Monday, November 29, 2010

A Post-Turkey Wake Up Call

About this time last year I was anxiously awaiting responses from the various tenure-track, visiting assistant professor, and fellowship applications I had begun sending out in September '09. (I think I applied for a total of 7 postdocs, 10 tenure-track jobs, and 3 visiting positions.) Mostly I heard . . . silence. Then, a few days after Thanksgiving I got a call inviting me to attend a preliminary interview for a tenure-track position at the AHA in San Diego. Woo hoo. Go me.

Drop $1,000 for a 30 minute chat? Golly, I'd love to!
Thinking that, surely, this call was a sign of good things to come, I booked a flight, bought a new interview suit, and made other necessary arrangements to attend the conference. The whole kit and caboodle cost me about $1,000. And I'll be the first to admit that this wasn't chump change. Oh no, that $1K was precious money I would have otherwise spent on rent, food, and bills. But at the time I figured, what choice do I really have? Either I fork out the cash and take my chances or I bow out now with no possibility of landing an academic job. When it came to the history job market and my position as an insignificant peon in the greater academic universe, everything seemed so black and white. Either I put out and pay up or I get out. That's just the way it is.

As the conference approached I hoped to receive other invitations to interview at the AHA but, alas, I did not. Instead, I had search committees calling me out of the blue on speaker phone, literally, at 5 or 6pm the week or so before Christmas asking if I was available for a phone interview the next day at 10am or earlier. Yikes! Talk about last minute. (Let this be a warning to you, fellow job seekers. Whether you're applying for academic or non-academic jobs, you never know when someone will want to interview you in person or via phone or skype. It's best to be prepared for anything.) Other places skipped right to the chase, forgoing preliminary chats all together; they had secretaries calling to set up on-campus interviews way in advance, as far away as February '10.

It suddenly dawned on me around X-mas that while my AHA appointment card was shockingly, embarrassingly empty, particularly compared to my friends in other sub-fields with 4-5 interviews lined up, I nonetheless still had a few cards on the table due to the increasing numbers of search committees skipping traditional conference interviews. Hope remained alive.

Fast forward to April 2010. By then I had participated in 2 phone interviews, 1 AHA interview, and 2 on-campus interviews, none of which ultimately resulted in an offer. All of my efforts on the job market had come to nothing. (Although I did receive an offer for a postdoc shortly thereafter, so yay for small mercies.)

What is the point of this story? Well, only that while the future remains uncertain, this is the time when all the craziness begins. Right now. For many Ph.D. and A.B.D job seekers in the humanities and social sciences, the period covering the end of November through the first half of December is nerve wracking. You know that large universities and small colleges alike intend to hold preliminary interviews at your field's annual conference (AHA or MLA, for example), but with budgets tightening across the country, and searches frozen at the last minute, it's touch and go. Should you buy a plane ticket, book a hotel room, spruce up your wardrobe, and spring for a fancy new laptop bag, just in case you get a nibble? I did last year and it really wasn't worth it. But, then again, that could just be sour grapes on my part, right?

Still, of all my friends who also spent $1K to interview at the AHA last year, even those who had multiple prelim. interviews and subsequent on-campus interviews, here is the total # who netted a bonified tenure-track job at the end of the process: 0. Zilch. Not one. It turns out that none of us got our money's worth from attending the AHA in San Diego. But nearly everyone is prepared to do it all over again--this time in Boston.

As December 2010 approaches things are looking fairly similar for me, except that I only submitted applications for 5 academic positions this year, all of them tenure track. No visiting gigs or fellowships this time around. I'm tired of moving every summer, or every semester in some cases, and living out of a suitcase. So, too, are my family members. It's great to win fellowships or receive offers for visiting appointments, of course, because it means technically speaking you're "still in the game," but for how long? If you hop from one fellowship to another or from one temporary position to another without landing a tenure-track job for several years in a row, when is enough finally enough? What is a reasonable time frame in which to conduct, and conclude, an academic job search? 3 years? 4 years? More?

