The ritual satisfaction of stating the Grim Facts about the job market

As a recent Twitter exchange between Bryan Klaus and Zunguzungu has highlighted, a significant part of demonstrating that you’ve been properly socialized as an academic is being able to recite Grim Facts about how terrible the job market is. We’re all familiar with this: “It’ll take me ten years to finish this degree because I’m being exploited for cheap teaching labor, and once I’m done, I’ll be on food stamps teaching in a community college located deep within a coal mine,” etc., etc.

I’ve indulged in such grim speculation myself. What I always question, though, is what function it really serves. Why this rush to make sure everyone knows you’re as jaded and cynical as possible? In discussion with Brad, we started to converge on the idea that it’s a way for academics, especially men in the humanities, to think of themselves as tough: “Yeah, I took this self-destructive path, because I’m just that bad-ass.” It’s the idea of the humanities PhD as a self-inflicted cigarette burn. Surely the women will swoon: “He’s really smart, but he’s purposefully giving up his chance for a viable middle class lifestyle — he’s so dreamy!” And the women who do this get a chance to show that they’re one of the guys, too, not some wimpy idealist.

If this is satisfying to people, I say they should go ahead — it’s not as though if we came up with a better way of stating the problem, administrators would respond by opening up more tenure lines. But I do wonder if there’s a better and more honest way of talking about why we do this despite the odds. At least I’ve tried to develop a coherent way of thinking about it, a way of acting with some kind of integrity in what are objectively very difficult circumstances.

My approach has been that the job market is apparently very random. We can follow all the best advice in the world, but it still comes down to the preferences of a handful of people at some randomly-chosen department and the outcome of a power struggle that probably no one outside the situation could ever fully understand or predict. So aside from broad guidelines (try to publish in good journals! present at conferences! get teaching experience! finish!) that 95% of PhD candidates are following anyway, there’s essentially no way of tailoring yourself to the job market.

Under such circumstances, the only thing you can do is be true to yourself. Use your grad school years (and as many years after as you can hold out without going crazy) to do what you want to do and what you probably wouldn’t be able to do under other circumstances. For me, that included language work, serious reading in the intellectual traditions most important to me, and serious writing that intervenes into debates I find compelling and important — and more recently getting the privilege of introducing young people to those intellectual traditions and debates.

All of those things are worth doing, and I wouldn’t have been able to do them otherwise. I maintain that they’re worth doing even if society isn’t willing to pay what they’re worth. I could’ve made a lot more money, or at least had a lot more job security, doing other things, but I don’t think those other things are likely as worthwhile, and having a full-time job takes up a lot of time, particularly in the kinds of professional fields that college grads try for — so that I wouldn’t have been able to do basically any of the things I’ve done during my time as a grad student and young academic. I would’ve kept reading regardless, and I would’ve wound up a well-informed person and a good conversationalist, but I never would’ve written the books and articles I’ve written, nor would I have been able to teach anyone in any kind of sustained way.

The fact that I chose what I did doesn’t make me a cynical badass, and I also don’t think it makes me particularly “idealistic” — after all, it’s not as though I’m making some noble sacrifice for the common good: I’m doing what I want to do and what I enjoy. I’m proud that I’ve been able to publish this much. I’m satisfied that I’ve done a good job of teaching and that students like me and my colleagues here want to advocate for me. Having made these choices might adversely affect my quality of life further down the road, but in the meantime it’s greatly enriched my quality of life compared to working 40-60 hours in some office.

There’s no sacrifice involved here, because I didn’t finally do all this stuff so that I could get a job — I want to get a job so that I can continue doing all this stuff! I want to get tenure so that I can finally stop worrying about where the next paycheck is coming from and have all that emotional energy freed up for my work. The fact that it might not work out doesn’t make me a jaded self-destructive badass, it makes me a person living in a world where we don’t always get what we want.

