Strengthening Job Prospects Within and Beyond the Academy

A State of the Field Address for the Fourth Symposium of Doctoral Programs in Theatre and Performance Studies

This keynote, and other sessions from this event, were livestreamed on HowlRoundTV. View all videos

Thank you for coming together for the Fourth Symposium on Doctoral Programs in Theatre and Performance Studies. My hope is that today marks the beginning of a collaborative field-wide effort to answer the following questions:

  • What does the state of the academic job market look like?
  • What skills are the graduates who come out of our programs developing and how are we shaping that process?
  • How are we utilizing our graduate students’ time and energy in our doctoral programs in order to help them prepare for their future careers?

We will also have space in this convening to talk about the ways that we can better advocates for the value of PhD programs to university administrators, fundraisers, and to prospective applicants.

My knowledge of the academic job market is shaped by two experiences. The first was as a graduate student matriculating from Indiana University in 2009. As a first-generation college student, I came to graduate school with the expectation that a PhD would lead directly to a tenure-track job. During my time at Indiana, I regularly directed productions, wrote a dissertation on a topic that was of growing interest to the field, presented my research at the major conferences in the field, and published reviews in academic journals. Nevertheless, I spent three years looking for a tenure-track position, finally buoyed by professional directing and dramaturgy work accumulated through my employment with Cleveland Play House and Cleveland Public Theatre as well as an expansive adjunct portfolio in schools across Northern Ohio. Although I’m glad to be one of the fortunate individuals hired into a tenure-track job, I spent most of my time on the market wondering if I was doing something wrong. I never stopped to consider that academia in Theatre and Performance Studies didn’t have enough room to accommodate all of its graduates.

The next time that I felt compelled to think seriously about the academic job market occurred a little over two years ago when I became Director of Graduate Studies for the PhD program in Theatre and Performance Studies at Tufts. In order to take on the labor of preparing our graduating students for careers within and beyond the academy, I wanted to learn what trends were emerging from academic job postings, what institutions were doing the best at getting their students hired, and whether there were any commonalities among the programs that demonstrated repeated success in placing their students into tenure track positions. But this data, which is so essential to understanding how academic labor markets operate, did not exist. And because, as the members of my fantasy sports leagues will attest, I’m a stats nerd with a love of accumulating unusual data, I developed a couple of longitudinal studies to help me discover how many graduates of PhD programs are getting placed, how long it is taking students to find academic positions or leave the academy, what programs can do to better position their doctoral candidates for the academic job market, and what search committees are looking for based on recent hires in the field.

But as a scholar and theatre artist who has not applied for a non-academic position since I was an undergraduate, I knew that I also needed to learn how to help students find opportunities beyond the academy and I didn’t know where to begin. In traditional academic form, I started reading nearly everything that I could get my hands on, including books and essays by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debellius and Karen Kelsky in addition to blogs, web essays, and workshops that I found through social media. The totality of this work has helped me to develop a pedagogy and professional development course for first-year doctoral students at Tufts where we discuss academic and alt-academic job markets and how to prepare for career success in multiple sectors. Although I don’t claim to know everything about helping doctoral students market their skills, I feel more comfortable giving students the resources they need to think about multiple career trajectories from their first year in the program.

I want to take the time to share some broad data about how we are admitting, matriculating and training graduate students as a field, before moving to examine theatre and performance studies job ads over the past two academic years, and finally to look at the current careers and trajectories held by over 98 percent of the 633 PhDs who have earned degrees in our field from 2011-2017.

I’d like to begin by presenting information about who our graduate students are and how they are utilizing the time that they are spending in our programs, as revealed through the survey that many of us filled out prior to the convening in addition to my own supplemental research. In many instances, I’ll compare the results of this year’s survey with the results from the 2015 survey taken by those program directors who attended the Third Symposium on Doctoral Programs in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

From there, I’d like to talk about the academic job market for Theatre History and Performance Studies PhDs from 2012-2018, drawing from data that my graduate assistants and I have accumulated about hundreds of job ads dating back to the 2012-2013 academic hiring season in order to determine what Theatre and Performance Studies departments are seeking from prospective hires as well as some overviews about the successful applicants hired into colleges and universities from across the country.