It used to be the case that Ph.D. advisors at excellent/good but not ivy schools told their students to expect to go on the market several times before grabbing the coveted brass ring: a tenure-track job. In the meantime it was expected that a new Ph.D. would continue teaching, researching, and, most importantly, publishing in some form or another in order to remain competitive for the next season's job cycle. If a job applicant failed the first or second time out, it was critical that she up her game. Otherwise, the party would soon be over for good. The pressure, you see, continues to mount the longer one has been "out." The Ph.D. itself may not ever expire, but the Ph.D. holder starts to look a bit warn out and rough around the edges after a few years. And search committees like fresh, sparkly things, or so I've heard.

Irrespective, I'm not gambling on the AHA this year. I'm not attending. If a search committee at one of these 5 universities actually wants to interview me, I am going to politely ask for a phone or skype interview. It would be nice to attract notice from potential academic employers, but I'm not holding my breath. Opening myself up, mentally, to the possibility of a non-academic career has really helped take the edge of the job market merry-go-round. I may be stressed about my professional future, but I'm not walking on pins and needles praying that someone will invite me to spend a thousand bucks to chat with them for 30 minutes about my research and teaching interests in a hotel room in Boston in the middle of winter.

Although, if the phone does suddenly ring tomorrow and someone asks if I'm available for a skype or phone interview at 8am on Wednesday, I will say "yes, of course." Then I'll put down the novel(s) I started over Thanksgiving break, smack myself a few times, and quietly freak out. I hate surprises involving interviews.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Message from One Who Made It

Guest Post by "Blunt Academic" (a pseudonym to protect his or her snarky identity)

I graduated with a Ph.D. 5 years ago, taught as an adjunct at a community college for a semester, landed a tenure-track job in the middle of nowhere, landed a better tenure-track job, still in the middle of nowhere, and am now on the market again looking to move up. I've worked my ass off the entire time and have never had to stress about whether or not to leave the academy. I'm in, baby, I'm in for life.

But even if things hadn't worked out, I would have figured something out and made the Ph.D. worth my while. I would have found work outside the academy and never regretted getting a Ph.D. Indeed, I wouldn't have spent years dwelling on the faults of the ivory tower, or writing tortured blog posts (sorry, Eliza), or looking for other angsty ex-academics to share my miseries with. I would have just gotten on with things.

So when I see Ph.D.s fretting about how they “pissed away their youth and finances” earning a doctoral degree, and are now totally disillusioned with the academic job market and vicious tenure-track world , I wonder what all the fuss is about.

I mean, it’s just money, right? Weren’t you following your passions when you applied to grad school? Didn’t you enjoy spending your 20s thinking and learning, surrounded by smart/crazy academics, free to explore your interests, rather than sitting in a cubicle day after day making widgets and earning money. Didn't you love the thrill of working with Professor DryBones?

I know your dream is to be me. Good for you.
Is money really that important in the grander scheme of things? Probably, you would have frittered away all that hard-earned, longedfor pile of money on iphones, digital cable, trips to Vegas, beer, hamburgers, knick knacks for the domicile, what have you, just like the rest of America. BORING. EMPTY. POINTLESS.

So what’s a little debt compared to the once in a lifetime experience of getting a PhD? Seriously? Why are you so bitter about everything? You made a choice: live with it. What’s there to be upset about? Grad school helped make you the person that you are now (even if that person is poor and a tad PO at the system and depressed, but that’s neither here nor there).

Sure, it’s nearly impossible to land a tenure-track job but them’s the breaks. Not everyone makes the final cut and, of those that do, not everyone actually enjoys the academic lifestyle. Because, at the end of the day, it’s still a job, like any other, not a magical prize at the end of a rainbow. So you either suck it up and make the most of it or fantasize about something better “out there.” The choice is yours to make.

Or, if you can’t find work as a full-time professor and are forced out of the academy, you do what you need to do: stop bitching and moaning and start looking elsewhere for employment. No point blaming others or wallowing in regret. Just get out there, find a job, and move on with your life. Let go of the past. Some of you just may not be good enough (or interesting or insane enough) to land an academic job, whether you've got a Ph.D. or not. I know it sounds harsh, but that’s life. It’s short, brutal, and unfair. More to the point: In the blink of an eye you and everyone you know will be dead anyway. In the meantime, why make such a fuss?

Your Friend,

Blunt Academic

(Editor's note: I claim no responsibility for the opinions expressed in the above guest post!)