38 thoughts on “The ritual satisfaction of stating the Grim Facts about the job market

  1. Well said. Do you sense that you made some moves for more practical reasons than your own intellectual interests? For instance, many philosophy departments are looking for persons who do X but can also teach applied ethics. Consequently, there are many doctoral students, in say continental phil, that are now also doing some form of applied ethics. A friend of mine, for example, works on Heidegger and Deleuze but is also starting to work on health-care ethics. On the one hand, he wants to pursue his own interests. On the other hand, he wants to be more marketable (so that he can have job security and pursue his own interests). I think he’s wise and I myself have taken this approach for the past few years. What do you think? Wise or sell-out?

  2. I realize that I often come off in such conversations as very jaded and anti-academia and all. And I will admit that while a part of me wonders why “we” bother treading down a path where such a large percentage will not find a livable wage, an even greater part of me knows that we do so because the alternatives are not markedly (most of the time anyway) better, even if the pay is.

  3. Mark, I don’t think that calculations like that constitute “selling out” at all — in fact, I’d put the development of broad teaching competence in fields that are in demand under the heading of general guidelines everyone should be following. Choosing your dissertation topic based solely on such considerations would be selling out, though, and probably profoundly misguided as well (given that there are no guarantees even for sell-outs).

  4. Well, selling-out a little in your doctoral dissertation isn’t totally bad, provided you’re fine with nobody necessarily buying what you’re selling. One’s doctoral studies are, after all, all about professionalization; one’s MA thesis, in contrast, is when you really get to go to town on a topic you really like w/out any concern for a particular discipline. (Of course, if you’re slightly autistic like Adam, you can churn out two completely unrelated books whilst working on one’s dissertation.)

  5. I think some of it can be pre-emptive self-defense, too. As in, “I am still smart and accomplished even if I don’t end up with a job, since this process is more like a lottery and less like a test.” You can’t fail a lottery. You can’t beat yourself up for choosing the wrong pick-6 numbers.

  6. That’s very true, yes. What I am saying is that for some people it’s not necessarily a projection of cynicism. We grad students repeat the facts of the market compulsively: doesn’t this suggest that we don’t actually believe them? Perhaps because they are at such odds with the underlying (false) narrative of our meritocratic society? I know my family and friends, and maybe even myself, will assume I haven’t got a job because I screwed it up somewhere along the line. Where the fuck are my bootstraps, anyway?

  7. what I mean is that it may be an effort to actually make ourselves believe the truth to be true, and not keep it at a cynical distance in favor of the meritocratic narrative.

  8. FUN FACT: the term “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was originally coined to denote something impossible, like pulling yourself up by your own hair. Now, naturally, it’s become what’s expected of everyone.

  9. “We can follow all the best advice in the world, but it still comes down to the preferences of a handful of people at some randomly-chosen department and the outcome of a power struggle that probably no one outside the situation could ever fully understand or predict.”

    Yes–I think that’s exactly right.

    At the end of the day, virtually everybody is qualified and for better or worse (worse, most likely) it comes down to “intangibles.” These intangibles vary of course, e.g. “do I want to work with this person?”, “Is this person’s research plan threatening to mine?” “how was their lecture/teaching demonstration” “Were they wearing clothes that fit them properly?” (seriously) etc.

    In fact, I know someone who, once granted tenure, makes it a point to routinely blackball Ivy League candidates. Not much of a “market” in philosophy or religious studies, as far as I can tell (unless you specialize in Islam, or has that ship sailed already?).

  10. Rather than the pose of toughness, I feel like there’s a mental syllogism that goes something like this:

    1. Only a credulous fool would be an academic, since you will work in a community coal mine college.

    2. But I am not a credulous fool! Listen as I recite these statistics on death rates in a coal mine community college. I know the score.

    3. Therefore, I am not that credulous fool who will work in a coal mine. My seriousness demonstrates that I am made of sterner stuff!

  11. “I’m doing what I want to do and what I enjoy.”


    Before I was doing this I was working in journalism, where the recitation of doom is, likewise, an art form. And yes, it is grim, and it would nice sometimes if what I loved doing was also something that paid a gazillion dollars, but whenever we get started up in how horrible it all is, I just want to say,

    Yeah, but we get paid to do this.

