Advice for the Dismal Academic Job Market

Advice for the Dismal Academic Job Market September 30, 2014

Over at Slate, Rebecca Schuman imagines an awkward scenario from a family gathering, which includes a newly-minted Ph.D.:

You’re just making polite conversation, so you ask him: “Want to come visit us next Christmas?” Why on earth did his sallow face just cloud over at your kind and generous offer? Because he has no idea where he’ll be living two Christmases from now—he just applied to 30 jobs in 30 far-flung towns, so from a logistical standpoint “next Christmas” might as well be Pluto. Such is the madness of the academic hiring process. If you have a relative or friend who is an early career academic, chances are you have recently set that poor, damaged soul of hers into an existential death spiral, simply by asking what would ordinarily be a friendly question. 

So true. We have known for decades that the academic job market was bad, and yet legions continue to fling themselves into the breach, only to find it difficult in the end to find regular work. Why do we do this? Part of the reason is the enormous appeal of working as a professor. I am constantly mindful that although a professor’s job comes with its share of frustrations – what job doesn’t? – I get paid to teach, read, and write about history. It is a great line of work, but the world clearly needs only so many professional academics.

So the question arises, should anyone still pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities, or other fields that are struggling? As someone who teaches graduate students, I would be a wretched hypocrite if I said no. But I do think that prospective and current doctoral students should keep several points in mind about their eventual pursuit of an academic job.

1) Pursuing a professor’s job often means having little say over where you live. Too many job candidates feel that they “must” be in a certain area of the country, at a certain kind of school, but drawing lines like these makes no sense. It also means that even some people who get solid tenure-track jobs are unhappy with their positions. Far be it from me to try to control people’s attitudes, but given the state of the market, any tenure-track position at an accredited school is better than what about half of humanities Ph.D.s have. If the job is not close to family, or not in a preferred cultural mecca, you’re going to have to suck it up.

2) Although graduate programs often focus almost exclusively on producing cutting-edge research, many schools hire based on a host of other factors, including a candidate’s perceived fit with the institution. If you come off as too good for the school, or not enthusiastic about its teaching focus or religious mission, they’ll take another candidate, even if she is less qualified on paper. Most schools would certainly like for their professors to remain engaged with publishing at some level, but sheer publishing output is often not their decisive concern.

3) A related point is that Christian Ph.D.s can, in a way, have an edge in the job market, because religiously-affiliated schools need candidates who are at least practicing Christians, and may need them to sign off on doctrinal statements or distinctive behavioral codes. Since committed Christians are not in abundance in academia, your faith can sometimes open as many doors as it closes. Yes, there are certainly some secular (especially elite) schools who will silently discriminate against candidates who are overtly Christian or who went to a traditional Christian school as an undergraduate. (Some faculty members are interested in anything but ideological diversity!) But many Christian colleges and universities struggle to find candidates who have excellent Ph.D. training AND who happily fit with their school’s spiritual mission.

4) Although few envision getting a humanities Ph.D. and not becoming a professor, you should remain open to the possibility. Many Ph.D.s do take jobs at policy centers, advocacy groups, foundations, academic parachurch ministries, or with intelligence agencies or other branches of government.

5) Finally, if you are a Christian academic, you will learn to depend more heavily on prayer during your time on the job market, and will get more comfortable than ever with God’s sovereign control over your life. God really can open doors unexpectedly, but sometimes He has reasons to keep doors closed. He may or may not offer you explanations for those closed doors.

What else should we add? Is there anything I have missed here? I would love to see your comments on the job market.

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