BOSTON — It was 1982 when Dix McComas, who had a master's degree and taught college English part time, saw an article predicting a market for tenure-track English professors in the 1990s.
The report was wrong. When Dr. McComas emerged in the mid-1990s from a decade of research into 19th-century author Willa Cather, he found a shrinking job market and a horde of PhDs pouncing on a handful of tenure-track jobs.
Nearly 8,000 students earned English or foreign-language doctorates between 1996 and 2000 - and fewer than half found or are expected to find tenure-track posts their first year out, according to the Modern Language Association in New York.
Frustration has grown especially deep in the humanities. Unlike the sciences, PhDs in the humanities have fewer overt skills transferable to businesses. Yet 5,387 students earned such degrees in 1997, up from 5,116 the previous year. Overall, a record 42,706 individuals earned a doctorate in 1997.
Yet colleges and universities are shifting to employing ever-more part-time adjunct professors. That conundrum has produced a furious debate in higher education today over what to do about the surfeit of experts. Some want to bar people from graduate school. Others say it is not the university's role to limit those who want to learn - or to be "employment agencies."
"In our self-centered haughtiness, we forget that many other employers besides colleges and universities hire PhDs," John Lombardi, president of the University of Florida wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month. "Elementary and secondary schools need better teachers, we say. Why not supply well-trained PhDs to teach our children?"
But is it ethical to admit people into a program that produces college professors - when so few tenured jobs in teaching are expected?
"No," say a growing number of English departments that are cutting the numbers of prospective PhD students. Some tacitly acknowledge the tight job market, offering to arrange internships that provide PhDs with computer skills, for instance.
Deborah Carlin, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst, English professor, is developing a program to get humanities PhD students paid internships in academic publishing companies and historians working with local museums. "We're trying to get students to think early on in their careers about the options," Dr. Carlin says. "This isn't a consolation prize."
The University of Texas at Austin recently began offering skill-building courses like "Academic and Professional Uses of Technology" and another called "Academic and Professional Consulting."
Yet some wonder whether wrapping skill-building into a PhD is disingenuous. "I'm not sure I support it because that's a lot of years to put in just to end up going into business," says Kay Peterson, manager of Editorial Services at FastWeb, a Chicago-based Internet scholarship search service for students. Dr. Peterson spent nine years earning her PhD in English, completing her dissertation on 14th-century Italian love poetry's emergence in 16th-century England.
Still, for those already immersed in the PhD game, she advocates marketable skills. During the last year of writing her dissertation, she taught herself how to construct an Internet Web site. She also dove into several internships.
Her efforts recently lassoed her a job with FastWeb, which needed someone who could do research and write well. Now she develops the "content" on the site.
Carlin and others, meanwhile, criticize higher education's growing reliance on low-paid, part-time "adjunct" professors and graduate students to teach writing.
"You are never going to greatly improve the resources in academia for the humanities until you provide powerful options outside of the academy - that just makes basic economic sense," says Robert Weisbuch, director of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J.
His organization sponsors "practicum fellowships" that help place PhDs in nontraditional positions. The idea is to cultivate a market for humanities PhDs to compete with higher education.
"The day the top graduate of a program in comparative literature turns down an assistant professorship at Columbia University for a meaningful position at Merrill Lynch is the day the status of the humanities within colleges and universities dramatically improves," he says.
Today McComas happily shares child-rearing with his wife. He write grants and directs a state-funded literacy project from his home in Amherst, Mass. He is wishing only occasionally he were teaching. Still, "I don't regret spending those years doing something I truly loved," he says. "Any number of people warned me the job market was horrible" during the latter years of his research. Like others, he saw few alternatives.
"I sort of saw it coming and I kept going," he says. "I saw a sign that said 'road out' and I kept right on driving."