    I think we forget how stupidly fantastic these careers are.

    But then, maybe I just spent enough time cutting trees and mowing lawns and stocking shelves and working as a clerk at a gas station that I know that, for me at least, working as a poorly paid academic or a poorly paid journalist is a million times better than my other options.

  12. As someone who has limited experience, this may come with a fairly large grain of salt, but it seems to me like the people who perpetuate the never ending cynicism/self-pity about being an academic have never generally had a **real job** prior to, during or after their undergraduate.

    All AP in HS + Honors in UG (insert extreme amount of ego build-up) + dissonance between image of graduate work and actual graduate work + lack of having to do something they hate under non-academic working conditions = perpetual bitterness, etc.

  13. My background is surely a major advantage, then: I’ve been a church janitor, grocery bagger (including bathroom cleaning duties, in a setting where bathroom use is normally an emergency), lawn care professional (working up to 80 hours some weeks), pizza delivery boy, kitchen worker, dishwasher, receptionist, data entry clerk, and substitute teacher. Any menial task you need done, I have experience and letters of recommendation.

  14. No harm intended, Craig. I do see a fundamental difference however, between doing 80 hours of manual labor outdoors, and grading papers in a quiet room on your own time.

    Yes Adam, I would think so. This post is in response to your decidedly non-cynical take on the issue after all.

  15. I wish I had “a quiet room” (my office is shared with thirty other people–one desk; one computer; one phone, but a bunch of broken chairs) and “[my] own time” (I easily work three to four times as many hours as I am paid). Where do you get a job like that?

  16. I think Adam gives voice to an issue that I tried awkwardly and with some trepidation to express on this blog some time ago, namely that, despite the often depressing realities of academia and the terrible job market therein (something not solely relegated to humanities PhDs, cf., the entire discourse surrounding this matter functions less as a means of addressing the “reality” of the situation, and more as a way of (to quote the post) “demonstrating that you’ve been properly socialized as an academic.” In circumstances such as these, I think one should be skeptical of how such discourses–regardless of their merit in addressing the real situation–function as a means of group-bonding or group-consciousness-reinforcement, which this post & Zunguzungu’s have done a very decent job of elucidating, especially the whole self-pitying heroic act of self-destruction/male angst dimension.

    But maybe more importantly, the issue seems to come down to one of “responsibility”: is it more “responsible” for academics to encourage undergraduates to go to graduate school if they’ve demonstrated sufficient interest/enthusiasm, or to discourage this choice based on the present realities of the academic job market. It’s really hard to say, but the answer seems to be both, because on the one hand it’s absolutely crucial to let students be 100% aware of the fact that no job is promised to them on the other end of the PhD process; yet on the other hand, for many there is no alternative because what we want to study is what we love, regardless of the outcome. And given the relative unpredictability of not only the academic job market, but of job markets in general and economy as a whole, maybe it’s worth it to pursue the PhD (caveat: so long as you’re not taking out any or lots of student loans in the process) if you can’t imagine yourself abandoning a subject you feel strongly attached to.

    In a way, to speak tangentially, it seems the very notion of a “market” of academic jobs is what introduces so many of the problems and “distortions” into the field in general, despite how free-market conservatives like to phrase the market as the “good guy” against evil statistic encroachment. It’s hard to tell whether people are genuinely interested in pursuing a given subject, or whether they want to do so based on a cynical vision of thereby instrumentally attaining a upper-middle class professor “lifestyle,” and do whatever it takes to achieve that (mold research-aims based on job market trends, apply to programs based solely on reputation and hiring data rather than fit, etc.). It’s hard to know whether there’s a genuine desire there or just market-teleology masked as desire.

  17. Is it an accepted practice for academics to take “demeaning jobs”? Surely, one can find something better with a graduate degree (in whatever) than, say, grocery bagging? I worked construction during summers in highschool, but other than that, it was mostly okay office jobs through grad school (once I got a permit to work, of course, something which is a pain to get for a non-citizen).

