Monday, April 09, 2007

Thinking about a career in Women's Studies?

This issue came up on a listserv I'm on, and I debated about responding publically, since I am on the job market now and I don't really need to piss anyone off, if you catch my drift. But it isn't just about my own experiences job hunting, which really haven't been too horrible. It's about the state of Women's Studies, or, in fact, the state of academia today.

Something like two-thirds of all academics are adjuncts. This means that most academics are teaching close to full-time (or beyond) and getting paid around $1500 - $3500 per course (v. the $35 - $45 K that full-time faculty are making for the same courseload (or a reduced one)).

Now, some of us have interdisciplinary degrees - degrees in Women's Studies, American Studies, and so on. The deal is that, barring exceptional circumstances, traditional departments (English, Sociology, History, etc.) generally will not hire anyone who does not have a degree in that discipline. Now, if a History department is looking for someone who specializes in the history of women, and someone with a Women's Studies degree whose dissertation was historical in nature applies for the job, that person might perhaps have a shot at that position. However, if equally attractive candidates with History degrees also apply, chances are that the Women's Studies person will be out in the cold.

Over the last few decades, graduate programs in Women's Studies have been popping up, offering M.A.s and now Ph.D.s in Women's Studies. So, you'd think that these well-trained Women's Studies grads would have their pick of Women's Studies positions, right?

Er...well, here's the thing. First, many Women's Studies programs are located within discipline-specific departments, especially Sociology and English. Thus, candidates for positions in these programs would need to have a degree in Sociology or English, with perhaps a "certificate" in Women's Studies, in order to compete.

Second, these certificates in Women's Studies are given to acknowledge that a graduate student who has not pursued Women's Studies as a degree course has nonetheless done some amount of work in Women's Studies. In some programs, the requirements for receiving a certificate are minimal. Offering these certificates is a way for Women's Studies programs to attract more students to their classes. However, it directly affects the graduates of these programs, as it adds significantly to the pool of candidates with whom they will be competing for jobs.

Having a certificate can be very helpful. It offers credibility in a subject area that one hasn't studied extensively. But I have met many traditionally-degreed people with certificates, people who are teaching Intro to Women's / Gender Studies, etc., who have no clue how to put such a course together, who have no sense of how Women's Studies functions as an interdisciplinary field, or who don't understand the political battles going on between Women's Studies and Gender Studies, or who have not studied Feminist Pedagogy, or who don't understand the difference between feminist research and anti-feminist research, or who don't really understand what, at the root, Women Studies is.

This is not an indictment of folks with certificates. I simply wish to make the point that an M.A. and/or Ph.D. in Women's Studies demands a close study and familiarity that a certificate does not.

Third, very often, Women's Studies positions are split between Women's Studies and some other, traditional discipline. Frequently, the tenure home is in the traditional discipline, which again means that applicants will generally need to have a degree in that traditional discipline in order to be hired in the first place, much less to get tenure.

So, here's a question: if traditional disciplines generally don't hire candidates with interdisciplinary degrees, and if Women's Studies hires candidates with traditional degrees, and if Women's Studies considers a certificate in Women's Studies to be little different, when it comes to hiring, than the in-depth education that one experiences in a Women's Studies Ph.D. program - then, what is the value of a Women's Studies degree?

And, further, if there is no value to a Women's Studies degree, then why bother to create new degree-granting programs?

I think Women's Studies programs - and American Studies programs, as well - owe it to their graduates and to these disciplines themselves to make a point of hiring those with degrees in these interdisciplines.

Meanwhile, at a conference last week, a graduate student asked me if she should get her Ph.D. in Sociology or Women's Studies. Can you guess what I told her?


Anonymous said...

Reading that gives me a headache.
People spend sooooo much money for college, and for that money, they should actually be in a better position to gain better-paying employment, don't you think?

ken said...

A headache and nausea here.
I almost emailed the prof who asked the question about hiring a WS PhD but others made my point which was, as WS grad student who also has an interdisciplinary MA (in gender and cultural studies) there is no way in hell that I am getting a job in a traditional discipline. Not that getting a traditional discipline job is any easier these days. I knew this going in and rolled the proverbial dice hoping that by the time I get on the job market WS and gender studies departments will want WS PhDs. Here's hoping!