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With few openings for tenure-track professorships, graduate students consider non-academic jobs

By Andra Lim

Feb. 15, 2012 12:51 a.m.

Alex Schulman graduated from UCLA with a 725-page dissertation on Enlightenment political theory and one job offer.

He accepted the temporary lecturer position at Harvard University. Two years later, he became a visiting assistant professor at Duke University, and a few semesters from now, he’ll likely be working somewhere else.

Schulman is searching for a job that doesn’t have an expiration date, but he is navigating a bleak market.

There have long been few openings for tenure-track professorships ““ often seen as the path to the Promised Land of job security and academic freedom ““ and an oversupply of doctorates, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

Fallout from the 2008 economic crisis only exacerbated the ongoing problem, prompting some UCLA departments to cut enrollment of graduate students and revamp curricula to prepare students for non-academic careers.

The first strategy helps reduce the number of doctorates competing in the job market, and the second expands that market to include employment options outside universities, said Leonard Cassuto, who writes a monthly column about graduate education for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Students going into academic positions might be the exception, not the rule,” said Robin Garrell, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the UCLA Graduate Division.

From 1994 to 2001, 35.5 percent of UCLA’s doctoral students found teaching work at a university after graduation, according to reports from graduate programs. In 2010, the number was down to 20.9 percent, with more students finding themselves in Schulman’s shoes ““ taking short-term jobs or even looking outside the classroom.

“I always assumed the end point would be teaching,” said Schulman, who has begun to think about going to law school or working at a think tank. “I wasn’t aware of how dire in some ways the situation was.”

It can be particularly dire for graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, Garrell said. Mir Yarfitz, a doctoral candidate in history, said he has few skills that companies would consider marketable ““ his experience in managing others is limited to the classroom, and he possesses only a smattering of computer knowledge.

Students in the sciences can work in industry or the medical community, which is a growing field, said Thomas Minor, psychology professor and member of the UCLA Graduate Council.

But many science graduate students are still looking for careers in university research, said Catia Sternini, a professor of medicine and neurobiology who is on the Graduate Council. At the same time, the government and industry are dedicating less revenue to research, and competition for funds can be fierce, she said.

Several UCLA departments ““ including political science, history and English ““ have begun to lower enrollment targets, in part because they don’t want to train students for jobs that aren’t there.

Between 2005 and 2009, there was a 25 percent drop in enrollment for the humanities and a 7 percent decrease for the social sciences, according to reports for graduate programs.

But some departments are also looking to add to their graduate curricula.

This year, history graduate students and faculty members are participating in the pilot of the History in Practice cluster ““ a series of seminars, career workshops and public programs. There’s a course this quarter called “History in Museums,” and in the spring, there will be a panel on the Rodney King beating.

The inspiration for the cluster came from a new line of thinking about the function of history, said David Myers, chair of the history department.

Traditionally, historians have thought of themselves as scholars of the past, Myers said. But historians can play an important role in the public arena ““ for example, by contributing nuanced and thoughtful views to modern policy discussions, he said.

“Not only is it legitimate to think of a career other than university teaching, it’s noble,” Myers said.

Meanwhile, the English department is using part of a $650,000 grant to create courses that will bring together undergraduates and beginning graduate students to study broader topics ““ a contrast to the seminars currently offered, which focus on narrow slices of literature, said Ali Behdad, chair of the department.

Recently, the UCLA Career Center subscribed to the website Versatile PhD, which provides information and tips for humanities and social sciences students looking to transfer their skills outside academia.

There was a short-lived golden era when doctoral students had their pick of jobs upon graduation, Cassuto said.

In the 1950s and ’60s, federal money flowed to universities. The GI bill inaugurated a series of investments, which included funds for science research to fuel the space race with the Soviet Union, Cassuto said.

At the same time, the children of baby boomers were entering college. There was demand for more faculty, and the money to hire them, Cassuto said.

As this growth sputtered out, experts thought that professors hired during the boom period would start retiring, and positions would open up again. But those projections didn’t pan out.

Departments also started to replace full-time tenure positions with temporary ones. Between 1997 and 2007, full-time tenured or tenure track positions decreased by 12 percent at public four-year schools, while the number of part-time positions went up by 10 percent, according to a report from the American Federation of Teachers.

Despite these trends, there is still demand for the highly educated.

“We’re not saying, “˜Oh, my God, we have all these people who can’t find jobs,'” said Barbara Geddes, vice chair for graduate studies in the political science department. “Our best students find jobs, and those who don’t go tenure-track choose to do something else.”

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