Finally, I’d like to conclude with a snapshot of career paths for the over 600 individuals who have accumulated PhDs in Theatre and Performance Studies from programs in the United States between 2011 and 2017. Using ProQuest’s Dissertation Database and other digitized searches, I’ve learned about the career paths of over 98 percent of the graduates of our collective programs. In doing so, I’ve learned about what programs are successfully placing students in tenure-track and contingent academic positions, and the types of employment opportunities that students are finding when they begin to look for work outside of the academic job markets. I hope that all of this data provides a starting point for thinking about the field, our graduate programs, students who emerge from our institutions with PhDs, and the ways that we can learn to support their work within and beyond academia from coursework to the completion of their degrees.

Part One: Who are our current doctoral students in Theatre and Performance Studies programs and how are they navigating our programs?

Much of the data for this section is drawn from the self-reporting survey that I sent out to every director of a Theatre and Performance Studies PhD program in the United States. Twenty-five of the thirty-six U.S. programs responded to this year’s survey as opposed to the 2015 survey which drew thirty respondents. Although both surveys had over forty questions, I’m only going to focus on a few questions that are particularly germane to this year’s convening.

I’d like to begin by looking at statistics on how many students are currently pursuing doctoral degrees in our programs. In 2015, the mean answer to the question was 17.76 students per PhD program with variations in enrolled students ranging from a one-person PhD cohort to an institution that enrolled sixty-seven doctoral students. This year the mean number of students per PhD program is 18.6 with one university enrolling seven students and another enrolling a high of sixty-two. This increase in program size also corresponds with annual admission patterns.

In 2015, graduate programs that completed the survey admitted a range of one to eight students per year, with a mean enrollment of 3.0. In 2018, responding programs reveal the same minimum and maximum admissions numbers, but the mean number of annually-enrolled graduate students has risen to 3.45 doctoral students per program. As the job market stabilizes following the 2012 recession, the number of students who we’re admitting into our program is slightly growing.

Moreover, as our enrollments increase, the average Theatre and Performance Studies’ PhD student’s time to degree also seems to be seeing a mild uptick in several markers. The survey reveals that graduate students in our programs are taking an average of 2.87 years to finish coursework and other requirements before beginning their dissertations and that the average time to degree is 5.735 years. Both of these data sets mark escalation from 2015 when PhD program directors noted that it took their doctoral students 2.72 years to reach the dissertation stage of their programs and 5.07 years to attain their PhDs. This bears out in the growing number of students who we have in the ABD stage of their programs at present, 10.44 students per doctoral program on average as opposed to 9.24 in 2015.

While our admissions numbers and our students’ times to degree are slightly increasing, there is stability in the number of PhDs that we are producing in any year. According to information accumulated from ProQuest’s Dissertation Database and several university libraries, the US-based PhD programs in Theatre and Performance Studies have produced approximately ninety graduates per year between 2011 and 2017. These numbers range from a high of 124 PhDs conferred in 2013 to a low of seventy-two PhDs awarded in 2017. Aside from those two outliers, there is minimal variance in these numbers and we typically find that the field produces somewhere between eighty-five and ninety-five PhDs annually.

graph of PhDs produced each year by US universities

Graph of Theatre and Performance Studies PhDs produced each year by US universities 2011-2017.

The number of PhDs produced by US Theatre and Performance Studies programs also varies widely from university to university. Between 2011-2018, NYU’s Performance studies program has conferred forty-nine PhDs while the University of Buffalo is a newly-formed doctoral program that had yet to produce a PhD student as of July. The average number of PhDs produced per institution between the years of 2011-2017 is 16.62.

Graph of total PhDs graduated 2011-2017

Total Theatre and Performance Studies PhDs graduated in 2011-2017.

The racial and ethnic diversity of our programs seems to be holding steadily from 2015. Of the 465 students accounted for in the self-reported survey of our doctoral programs, we note that approximately 5.8 percent of the students in our program identify as African-American, 7.1 percent of our students identify as Latinx, 6.6 percent identify as Asian-American, and 1.29 percent identify as Native American. Just under twenty percent of our enrolled graduate students come from countries outside of the United States. These numbers correspond closely to the statistics presented in the 2015 Symposium survey.

