Lucky: A Reflection on the Academic Job Market

I signed a contract this week. In August 2021 I will be taking up the position of Assistant Professor of History (non-tenure line) at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO.

In many ways this has been an improbable turn.

I entered graduate school without a real sense of the academic job market, despite oblique but well-intentioned comments from my professors. All of that had changed by the time I finished my PhD, but I decided that I wanted to give it a go anyway. With the blessing of my partner, I resolved that I would give it my all for three full cycles past graduation before pivoting to other employment. That space of time, I reasoned, would give me time to put out some publications, expand my teaching portfolio, and polish my job documents and, if it didn’t happen by then, then I would be okay throwing myself into another field.

The three cycles worked out about how I anticipated. I published some. I taught a lot. Things were harder than I anticipated, but I started getting interviews. I was a finalist. But I could say the same of dozens or or sometimes hundreds of other people who applied for most or all of the same jobs that I did. The structural factors that have gradually squeezed the humanities even above and beyond higher education generally simply create too few jobs, leading to a battle royale for the few that remain. The scars created by this cycle are not quite as bloody as those in the Kingji Fukasaku movie of the same name, but they are every bit as real.

Then everything exploded last spring. The remaining jobs I had applied for cancelled their searches, which was a microcosm of what happened across the employment market.

I watched as the third anniversary of my graduation came and went and since my partner was still employed there was no reason not to apply for academic jobs again even as I started revising a resume that I hadn’t touched in a decade. Eventually I scrapped that document and wrote a resume from scratch. While I never got to the point of actually applying for non-academic jobs, that was at the front of my mind for most of the past year. Simply put, there weren’t many academic jobs on offer this year. I applied to two, with just a handful more that passed on or where the dates hadn’t come due yet. This after applying to more than a dozen in each of the past four years, which is low when compared to many of the job seekers I know.

Job hunting is draining under any circumstances. For an academic job, the application usually requires anywhere from four to seven discrete documents, several of them bespoke, as well as often reaching out to professional references for letters, all for a first-round interview. There does seem to be bit of movement to reduce requirements for initial applications, but these are still the norm. A drain in normal times, these applications were exhausting while teaching five classes at three different institutions during a pandemic, on top of keeping up a research profile and trying to weigh other career options. I was continuing to put apply for as many of these as I could, but I was also ready to walk away. I want this job, but it is important to remember that it is a job.

This is not to say that thinking about that transition was easy. It often led to existential dread. I can keep writing history, I told myself, since I already treat as a second job given my contract(s), but how would I make enough money to eat? I feared that any employer would see my interest in their position as feigned, even if I was fully resolved to branch away from academia.

Of course, I didn’t get that far. I was just starting the process of doing informational interviews to build my network when I landed this opportunity, but I plan on following through with them anyway, should they prove useful sometime down the line.

Rejection is a normal part of academic life, but when you have trained for so long and written so much of your academic person into an application, it is hard not to take the news personally. To then also celebrate someone else landing a position you applied to can be bittersweet.

I used to reframe the question away from why them? to why not me, too?, but even this fed into the sense of isolation and exclusion, particularly when the answer comes back to seemingly inexorable austerity. Sitting in the corner (or at my computer) watching other people announce successes—whether a job, a PhD at your dream program, a fellowship, or be part of a great panel that you weren’t invited to be part of—can feel like being an outcast watching the “cool kids” do things. Trust me, I’ve been there. I am there. I will be there again. But it is important to engage and redirect these thoughts, not because of some influencer mantra about vibes, but because they are dangerous to your mental health.

I have actively resisted thinking about the people I am up against when I apply for these jobs. In part this is a matter of imposter syndrome and I would absolutely freak myself out, but it is also a matter of personal philosophy. I only have control over my performance, for one, but, even more, they’re only my competition in the most technical sense where we are up for the same scarce resources. I want to be part of a community of scholars online and more broadly that starts from a position of generosity and reciprocity (within reason: there’s no room for sexual predators here, for instance). For me, this means celebrating other people’s successes even when I am also envious.