Monday, November 22, 2010

When Your Loved Ones Don't Get It

Now is the time: make a decision already!

"Why are you still torturing yourself about whether or not to stay in academe? Just make a decision, now; please let us move on with our lives. I'm sick of waiting, the kids and/or pets are tired of moving every summer, and your mom's concerned phone calls are getting really old . . ."

During this week of Turkey eating and family gatherings, why don't we pause briefly to consider the following: For every indecisive Ph.D. or A.B.D. currently contemplating whether or not to leave the ivory tower or quit grad school sans Ph.D., there must be a partner, spouse, parent, friend, child, sibling, or some other loved one who is sick of waiting, wondering, and living in a state of (impoverished) limbo.

Continuing to operate in the midst of seemingly perpetual ambivalence, torn between multiple paths, isn't easy, but for the people closest to us it must really suck. Their lives are on hold, too. Our toment is their torment. Either that, or they're just tired of listening to the same story over and over again or concerned about how much time and $ we've already sunk into our career paths. They wish we'd just make up our minds already and stop the madness. (Don't we all?)

And, no, I am not talking about current or former dissertation advisors here. They might lord over us 24-7 and pretend like our decisions impact their lives and reputations in some profound way, even years after we've graduated, but I'm not interested in their feelings right now. Let's focus instead on the people (and or furry friends) who usually get ignored, esp. in academe: the loved ones.

But what if they've got set ideas about what we should be doing with ourselves, based primarily on what we've done, or said we'd do, in the past? What if their vision of our professional future doesn't jive with our own? And, finally, what if the decision we're inclined to make will almost certainly impact their finances, view of us, personal comfort level, or geographic location in a negative way? What then? It's clearly not so simple as just deciding between A, B,  or C career path if the people in your life have an investment in one or more of these options.

Having loved ones, even pets, makes things tricky. It's not just your career and personal happiness on the line; it's their's as well.  It took me a long time to realize how much of my decision to get a Ph.D., finish the Ph.D., and stay firmly within academe after graduation was based on my perception of what I thought my partner, parents, and best friends would want me to do. I wanted to finish, there's no doubt about that, but why I didn't immediately start looking for non-academic work after graduating remains a mystery to me, even now. Perhaps because my partner urged me to think long and hard about what exactly I'd be throwing away if I abondoned the ivory tower without at least trying to land a tenure-track job. This tactic works really well on someone with an anxious personality, by the way.

Whenever I discussed leaving, or dare I say, quiting, the ivory tower for good, my loved ones seemed supportive but doubtful, like they wanted to but couldn't believe me. Or like they felt slightly sorry for me. They'd heard it all before, the back and forth, the "if this" or "if that", but I'd yet to make a firm decision one way or the other. (And look at me now! I'm still on the fence!! Don't you feel extra sorry for my loved ones?)

The sobering truth is this: People who know what they want and simply go after it, just like that, are so much easier to be around. You can make plans with those people; you can rely on them. They may not be as fun in an existential "what if" role-playing career game, but in real life there are certain benefits to being partner to, spawn of, parent to, or friends with someone who made a right turn, career wise, and never looked back.

So, this week, as we find ourselves around dinner tables, eating and drinking with well-meaning but often irritatingly opionated friends and family, when our loved ones just don't seem to get it, can we really blame them?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Academe and the Loss of Human Capital

I heard a story on NPR this morning, "Flabby Skills Are Latest Worry For Unemployed," about the current recession and the impact of long-term unemployment (6+months) on workers' skills. "Any bout of unemployment can be painful, hurt your finances and derail a career," says NPR's economics correspondent John Ydstie. "But long-term unemployment is particularly damaging, both to the individual and the economy. One thing that can happen is that the skills workers possess, their 'human capital' in economics jargon, begins to erode."

So what exactly is human capital? According to one basic definition, it's "the set of skills which an employee acquires through education, training, and on-the-job experience, and which increase that employee's value in the marketplace." If you're unemployed for many months, your industry can simply "leave you behind"; some of your skills may even become obsolete. "And the losses can be significant and real harmful for both individual and economies," notes Ydstie. Moreover, "because of falling home prices, many Americans can't afford to move to get a new job. So they remain unemployed or trapped in jobs that aren't taking full advantage of their skills."

