Placement Outcomes for Modern Language PhDs: Findings from the MLA’s Surveys of PhD Placement

About the MLA’s Surveys of PhD Placement

Since 1976-77, the MLA has conducted eleven surveys of PhD-granting departments in the United States concerning placements of their doctoral graduates. The most recent survey covered graduates who received their degrees between 1 September 2000 and 31 August 2001 (the 2001 cohort). All eleven studies focus only on employment obtained within the year the degrees were conferred. The study of 2000-01 graduates was the first to include departments in Canadian as well as United States universities in its scope.

When data collection for the 2000–01 survey began in October 2001, the MLA identified 572 PhD-granting departments in its database of departmental administrators—514 departments in United States and 58 in Canadian universities. Overall, 536 of the 572 departments contacted for the 2000–01 study responded, a response rate of 93.7%. Of the 514 United States departments, 488 (94.9%) responded; of the 58 Canadian departments, 48 (82.8%) responded. With response rates ranging from 95% to 100% of departments in US universities, the MLA’s eleven placement studies provide a census of placement outcomes for all US doctoral programs in English and other modern languages for the years they cover, not just a sample.

Of the 536 departments that responded to the 2000–01 survey, 165 were classified as English programs, 321 as foreign language programs, 44 as comparative literature, and 6 as interdisciplinary (meaning that they reported graduates in both English and foreign languages); 456 of these departments reported granting at least one PhD degree in the period 1 September 2000 to 31 August 2001. Departments responding to the 2000–01 study reported a total of 2,327 PhD recipients.

This report focuses on placement findings for 143 English and 239 foreign language programs in United States universities that reported granting one or more doctorate degrees in 2000–01. The 143 U. S. English programs reported a total of 1,162 graduates, for 1,005 of whom placement information was known. The 239 US foreign language programs reported a total of 794 graduates, for 715 of whom placement information was known. Time-series data from earlier studies in the series are cited briefly to provide a wider context for the most recent findings.

Employment Placements of PhDs from Programs in United States Universities

Tables 1 and 2 summarize placement outcomes for degree recipients in the 2001 cohort whose placement type was known and who graduated from US institutions. Table 1 includes citizens of countries other than the US and Canada who returned to their countries of origin after receiving their degrees. Table 2 excludes these temporary-resident returners from the base number used to calculate the percentages because these individuals do not compete for positions in the North American academic job market. Applying these restrictions—2000-01 doctorates from US institutions, known placement type, non-returners—leaves what this report refers to as the US cohort. The 2000–01 US cohort numbers 976 graduates of English programs and 673 graduates of foreign language programs.

The left-hand column of tables 1 and 2 shows major categories of employment placement. The right-hand side of the tables divides the data for employment categories into English and foreign languages, listing counts and percentages for these fields from the two most recent MLA surveys, which covered 1996–97 and 2000–01. In the tenure-track row of table 1, for instance, we see that there were 270 degree recipients in foreign language fields who obtained tenure-track appointments in the 1996-97 period and 276 in 2000-01.

Table 2 shows placement outcomes for the 976 graduates of English programs and the 673 graduates of foreign language programs in the 2000-01 US cohort. Of the 976 English graduates, 410 (42.0%) obtained tenure-track placements and 777 (79.6%) were employed in teaching positions in higher education, whether full- or part-time. When graduates placed in academic administration and postdoctoral fellowships are added, the figure rises to 846 (86.7%). There were 413 English graduates (42.3%) who found temporary placements in non-tenure-track positions, whether full-time (20.6%) or part-time (9.7%), or in postdoctoral fellowships (4.7%), or as one of the 71 graduates (7.3%) who were reported as employed teaching in higher education but for whom the appointment type was not specified. There were 82 graduates (8.4%) employed outside of higher education and 31 graduates (3.2%) not employed and seeking employment.