People on Twitter have summed up the academic job market better and more colorfully than I have here: there is almost no profanity that it doesn’t warrant. I am still in disbelief that I have accepted a job after going through this cycle year over year. Sure, the position is not the gold-standard of academic employment that is a tenure-track position, but a full-time and renewable position is pretty good in a world where academic employment is becoming increasingly adjunctified—to say nothing of the group of people I will get to work with or the students I’ll get to teach. Higher education is changing and there is a long way to go to ensure a more stable future, but, for now, I am just excited for the chance to be part of it.

The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

One cannot solve a problem until one acknowledges a problem exists.

People hate complaining because they do not like to list. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category. You are forced to witness how social systems are borne out in personal experience, to recognize that hardship hurts, that solutions are not as simple as they seem.

Sarah Kendzior an expert on totalitarian regimes, particularly in central Asia, and a journalist based in St. Louis who I’ve followed on Twitter for some time. The View from Flyover Country is a collection of essays penned between 2012 and 2014 on issues that range from media to race to higher education. I read the entire collection in about three sittings last weekend, only setting it down when some of the essays hit a little too close to home.

The fact that The View From Flyover Country is a collection of essays published for Al Jazeera leads to a certain amount of repetition one would expect to find in a series of articles published on their own, but also offers scathing critiques of the present economic and social order in easily approachable chunks that cause her call to action to swell like a flood. Kendzior laces her criticism of the status quo with a deep humanism, making the case that the economic systems that have already shattered at least one generation and are hard at work on a second one deprive many Americans of not just economic opportunity, but basic dignity.

In the post-employment economy, is self-respect something we can afford? Or is another devalued commodity we are expected to give away?

The foundations of the system as Kendzior identifies it are rising inequality paired with increasingly expensive barriers to entry into lucrative careers that create pay-to-play environment. Simultaneously, she articulates that we are living in a post-employment economy in many sectors, where corporations aim to stay profitable by reducing wages and offloading costs onto the workers. These conditions, combined with the toxic potential of the new media landscape create totalitarian echoes.

Kendzior penned these essays well before the 2016 presidential election, but that campaign season and the events that have unfolded since have done nothing invalidate her words. If anything, the curtain was stripped back to reveal systemic and ideological weaknesses in the American system. Where people had previously brushed these off with wave toward a black president, long strides that have been made by women, or a general sense of American achievement—some of which is warranted—has been shown to also be gilding atop gross and growing inequality.

There are no easy solutions and Kendzior doesn’t pretend that there are. But to the extent that the first step to making things better is to acknowledge that a problem exists, The View From Flyover Country should be mandatory reading for everyone in the United States.

ΔΔΔ

I was under the weather this week, which managed to consume most of my energy left for reading, but I did start The Man Who Spoke Snakish, a fablistic novel by the Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk. It is too soon to judge the book, but I enjoyed the first few pages.

Finis

Content note: what follows is a sincere reflection of my feeling dispirited at my current situation and how I am grappling with ways to move forward. This has been building now for months and I have been hesitant to write about it openly. Everything adds up to a sense of despair that bleeds into this post, but I also recognize that many of my issues are coming from a place of privilege.

More than a week in the making, this post has proven–and continues to prove–almost impossible to write, which, in turn means that most of what I had originally intended to write has been jettisoned, perhaps to be picked up from the cutting floor sometime down the road. However, the starting point remains precisely where it would have a week ago, so perhaps I ought to begin there.

A bit more than a week ago I cleared the last remaining academic hurdle for my doctorate, defending my dissertation first thing Monday morning. This means that I am no longer ABD (all but dissertation) and now just ABB (all but bureaucracy). The dissertation defense should be–and was–something to be celebrated and I am more than a little relieved to have finished this process. Another post would and will go into reflections on the dissertation process because I believe that such introspection is not only good for me, but might be valuable to others going through the same process. And yet, without the immediate demands of the dissertation, the specter of the future has cast a pall over my sense of achievement.