There's more human capital in my couch.

As I was listening to this story, I couldn't help but think about my own predicament as a, more or less, long-term un/under-employed Ph.D. If research fellowships here and there are removed from the mix, I have not held an actual teaching position in my field since 2007, when I was still in graduate school and working as a TA/lecturer. That is a very long time. I have also not held a full-time, non-academic (and relatively low paying) job since 2001. In terms of on-the-job experience, whether in the ivory tower or elsewhere, my human capital is crap.

But what about education and training? I have a Ph.D. and a string of fellowships--that should count for something, right? Um, no, not really. If I were to apply for a tenure-track teaching job at a liberal arts college or a state university, the first thing a search committee would (or should) notice is my lack of recent teaching experience. Although I supported myself through grad school by teaching or TAing multiple classes nearly every semester (and summer), at this point it's been a while since I was in the classroom. This gap could make SCs wary about my ability to hit the ground running next fall and not freak out when faced with a 3/3 teaching load.

SCs at R1s, on the other hand, may not care about the years I've spent doing research and writing rather than teaching post-Ph.D. They might see this as a bonus. It's hard to tell. But since most of the jobs in my particular subfield are more teaching oriented this year, I doubt I'll be as competitive as someone who graduated in 2009 and has since published a couple articles and worked as a visiting professor at a top 20 liberal arts college, for example. Only time will tell.

Then there are the non-academic employers out there. What would they think about my resume? While I may have spent the last decade earning a high-level degree, teaching, writing, researching, etc., none of that necessarily translates well or easily in another field. And fellowships? Forget about them. Who cares if I received a postdoctoral research grant from Harvard or Yale if I'm now applying for a job as an editor or a communications specialist or an academic administrator? My resume suggests, rightly so, that I've been out of "work" for a while now. Despite my skill set and potential for success, hiring me would be a gamble compared to another applicant with recent hands-on job experience and a professional narrative that builds towards X position in a meaningful and straightforward way.

The point of all this pondering, I think, is that I'm honestly concerned that my choice to become an academic, and tread water in postdoc land since graduation, may result in dramatic, long-term (negative) professional repercussions. As more post-Ph.D. time passes and my degree begins to look stale, I may never be able to land a tenure-track job. (Whether I really want one is another post entirely . . .) On the other hand, I may also fail to find a decent non-academic position in the next year, due to the recession, my declining human capital, and the fact that I'd be making a career transition out of academe and into something new. 

During a recession it's more obvious, both to employers and employees alike, what isn't valuable than what is. For those of us out there job hunting with Ph.D.s in humanities fields, finding, broadcasting, and, if need be, translating our value to potential employers should be our top priority. We don't have time to waste: getting all flabby is a big professional no-no.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I'd like the Daring Bitch, Please

Why is your book still in production?
She is an aggressive supporter of colleagues, a confident, daring team player, and a nurturing bitch.

According to an Inside Higher Ed news piece published yesterday, "Too Nice to Land a Job", when referees write letters in support of A.B.Ds and Ph.D.s applying for tenure-track academic positions, they better not make the mistake of describing their former students in gendered, communal (i.e. feminized) terms, such as "supportive," "caring" or "sensitive." In the minds of the search committee members surveyed by a research team at an unidentified research university, it's far better for a potential colleague to be described in active terms as "aggressive," "assertive" and "daring," even if the candidate in question boasts academic credentials similar to those of an applicant characterized as talented and "caring." (The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.)

"She's as sweet as ooey, gooey cherry pie, a feel-good lecturer, and a multitasking, yet sensitive, workaholic." 

"He's amazingly productive and totally dedicated to his work yet always sensitive to the needs of his colleagues, a real team player."

NO NO NO. Cast these two applicants into the bin!! We will not have them in our nest of vipers.

No one, apparently, wants to let a warm and fuzzy house mom, or a sensitive house dad, into the awaiting halls of academe. Instead, search committees are looking to fill their coveted faculty slots with cold, hard bitches. Or, rather, to be more precise, they're looking for both men and women who act, and sound, like dominant, masculine types. Team players be damned. We want cocky high achievers; daring and independent bastards. If you're a woman, you better be willing to do the dirty work necessary to be a successful academic, otherwise we want nothing to do with you. Are you listening? You better be, bitch.

