A thought on advice about the job market

Doubtless many of us aspiring academics make all kinds of easily correctable missteps while on the job market. The second time around, I can already recognize mistakes I made last time, and I’m certain I’m making fresh mistakes now. We hit the wrong tone with our cover letters; we blow interviews; we rush through our applications and make oversights. All this I take for granted — we’re only human, and indeed people who aspire to be academics are probably prone, as a group, to specific types of mistakes in this regard. Everyone can stand to improve, and good advice is priceless.

Nevertheless, I find myself increasingly angry when I read columns offering advice in navigating the job market on various blogs and at publications such as Inside Higher Ed. I know that all these columns are well-meaning and that whatever flaws they have — such as a tendency to be a little patronizing, specifically to act like their readers all have Asperger’s and/or have never interacted with other human beings before — are in the general category of morally blameless human failings that we all have. The problem is not with the individuals writing such articles, nor with individual articles in the genre, but with the underlying tendency to assume that it’s all about individuals and to ignore structural problems.

For instance, maybe I come across poorly in an interview and could use help with that — but if academics as a class honed their interview skills, would universities respond by opening up a greater number of tenure lines? If all the cover letters were suddenly much better written one year, would departments say, “You know what, these applicants are all so good that we’re going to hire three instead of just one”? The really fundamental problem is that the number of academic jobs is being structurally reduced — not primarily because of outside shocks such as the economic crisis, but overwhelmingly because of the priorities and actions of various actors within the university system itself.

This trend was enabled by people already enjoying the benefits of the tenure system, who showed remarkable short-sightedness in allowing administrators to systematically gut the profession and turn it into a perma-temping affair. And somehow this system keeps producing individuals who believe that they individually can do all the right things and stay ahead of the crowd and get theirs and so — in an example of what Jared Woodard would call “aspirational Stockholm Syndrome” — they have tended to be relatively uninterested in what’s happening to the system as a whole that makes it seem somehow reasonable and prudent to try to have three books and ten articles under your belt when applying for an entry-level job, and on top of that to be really concerned on a fine-grained level about one’s competence in certain highly stylized social interactions.

35 thoughts on “A thought on advice about the job market

  1. Agreed. I remember one article that echoes much of what you say here. Thomas H. Benton, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 30, 2009). http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846

    Here’s the last paragraph:
    “It’s hard to tell young people that universities recognize that their idealism and energy — and lack of information — are an exploitable resource. For universities, the impact of graduate programs on the lives of those students is an acceptable externality, like dumping toxins into a river. If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault. It will make you feel ashamed, and you will probably just disappear, convinced it’s right rather than that the game was rigged from the beginning.”

  2. I think articles like this need to start helping change the conversation. Benton’s article, in my opinion, is just the other side of the coin to the “positive vibe” job search one. Let’s fucking organize.

  3. Well said, but I also don’t think there’s any shortage of articles criticizing structural problems.

    I may be wrong, but my impression is that most graduate students (or at least the ones who are concentrating on their career goals) read all of the articles, try their best to put together the perfect application, but also realize that the whole thing is a rather depressing crap shoot. What else are they supposed to do, though? Maybe keep a Plan B in the back of their mind… maybe wait for tenured faculty and administrators to do their part in fixing the systemic problems… fine. But given all that, the reality still seems to be that overthinking one’s portfolio is more or less what we’ve got to work with. And I think lots of us do so without being ignorant of the limitations of “becoming the perfect applicant”.

    I’m not disagreeing with your points here, I just don’t know if there’s anything much to do with these problems except to be aware of them.

  4. …upon seeing Anthony’s response, I guess I’m just more pessimistic about the extent of the role that younger scholars can play in the organizing, apart from keeping abreast of it.

  5. upon seeing Anthony’s response, I guess I’m just more pessimistic about the extent of the role that younger scholars can play in the organizing, apart from keeping abreast of it.

    … or, I would add, rejecting the notion one must be employed in a university to be a scholar.