I entered and progressed through graduate school clear-eyed to the brutal employment statistics in higher education. I can see in my mind the trend lines for full-time employment, the rise of contingent faculty, and costs of higher education and in some ways this shaped my experience in graduate school; for instance, I came to University of Missouri precisely because my department offered funding for the MA. I also maintained that I was willing to work outside higher ed, should I not get a job teaching. At the same time, I thought “why not me?,” and so set about doing the sorts of things one does in graduate school in order to be competitive on the academic job market. I am not here to boast of my accomplishments and I made mistakes along the way, but I also think, inasmuch as I was able, I put together a competitive resume with a body of work that continues to grow.

Then I started applying for jobs. Suffice to say that it has not gone well.

I am under a month from graduation, once again facing an uncertain future and feeling stuck in neutral. On the one hand, I am still applying for teaching positions at colleges because this is still something I want to do with my life; on the other, though, it is a lot easier to be cavalier about resiliency on the job market when you’re not worried about how you’re going to eat next month.

I could lash out, casting blame for my current predicament. I could throw in the towel, abandon the dream of teaching at the college level. I could dig deep for resolve to keep on with the types of activities that would be attractive to a future academic employer.

I am closest to the last option, with a hearty dose of current responsibilities thrown in. At a time when I see other recent PhDs getting at least something of a respite from the grueling schedule that got them through, I gave myself just the rest of the day after my defense. The next day, I went to interview to teach one course next semester. The day after that I had a guest lecture, and the two after that were my usual teaching days. Between these obligations, I have been marking student papers (I received 80-ish) so I can get them back in a timely fashion, started revising my dissertation for submission, and continued applying for jobs. I have barely had a chance to read fiction, which has been main concession to relaxation in the past few years.

This is terrible self-care on my part. I should rest. I need to rest if I am going to do the quality of work that might lead to future success. I know this, and yet I can’t help but feel that I can’t afford to take the time off.

My dissertation defense is in the past, but uncertainty is simultaneously putting a damper on my mood and contributing to the feeling that I am being pulled in multiple directions, which itself is making it difficult to move in any one of them.

My 2016 – By the Numbers

There are any number of numbers that have been used to quantify the experience of 2016, including how much average temperatures rose, stock market tickers, votes cast, emails leaked, amount of money spent by SuperPACs, number of people displaced from Syria, total human population on Earth, instances and casualties of mass- and police-shootings—plus happier statistics that aren’t necessarily kept such as weddings, child-births, mitzvahs, and the like. Here are some numbers about my year.

4 – article submissions
—3 article rejections
—1 requested revise and resubmit
—3 articles queued for edits and submission in early 2017
2 – academic papers presented based on my dissertation research
2 – abstracts accepted for conference papers
—1 abstract under review
136 – pages in my dissertation’s narrative section, which is effectively in its final form
1 – novels started
15 – jobs applied for in 2016
—0 – job interviews received
— 12 – job applications due in January
9 – states visited [drive-throughs not counted]
3 – ultimate frisbee leagues participated in
59 – books read above and beyond an immediate academic purpose [+6]
—12 – original languages
—7 – non-fiction books
—8 – books by female authors [+4 from 2015]
99 – blog posts published
— 60 – book reviews
— 6 – posts about politics
— 2 – posts about Aristophanes
42 – Instagram posts
—11 – baking/cooking pictures
—8 – cat pictures

As usual, these numbers mean nothing, anything, and everything. There are other metrics, but they are proprietary of NUDEAN-inc, a private analytics company. A NUDEAN spokesperson is cagey when asked to share the areas of life quantified while keeping the actual numbers secret, leading one to speculate that the data is only being haphazardly recorded. Whether this situation is a product of gross incompetence or because many aspects of human life cannot or should not be quantified is a judgement left to the reader.