If you can't get your tenure file in on time, no more Mr. Nice Guy.
"The research found no difference between men and women as letter writers -- both are more likely to describe women with communal words than they are to describe men that way. And the bias appears to act against male candidates who are praised for traits people associate with women. But a much higher proportion of female candidates -- regardless of their overall qualifications -- are praised with these words that appear to hurt their chances of being hired for faculty jobs.

In the scholars' analysis of the words that appeared in the letters of recommendation, they found clear patterns of word use for women's and men's letters. Women were more likely to be described . . . as "nurturing," "kind," "agreeable" and "warm." Men, in contrast, were much more likely to be described in words classified as "agentive" -- words such as "assertive," "confident," "aggressive," "ambitious," "independent" and "daring."

"When you use communal terminology, it is linking people to a feminine type, and they are not seen as credible and they don't get hired', said Michelle Hebl, a professor of psychology at Rice University and one of the authors of the study . . ."'

(Editor's note: In case you missed that last point, please let me spell it out again: Feminine types are NOT credible and don't get hired.)

"Hebl said that women in academe face a dilemma. Hiring committees appear to devalue women who are identified as people who would be nice or supportive colleagues. But women who aren't seen as nice and supportive "get called bitches," she said. So the solution for women is "to have both sets of qualities" -- the communal and the agentive."

(Editor's Note: Being called a "bitch" is a very bad thing in academe. But so is being a sensitive Suzy. What's a girl to do?)

I could write more here about the injustice of it all. By why bother? I'm too busy putting on spandex and coiling my whip about my hip, you know, in case I get called in for a preliminary interview. I want to make it crystal clear that, while I'm not a bitch, per se, I do in fact belong in that nasty viper nest and am fully prepared to whip those other sensitive and caring tenure-track weaklings into shape if need be. Bring it on.

I'm not a bitch, you sensitive thing, just a confident & daring academic.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Making the Switch: Q&A with Benjamin Harrison

When Ph.D.’s contemplate leaving academe because they either cannot find a tenure-track job or are dissatisfied with their current academic position, location, salary, etc., many turn to elite private-school teaching. For those who truly enjoy teaching and interacting with young people, working at a prep school is an understandable, and realistic, alternate career option. Unlike public schools, private schools generally do not require certification; demonstrating subject matter expertise is easily accomplished with a doctoral degree.

Private secondary schools are open to the prospect of hiring Ph.D.s, so long as they have teaching experience and are able to avoid the common pitfalls of appearing arrogant or anything less than passionate about working with adolescents. I spoke with Benjamin Harrison, whom regular readers may know as an assistant professor of history currently making the transition to private school teaching, about his background and interests in making the switch.

Q. Can you describe your current academic position and tell us how you got there?

I received my Ph.D. in a humanities field from a medium-sized university in the mid-west. After completing my degree I worked as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a small college before landing my current tenure-track position at a non-flagship state university. Like many in the humanities, I largely took this position because it was the one I was offered, but it also seemed like a good job.

Q. Why are you considering leaving the academy?

God, that’s a book in itself! The short answer is that the reality of life in the academy is not all that I’d hoped. I am at a third-tier institution in a part of the country my wife and I don’t much like. In a perfect world, I’d find a different job in the academy, but the market makes that sort of move nearly impossible.

At the risk of bragging, I’ve got a damn good CV: a book finished and under contract with a major university press, two articles on my second project in top-tier journals, prestigious fellowships, and loads of teaching experience. In the past these would have allowed me to move up, but that is no longer the case. Last year I applied for two jobs, made the on-campus stage for one of them. I lost out to a candidate with two books, multiple major articles and tenure at an R-1 university.

This brought home the fact that when you get to the final rounds, publications and awards don’t matter because all the finalists are going to have them. At that point it’s a matter of fit and personality, which is another way of saying “blind luck.” I could continue to apply for jobs, and hope that I would eventually win the cosmic coin-flip, but the stress of the market and the long odds of finding a desirable position made this route unacceptable.