  6. One thing we can do, and probably should do, is pressure our advisers and departments to do more. I get the feeling they often just give up, taking the Eeyore approach to the structural problems. After all, they’re set up for life, so why should they make their lives more difficult. So, let’s make their lives difficult!

  7. I do understand the attitude you’re presenting, Evan, and in practice I think I’m a great example of that kind of the “do your best and hope” approach. Other than failing to go with the most reputable school from which I had an offer when applying to PhD programs, I’d say I’ve been pretty much absolutely as careerist as possible — I’ve placed articles in major journals, published a book already, presented at my national disciplinary conference every year (often twice), etc. — and I still work from the assumption that I will most likely never get a tenure-track job.

    I don’t really know what younger scholars can do, though I do know that there are some campaigns already underway — but don’t you think that if we maybe shifted some of our collective mental energy away from overthinking our portfolios and toward what we could do, that might be helpful?

    I’d add that it’s not like this is an academia-only problem. It’s a hard road to be a grad student nowadays, but it’s also a hard road to be an office worker and certainly to be a manual worker of any kind. Every level of society is afflicted with the twin scourges of neoliberalism and a self-interested managerial class. Yet somehow the most educated and informed class of people is devoting a huge portion of their collective energy to what amounts to trying to get better at throwing dice.

  8. Brad, of course. And thinking about ways to work outside the university system and still do this sort of work is part of changing the discourse. For instance, why aren’t those inside the university system reaching out more to their non-universitaire colleagues? Obviously, part of the answer is that doing so doesn’t help move forward their jobs, but when you’re tenured you might as well start doing this sort of “fuck my career” stuff.

  9. “… or, I would add, rejecting the notion one must be employed in a university to be a scholar.”

    This is fine, and I’m happy to encourage this. I guess I don’t see how it directly challenges structural problems in the university, though, unless you mean to encourage a situation where the label “independent scholar” does not become a stigma. My experience has been that in certain fields (medieval studies, for instance), unaffiliated scholars are more normal and more accepted, and I agree that this sort of thing should be encouraged.

    I also think that pressuring the department is worthwhile, but the thing that probably holds up such pressure from students is the same thing that Adam is talking about… no one wants to rock the boat, because no one wants to jeopardize their chances at landing a job.

    All of my comments here sound a bit like naysaying, but I’m really quite open to the sorts of things that are being suggested here. I think perhaps my natural default is just to be cautious about what’s advisable.

  10. I don’t for a moment think it’ll change the structural problems in the university. I’m not even sure about ‘encouraging’ it. It potentially carries w/ it a retrograde implication that such non-careerist paths are really only suitable for the independently wealthy — due to the fact it costs so much for the education that seems to empower the independent scholar. In the absence of such wealth, I should think it is primarily the outlet for those of us who wish to avoid thinking ourselves “failures” for not securing a full-time position. If this is so, it probably only becomes an outlet after the bitter pill of repeated rejections (or, arguably even worse, inadequate employment).

    I would like to think it might have transformative power. Perhaps in the way that Anthony suggests. But I am not particularly hopeful.

  11. I’ve long been puzzled by the seeming cowardice of tenured faculty, and I think that this recent post by Tim Burke might be of interest — while they might be “safe” in sheer economic terms, they have basically signed on for a lifetime within a given institution and probably don’t want to live out that lifetime as a rabble-rousing oddball that everyone maybe thinks has a point but is also tired of.

  12. Or perma-temp labor could organize.

    I’d also add that, psychologically, tenure-track teleology needs to be destroyed, as both state of realization and as self-evaluative norm.

  13. I don’t think that the model of skilled trades unions is a bad one at all for academics. Then the adjunct union could reestablish the professoriate as a cartel-style profession, like doctors or lawyers — and strike every time a university president starts campaigning to build yet another new fucking building.

