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.