I've come to realize two things:

1. Staying in academia would mean staying at my current school.

2. I am not staying at my current school.

Other factors, related and unrelated:

• Pay. Salaries have been frozen for four years and the chances of a meaningful raise are zero. We’re living pay-check to pay-check, and that sucks. I can make more at private school.

• Once you have tenure, my current university provides little/no support for research. As a result my research program is about to die, so why not let it die at a prep school?

• My current uni. provides no tuition support even at universities in the same state system. I see senior faculty teaching two courses every summer just so their kids can attend _____ State, and I’m not interested in going down that road.

Q. What is it about private school teaching in particular that attracts you?

Going the prep school route brings me and my family a tremendous amount of freedom. How many academics can choose the city, or even the state, in which they want to live? If I go the prep school route I will be able to do that.

$$$$$. Believe it or not prep schools pay more (often much more) than your average college or university. According to the salary schedule of one prep school (granted it’s in Los Angeles) I would walk through the door making $66,000. According to my rep at Carney, salaries in less high-rent cities would be in the high $50s to low $60s. That’s real money.

Quality and quantity of Students. Students at prep schools read and write better than the students in my surveys. And while I will teach more classes per semester, they will be far smaller, so the total number of students I have will actually decrease.

Community. While we have a handful of majors whom I dearly love, the majority of my students disappear at the end of the semester, and I never see them again. I attended and taught at small colleges, and I miss the sense of community inherent in smaller institutions. Most prep schools operate in the same way.

Career prospects. PhDs at prep schools are on the fast track to department char and administration if they desire. In my current department I’d make chair in about twelve years, and never become dean. I don’t know if I want to go this route, but I want to have the option.

Q. Do you have any misgivings about leaving academe and teaching at the secondary level?

Of course! Right or wrong (and I’d argue “wrong”) there is more social cache attached to being a professor than a teacher. That is a pretty significant psychological barrier to get past, and I can’t say I’ve done it yet.

There is also the fact that leaving would probably mean the end of my research agenda. That said, I’ve heard from several different people that research is possible. One friend had a colleague on a year-long sabbatical (funded by the NEH) to work on his book, and everyone agreed that prep school librarians can get you hard-to find books through ILL. Many schools also will pay for borrowing privileges from local university libraries. So while research may become a summer-only activity, for many of us it already is.

Q. How does the hiring process differ in the world of independent secondary schools?

First, it’s a bit later in the year. The majority of hiring takes place in the late spring, right as higher ed is wrapping up.

Second, a lot of it runs through regional and national hiring firms such as Carney Sandoe. This actually makes life much easier, as you write one letter, one CV and let the search firm do the legwork to find you appropriate positions. Then you sit back and wait to hear from schools. I’m sure it’s just as stressful as the academic market, but at least you don’t have to tailor twenty-five different letters.

Third, the PhD really makes a candidate stand out. At the risk of jinxing myself, this year (for the first time in my life) I’m going to be a hot candidate, possibly turning down interviews and offers. Imagine that.

*Thanks to Ben Harrison for the great interview. For more information on making the switch to private school teaching, and additional advice from BH and other Ph.D.'s, check out my Inside Higher Ed column next month.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A Word of Caution

Why is this always happening to me?
What's one of the worst things that can happen to an academic/job seeker/freelance writer/columnist/part-time blogger such a myself? One who spends an inordinate amount of time scrunched over typing? You guessed it (or maybe you didn't): a catastrophic computer meltdown. This has happened to me before, is happening to me right now, and will no doubt happen to me again in the future. Sometimes technology really pisses me off. 

In the past 5 years I've gone through 3 laptops, and these weren't cheap laptops either. Two were fancy Mac Powerbooks, one was a decent HP Notebook. The first one was stolen (yes, this is a true and very sad story. Still makes me mad to talk about it, so we won't dwell on this); the replacement Mac was great until the screen suddenly went out AFTER the warranty had expired. And, of course, it was going to cost $1,100 minimum to replace the screen. Well, forget that. I was a recently minted PhD looking for work, with tons of debt on my shoulders and funds barely sufficient to cover my monthly expenses. Fixing the Mac, or buying a new one, was out of the question at that point. But I still needed a laptop: FAST. Desperate times called for desperate measures, so I broke down and bought my first ever PC, the HP Notebook. (No offense PC people, but never, never again will I buy a PC, even if I am poor as dirt).