  14. At my campus, Univeristy of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the faculty were inspired recently by a strike called by the grad student union that succeeded in its demand (no redefining of what amount of TAship counts for tuition waver without renegotiating the entire contract). The financial situation that is supposed to justify the cutbacks to the humanities and to require hiring part-time lecturers only is not only a result of lower state support, but deep systemic problems (failure to recover indirect costs associated with science and engineering research grants, for example). Here at Illinois, the faculty were today told that they will have four furlough days this coming semester. Our sister campus in Chicago is pushing for unionization of the faculty. One colleague of mine here, Cary Nelson, is the president of the AAUP and has just come out with a very fine book about the issues raised in this discussion, No University is an Island (NYU Press, 2010). I recommend it. I personally have joined the union here, and I am persuaded that unionization is the only serious way to make the necessary changes to our ever-more corporatized universities.

  15. Yes, the AAUP is doing the Lord’s work, and the many grad student/adjunct union movements are moving in the right direction. Just thinking out loud, I wonder if the two levels could be combined — if the AAUP could become, in addition, a national union or a federation of such unions. That way the AAUP could add some hard power to its soft power — not just censure institutions, but say, “Our people will no longer teach your classes unless you change this.”

  16. (It could be that things like that are already underway, or that there are good reasons that they’re not or shouldn’t be. I am seriously just talking off the top of my head there.)

  17. A couple of thoughts to add to a fascinating discussion. There is an excellent article by Massimo de Angelis and David Harvie in Historical Materialism 17.3 called ‘”Cognitive Capitalism” and the Rat-Race: How Capital Measures Immaterial Labour in British Universities’. It has some useful suggestions for what can be done. Further, here in Australia we have the National Tertiary Education Union, which includes ‘academics’ and ‘general staff’. It’s nation-wide, has majority members at each campus etc. However, it is a bit lame, restricted to pushing to protect current workplace situations and dealing with collective contracts every five years. Third, on a more personal level, I’ve never had tenure (or ‘permanency’ as we call it here) and probably never will. Part of the reason is that I don’t like the way universities suck people in and get them defending the status quo. However, I have had the luxury of choice, since I’ve turned down tenure on a few occasions (difficult to say without sounding up oneself). The catch is that I often stare unemployment in the face. I’d like to second Dan’s point about tenure-track teleology. If fact, a more radical plan would be to axe tenure as such, set pay limits and spread the salary resources around – even though that’s a stop-gap measure since the wage relation itself is alienating.

  18. I think this discussion is important, and I agree with many of the comments made. I find myself in a particular scenario that leads me down the naysaying path. While I don’t feel comfortable detailing those specifics here, I will say that they have left me feeling two conflicting emotions: the recognition that, because of certain systemic dysfunctionalities in my department/university, I must look elsewhere to complete my studies; and an overwhelming feeling of failure. So much of me wishes I could afford (and let’s be certain to underline the economic aspect here) the life of an “independent scholar,” but I also know that’s a bit of a pipe dream.

    I’ve also watched friends and colleagues go through yet another round of interviews this year (at AAR and MLA). It does seem such a waste, sometimes. I’d also like to add that the academy, and departments in particular, seem inept when it comes to thinking or encouraging their students to consider the multitude of careers that a PhD student might pursue. Too often lip service is paid to the so-called “non-traditional” career path, which, even by its very name, signals that its pursuit is deviant. I’m interested, both intellectually and existentially (as if the two could ever really be separated), in the way that certain affects circulate and stick to people (btw, Sara Ahmed writes powerfully about these issue). In this case, how academic structures, including departmentally, install fear and failure as the mechanisms by which to propel its students toward a normative path of declared success and happiness, such that the structurally installed inability to meet that target merits re- ab/jection. I’m at a loss as to what to do about such targeting thought, except to say that it should be rejected and actively resisted. By what means, however, I do not know.

