Monday, December 27, 2010

Why Academe is Exactly Like a "Love" Affair

Last year, around this time, I was pretty sure I wanted to be an academic. I'd applied for tons of tenure-track and visiting jobs and post-doctoral fellowships and was willing to move (almost) anywhere to "pursue the dream" indefinitely. My CV scorecard served as evidence of a career trajectory designed to fit snugly within the ivory tower. In fact, I'd already traveled around the world for over a year in order to pursue research and funding opportunities for my, uh humgroundbreaking dissertation-cum-book manuscript, even selling my car to live the life of a vagabond academic and putting off making payments on my large student loan debt. Oh yes, I was a committed little thing.

But despite all that sacrifice and geeky willingness to conform to academe's arbitrary demands at any cost, I only had one AHA interview lined up for Jan. 2010. Only one shot to secure a history position for which I was ideally suited. And nothing came of this preliminary interview. Academe spat on my love once again and left me broken hearted and pissed off.

Is my heart all cracked and shriveled now like the Grinch's?
(*Granted, I did have a phone interview before the AHA and in Feb/March two on-campus interviews, but those interviews were for positions that were not really in my field. Landing one of those jobs would have been quite a stretch; so I wasn't at all surprised when my on-campus interviews turned out to be more cursory visits than anything else. They needed to fill quotas, apparently, when they decided to bring me to campus.)

Point is: In the years immediately following grad school, I gave my long-term, twisted relationship with academe my all but, like so many other poor suckers who want to be scholars for a living, just kept getting burned. By summer 2010 I felt like it was time to take a short separation before choosing to either break up with academe for good of my own free will or make a more serious commitment, bad treatment and all.

But I have an anxious personality by nature; it takes me a long time to make a major life decision, like breaking up with someone or something to which I've grown accustomed and/or attached. I had to take things slow and see how I felt about the trial separation. (Pretty damn good actually. Never slept better.) The trial appeared to go well at first--until I realized that making a huge career transition during a recession was really, really difficult and just as stressful and soul crushing as trying to find an academic job. That realization sucked. So I opted to continue on the same tired path for now, all the while knowing I would most likely be leaving the ivory tower in 2011 or 2012. 

Hence this year I only applied for a handful of academic jobs and found myself resigned to rejection before I'd even sent the applications off. The love affair had grown stale over the past year and working on this blog, among other things, had enabled me to see that there were plenty of non-academic opportunities out there for someone with my skill set. I just wasn't that into it anymore.

But like any other unhealthy love affair, academe wasn't ready to let me go so easily. I ended up with multiple interview requests this year, despite only applying for 6 jobs and determining not to attend the AHA. It's the last gasp before the true death of this relationship, I suppose. (And now the anxiety nightmares are back.) So even though I have a 1 in 12 shot at four different academic positions this year, all in decent parts of the country, I'm convinced that nothing will come of it. It's not that I'm a total Debbie Downer, but I still believe that my path lies elsewhere. Probably. After all, it's way more fun being the one who does the rejecting. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Is it just a Pyramid Scheme?

Just when we were all feeling really chipper and optimistic about our future employment prospects in 2011, the Economist decided to publish an article called, "The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a PhD is Often a Waste of Time" (Dec. 16, 2010). As we prepare to ring in the new year, either with or without interviews to look forward to next month or the month after, do we want to spare a few minutes in order to dwell, once again, on the disillusionment often accompanying a doctoral degree? Do we feel like rehashing familiar territory in the days leading up to Christmas?

I'm pretty busy, actually, but what the hell, I've always got time to kill when the words/phrases "disposable" and "waste of time" are uttered in the same breath as "PhD." If someone is going to sum up my worst fears so aptly, why not indulge? 

The PhD: another disposable item polluting the planet.
Here's a rather lengthy taste of the article, which I've quoted from in large chunks. Normally I wouldn't do such a thing, but I think this piece deserves wide circulation and discussion:

"In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia," says the Economist. "It is an introduction to the world of independent research--a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects."

*Editor's Note: You've heard it before and now you're hearing it again. The PhD is just a basic requirement. It's nothing special. You may have spent 6-9+ agonizing years trying to finish the damn thing, you may have put yourself into debt and gained a ton of weight, but the doctoral degree is nothing to write home about.

"[But] one thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. . . . Some describe their work as “slave labour”. . . . Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. . . . The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes."