I won't get into boring details, but the HP Notebook has caused me nothing but grief over the past 2 years. It constantly overheats, constantly dies, constantly sounds like a rocket ship, constantly gets viruses, constantly sucks. Period. But I'm still an academic job seeker and thus poor; as such I was hoping this puppy would last me until next year, when I could finally afford to buy a new Mac Powerbook after landing a sweet academic or non-academic job (HAHAHAHAHA). Sounds like a good plan, right? Just make due for now?

On Friday night the motherboard on my Notebook apparently fried, completely without warning.  There was a loud zeeezzuuuum sound and then the screen went black. It hasn't restarted since. At least the Mac screen had the courtesy of going out after slowly fading over a period of 3 weeks, which gave me ample warning to save my files and videos. This time it was like--POOF--your computer is no longer. Your stuff is gone (I assume). Luckily, I've had so many negative experiences with technology in the past that I've learned my lesson and have the vast majority of my files saved elsewhere, but this is still a very bad situation. Very bad indeed. I had hoped to avoid the expense of repairing a laptop or buying a new one. However, my hopes and wishes are irrelevant.

Moral of this Monday morning story: back up your files, back up your files, back up your files. You will never regret taking the time to SAVE your work. Even job seekers without a stable income can be cursed with catastrophic computer failure at any time. Your poverty, good will, and innocence will not save you! Nothing will!

Anyone else have the same bad luck with technology? Care to share a horror strory of your own? I hope to be back blogging soon about higher ed, once I sort out my annoying computer problems . . .

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Stepping Outside the Maze

Sometimes, particularly in the midst of a long and torturous job search, it can seem like you've been blindly walking in circles and are starting to run out of viable options. Your efforts have seemingly come to naught; the various, sometimes conflicting tracks you've been following into the distance have all but disappeared. Last month's job leads have dried up. It feels like your SOL: alone and lost in a bewildering job-hunting maze, without a map or a plan or even a piece of beef jerky to keep you going. 

What to do? Should you reconsider your options, lower your standards, or check out a pile of self-help employment books from the local library? Is it time to fill out a Starbuck's application?  (Or maybe you hit  bottom long ago and are already working there, or somewhere similar?) What, in other words, should you do when you have no idea where to go from here--wherever here may be?

As the tenure-track job advertisements dwindle down to November's haphazard drip, rather than September-October's steady trickle, I for one have begun to seriously consider the fact that I may not have any academic interviews, not to mention a tenure-track job, to gear up for in 2011. Am I OK with this? Am I ready to face the inevitable? Well, first of all, my search this year was quite "selective": not only was the number of jobs advertised in my specific history field limited to no more than 10-15 total in the entire country, I only applied for the handful of positions that I'm realistically prepared to accept, if it came to that point in the process.

In the past, I've applied for just about anything and everything because I didn't feel like I had a choice. Teach a 4/4 in North Dakota or Alabama? Why not? Work at an uber religious school when I'm not the slightest bit religious? Okey dokie. Who am I to turn my nose up at a relevant position? I'm an academic and should therefore suck it up and do whatever it takes to jump on the tenure track, right?  Even if that means making $40K per year; teaching classes I'm not remotely interested in; teaching summer school/night classes to make extra cash; living somewhere I know I won't like; and watching my research program dry up to a puddle of goo. It's still better than the alternative: leaving the ivory tower. Handing in my "professional academic" badge for good.

Hmm . . . Now I'm not so sure. After spending the past 6-9 months seriously considering non-academic job options (academic administration, communications, publishing, journalism, nonprofits, government work, etc.), I've made a complete 180, at least mentally. I'm no longer so committed to academe that I'd be willing to live anywhere, do anything, wrack up more debt, to stay in the game. I've finally begun to make peace with my past and consider the sunk vs. opportunity costs of my current professional situation.

