Shelf Life

Liberal arts job market looks bleak

Marketplace Staff Jan 8, 2010
Shelf Life

Liberal arts job market looks bleak

Marketplace Staff Jan 8, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: The 124th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association is in San Diego this weekend. It’s probably not the wildest of conventions even in good times, but the mood is a good bit more somber than usual this time around. It wasn’t specifically reflected in today’s jobless numbers, but new history PhDs looking for work — most of them are just plain out of luck.

Emily Moore: Very few jobs. Slim pickings for many qualified people.

Jessica Cannon: It’s just sort of amassing more and more candidates looking for fewer and fewer jobs.

Leslie Hadfield: I’m mostly just sort of in whatever I can get and wherever. I just need a paycheck.

Brian Drake: I have lots of students who want to do academic history, they want to do environmental history. I’ll sit ’em down and say, “Yes it’s a great life, it’s a great job. I wouldn’t change a thing in my own life, but you’ve gotta understand how hard it is.”

That was Emily Moore from the College of William and Mary, Jessica Cannon from Rice University, Leslie Hadfield from Michigan State and Brian Drake from the University of Georgia.

Katharine Brooks is the director of the Liberal Arts Career Center at the University of Texas, Austin. We’ve called her up to talk about the dismal employment opportunities for liberal arts graduates overall. Katharine, welcome to the program.

Katharine Brooks: Thanks. Good to be here.

Ryssdal: As you just heard, there are some folks out there in the liberal arts — history professors, specifically, but liberal arts generally — who are a bit worried about their employability. Should they be?

Brooks: Well, this is a tough job market. Back in 1960, about 75 percent of faculty were full-time tenure; now, it’s only about 27 percent. So if you’re getting a PhD in history this is a tough market.

Ryssdal: How come though? I mean, what is it that’s going on that’s making history majors and political science majors less attractive than calculus majors?

Brooks: Well, I think, you know, we are seeing some changes in higher ed. We are seeing some shift towards more “practical” degrees, such as business or engineering. And I think it’s… You have a headline on your Web site today that says something about retail adjusting to the new normal. And I think higher ed is adjusting to a new normal as well.

Ryssdal: Explain that a little bit.

Brooks: Well, I think that fields like the liberal arts have always been excellent preparation for the workplace. They’ve always been a great start to becoming a better communicator, a good thinker and other skills. But I don’t know that the general public always sees it that way and I think sometimes, particularly now when money’s a little tight, people are saying, “Hey, I want bang for my buck in higher ed and I’m not sure what one does with a history major.”

Ryssdal: What about schools? How are they responding to this? Are they cutting back on the number of — just to keep picking on history for a second — history courses and adding more mechanical engineering and you know, stock portfolio theory courses?

Brooks: There are fewer tenure track positions available, certainly. In fact, I think the number of tenure track openings for history dropped about 24 percent this year and I believe at this conference, something like 15 percent of the interviews were canceled. So colleges are adjusting. I think what remains to be seen is if this sort of a temporary shift, due to the economic climate? Or is this more of a permanent trend? I think that’s what we don’t know yet.

Ryssdal: Well, take a guess for me. Let me put you on the spot.

Brooks: Taking a guess, I think liberal arts, in particular, will need to be more creative in the next 10, 20 years. I think they’re going to need to look at a blending more of, “How do we take this major and apply it to the workplace? How can we train our graduates through internships and other programs to be more valuable to employers?”

Ryssdal: Not to get all analytical on you here, but it’s a little bit like Joseph Schumpeter and the theory of creative destruction, right, that this is what the marketplace wants right now?

Brooks: Yes, and I think you have to be careful, because that’s not the goal of liberal arts. It is much more to create a whole person. I liken it to the BASF campaign. BASF talks about — we make these various chemicals; we don’t make the final product. Well, that’s liberal arts. We make the product better. We don’t make the lawyer, but we make the lawyer better.

Ryssdal: Should we be worried then about a whole generation of lawyers and Wall Street bankers, without art history in their background…

Brooks: To be honest, I would worry about that, because I think that’s the value of liberal arts. It enhances the person, it gives you new ways of viewing a situation and I’ll tell you, it might have helped if some of our leaders of AIG and Wall Street and elsewhere had had a little classics training in their background.

Ryssdal: Katharine Brooks, she’s the director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas, Austin. Her book is called “You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career.” Katharine, thanks a lot.

Brooks: Thank you so much.

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