"But universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. . . . Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships."

"Proponents of the PhD argue that it is worthwhile even if it does not lead to permanent academic employment. Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment."

"In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam. Even graduates who find work outside universities may not fare all that well. PhD courses are so specialised that university careers offices struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to have little interest in students who are leaving academia."

*Editor's Note: What about pay, you ask? Surely a Ph.D. should increase one's earning potential over time? Well, not by much.

"Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree. . . .  The skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses."

*Editor's Note: OK, so the salary still sucks. But what about the love? What about the dream? Isn't it worth it to live the life of the mind 24-7? Hmm, maybe in movies? Maybe??

"Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world. They believe that knowledge spills from universities into society, making it more productive and healthier. That may well be true; but doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual. The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned."

"Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else. They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic. Someone should write a thesis about that."

*Editor's Note: Someone should. But if they did, they'd be even more unemployable than the rest of us.

Irrespective, happy holidays from On the Fence!!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is More Education the Answer?

What do most unemployed people, who can afford to, do during a recession, other than constantly looking for work and submitting applications? They go back to school. Universities throughout the country are facing record enrollment rates this year, and administrators everywhere are rubbing their hands together, watching gleefully as money moves out of the pockets of students and their parents and fills their universities' coffers. In many respects, the recession has offered a boost to large state universities.

Professors, of course, are less enthusiastic; they're seeing enrollment caps go way up, students spilling out into the hallways due to a lack of seats, and email inboxes full of requests from desperate students begging to add their class. (They swear they won't mind sitting on the floor.) Faculty workloads are increasing big time as a result, as are costs of living, while academic salaries remain frozen and hiring lines are cancelled. It's certainly not a win-win situation for everyone. I doubt you find many professors thrilled about the prospect of yet more students, many of whom barely have a grasp of the English language despite being native speakers, signing up for their large first-year lecture courses. (Oh, yay, now we have to teach 125 bored and apathetic students about medieval Europe instead of 75? Joy!)

But the rhetoric in the popular media suggests that going back to school, or furthering one's already extensive education with yet another B.A. or M.A. or even a Ph.D, is, as always, the best way to weather a recession. Is more education necessarily the answer? For those of us with advanced degrees but lacking in real-world experience, the idea of returning to school might seem absurd. What's the point? Employers want to hire people with experience, not an extensive knowledge of Chaucer.

But what about for the average 20 something? Is it worth it for them? What do you think? Would you advise someone to go back, or stay in, school until the recession is "over"? Have you considered returning to school despite the costs and time required?

Nice buildings sure make you feel like there's a point to it all!
Here is what the New York Times editorial team has to say about it:

Editorial: New York Times

Published: December 13, 2010

College, Jobs and Inequality

"Searching for solace in bleak unemployment numbers, policy makers and commentators often cite the relatively low joblessness among college graduates, which is currently 5.1 percent compared with 10 percent for high school graduates and an overall jobless rate of 9.8 percent. Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, cited the data recently on “60 Minutes” to make the point that “educational differences” are a root cause of income inequality.

A college education is better than no college education and correlates with higher pay. But as a cure for unemployment or as a way to narrow the chasm between the rich and everyone else, “more college” is a too-easy answer. Over the past year, for example, the unemployment rate for college grads under age 25 has averaged 9.2 percent, up from 8.8 percent a year earlier and 5.8 percent in the first year of the recession that began in December 2007. That means recent grads have about the same level of unemployment as the general population. It also suggests that many employed recent grads may be doing work that doesn’t require a college degree.

Even more disturbing, there is no guarantee that unemployed or underemployed college grads will move into much better jobs as conditions improve. Early bouts of joblessness, or starting in a lower-level job with lower pay, can mean lower levels of career attainment and earnings over a lifetime.Graduates who have been out of work or underemployed in the downturn may also find themselves at a competitive disadvantage with freshly minted college graduates as the economy improves.

When it comes to income inequality, college-educated workers make more than noncollege-educated ones. But higher pay for college grads cannot explain the profound inequality in the United States. The latest installment of the groundbreaking work on income inequality by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez shows that the richest 1 percent of American households — those making more than $370,000 a year — received 21 percent of total income in 2008. That was slightly below the highs of the bubble years but still among the highest percentages since the Roaring Twenties.

