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

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Insanity of the Academic Job Market

This is yet another phrase that readers have Googled to find this blog, and, truthfully, you could write volumes about the insanity of the academic job market.

And maybe I will give it a good long rant at a later date, but after reading this post today, in which Sisyphus wonders whether a search committee will care if a candidate has ndependently designed yet one more course, after years of adjuncting, I am reminded about one particular type of insanity that the academic job market reproduces year in and year out:

That is, the insanity of believing that you have any degree of control whatsoever over whether a search committee decides you are a good "fit."

Because, beyond reasonable measures like writing a non-stupid cover letter, having the requisite publications, conference presentations, recommendations, and modest teaching experience, there really isn't squat doodle you can do.

Why? Because everyone else has those things, too.

Above and beyond, you cannot anticipate what may or may not stand out to one committee or another. One committee might give you props for that fancy fellowship you got one year, but, alas, that committee isn't searching for a candidate in your field. Another committee might see a particular publication or certain class you taught as beneficial, but, odds are, someone else has similar credentials.

So, people, please stop stressing out and rearranging your lives trying to anticipate what some clueless group of 4-6 people (who don't know you and don't care about you) is going to think of one thing or another on your application. You can beat yourself up believing it might make a difference, but, from what I've observed these past few years, it won't make any.

What matters is this mythical beast called Fit, and, if you are going to cast your fate with the Job Market Gods, you might as well just leave it up to them. There is no point wasting your time and energy trying to determine if planning and prepping that new course in the spring (or whatever it is you think you need to do as job season launches into full swing) will make a difference -- much less actually doing the planning and prepping -- because ONE CLASS after all these years of adjuncting is not going to mean much of anything.

You know what Einstein said about insanity: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

You may or may not get a committee interested in you this year, but, at this point, if you have several years of adjuncting under your belt (or postdocing or VAPing) it won't be because of any one thing you've done.

And what bothers me most about this particular breed of insanity the academic job market spawns? That it hurts people who seem like otherwise good people, people who not only haven't done anything wrong but have done a good job at their jobs, people who are conscientious teachers, thoughtful scholars, cool colleagues.  And it is just totally wrong and insane to reduce them to false hopes and desperation -- and that, through this abuse and exploitation, the system reproduces itself year after year after year after year ... as we all play along ....

It's time to break the cycle.


  1. Great post.

    I will add that I interviewed on campus this spring for a job at a SLAC. I didn't get it - I finished second. They had nearly 150 applicants to the original post.

    The person who got the job has completely different teaching/research interests than me, and the same number and caliber of publications. I'm sure they'll do a great job. They aren't noticeably better or worse than me (on paper, anyway, haha). Obviously, they "fit" better, somehow. Who knows why?

    Now...while I was prepping for the campus interview, I noticed that I had a big, glaring, obvious typo in my cover letter. Right there, in the first paragraph. And they still brought me to campus out of 100+ applicants.

    Who knows what made that school call me? I'm not the best academic out there, and I violated the cardinal rule by sending out a sloppy application package (not purposely, of course). Meanwhile, someone from my department who was in a VAP post applied for the same job, but didn't get called despite a more impressive teaching and publication record and a completed dissertation.

    Now, I'm obviously not advocating that people send out typo-laden cover letters to gain interviews. :) However, even this experience shows that you have very little control over the process. "Fit" can mean any range of things, and it will often have little to nothing to do with how perfect your application packet is or exactly what classes you've taught.

    (And sure, the real world job market is somewhat like this as well. The difference, though, is that you're not working with a finite application season in the "real world." If you don't get one job in the outside world, you don't have to wait 6-9 months to apply to another one.)

  2. I have perceived a greater correlation between getting hired and having certain qualifications in my current position. I think I'll make a post about this.

  3. What a brilliant post!

    I competed for my position with over 400 people and only got it because the committee "liked my outgoing and fun personality." I'm autistic, so an outgoing and fun personality is one thing I definitely don't have.

    Besides, a fun personality? WTF? How is that a decisive criterion?

    You are right, it's a total crap shoot.

  4. Thanks, everybody.

    It's the issue of control I really wanted to stress in this post, among the many other insane things. When I see how anxious people get, wondering about every little detail, I just feel like there's something really wrong, on an almost pathological level: Should they have emphasized this tiny thing more than that tiny thing? Should they have agreed to teach that extra class, outside their area, last summer because it might please some mythical, yet-to-be-formed search committee, even though they already have a ton of teaching experience? Should they work on revising another article, a paper they don't care about and don't want to spend time on, because some other mythical committee might care that they have 4 articles instead of 3, or that an article on this one topic might be more impressive than the work they've already done?

    It's all just neither here nor there, and yet the illusion that there's something more you can do produces so much anxiety ... It's sick and sad, and it should stop.

    And, as you've all said, none of it has anything to do with qualifications. It isn't as if people who aren't qualified are the ones getting the jobs. It is true, of course, that qualified people ARE getting hired -- but there is an overwhelming majority of equally qualified people who are doing the same work but as adjuncts for grossly unequal pay.

    The insanity of this situation is that so many people accept it as the norm.