"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Saturday, July 16, 2011

5 Myths About the Academic Job Market

JC's recent post about the "exciting opportunity" he was invited to apply for (one-year VAP position in Bumblefuck teaching 4/4) reminds me of how prevalent myths about the academic job market are, despite the fact that some of us are starting to wake up, smell the proverbial coffee, and point out publicly that the emperor has no clothes (and is butt ugly, too, and, yes, I know I'm mixing all sorts of metaphors and running on my sentences, but it's Saturday morning and I get to do that sort of thing -- because it's my blog!).

Anyhoo, the following 5 nyths about the academic job market are myths I wholeheartedly believed throughout graduate school, all the way until the very end, when I finally started to wise up and pay attention to what was happening to me and my colleagues rather than to what people said was supposed to happen:

Myth #1: If you do everything right, you will get a job.
This is an especially egregious myth to perpetuate among smart, highly motivated, highly ambitious graduate students. The idea is that if you write a stellar dissertation, publish at least one (preferrably more) full-length, peer-reviewed articles before hitting the market, teach a ton, present at a dozen conferences, win awards, and receive the highest accolades from your committee, then a job awaits you, even while you are still ABD.

This is bull$hit through and through. Every adviser, well meaning as they might be, will point to someone for whom this was true and tell their newest protégé(e) to follow so-and-so's example, and a job, too, will follow. What they neglect to say is that, for every person who did everything right and got a job, there are at least two or three others who also DID EVERYTHING RIGHT and DIDN'T get a job.

Most advisers don't perpetuate this myth maliciously -- they really do mean well and want to see their students go on to get tenure-track jobs and be successful. But they have selective memories. Confronting the truth would be painful and would probably also force them to confront some perhaps even uglier truths about contingent faculty in their own departments and the intimate relationship between the lack of "good" jobs and the overuse of adjuncts.

Myth #2: If you are willing to go anywhere and everywhere, a job awaits you.
While it is true that you increase your chances of finding a job by applying to everything and anything you might be remotely qualified for, doing so is no garauntee that a job will come of it. Again, for every person who applies for a hundred jobs in a given year, lands 2 interviews and 1 job (at teaching intensive regional college in Bumblefuck), there are countless others who did the same thing and got nothing. They're adjuncting or VAPing again and waiting to go through the whole application process all over again. Is it worth it? That's up to you, but, at the very least, don't believe that just because you're willing to go anywhere and everywhere and apply to a hundred jobs -- most of whch aren't even a good match for you -- year after year that eventually all your hard work will pay off. Odds are it won't.

Myth #3: Spending years taking VAP and postdoc positions will eventually pay off.
In most professions, having more experience is a good thing. In academe, most people have enough teaching experience by the time they go on the market the first time. As long as you can prove that you can independently design a syllabus and manage a class, which is clear from your having taught multiple classes during multiple semesters as an adjunct while you were ABD, you have enough experience for any committee considering your application. Year after year beyond that doesn't add up to anything and won't improve your odds. If you want to move across the country to take a VAP position because it pays better than your current adjunct gig and you haven't yet decided to throw in the towel, go for it, but don't believe you're making yourself a better candidate for the next go-around on the market.

Myth #4: The people who do end up with tenure-track jobs do so because they have the very best credentials.
See Myth #1. While it is certainly true that those who do get jobs are highly qualified, just because you got one doesn't mean you have better credentials than those who didn't. Committees narrow down their applications to the most highly qualified and choose to interview -- and ultimately hire -- those they believe would be the best "fit" for their department. You have no control over how "fit" is subjectively determined by each individual committee and, other than trying to style your letter to the job ad and the department's online description, you have no control over making yourself that one person who "fits" best -- and in some cases, while you might be good at the job, you really might not be the best "fit" and, should they hire you because you were clever enough to make yourself seem like the best "fit," you could well end up miserable.

Myth #5: Spending time working on a back-up plan is a waste of time and will interfere with the time you need to spend on making yourself the very best candidate for academic jobs.
As Myths #1-4 illustrate, putting all your eggs in one basket is just plain stupid. Spending 8-10 years in graduate school gives you more than enough time to build up your CV AND work on a back-up plan. Once you're done with your coursework, use your tuition remission to bank some practical skills. Just take a class here or there -- say, in accounting or technical writing or the language you studied just barely enough to pass the language exam. Or, once you have "enough" teaching experience, get some other type of job. My current job is a perfect example of the kind of job a graduate student could do "full-time" and still have time to work on the dissertation. I have more free time now than I had while I was teaching, I'm making nearly twice as much money (albeit still not much in the grand scheme of things), and I'm building a skill set that is actually marketable in the "real world" (my job type at a different kind of organization -- larger and for-profit -- pays quite well, but no one would have hired me in that context without the experience I'm now gaining). It's much better to do this while you're still a graduate student -- and, yes, you do have the time to pursue your academic goals at the same time you're working on having other options besides adjuncting when that first academic job search doesn't pan out. You have, literally, EIGHT TO TEN YEARS!!


  1. Amen to this entire post. It should be mandatory reading for every aspiring graduate student, with applicants to graduate programs required to sign an affidavit that they've read it before they enroll, and every semester when they enroll for classes.

    I'm only half kidding.

    These myths aren't just incorrect, but they're actively harming the bright, motivated, eager graduate students who spend years and years playing by the rules, only to be left behind without a second glance by their departments once they hand in their dissertations.

    It is simply wrong that these myths persist.

  2. The emphasis on playing by the rules both in terms of scholarship and professionalization is, in general, bad for academe. In the post I was talking about professionalization, but "doing everything right" for a lot of people has also come to mean toeing the line in their scholarship. Doing this may make them seem like a better "fit" as job candidates, but what happens to originality? This thought may deserve its own post, but I fear that people who are intellectually independent enough to question the system and refuse to play by the rules of the job market may be the same ones who have the most potential to make original contributions to their fields.

  3. Your point about people being hired because they are the best 'fit' for a job is correct. People are chosen because politically, in terms of their political views, or socially, in terms of their social connections (background), they are considered to fit the job. The problem comes when people who come into contact with them start to figure out that they aren't really the best academic researcher and teacher for the job. I've had a few academics in my field admit to me that they're not good academics, lack the necessary skills for our field, don't have good enough self-esteem, don't have as good a CV as I have. It's amazing - in all cases, to be brutally honest, these people were correct - but it was as if they felt embarrassed that I should be the one who doesn't have a permanent job and they did. I don't feel sorry for them for feeling so insecure. They deserve to feel that way!