As a field, we’re still supported by a university infrastructure that trains students predominantly as teachers. All of our institutions offer Teaching Assistantships to students during their PhD programs and the vast majority (80 percent) are able to offer those positions to all enrolled for at least some part of their time on campus. Fewer of our programs (60 percent) offer research assistantship positions, and the vast majority of us who do so are only able to do this on a limited basis for fewer than half of our graduate scholars. There is also an extraordinarily small number of programs (32 percent) that offer Administrative Assistantships that train students to work in Arts Administration, and other organizational capacities.

In sum, we are a field that has had a slight increase in the number of enrolled doctoral students whom we have taken into our program over the past three years, but while our enrollments remain robust, we are not creating more space for students of color, and we are currently offering the same types of assistantship packages that have existed since many of us were graduate students. As my first call to action in this address, I wish to invite the members of this convening to imagine how we might reconceptualize the assistantship in order to train students for a variety of career sectors.

Part II: What is the state of the academic job market?

The research for this portion was collected from a project that I’ve undertaken with my two assistants, Emma Futhey and Reza Mirsajadi. In the summer of 2016, I began to explore the academic job ads in order to see what sorts of courses applicants were being asked to teach within academic postings, what types of production experiences universities wanted from their prospective hires, and who was getting appointed into these positions. I wanted to look at historical data that existed prior to 2016, in addition to getting a sense of the current landscape of the academic job market.

In order to conduct this information, I used the following methods. From 2012 to 2015, I drew from the Academic Jobs Wiki, which has long been a repository for academic job listings and conversation about trends in high education employment. For job advertisements written during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 academic years, I looked at academic positions listed on Artsearch, the ATHE Job Bank, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and higheredjobs.com. I specifically limited my search to posts that advertised in the Education section of Artsearch, the Performing Arts section of the Chronicle, or the Theatre and Dance section of Higher Ed Jobs, noting that if a position truly wanted to capture the attention of Theatre and Performance Studies PhDs, that they would advertise in the visibly marked places where those graduates might look for job postings. Additionally, I restricted my search to positions where the PhD was either a requirement or a preference for the open position. For instance, an announcement advertising for an Assistant Professor to teach Introduction to Theatre, Theatre History, and Acting that listed an MFA as a requirement for employment would be omitted from my list. From 2011-2016 my study was solely focused on tenure-track positions, but in the 2017-2018 year, my assistants and I broadened the parameters of our search to include all full-time positions including Visiting Assistant Professors, Professors of the Practice, and Lecturers.

Although the Academic Jobs Wikis from 2012-2015 have many gaps in their efforts to document open academic positions, particularly in their tendency to privilege Carnegie designated R1 universities and small liberal arts college positions over regional universities and other types of academic appointments, I collected a sample of ninety-six tenure-stream Assistant Professor positions across those four years and learned some important baseline data.

Among the ninety-six positions listed on the wikis in those years, thirty-three job postings required the hired candidate to direct as part of the production season, seven required engagement in production dramaturgy during the academic season, and another two required expertise in at least one element of design.

In addition, there are a wide array of courses that job ads specifically called for new hires to teach. The most frequently cited position was Theatre History, which was listed in sixty-seven of ninety-six job ads. This was followed by Nonwestern Theatre and Performance (thirty-one), Dramaturgy (twenty-one), Directing and Devised Performance (nineteen), Racial or Ethnically Specific Theatre and Performance—e.g. African-American, Latinx, Asian American or Indigenous Theatre and Performance (eighteen), Acting (fourteen), Script Analysis (fourteen), Introduction to Theatre (thirteen), Performance Studies (six), and Playwriting (four).

Finally, my assistants and I were able to navigate university websites in order to determine who got hired into the academic positions listed in the Wikis. The field of Theatre and Performance Studies revealed itself to be grounded in the modern and contemporary as eighty-six out of the ninety-six hires (89.5 percent) specialized in theatre and performance studies scholarship grounded in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.