    I don’t think academic job market is a lottery – the odds are not as bad as in lottery – but I do wonder why every new generation does it nonetheless, considering how long this shortage of demand has in fact been the case?

    Is this just an academic thing? Do lawyers/doctors who work themselves to death dream they would have made different life choices and became professors or grocery baggers?

  18. My physical labor jobs were over by the end of college, and I feel reasonably comfortable with my odds of finding something in the “civilian” job market should it come to that. I didn’t mean to imply we’d all wind up as grocery baggers — just using that as an example of my knowledge of how it feels to work a crappy job, such that I know grading papers isn’t as bad as it gets.

  19. do a lot of people in academia state the grim facts in order to demonstrate how tough they are by pursuing this career nonetheless? i haven’t gotten this sense among the people i know–a very limited number of course. i know the reason i obsessively pay attention to these kinds of facts and figures is b/c it’s so freaking depressing, and i wonder what the fuck i’m doing–so BB’s explanation seemed most correct to me. i think also, to go along with what adam said, if you have a job outside of academia, you just don’t have time to work on these philosophical (and theological) issues that are so interesting: so many other jobs seem deathly boring.

  20. There was that report recently that there are 5057 janitors in the US with PhDs. Maybe out of Tolstoyian fervor, choosing the menial jobs.

    I wonder, though, if some of those 5057 didn’t pick that job. You’re alone most of the time (to do humanities stuff in your head, or be angry) and it’s a menial job with some bragging rights about how bad it is.

    Kevin, I would disagree with you at least annecdotally. The other day I was (by chance) asking the profs here what was the oddest job they’d done and got: roofer, fatory worker, fish monger and chauffer. This is in Germany, where education is a lot cheaper than in the US and the need to work that job over the summer is a lot less, and still.

  21. I, like ab, am unconvinced by the “macho” thesis. I think that it is interesting, amusing and probably true in many cases, but far from universal under the parameters described. For instance, when I speak this way my intentions are by way of self-parody and commiseration. I don’t say these sorts of things to people who aren’t in my approximate situation.

    I’m not trying to defend myself against this certain machismo. I admit that one of the reasons I wanted to do the PhD to begin with is that I wanted to see if I could do it. What’s more macho than that? But I’m fine with that as well. I don’t feel obligated to combat biological hardwiring and tens of thousands of years of social conditioning. Why, to do so would be positively Byronic!

  22. I never meant for the macho explanation to be exhaustive, and I think that other explanations of the phenomenon that have come out in comments are pretty convincing as well — at bottom, perhaps the notion that we repeat it in a futile effort to get ourselves to really believe it at a gut level is most satisfying.

  23. Thank you Adam, I thought this post was very well-put and eminently necessary. I particularly enjoyed the sentence: ‘There’s no sacrifice involved here, because I didn’t finally do all this stuff so that I could get a job — I want to get a job so that I can continue doing all this stuff!’ In my experience it’s true that humanities PhDs did not, by and large, choose to be a college professor over being one of the million less interesting graduate jobs; we chose to be a graduate student in the first instance, to keep doing what we enjoyed and to take it further. Of course the hope was usually that we’d be college professors the other end, but I think you’re right in pointing out that the careerism was hardly the driving motive.

    I also think the fact that this kind of miserabilism has become so ritualised puts the lie to all those pieces about how new grad students aren’t adequately informed about how bad their chances are. Before I started a PhD, every single professor I was close to and admired warned me of exactly what I was getting into. Once they knew I understood, they said: good, OK, we’ll write you references and try to make it work. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

  24. Enjoyment? Maybe. But its also just work. And lots of it. Perhaps I am becoming one of those bitter, jaded academics who actually have a good job — no, wait, I am — but I have trouble seeing the enjoyment factor as being enough. If you don’t get rewarded for your labor eventually you end up a bitter old coot who wasted his (or her) life. And I say this as someone who has a pretty dreamy tenure-track job, all things considered.


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