Of the 673 foreign language graduates in the US cohort, 253, or 37.6%, found tenure-track placements and 80.2% were employed in teaching positions in higher education, whether full- or part-time. When graduates placed in academic administration and postdoctoral fellowships are added, the figure rises to 84.1%. There were 301 foreign language graduates (44.7%) who found temporary placements in non-tenure-track positions, whether full-time (18.1%) or part-time (6.2%), or in postdoctoral fellowships (2.1%), or as one of the 123 graduates (18.3%) who were reported as employed teaching in higher education but for whom the type of appointment was not specified. There were 69 graduates (10.3%) employed outside higher education and 29 graduates (4.3%) not employed and seeking employment.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 present time-series data comparing the numbers of PhDs reported each year since 1973 on the US government’s annual Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) with the numbers of graduates reported placed in tenure-track positions on each of the eleven MLA surveys of PhD placement. The SED is an annual survey that publishes information on PhD recipients across all academic disciplines; individual graduates assign themselves to a field of study. The MLA placement surveys record numbers of new PhD recipients that obtained tenure-track positions (among other placements), as reported by the departments in which graduates completed their degree programs. Comparison of the two lines suggests a US higher education system that over the past twenty-five years has been able to absorb something less than half of any given survey year’s modern language PhD recipients to tenure-track appointments immediately upon graduation. Tenure-track placements recorded across all eleven surveys center on the quantities 400 new degree recipients per year in English and 260 in foreign languages. It should be emphasized that that the MLA’s placement studies do not tell us how many entry-level tenure-track positions departments filled in any given year, only how many new degree recipients were known to be placed in such positions.

The numbers of tenure-track appointments presented in figures 1 and 2 are higher than those given in some other tables in this report. This is because only for the three most recent studies in the series has the MLA asked departments to identify graduates who were temporary residents of the United States and returned to their countries of origin after receiving their degrees. As noted above, these returners are excluded from summary findings about placement outcomes because returners do not compete for faculty appointments positions from the US academic job market. However, to maintain comparability when findings across all eleven studies in the series are presented, the returners are added back into the totals for the three most recent survey years 1993–94, 1996–97, and 2000–01.

Tables 3 through 10 present employment placements for the 2000–01 US cohort, broken out by gender and degree program—English, foreign languages, French and Italian, Germanic, Slavic, Near Eastern languages, Asian languages, and Spanish and Portuguese. Numbers become very small in some cells in these tables, and where this is the case percentages should be treated cautiously.

Each placement category has three rows of information: (1) the number of men, women, or all degree recipients reported as being employed in the given type of placement; (2) the percentage of degree recipients, reading across the row, that each of the above numbers of graduates represents; (3) the percentage of employment placements, reading down the column, that each of these numbers of graduates represents.

For example, looking at the table for placements in English, we see that 408 of all 973 graduates were known to be employed in tenure-track positions—176 of 393 men graduates and 232 of 580 women graduates (the 3 graduates whose sex was reported as "unknown" are omitted from the table as missing cases). The 176 men represent 43.1% of all 408 graduates whose sex was known and who were employed in tenure-track positions; the 232 women represent 56.9% of all 408 graduates whose sex was known and who were employed in tenure-track positions. Reading down the columns we see that 44.8% of the 393 male graduates and 40.0% of the 580 women graduates were reported as employed in tenure-track positions. Overall, the placement rate to tenure-track positions was 41.9% for graduates in English whose sex was known. This means that, while women represented 59.6% of the graduates in English, they won 56.9% of the tenure-track placements, slightly less than their representation in the entire pool of graduates. The women’s placement rate of 40.0% is thus slightly lower than the rate for the entire group—41.9%—while the men’s placement rate of 44.8% is slightly higher.

The data on placement of graduates in Spanish are especially interesting, since their rate of placement to tenure-track appointments was higher than for other fields. As tables 2 and 4 show, in the foreign languages at large this rate was 37.6%; for Spanish it was 60.5%. For men in Spanish, the rate was even higher at 67.5%.

Types of Colleges and Universities Where Graduates Employed in Higher Education Were Placed

There has been considerable discussion about the character of graduate education in relation to the types of academic institutions where it is supposed graduates are most likely to find faculty appointments—baccalaureate colleges, regional comprehensive universities, and two-year colleges where undergraduate teaching is the focus as distinct from doctorate-granting research institutions where graduate students receive their degrees. Table 11a reports the types of institutions at which 2000–01 graduates in English in the US cohort found academic employment and the types of academic employment they obtained. Reading the row percentage left to right on the bottom section of the table, one sees that more than half the graduates from English programs employed in any capacity in higher education were placed in doctorate-granting institutions; the exact percentage is 52.7%. Figure 3a presents a pie chart displaying in graphic form the percentage of higher education English placements that went to each of the institutional sectors. Figure 3b is a pie chart showing the percentage of tenure-track placements for each sector. Looking specifically at placements to tenure-track positions, one sees that no type of institution claimed a majority of the tenure-track placements whose institutional location was known; the plurality—37.3%—were in institutions that grant the doctorate. Remaining tenure-track placements were evenly divided between MA-granting institutions (27.6%) and BA-granting institutions (27.3%). Only 7.8% of the graduates were placed in tenure-track positions in two-year colleges. Not included in these tables are graduates employed outside higher education or for whom the type of hiring institution was not known. The institutional type was unknown or blank for 7.2% of the graduates from US English programs who were employed in postsecondary education.

