 22,000 renewal faculty will be needed over the next 10 years. The lobby group is also certain that hordes of students supposedly entering university over the same period will further drive up the demand for university professors.Seems like a bright future for up and coming scholars everywhere, doesn’t it? I will set aside the claim that university enrolments will continue to increase, as Maclean’s has consistently challenged that assumption (see here and here).

The AUCC is working from the assumption that as the average retirement age normalizes, it will resettle to what it was before the 90s; that is, at 65. However, a number of trends suggest this might not be the case.For starters, mandatory retirement in the Ivory Tower is quickly becoming a thing of the past (see here, here and here).

What’s more, recent “corrections” in the market have threatened retirement savings and stock portfolios both in Canada and south of the border, further suggesting delayed retirement as faculty aim to recoup losses to ensure they will be as comfortable as they had planned.

As Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago philosophy professor, put it recently: “The catastrophic June in the stock markets means that a lot of faculty who might have been thinking about retirement in the coming year are going to postpone given the huge losses most will have suffered.”

Leiter estimates that demand for philosophy doctoral degree holders, the labour market is retracting to what it was about 15 years ago. In the early 1990s “there were 2.3 candidates per job,” and though that number slackened to 1.4 by the beginning of this decade, Leiter predicts that “we will be back at 2.3 before long, if we are not there already.”

While this is not necessarily representative of all disciplines, fields in the humanities such as philosophy are always hardest hit.It is true that even if the economy gets worse in the U.S., things could play out differently up here. However, Canadian and American PhDs compete in the same job market. If the academic labour market tightens in the U.S., that just means more American PhD holders competing for jobs up here.

Of course, none of this means that baby-boomer professors won’t have to be renewed. It simply means that the renewal will be rather flat, as opposed to the explosion the AUCC has apparently predicted. But as anyone scrounging around for a tenure-track position will tell you, there is a limited time frame after one first earns their PhD before their degree is considered “stale,” ultimately condemning them to a lifetime of hopping from one sessional appointment to another.

Add to this the fact that though a good deal of tenure-track positions have been added in recent years, many have been replaced permanently with sessional contract positionsas well as the reality that many who will retire in the coming years never earned tenure to begin withand the rosiness of the academic labour market vanishes. Never mind if universities feel the need to re-implement retrenchment policies.

In fact, a slacker and easier academic labour market might have already come and gone. We just missed it.

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