Fifty-seven of the ninety-six candidates hired (59.4 percent) grounded their research in theatrical practices and performance studies methodologies that emphasized nonwestern and minoritarian subjectivities. Moreover, nineteen of the ninety-six positions (19.8 percent) were accepted by professors who moved laterally from one tenure-stream academic position to another.

In the 2016-2017 academic year, my assistants and I conducted a more robust search of academic job advertisements for tenure-stream Assistant Professor positions drawing from major trade papers. In 2016-2017, we found fifty-nine job advertisements written towards PhDs in Theatre and Performance Studies. Of those postings, thirty-two required directing in the department season, two required dramaturgy, one required contributions to costuming the department season, and another required that the hired applicant participate in marketing the department’s productions.

The courses frequently desired from prospective hires in the 2016-2017 job listings included Theatre History (forty-five), Directing and Devised Performance (nineteen), Acting (nineteen), Performance Studies (fifteen), Script Analysis (thirteen), Introduction to Theatre (twelve), Racial or Ethnically Specific Performance (ten), Nonwestern Theatre/ Performance (nine), and Playwriting (five).

As Emma, Reza, and I began to unearth the results of the 2015-2016 academic job searches for PhDs in Theatre History and Performance Studies, we found that nine (15.25 percent) of the fifty-nine academic job searches posted ended in failed searches. Additionally, thirteen jobs (22 percent) went to candidates who moved laterally, and eight (13.6 percent) successful offers were made to candidates who held an MFA without a PhD. This means that only twenty-nine of fifty-nine (49.2 percent) positions were taken by PhDs accepting their first tenure-track position.

Moreover, ongoing trends to hire scholars grounded in modern and contemporary performance as well as those researching nonwestern an minoritarian subjectivities continued. 84.1 percent of hires specialized in nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century scholarship, and 54.2 percent of openings were taken by scholars working outside of the white western canon.

 

In the 2017-2018 academic year, my research team expanded its capacity to not only consider tenure-stream Assistant Professor positions, but also to consider full-time contingent postings including job ads for Visiting Assistant Professors, Lecturers, Professors of the Practice and other full-time academic positions. We found fifty-six tenure-track positions and thirty-four full-time contingent positions.

Among the thirty-four contingent positions, nineteen job advertisements required directing with a department’s production season. Twenty ads listed theatre history as a course that the institution would like the hired candidate to teach, followed by acting (sixteen), Directing and Devised Theatre (thirteen), Script Analysis (eight), Introduction to Theatre (seven), Racially or Ethically Specific Theatre and Performance (seven), Performance Studies (seven), Nonwestern Performance (five), Stage Management (three), Playwriting (two), and one Critical Theory course.

The fifty-six tenure-stream academic positions required directing as part of the production season in thirty instances while also advertising for posts calling for candidates who could teach Theatre History (thirty-four), Directing or Devised Performance (twenty-eight), Racially or Ethnically Specific Theatre/Performance (twenty-two), Script Analysis (fifteen), Performance Studies (fifteen), Acting (fourteen), Nonwestern Performance (nine), Introduction to Theatre (nine), Dramaturgy (six), Stage Management (six), and Playwriting (two).

Following the convening, my graduate students and I will begin looking into the candidates who got hired into these positions this fall. Once that work is complete, I’ll post it in the Google Drive and on Twitter @noemontez.

Through this point of the presentation, we can comfortably discern that the field is producing approximately ninety PhDs per year and fifty-five or so tenure stream positions each year, many of which will lead to failed searches or to candidates making lateral moves. We can also determine that over half of the academic positions posted from 2012 to present require hired candidates to engage in their departments’ production seasons and that there is consistent demand for courses that stretch students understanding of theatre history and performance beyond a Eurocentric point of view. Although the self-evaluation survey reveal that we’re generally doing a very good job of incorporating nonwestern and minoritarian experiences into our coursework, I would like to invite the members of this room to think about how we can use our programs’ resources to enhance our students artistic skills as theatre and performance makers. Doing so will make our graduate students more competitive within the academic marketplace and also serve to empower those newly-minted doctors who can’t find academic positions to develop skills that may serve them as they venture into theatrical careers beyond the academy.

Part III: Where are theatre and performance studies PhDs finding jobs?

