It is a mass of hope, intelligence and tweed. Dozens of silent, slack-jawed young scholars crowd around a bulletin board. This is no game, no casual gathering place. The "job opportunities" board at the Washington Hilton is the focal point for newly minted PhDs who have come here to the centennial convention of the Modern Language Association with their bags crammed with argyle socks, oxford button-downs and curricula vitae.

How much time have they spent in the names of Dante and Dickens and Donne? How much sherry have they gulped at endless faculty get-togethers? These students of the written word know their (John) Ashbery from their (Shakespeare's) Elbow, but what, the cruel world asks, do they have to show for it?

These young scholars have gone through years and years of higher education, all the while watching former undergraduate classmates settle nicely into jobs at law firms, investment banks, brokerage houses. They have heard their parents joke about "my daughter the lawyer and my other daughter the 18th-century poetics expert." They have gone to Thanksgiving dinners where they have had to explain to Aunt Bess and Uncle Mort how they expect to convert a dissertation on Norse sagas into a re- spectable living. What's worse, they often have an easier time convincing Bess and Mort than they do convincing themselves.

"It's all about being paid a living wage to read and teach," says Jacqueline Patashnik, who recently earned a PhD in 18th-century British literature from Brown University. Patashnik is one of the lucky ones here. Representatives from four schools will interview her this weekend and, she says, "I'd take any one of those jobs. I'm 33 years old, I've spent 11 years in graduate school. You have to want to teach, you have to want it in your gut to stay with it for so long."

To get a job at a prestigious university with the possibility after six or seven years of winning a tenured position "is about a one-in-a-thousand proposition," says Scott Blanchard, a specialist in Renaissance literature from Columbia University. "I'm hoping for anything here. Anything. I got one rejection letter that said I was one of 300 people applying for the job. I didn't get a single interview invitation here. But I don't blame the MLA. I blame the country, really, for a generally anti-intellectual attitude. It's not the MLA's fault that more people aren't interested in things like Renaissance literature."

"The trouble is that it doesn't mean squat if you get a job," says Michelle Masse', who is on the faculty at George Mason University. "It's like winning the lottery if you get a job. There's very little correlation between skill and getting the job."

They are all looking for a noble and scholarly life, paid (if only modestly) to read, to study, to write, to teach, to honor the world's greatest works of the imagination. For years now, the annual MLA convention has been the gathering place for department heads and job candidates. A starting salary for the average job is about $20,000.

The tenured elders come here to give papers on such subjects as "Lacanian Hystereotypes" and "Toward a Counterhegemonic Criticism." Before the convention breaks up tomorrow, 2,000 papers will have been read. And some are here to renew friendships, to have a few drinks at the Henry James Society cash bar or gossip about the latest intrigue in the thickety field of deconstructionist criticism.

The young PhDs would dearly love such a scholarly and social weekend, but they need a job first. And they come here to look for one. "Meat market" is one of the gentler terms used to describe the scene.

Sara Thorne-Thomsen, who recently won a five-year appointment at Virginia Tech, remembers the atmosphere at the interviews: "At the MLA convention, you usually get interviewed in the hotel rooms. One of my colleagues told me she was interviewed by a chairman who was stretched out on the bed during the entire time she was up there . . . I once got to an interview as one female candidate was walking out of the room. The interviewer was sitting on a bed that looked hastily made. She didn't get the job.

"You ask yourself why you go through all this time, what is all this agony?"

Those who have interviews this weekend at either the Hilton or the Sheraton Washington applied for them in advance. There are no chance encounters, no walking in unemployed and uninvited and walking out with the senior chair in Shakespeare studies.

The system, according to MLA official Richard Brod, used to be quite different.

"For many years the old-boy network took care of everything," he says. "Around the mid-'50s, the MLA realized it had to do something different, something to make the system a little bit fairer and more efficient. We're annoyed by that meat-market image. The old-boy network was the way you used to arrange to have your book reviewed or get your grad students a job interview. People bemoan the loss of that and call this a meat market. I can't buy that."

After World War II, higher education in the United States blossomed and there was a fine life in store, it seemed, for everyone who followed the proper course: graduate school, orals, dissertation, assistant professor, associate professor, tenured academic nirvana.

The numbers are tight these days. About 1,000 students earn PhDs in English each year and about 800 more earn degrees in foreign languages and literature. In the last six to eight years, Burt says, 60 percent got academic jobs and an additional 30 percent work in related fields, such as teaching at secondary schools. During the 1960s numerous colleges dropped required courses and the humanities departments suffered. Now that many of those same schools are demanding that students take "core courses" in the humanities and foreign languages, MLA officials hope the job market will expand. But no one expects the market to resemble the one of the 1950s and 1960s any time soon.

"What you have now are young, fine hotshot people coming up for tenure and they're being reviewed by older people, some of whom were never very good but were around at the right time," says Brod. "These young scholars are expected to do two books and they're being judged by senior people who have never done two books themselves."

In recent years, scholars who could no longer stand the tension or suspense of the tenure chase switched to other fields. Law school is a popular option; business is another. New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia state universities have all offered "retraining" programs for PhDs.

The dicey job market has also created a generation of "gypsy scholars," teachers who move from one short-term appointment to the next. Many of the job descriptions on the bulletin board at the Hilton are "fill-in" stints, appointments that promise little more than an academic way station.

Love, as one might suspect, is another problem.

Lowell Frye and Elizabeth Deis are married. They both hold doctorates in English from Duke. They are both specialists in Victorian literature. They often collaborate on scholarly articles and they are now sharing a single position at Hampden-Sydney College in rural Virginia. Victorian literature is not exactly computer science -- which is to say that very few colleges have room for both Frye and Deis. Most have room for neither.

"We know all sorts of couples who commute from one end of the country to the other because they can't find jobs together," says Frye.

"We're looking to move," Deis says. "The position we have is just for three years. They call that 'terminal.' "

Now the top schools in English are Yale, Berkeley, Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Virginia, Stanford and Princeton aren't bad either, and the young scholars here, the ones circling around the bulletin board, dream of a life at those places. But most of them have had to alter their dreams.

"I've often asked senior professors if they'd tell their sons and daughters to go into the field," says Brod. "They say, 'I tell them to keep their options open. Or live near a law school.' "