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Graduate students face bleak job market among nationwide university hiring freezes

Graduate students express uncertainty, insecurity about searching for academic appointments

Graduate student job prospects have declined after universities across the United States implemented staff and faculty hiring freezes following financial constraints triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brown was among the first universities in the country, and first in the Ivy Plus Consortium, to institute a hiring freeze in March 2020

The “large financial impact” of COVID-19 on academic institutions nationwide has resulted in many universities carefully adjusting to an economically “precarious situation,” said Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Religious Studies Thomas Lewis, who is also co-deputy of the Graduate School. Although the exact landscape of the job market is currently hard to gauge, Lewis  said that the data will be clearer in retrospect, adding that “the University is trying to be proactive in responding to” these changes. 

Despite the pervasiveness of academic hiring freezes, Lewis said that there are still “a number of students who are receiving tenure track positions” around the country, and several “institutions (have been) stepping up and creating additional opportunities” to address graduate students’ concerns.

One such example is the Emerging Voices Fellowship, a new program sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies in light of the depleted job prospects due to COVID-19. This program supports young scholars from underrepresented backgrounds — people “whose voices and perspectives are particularly important to strengthening higher education,” Lewis said.

The University has also implemented its own reforms, one being the expansion of the Deans’ Faculty Fellows Program, an opportunity that allows graduating doctoral students at Brown to work for an additional year at the University as a visiting assistant professor. The program, Lewis said, is a temporary job opportunity that will serve as a “springboard” for doctoral students in their careers.

Additionally, the Graduate School has been collaborating with the CareerLab to expand support for doctoral students pursuing paths outside of academia. Initiatives in recent years, such as the Brown Executive Scholars Training Program, have attempted to give graduate students the opportunity to explore administrative careers in higher education, Lewis said.

But some graduate students are still questioning the University’s fundamental decision to initiate the hiring freeze, worried about the message it sends to other institutions.

“When the wealthiest universities at the top of the food chain are doing this kind of thing, it causes universities all over the country to do the same,” said Rithika Ramamurthy GS, president of the Graduate Labor Organization, a student employee union that advocates for graduate workers’ needs and protections.

“This was one of the most bleak years for academic employment, not just for the humanities, but all across the board,” she told The Herald. Many of the decisions regarding graduate workers have come directly from the administration without much input from the larger Brown academic community, she said.

According to Lewis, there have been multiple committees created to respond to COVID-19 that have “brought together faculty, students, and staff to understand the challenges as well as to develop responses,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. Lewis also added that the Graduate School is routinely in contact with “representatives of the graduate student body and affinity groups” to discuss their concerns and support their needs.

Some universities have declared financial exigency and eliminated entire departments due to budget cuts, causing faculty, even those with tenure, to lose their jobs, according to Ramamurthy. Instead of offering tenure track positions, she said that many universities are turning to adjunct faculty on short-term contracts who are paid significantly less than tenured faculty and often have fewer to no healthcare benefits.

As for doctoral students whose research was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, GLO has fought for students to be able to receive Appointment Extensions for additional stipend support, Ramamurthy said. The extensions allow doctoral students another year to finish their dissertation research, and the University has approved 100 percent of these requests, she said.

Lewis believes that the University’s approval of all 68 applicants for COVID-19 Appointment Extensions “reflects the priority that the University places on providing students with the resources and support” to pursue careers in academia, he wrote in an email to The Herald.

The Appointment Extensions was just one of several requests made by the GLO last spring, which also included asking for protection of international students’ visa status.

Ramamurthy said GLO’s recent negotiations’ successes have boosted solidarity among graduate students across departments and shown them the importance of having a student union. 

GLO member Claire Grandy GS applauded the work of the student union in light of the academic hardships that have emerged due to COVID-19.

“I think the University needs to keep negotiating with the union because that is the voice of the graduate students, and they need to keep coming to the table,” Grandy said.

Grandy added that the job market for postdoc positions in her field is incredibly diminished, which has increased the competition for the few positions available. For example, a position she applied for at the University of Southern California received 1200 applications and only accepted about five applicants. 

Most of the postdoc positions Grandy applied for received a record number of applications this year, causing “more crowding” in an already saturated postdoc job market. “There are (so) few jobs, and it does turn into this kind of lottery,” she said.

Although she was accepted into the Deans’ Faculty Fellows Program for next year, she remains skeptical about whether the University has used all its available resources to help graduate students. Considering the limited number of fellowships, Grandy said she felt lucky to have the position next year, but that she questioned what support there would be for those who did not receive a fellowship. 

University Spokesman Brain Clark said the University has “redoubled efforts to provide  professional development opportunities for graduate students” in response to the challenges facing students in the employment market as a result of COVID-19. In addition to the Dean Faculty Fellows Program, Clark said Brown’s decision to pause admission for many doctoral programs this past year was another effort taken by the University to support “current students while working to strengthen programs in light of the challenges presented by the pandemic.”

Ali Madani GS, a GLO member and sixth-year graduate student in the English department, said that when COVID-19 hit, a position he was being considered for abruptly got canceled. He has noticed a trend of “horrifying stories” of job revocation across colleges, with some students even signing contracts for jobs and then the offer suddenly being retracted.

Madani is grateful to have been granted the Appointment Extension funding by the University for next year, “a cushion for the likely event that jobs don’t work out this year,” but said that some graduate students are still in need of assistance.

“I benefit a great deal from this extra funding, this extra appointment for another year,” he said. “But I know at the same time that there are people who are incredible scholars, who are incredibly prepared for a job, who were denied this additional (Deans’ Faculty Fellows Program) fellowship that Brown offered, and that’s really unfortunate.”

Madani appreciates all the work the GLO has done to advocate for student concerns and added that friends of his at other Ivy League universities which do not have graduate unions have had a more difficult time dealing with their administrations during the pandemic.

But although Madani thinks “Brown has done a good job for some people,” he said there is “always more that could be done.”

Correction: A previous version of this article included a link to PEN America's Emerging Voices Fellowship instead of a link to ACLS' Emerging Voices Fellowship. The Herald regrets the error.


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