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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

When academic jobs are hard to get

When I first graduated with a PhD an academic job was not assured. Indeed, at the time (the mid 1970s into the the mid 1980s) MIT was sending out acceptance letters warning that academic jobs were not thick on the ground and though they could assure four wonderful years of intellectual ferment and excitement, whether these would be rewarded with an academic job at the end was quite unclear. This was their version of buyer beware.

If anything, my impression is that things have gotten worse. Even those that land decent jobs often do so after several years as Post Docs (not a bad gig actually, I had several) and even then people that have all the qualifications for academic appointment (i.e. had better CVs than me and my friends had when we entered the job market and landed positions) may not find anything at all. This is often when  freshly minted PhDs start looking for non academic jobs in, e.g. industry.

Departments do not prepare students for this option. Truth be told, it is not clear that we are qualified to prepare students for this. Well, let me back up: some are. People doing work on computational linguistics often have industry connections and occasionally some people in the more expansive parts of the language sciences have connections to the helping professions in HESP. Students from UMD have gone on to get non academic jobs in both these areas, sometimes requiring further education.  However, thee routes exist. that said, they are not common and faculty are generally not that well placed to advise on how to navigate this terrain.

What then to do to widen your options. Here is a paper from Nature that addresses the issues. Most of the advice is common sense; network, get things done, develop the soft skills that working on a PhD allows you to refine, get some tech savvy. All this makes sense. The one that I would like to emphasize is learn to explain what you are doing in a simple unencumbered way to others.  This is really a remarkable skill, and good even if you stay in academia. However, in the outside world being able to explain complex things simply is a highly prized virtue.

At any rate, take a look. The world would be a better place if all graduates got the jobs they wanted. Sadly this is not that world. Here are some tips from someone who navigated the rough terrain.

9 comments:

  1. What I find interesting about this piece and others like it is that there is never any mention of ways to actually try to counter the trends we see. It's as if the drying up of good jobs is an unavoidable natural phenomenon and the best that academics can do is offer advice on how to get out or to offer palliative care.

    There's never any suggestion that academics work collectively to take actions to improve their working conditions or protect the vulnerable members of their field. I saw a suggestion the other about how it might be a good idea for a conference (say, the LSA) to devote some time for a workshop or something on how to organize for better labor conditions, and I think that's a fantastic idea. It even seems to be in the LSA's best interest, let alone the field's. I've led some work to this end and positive results are there for the taking (https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2018/08/13/iowa-non-tenure-track-professors-win-benefits)

    This isn't a panacea of course, and I'm admittedly skeptical about the likelihood of tenured/tenure-track profs to really materially support their precarious nominal colleagues, but I think academic labor organizing should be a much larger part of this conversation

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  2. Perhaps because of the belief that successful collective action requires that the collective have something that those with the $$ actually want, which is arguably not the case for vast swathes of academia. Rather, politicians would face a serious political cost if they just shut it down in the manner of Henry VIII dissolving the monasteries, but they can gradually starve it while fibbing, so that's what they do.

    And of course there are sub-parts of academia who's products they actually want, but humanities and social sciences are not among these. Universities as we used to know them were flushed out with cash from the WWII & Cold war boom, which has gradually been deflating over the decades, starting in the mid or late 60s, I think. Prior to the war, things were much more difficult, from what I gather (I recall my dad telling me about a professor of American History who would sit down after exams with 400 blue books, and not be in the least fazed by this).

    But the generation that got heaps of unexpectedly useful stuff out of universities is almost entirely retired or deceased, & the idea of 'resisting' what the people who were paying you actually wanted, which arose in the 60s, has probably not helped much either.

    If anybody is going to support the precariat, I think it will have to be the students, who are paying through the nose, and would surely be better served by faculty who had offices in known places and a reasonable prospect of being around next year than by the itinerant adjuncts.

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  3. I think the evidence from the public school teacher strikes is instructive I'm not sure what you mean by your first paragraph, but insofar as they're in similar positions wrt having what those with the $$ want, they can be a good model. To the degree that they're different, I think college professor have much more institutional power.

    I agree that the students qua customers are important here and they were really important in our campaign in Iowa and the other successful campaigns across the US (I encourage you to look up how people are actually currently doing this), but there are reasons why labor organizers don't work on organizing customers to the exclusion of workers (again there is a long history here).

    But the main point of my comment is again not to say that this is a panacea, but rather to note the conspicuous absence of even a discussion of these things. It's hard work and one shouldn't be over-confident. Though I do happen to be particularly confident in the rhetorical ability of tenure/tenure-track professors to rationalize doing nothing

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    1. But public school education is widely regarded as necessary by almost everybody (there are even laws to the effect that you have to send your children to school, or school them at home in accordance with some kind of standards), while university education is not, and the various interest groups involved in it have conflicting views. I have a 'step niece in law' (complicated relationship in a rather extended family) who was criticized by her family for getting a BA on the basis that she was 'educating herself stupid', not an uncommon view in the 'heartland'. This is just the most extreme case of something that applies more widely, in different ways to different areas. For example for most programs in linguistics and languages, if the staff got stroppy about conditions, the administrators would just shut the programs down with only formulaic regrets, if any, due to lack of any substantial and tangible monetary benefit from having these programs. Language programs have been withering away for a long time anyway, even while trying hard not to cause trouble (they require actual work from the students, and a lot of contact time in order to better than free stuff such as Duolingo).

      Australia has resisted academic casualization to a greater extent that the USA has (there are limits on the use of short-term teaching), but the country is generally more 'socialistic' and accepting of gov. legislation on labor conditions.

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    2. Ah, I think I get where you're coming from on this and I think I might agree. Or, I think it's important for academics to work to improve their working conditions and make academia a just place, but agree that there might be some inherent issues with this along the following lines:

      Academia at least like in the American context with Harvard and Yale and all, was a means to perpetuate a ruling class and they've done a bang-up job. Fighting to democratize that sort of institution, if successful, will just mean that ruling class will find another way to self-perpetuate and will withdraw.

      I don't think that means that we shouldn't work to democratize it though and limiting the tools of the ruling class is an inherent good and should be part of a larger resistance against it

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    3. There's also the issue that, given heartlander attitudes, it is not entirely clear what truly democratized university education in Iowa would look like (my inlaws, btw are from southeastern Iowa and nearby parts of Illinois, near Burlington IA; they have various views, and tend to take a live and let live attitude towards most things, but that can't be counted on if you're collecting taxes from them to fund something).

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    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    5. The issue here is safe and just working conditions for the people working at
      universities. While 'heartlander attitudes' have remained constant, the
      treatment of workers has taken a nose-dive. At Iowa, state-funding
      has decreased but has been offset 5 times over by massive increases in
      tuition revenue and as such the operating budget has *grown* while
      wages have been frozen and contingent faculty have become the
      majority. The issue is with people in power attacking those below
      them, not with 'heartlander attitudes'
      (https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/education/2018/05/14/university-iowa-salary-freeze-tuition-budget/608219002/?fbclid=IwAR1piw48yg_5ykA9M2KJEr3BuArP39Afq8f2hWl3fFES6Cut8aK5aLeB0LA)

      I'm not saying that you're doing this, but people in positions of
      relatively power claiming that they are forced to do unpopular things
      because their hands are tied by those with less power is a
      self-serving lie, worn thin and transparent with overuse

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