Image: Saint Joseph Academy/Wikimedia Commons
A very good (and much younger) friend of mine — we’ll call him “Dave” — just landed a full-time teaching job, with a fantastic salary and excellent benefits. That is obviously cause for rejoicing. The only gnat in the lemonade, so to speak, is that the job is not at a college — it’s at a prestigious private high school.
Dave’s story will probably sound familiar to many of you. He finished his humanities Ph.D. a couple years ago in a very respectable program and then went on the tenure-track market. While he was searching, his university hired him in a full-time, temporary position (as many universities do), renewable for a maximum of three years. So he didn’t worry much when his first year on the market went reasonably well — he got several interviews — but failed to produce a job offer.
When his second season of job hunting ended the same way, he began to get a little nervous. (He actually finished second in two or three searches that year; unfortunately, the salary for a second-place finish is exactly the same as it is for those who don’t even get an interview.) Did I mention that Dave is married and has small children? “I just don’t know if I can keep doing this to my family,” he told me late last fall, after getting the bad news about yet another second-place finish.
So this spring he resolved to start looking elsewhere — that is, in places other than academe, on what is often called the “alt-ac” market for Ph.D.s. Dave is a very capable guy with a number of skills, and did other types of work before deciding to get a doctorate, so he was hopeful he could find something. Then he got a call from a friend who had just turned down a teaching job at an excellent private high school in a very nice part of the country. He wanted to know if Dave was interested; in fact, this friend had already given Dave’s name to the school.
Curious, and needing a job — any decent job — Dave called the school. Its administrators immediately invited him for an interview the following week. By the time he got home, he had a tentative offer, which was finalized within a few days. I don’t feel free to divulge his salary, which he giddily shared with me, but suffice it to say it’s significantly more than he would have made as a first-year assistant professor at any of the colleges or universities where he interviewed. His benefits package includes health insurance for his family as well as free private school tuition for his kids and a hefty moving allowance. (I’ve held faculty and administrative jobs at five different colleges, and no one’s ever given me a moving allowance.)
I realize this is all anecdotal. Just one success story. The fact that my friend got a good job at a private school doesn’t necessarily mean you will, if you decide to go that route. (That said, Dave recommended a friend who had just finished his Ph.D., and that guy, too, got a good, high-paying job at the same school.) Plus, Dave’s salary is a lot higher than the national average for schoolteachers, so even if you landed a teaching job at a school, it might not pay as well. In short, I’m not suggesting that the private school market is some kind of panacea to the Ph.D. employment problem.
At the same time, I suspect that many Ph.D.’s have not even considered this alternative, or at least not considered it seriously. Judging by the way my friend was courted, some of the nation’s top private schools are actively recruiting Ph.D.s, because that enhances their appeal to wealthy parents. As Dave told me after he returned from his interview, “It was so nice just to feel wanted for once.”
So before you dismiss the idea out of hand, consider the following:
- According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the number of private schools in this country has been increasingly steadily, from about 26,000 in 1992 to nearly 31,000 in 2012. Those numbers are expected to rise in the near future, perhaps sharply.
- Correspondingly, during that same time frame, the number of students attending private schools has increased by about 12 percent and the number of teachers employed by those schools by about 10 percent.
- While those numbers pale in comparison to the increase in college enrollments — 31 percent just since 2000 — job gains due to enrollment growth have been severely undercut by an increasing reliance on contingent faculty. The American Association of University Professors, in its latest “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession,” estimates that the percentage of full-time, tenure-track faculty is about half of what it was just 40 years ago — and that downward trend seems destined to continue.
- The average annual salary for a private school teacher nationwide, according to the job-search site Glassdoor.com, is $47,000. Sure, that does not compare too well to the average salary for a new assistant professor at a four-year institution — a figure the AAUP puts at $66,500 a year. But it does compare favorably to the average starting salary for a faculty member at a community college: $49,700 a year. Perhaps more to the point, that private-school average is roughly three times more than the $16,700 a year that part-time faculty make, on average.
Of course, the biggest drawback for many Ph.D.s — and certainly for Dave, as he confided — is the fact that a teaching job at a high school, even an elite private one, is not a college job. Like most people who pursue a doctorate, he had dreamed of being a faculty member and a researcher at a university. The mental adjustment will probably take some time, as will overcoming the not-insignificant blow to his ego.
Fortunately, the Dave I know is made of pretty stern stuff. He’ll be fine. He has a good job — no, a great job — that enables him to teach the subject he loves while providing well for his family and putting aside money for retirement. Also, as I reminded him, he’ll be teaching the same type of students he had at his selective university, just a year earlier. (He’ll also be teaching essentially the same students that I now have in my dual enrollment classes at my two-year college — advanced seniors from good local high schools. And it took me nearly 30 years to get to that point.)
I understand that, for some Ph.D.s, the idea of teaching at a high school, even a prestigious one, might not appeal. Then again, it might be another potential career path to consider, a way to expand your job search beyond the soul-sucking morass that is higher education. As Dave put it when I asked for permission to tell his story here: “Anything to help other unemployed Ph.D.s overcome the stigma of not taking a tenure-track job.”