    As a cautionary note, I would add that, at least among medievalists (since the topic was already broached), the label “independent scholar” has also become so capacious that, at least for some, it no longer differentiates the credentialed scholar from the enthusiastic amateur. Here I have in mind the very queer mix (myself included) that gathers yearly for the medieval congress in Kalamazoo, MI. But maybe that’s also the point? Last year I heard Carolyn Dinshaw, a major figure in both medieval literary and queer studies, speak about credentialing puts students on a normative path, and how being in touch with the amateur scholar can help torque those same roads. Similarly, I recently heard Heather Love, another queer studies scholar who works on literary modernism, talk about how she can only now turn explicitly to a project on class — now, because she’s tenured. Academia, she pointed out (but certainly isn’t the first to do so), engages in a form of perverse amnesia when it comes to matters of class and economics: it either wants to forget that such issues exist at all, or pretend that everyone in academic is middle class (whatever such a designation might mean today or in the future).

    Also, let me add, regarding the comments about tenured faculty not “standing up,” that we should remember how often one of the aspects conditioning the decision for tenure is a concern for what kind of a colleague someone has and/or will be. I think this is an absolutely absurd evaluative criteria, since it basically (or at least potentially) rigs the system. Higher Ed Law, especially around tenure, is a complex bag of crap, and I’m not sure about all the specifics (correct me, please), but I’ve seen faculty denied tenure for such reasons. And let’s face it, the whole system of tenure is fundamentally pathological these days: it seems designed to go against the very aspects it was originally instituted to protect. (Remember, btw, tenure in American universities is only about a century old)

    Finally, I’d like to recommend to folks the recent New Yorker essay on the state of the California system, and the riots that have occurred there over the last year.

  19. The solution, as ever, is organise. Here at Nottingham they are planning to put the theology department and a number of others in a new building, which is particularly bad for other departments as they have custom facilities. Sadly, the department board at the moment don’t seem to be having much fight in them to just reach out to these other departments and try and have some form of resistance against estates.

  20. Certainly some form of organization or at least community is necessary — it’s very, very difficult for an individual to resist the imperatives of the big Other alone. I was recently thinking this with regard to Christmas — even if someone objects to various aspects of the holiday and doesn’t wish to celebrate it and has very good and true reasons for all of it, they are likely to feel very lonely and miserable if they try to resist it on their own. Similarly, someone who decides on their own (and correctly!) that institutional affiliation has at best an indirect relationship with the importance of scholarly work, etc., is going to have a lot of trouble maintaining that conviction if they can’t find some kind of affirming intellectual circle of similarly situated people — without that kind of circle, they are likely to descend into arrogance (specifically: “I’m better than all those professors precisely because I don’t have a job!”), crankhood, or resentment, or some combination of the three.

  21. Just a point of clarification: the AAUP does indeed stand behind its chapters on various campuses becoming collective bargaining units. There may already be existing faculty organizations that have that as their goal. It takes a general vote of the faculty (with 50% + 1) to win collective bargaining rights for any such organization. Cary Nelson’s idea is to make the union on each campus the moral heart of the campus (health rights for all workers, etc).

  22. Some Catholic schools are going with a system that pays lecturers $40,000/year but no tenure. That way the university gets good teachers at a decent cost, but doesn’t have to commit to tenure. I tend to think that’s the future . . .

    Faculty salaries have been propped up over the last few decades by cheap adjunct pay, mostly in the form of reduced teaching loads. Universities didn’t want to raise faculty pay, and they couldn’t cut pay, so they just reduced teaching loads and then hired cheap adjuncts to teach the classes. Much easier to rip off the students than cut faculty pay.

  23. Roland,

    Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism mentions that essay, and similar work on the neoliberalisation of academia a lot in the best section of the book.

  24. I’m not sure if this story has made its way to readers here, but I thought I’d share the following links.

    The first is a paper posted and read by proxy at the recent MLA convention in Philadelphia. Its author, who could neither afford to attend the conference nor had any interviews (and all this despite being a leading figure in digital humanities), offers a frank discussion of life as a contingent faculty member.


    These links offer some commentary on the paper’s rather explosive reception:



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