Degrees of Difficulty: Jobs inside academia are scarce, and UT program aims to help

By Angela Shah
American-Statesman Staff
Published: May 24, 1999

Many of this spring's college graduates are leaving academia pondering multiple job offers, a bounty of today's robust economy.

But Luke Keller, who wants to teach astronomy to undergraduates, knows he'll have a tougher time when he finishes his studies at the University of Texas.

"It's very difficult to get a teaching position," said Keller, who hopes to graduate in August. "You can't assume that you're going to be a professor."

Like Keller, many graduate students who want to return to academia as tenure-track professors are finding few opportunities.

"The job market's very tight," said Rick Cherwitz, a professor of speech communication and associate dean of graduate studies at UT. "That's why we created the Professional Development Program -- to increase the odds for graduate students to find nonacademic jobs."

The development program, which is designed to help graduate students acquire skills not normally associated with the ivory tower, was created by a partnership of UT's Office of Graduate Studies, the provost's office and the Center for Teaching Effectiveness.

What began as a pilot project with three summer courses in 1996 is now a year-round curriculum of 13 classes.

More than 600 students studying 80 disciplines take classes such as Academic and Professional Consulting and Entrepreneurship. Keller, who is studying for his Ph.D. in astronomy, said the classes helped him learn how to sell his astronomy skills.

Yet, Keller couldn't find a teaching position. So, like many doctoral students, he accepted a postdoctoral research job -- sort of a "holding pattern" internship for graduate students, he explained -- at Cornell University.

"I know some people that there is no logical reason why they shouldn't have gotten (teaching) jobs long ago, except that there are no jobs," Keller said. "They're taking three and four postdocs."

Universities around the nation awarded 42,705 doctorate degrees in 1997 -- a record number for the 12th consecutive year, according to a University of Chicago survey. That's 10 percent more than 1992 and 32 percent more than 1987. UT, which issued 787 doctorate degrees in 1997, graduates more doctoral students than any other university in the nation, the survey reported.

With only about 30 to 40 tenure-track positions open in his field nationally each year, Marty Meersman, who will receive his master's degree in fine arts, said he feels fortunate to have found a teaching position. He beat out about 150 other candidates and will start teaching sculpture at Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minn., in August.

"I've always been the type of person to not worry about the future if I work really hard and am ambitious," Meersman said. "I want to teach because I love the reciprocal exchange of energy and ideas."

Many other graduate students are putting teaching plans on hold and pursuing non-traditional employment.

Peter Fiske, a scientist for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, said many graduate students are benefiting in unintended ways from the lack of teaching positions.

"A significant fraction of the Ph.D.'s in the sciences genuinely find themselves less interested in academia than they are in other fields," he said.

Fiske, who received his doctorate degree in geology from Stanford University in 1994, said he found the job market confusing after graduation. So he wrote "To Boldly Go ... ," a career guide for new graduates. He also writes a Web-based column for young scientists.

"Academia will learn that it will be stronger when its intellectual children are pursuing a broad range of fields -- in government, in high schools, in business," he said.