The top 10 percent — those making more than $110,000 — received 48 percent of total income, leaving 52 percent for the bottom 90 percent. Where are college-educated workers? Their median pay has basically stagnated for the past 10 years, at roughly $72,000 a year for men and $52,000 a year for women.

A big reason for the huge gains at the top is the outsize pay of executives, bankers and traders. Lower on the income ladder, workers have not fared well, in part because health care has consumed an ever-larger share of compensation and bargaining power has diminished with the decline in labor unions.

College is still the path to higher-paying professions. But without a concerted effort to develop new industries, the weakened economy will be hard pressed to create enough better-paid positions to absorb all graduates.

And to combat inequality, the drive for more college and more jobs must coincide with efforts to preserve and improve the policies, programs and institutions that have fostered shared prosperity and broad opportunity — Social Security, Medicare, public schools, progressive taxation, unions, affirmative action, regulation of financial markets and enforcement of labor laws.

College is not a cure-all, but it will certainly take the best and brightest minds to confront those challenges."

*Any thoughts or comments?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Why Being on the Academic Job Market Sucks: Part III

Honey, it's for you . . .
December is here, snowflakes are falling, and pretty much everyone I know who has applied for academic jobs is anxiously awaiting news, whether good or bad, from search committees. We're checking our email, making sure the phone is plugged in, scanning the Wiki, watching the letterbox for rejection letters, and asking our friends and colleagues if they've heard anything at all. Many of us are also simultaneously buried under piles of student papers and exams this week and next, struggling to finish the semester before collapsing. We could all use a long nap followed by a stiff drink and a gingerbread cookie right about now. And maybe even some mindless TV as well. Why not? Haven't we earned a bit of R&R?

Rum, gin, whatever, just pour me some.
While we may imbibe more than our fair share of alcoholic beverages in the coming weeks, those of us looking for work will also be on pins and needles day and night, waiting for job-related news until the 11th hour. Why academics are destined to spend the entire holiday season checking their email/phone messages every hour and refreshing the Wiki is beyond me. Couldn't we just do the whole thing starting in January? Does the (mostly) bad job-market news always have to hit us in mid-December, putting a serious damper on our Christmas/New Year cheer? Is there anyone else who is simply fed up with feeling depressed about dwindling ivory tower job prospects every December? (Note to self: This is one of the main reasons I want to look for work outside the academy. No more miserable Decembers!!)

My partner and I, for example, started off the weekend feeling pretty good about life in general, until we learned--via the Wiki--that several of the universities to which we have submitted applications, and even additional materials, have already scheduled preliminary interviews. Bummer. Such news is to be expected, of course, in this highly competitive world, but it still sucks to start off your week with disappointment. I prefer good news.

But it's important to note that not every Wiki-based disappointment/rejection is entirely valid, either, because I know search committees sometimes stagger their invites to job applicants. So one can't, or shouldn't, immediately assume that the party is over because of a presumed Wikijection. It's unwise to presume anything. However, most of the time, if other candidates are receiving contact from the search committee(s) and you are not, that is a bad sign. Very bad.

I do actually have one preliminary academic interview scheduled for next month, so yay for me. It's not at my 1st or 2nd choice university but given that I only applied for a handful of jobs, I am really fortunate to have received any interview requests at all. I'm still hoping I'll have 1 or 2 more schools contact me this month, but I have no expectations. Besides, like every other academic job applicant in the world, I've gotten excited about a possible job and then ultimately been burned by a search committee whose members seemed pleasant and professional but never contacted me again after the initial, or on-campus, interview. Nonetheless, that's the painfully uncertain life of a job searcher in any field. You show them what you have to offer and hope it's to their liking.

I wish I could offer some words of encouragement to my fellow job seekers but I don't really have any false positivity to offer at the moment. "Keep on keepin' on," perhaps, or "just wait and see, 2011 will be YOUR year!," or if that fails utterly, then "better luck next year" (or the year after, or never). I am sure, though, that some, if not most, of us will end up landing academic or non-academic jobs in 2011. We need to work; we need the money. In these times of uncertainty, remaining flexible and open minded is the best option. I'm personally giving the academic job market another go this year because I want to see what happens. I'm already open to looking for work elsewhere. That doesn't mean, however, that my ego appreciates rejection and disappointment any more than it did last year (or the year before that).