Notably, the placement rate to part-time positions, postdoctoral fellowships, and unspecified types of teaching situations was higher for graduates placed in doctorate-granting institutions than for graduates placed in baccalaureate colleges or MA institutions. The pattern suggests the scale at which doctorate institutions hire their own and one another’s graduates into temporary positions when graduates are unable to find tenure-track placements.

Tables 11b and 11c report institutional type for the men’s and women’s US English cohorts and show, for instance, that a higher percentage of men’s appointments than women’s appointments is made to tenure-track positions at doctorate-granting institutions, a higher percentage of women’s appointments than men’s appointments to tenure-track positions at BA-granting institutions. A somewhat higher percentage of men’s appointments at all institutional types were in tenure-track and postdoctoral positions, a somewhat higher percentage of women’s in full-time nontenure-track and part-time positions. Women graduates from English programs outnumbered men in reported tenure-track appointments at a ratio of about 1 to 0.7, roughly the same as the gender ratio in the overall 2001 English cohort.

Tables 12a through 12c report the types of institutions at which 2000–01 graduates in foreign languages in the US cohort obtained academic employment. Placement of graduates from foreign language programs is even more concentrated in doctorate-granting institutions than placement of graduates in English. Of the foreign-language-program graduates in the US cohort who were placed in any capacity in higher education, 72.5% were employed in a doctorate-granting institution. Figure 3c presents a pie chart displaying in graphic form the percentage of higher education foreign language placements that went to each of the institutional sectors. Figure 3d is a pie chart showing the percentage of tenure-track placements for each sector. Looking specifically at placements to tenure-track positions, 61.6% of the tenure-track placements that graduates from US foreign language programs obtained were in institutions that grant the doctorate. Remaining tenure-track placements were evenly divided between MA-granting institutions (18.3%) and BA-granting institutions (18.8%). Only 1.3% of graduates were placed in tenure-track positions in two-year colleges. Placements to temporary, non-tenure-track positions in foreign languages are heavily concentrated in doctorate-granting institutions, indicating the scale at which, like English programs, foreign language doctoral programs find temporary positions for many of their own and one another’s graduates when they do not find tenure-track appointments. Again, graduates who did not have definite academic employment or for whom the type of hiring institution was not known are not included in these figures. The institutional type was unknown or blank for 8.8% of the graduates from US foreign language programs who were employed in postsecondary education.

Tables 12b and 12c report institutional type for the men’s and women’s cohorts in foreign languages and show, for instance, that a significantly higher percentage of men’s appointments than women’s is made to tenure-track positions at all institutional types. A higher percentage of women’s than men’s appointments were made in full-time nontenure-track positions. Percentages by gender were very similar in part-time positions. Women outnumbered men in the cohort’s placements to part-time appointments at a ratio of about 1 to 0.57; the gender ratio in the 2001 foreign language cohort was 1 woman to 0.60 men.

Average Time-to-Degree

Tables 13a through 13e (2001 English cohort) and Table 14a through 14e (2001 foreign language cohort) provide information about the average time-to-degree, by gender, from several MLA PhD Placement Surveys. Information about time-to-degree has been collected on the three most recent placement surveys. The figures are calculated by averaging the difference between the year of graduation and the year graduates are reported to have entered the degree programs from which they graduated. The average has been consistently around 8 years, except for graduates of Canadian institutions, for which the average is lower. For both US and Canadian institutions, women’s average time-to-degree is about half a year longer, and the average time-to-degree is slightly longer in foreign languages than in English.

MLA findings about time-to-degree are consistent with those the SED publishes each year. The SED provides two forms of information on time-to-degree or "median time lapse from baccalaureate to doctorate"—total time (in years) and registered time. In 2001 the SED reported average registered time of 8.7 years for graduates in English and American language and literatures and average total time of 11 years. The equivalent figures for foreign languages for 2001 are 8.7 years registered time and 10.6 years total time. The most recent SED report, covering graduates who received doctorate degrees in 2003, reports registered time of 9.0 years and total time of 11.0 years in both English and foreign languages. (Appendix Table A3a. Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2001 and Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2003; Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2002 and 2004. Summary reports for the seven years 1997 to 2003 may be accessed as PDF files at http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/issues/docdata.htm.)