The final and largest part of my research project on the state of our PhD programs and the academic job market has been an exploration of where each of the field’s 632 conferred PhDs from 2011-2017 are currently employed. In order to conduct this research, my assistants and I have spent countless hours scouring through university databases in order to compile a full list of the PhDs produced by each of our institutions. From there, we began to search for information about these individuals using web searches, social media, and other publicly-available information. We have compiled a spreadsheet documenting the current employment of 621 of the 632 graduates from Theatre and Performance Studies programs in the United States. From there, we categorized each individual into six different groupings dependent on how they are employed: Tenured or Tenure Track, Contingent, University Administration, Independent Scholar or Artist, Outside of Academia, or Unknown. In instances where an individual claimed multiple positions, such as an adjunct faculty member who also works as a freelance director or a real estate agent who also works as a freelance artist, we categorized the individual by their academic affiliation, followed by their primary work affiliation so as not to artificially deflate the numbers of Theatre and Performance Studies PhDs working in Academia and not to overinflate the number of individuals who work as freelance artists.

We find that among the graduates of Theatre and Performance Studies PhD programs from 2011-2017, 38 percent hold tenured or tenure-track positions at colleges and universities across the United States, 25 percent hold contingent positions that range from full-time VAPs and lectureships to multiple adjunct positions, 16 percent of our graduates work outside of academia in a wide range of career sectors that I’ll address shortly, 13 percent identify as independent artists and scholars, 6 percent work within university administrations, and the final 2 percent of PhDs produced by our programs are unknown, both to me and my assistants, and to the Directors of PhD programs who I contacted in order to find further information about these individuals.

Our placement rates for graduates vary widely from program to program with some connection to the number of PhDs that each institution has produced over the study’s seven-year window. Of the top ten PhD producing institutions, three are also among the top ten institutions ranked by placement rate. Four are also among the bottom ten institutions ranked by placement rank.

The tenure and tenure track placement rate reveals slight improvement across time with graduates from 2011-2014 holding higher placement rates than those who finished their PhD programs from 2015-2017. As this project continues, I intend to follow the career trajectories of Theatre and Performance Studies graduates from 2011 to the present in order to see how career trajectories change, the rate at which contingent faculty get hired onto tenure-track faculty lines, and how long it takes for a PhD to get hired into a tenure-stream academic position. This can be, generally, surmised from the data, although it’s not an exact statement.

 

For example, in exploring the year to year shifts among graduate students in a different way, we can estimate that it takes a significant number of PhDs three to four years to find their first tenure-track position if they ever find one at all.

As an aside I have learned that among the 632 PhDs produced by the field over the course of this decade, forty-eight are working in universities outside of the United States and sixty-four are working in outside of Theatre and Performance Studies departments. The vast majority of these hires have found positions in English departments and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies programs, but graduates have also found work in Film, Business, Communication, Ethnomusicology, Ethnic Studies, Languages, Art History, Classics, General Humanities, Arts Administration and Policy, Journalism, and Philosophy departments.

The PhDs who work outside of academia have found employment in a wide variety of positions. Although the vast majority of those out of academia have taken positions as elementary and secondary school teachers, our graduates are also finding jobs in Arts Administration, Museum and Archive Curation, Developmental Editing, Grant Writing, Non-Profits, Office Management, Publishing, Real Estate, Theatre Administration, Theatrical Production, Tutoring, and University Administration. There is also a small but statistically noteworthy number of graduates who have decided to become Full-time Parents. In totality, I am impressed by how widespread their labor is. Nevertheless, I wonder how many of these individuals feel as though their graduate programs could have better prepared them for careers outside of the academy, and how many might feel some stigma and disconnection from their programs because they have chosen to work outside of the academic world.

So as we move forward over the course of the weekend I pose the following challenges to us as a group:

  • How can we work in unison to decrease the stigma that PhDs feel when they start to look for work outside of the academy?
  • How can we as directors of PhD programs incorporate professionalization that encourages our students to consider positions within and beyond the academy?
  • What are action steps that we can take today, tomorrow, and after the conference in order to share resources and pedagogical practices, and other ideas that will reduce the labor so that we don’t repeat each other’s labor?

I look forward to all that comes next.

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