Sure, I'm still squarely on the fence. I've applied for academic jobs at this point in the year but not nonacademic. I've yet to decide which direction I really want to go or to solicit contacts in a new nonacademic field or to arrange informational interviews. (Why? Because I still have another postdoc lined up for 2011 and another couple geographic moves to make before I truly taking the plunge one way or the other. I'm basically still living the life of an impoverished academic vagabond.) But I have stopped applying for postdoctoral fellowships and grants, visiting positions, and undesirable tenure-track jobs. I'm getting pickier just when all signs indicate that I should be getting more desperate. And, yes, I'm OK with that. Regardless of what happens in the future, I'll still be living the life of the mind as an impoverished scholar in one form or another, whether I'm in the academy or outside, so why limit my employment options? There's a big world out there.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Sunk Costs vs. Opportunity Costs: Economics 101

When you're trying to make a  major life decision, in this case whether or not to stay in academe (or whether or not to finish an M.A. or Ph.D.), it's easy to get trapped in a vicious cycle of worry, self-doubt, and anxiety about the future. "Should I or shouldn't I do X? . . . What will happen if I stop doing Y? . . . Am I ready to take such a huge step right now? . . . Perhaps I should wait until next year? . . ."

If you're trapped in a perpetual moment of indecision, these are the types of questions that will soon begin to haunt the halls of your mind, both during your waking and your dream life. It's not fun to be stuck in the middle, constantly looking backward, with no clear way of moving forward.

So what factors should you be weighing when trying to decide which path to take right now? These will invariably differ depending on individual circumstances, but it might make things easier for you if you stop to consider two concepts that economists call "sunk costs" and "opportunity costs."

Are you a gambler?
First, some definitions:

Sunk Costs: These are the costs (in time, money, mental and emotional energy spent, etc.) incurred in the past as a result of a decision made long ago. It's now impossible to recover these retrospective costs. You may have spent 6-8+ years in grad school and wracked up $50K in student loan and credit card debt, or way more in my case, to obtain a humanities Ph.D., but there is nothing you can do about that now. Unless time travel becomes a realistic possibility sometime soon, it's too late to go back and change your mind or take a different path. 

Opportunity Costs: These are the immediate costs of not taking the next best alternative or, in economics speak, of not putting a resource to its best use. Your Ph.D. in English, for example, might be of greater use in the corporate world rather than in academe, particularly if you've been looking for a full-time position for several years and are still coming up empty handed. The time/energy you're currently spending adjunct teaching at four different commuter campuses (for $3,000 per course, per semester, and no benefits), would most definitely be better spent on some other method of professional development that involved greater financial and career returns.

While it may seem like moving into another career, or investing further energy and money in a completely new professional path outside academe, is essentially wasteful (and depressing) at this point, sometimes it's better to start afresh. The fact is that continuing to stay un/under--or miserably--employed in academe is not going to get back what you've already sunken into the Ph.D. any more than leaving the ivory tower would.

Opportunity costs, on the other hand, are still in play. Sure, it's safer to stay with what you know and continue looking for academic work: joining the professorate in is what you've trained to do; academe is the world you're comfortable with. But what's the cost? If your energies and time could be better spent looking for a non-faculty administrative position, or learning HTML, or volunteering at a private school, or working part-time at a library, or taking business courses, and so on, the long-term cost of not doing any of these useful things could be great indeed. It's always a risk to move in a new professional direction. No argument there. But what's the cost of treading water? And more importantly, especially if you're currently unhappy, what's the emotional cost of remaining immobile, trapped in a job, or a location, or a stage of life that you hate? What's the point of all this suffering?

Maybe the best thing you got out of pursuing a fancy doctoral degree was the knowledge and skills attained in the process. Maybe,10 years from now, not landing on the tenure track will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you. Either way, it's critical to make a decision rather than continue to torment yourself needlessly. You might make the wrong choice, or you might not, but stalling is not going to make the transition process any easier.

I'll conclude with a few question worth pondering for any job seeker currently stuck in limbo:

1. What are the sunk costs of my professional choices thus far?

2. Am I willing to concede that these retrospective costs will never be returned to me and thus shouldn't have a bearing on my decisions now?

3. What's the opportunity cost of inaction?  What am I missing by remaining in academe?

4. What could I gain if I chose to walk away or began to take steps in a new direction?

Am I saying that every non-academic opportunity out there is worth taking, no matter the cost? No, not at all. Instead, I'm advising you, the job seeker, to consider the cost(s) of not doing things that might help you to transition out of academe at the same time that you consider the costs of doing them.