Friday, December 03, 2010

A Dual Exit: An IHE Interview

Interested in hearing why two members of an academic couple would decide to leave academe at the same time? Check out my latest IHE piece: "A Dual Exit":

Questions and comments are welcome!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Highs and Lows of the Academic Wikiverse

Gone are the days of waiting for the post.
I have no idea whether most of the readers of this blog are simultaneously on both the academic job market and the non-academic job market, or exclusively on one or the other, but I'm pretty sure that, either way, most have heard of the Academic Jobs Wiki [aka Wiki].

This little gem came into existence several years ago, when I was an A.B.D., and has provided countless hours of entertainment, excitement, misery, anxiety and horror for thousands of doctoral students and Ph.D.s across the country. So completely has the Wiki taken over the academic job market that search committee members now deign to post updates there too. [FYI: They also read it to learn what the applicants are gossiping about or what horrible, petty things they're saying to one another. The Wikiverse can be a cruel, cruel place.]

Those who read and frequently post comments on the Wiki [aka the Wikiusers] usually have a love-hate relationship with the group. They love knowing, almost immediately, what the search committee members are up to at any given university where they've applied for a job. They love feeling like the Wiki is helping lowly job applicants stick it to "the man" by granting anyone and everyone access to the inner workings of a hiring process that has remained shrouded in mystery, confusion, and, all too often, total silence--for decades. Now the tables have turned, they say; now the applicants have the power! Wikusers unite! (Even if the vast majority are still unemployed at the end of the day.)

Like many addicts, however, true Wikiusers also admit that they hate how much time they spend pouring over the job listings, frantically looking to see if other applicants have received acknowledgements or requests for writing samples or preliminary interviews or on-campus interviews or, dum dah dah dum, job offers. While normal people check Facebook or whatever first thing in the morning, academic job seekers keep hitting up the Wiki day and night, hoping for news or answers or rumors or false leads, anything that will breathe life into a tedious and ridiculously drawn-out search process.

Just give me one more Wikihit. Just one more! Please!!

The first year I went on the market the Wiki was like morphine for me, minus the fun times. I was on there 24-7. The thrill of knowing something, anything, about the academic job market and who was interested in whom kept me going throughout the hiring cycle. But I also found myself despairing when confronted with an inevitable Wikijection [i.e. when you realize that while other posters are advancing in the search process, the jig is up for you]. Wikijections are swift and brutal but they enable applicants to start the grieving process sooner rather than later, and believe me when it comes to receiving official rejections in academe, later is usually WAY later, like months and months from now or never.

I know it's (probably) wrong to pilfer the wiki and use posters' words without their explicit consent, but I'd like to close with the following comment on the state of the academic job market by a Wikiuser. It was just too good to pass up. Why not enable this particular A.B.D. to reach a larger audience, here or elsewhere? Besides, I've noticed that even authors publishing first-person or advice pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, or blogging for the CHE, have incorporated wiki comments into their articles, so I'm certainly not alone in my pilfering. Wikiusers everywhere beware: anyone can read your words; anyone can pilfer; almost anyone, if they choose, can figure out your identity.

I have a grad-school friend (a single, footloose, continent-trekker moving from VAP to VAP) who likens it [the pursuit of academic employment]  to professional baseball--you pay your dues in the minor leagues for a few years, putting up with job insecurity, low pay, and far-flung locales, and then you reach the "major league" of a t-t job. To which I reply that major league baseball is millions of dollars, five-star hotels, star-struck fans, and amoral groupies. [here here!]

Whereas a tenure-track job is $50,000/year [if you're lucky] to fight with colleagues, desperately suck up to childish journal referees as though your life depended on it (it does), and cajole mostly disconnected students in a place that you wouldn't even drive past [or use the porta potty at the rest stop] had you chosen any other career. And that outcome makes you extremely lucky and a superstar amongst your former grad-school colleagues.

For me (and I bet a lot of others), it started as some amorphous thing that I thought would be fun to do, and morphed into an unhealthy obsession. Now I'm frantically checking the wiki, desperate for the privilege of paying $800 to go to Boston and take a 1 in 12 shot at landing somewhere called Institute, West Virginia. I recognize that this is my own choice, but I do think the system is fundamentally broken.

NB: Originally posted under the "Alternate Jobs?" section on the U.S. History, 2010-11 Wiki page:,_2010-2011&curid=16752&diff=123206&oldid=123137

Are you a current or former Wikiuser who needs to put the pipe or needle down for a moment and vent? Feel free to do so here.