Reject the Academic Job Market

On January 17, 2014 by Keith Harris

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The tipping point came for yours truly last summer. As I faced yet another season of the academic job search – applying for anything that fit my qualifications, perhaps scrambling for an adjunct position near where I live, maybe even looking to a secondary school – I simply said fuck this shit. I’m on my own. We all know the near hopeless status of the academic job market: zillions of qualified candidates (and more getting pumped through the system every year) for a mere handful of tenure-track positions, the dismal and poverty-stricken life of the adjunct, and the overall suckiness of rejection. So there is really no point in rehashing what prospective professors have been complaining about for years. These are simply the facts. And we all know it. The system has failed.

So I call for a revolutionary measure. Reject the academic job market. Do NOT apply. Do NOT accept an adjunct position (unless of course, you enjoy earning 24K a year). And most important, do NOT try to be the catalyst of change within the existing institution. There comes a time when we must admit that trying to “fix” a broken system is along the lines of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. So don’t bother.

Here is my advice: become an independent scholar and do what you love. Do you need to pay the bills? Then funnel that energy, creativity, and skill toward a position outside of the conventional job track. Think about making your own way. For shit’s sake – you have a freakin’ Ph.D., which should indicate that you are a reasonably intelligent person. Do it. And don’t stop.

This is my micro-manifesto. To convention I offer the proverbial middle finger and ask that others rally to my banner. I know that I am not alone – and that many of you have experienced my frustrations and are tired of the associated bitterness. I am happily over it. And I hope that you will be too. Join the revolution.

With compliments and hasta la victoria siempre!

Keith

14 Responses to “Reject the Academic Job Market”

  • should first say that i have, as of now, no PhD and only a lonely masters but i agree with the exhausted and frustrated sentiment. i went to learn and as a way out of a an untenable situation i found myself in. it was a sort of escape and a needed focus i did not have. i certainly never went into thinking i would work in the field but as graduation drew closer and money needing to be made i acquiesced to this idea.

    i tried, to no avail, to find a potion. sure i had these degrees but not enough of them or enough experience and truthfully its not a field i ever really wanted to work. i now work in a somewhat adjacent field making penitence (worse then an adjunct) but i get to be home and try to pursue my love of doing research into a fundable means of support. it is not and easy road and for many it would be feast or famine if not for support, which i thankfully have.

    but truthfully education and especially HigherEd seems to be fundamentally broken and shifted to a track that is more a charnel house. A mill of the most egregious kind where the idea of educate for its own sake and as a hollowed place of knowledge has been replaced with the corporate mentality of “how to get a job, even if its in fast-food”

    • Thanks for the comment, Chris. The answer, I believe, can be found in innovation. This may seem cliche or unrealistic, but try to find the time to break new ground. These are times for ideas, for trials, for taking leaps into the darkness. I mean…what have we got to lose? Viva la revolution!

  • Yes, yes, yes. Thinking about doing the same thing. The great irony of the system is that sometimes we have to leave academia in order to be academics. Pursuing research as an independent scholar is the answer, allowing us to expend our time, energy and talent in our own interests rather than subsidizing the few TT/T. It’s cheesy, I know, but the academic world these days brings to mind the message at the end of the film War Games: The only way to win is not to play the game.

    • Kathleen – I think this is very well put. I am hoping that more follow in your footsteps (I suspect they will…these are the times, and they’re a changin’)

  • I know that feeling! I’ve put in for openings at my college for the 4th year in a row, but I’m not holding my breath. I’ve been flat out told why should we hire you when you already work for us as an adjunct? Sadly, I’m going to have to look for employment elsewhere if a job doesn’t come through because of finances. The shame is I’m a good teacher. I’m current, innovative, and I like the job. I’m frankly one up on some of the full-time professors. With all the push and discussion that’s going on in higher ed today, why isn’t the role and value of instructors being addressed?

    • Thanks for the comment, Kathy. It is a shame that there are so many good teachers out there who have no platform from which to teach. And the fact that your institution was so dismissive toward you is appalling. Yet another indication that the system has failed us. Have you ever thought of teaching privately? I have found it both lucrative and rewarding. It allows me time to do my own work and I do not have to deal with administrative nitwittery. It is, as they say, a win-win.

  • I found this a really interesting post, and I agree with much of what you say and applaud you for saying it. I can only speak from an Irish perspective as I have not experienced the situation in the United States, but the system most certainly is broken. There are many problems- for example in Ireland the ever increasing economic pressures placed on Universities has meant that more and more PhD students need to be taken on, even where there is little potential for people ever gaining employment in their chosen fields.

    I currently work in commercial archaeology, but have also spent well over a decade publishing and lecturing widely in academic circles both in archaeology and history. I would like nothing more than to have a full time academic position where I could teach and carry out detailed research but that has not proven possible thus far. I have (and always will) continue being an independent scholar, as I find I can’t stop carrying out research and trying to publish results in as many ways as possible. However, I have found it brings with it a significant (and largely unrecognised) financial strain- it has cost me literally thousands to access records and specific sources, thousands more over the years to attend conferences and present lectures, particularly those of an academic nature, which rarely offer fees or expenses to speakers. That I do this is all a matter of personal choice of course, but there is no denying that they are costs that would be hugely reduced if I operated in an academic setting. There is also an undoubted advantage in terms of being invited to speak at specific events etc. if you are affiliated with a Third Level Institution, at least in my experience.

    I feel there has to be more of a mechanism to accommodate independent scholars who are clearly contributing (or trying to contribute) to their fields- e.g. in terms of funding opportunities. Ironically enough I recently decided to begin part-time PhD studies to try and increase the opportunities I may get in the future. I have to keep working to try and fund this, although this in turn disqualifies me from the main funding opportunities as I am not full-time!

    I hope that in the future things develop in areas like online teaching and engagement to make what you are advocating more commonplace- the ways people learn (and educate) are changing, and systems need to develop in line with that, opening up the field to help independent scholars as much as practicable- I think that would also serve the general academic community as well. I think you are going about things the right way, and I hope you have great success with your own endeavours!

    • Thanks for the note, Damian,
      First of all, it appears that your system is engaged in overproducing qualified historians in much the same manner as ours, although for perhaps different reasons. The fundamental problem (and I have long recognized this) with going rouge, as it were, is of a monetary nature. We have to pay the bills, we have to fund our own research. So for a while we are going to have to figure out how to earn some sort of revenue. I teach privately, which can be lucrative, but admittedly live in a very affluent part of the country where people have the means to hire a private humanities professor. This is not a reality for others. However, if we are creative, if we innovate, I think that we can figure out a way to generate funding and a means to support ourselves. Otherwise, the failed system has us by the metaphorical gonads and we will have to bow and scrape for slave wages. I would happily be a part of any discussion that would lead to creative earning in the humanities.
      I do not expect the system will change any time soon. So we are on our own. But a revolution begins with the first volley. And I say fire! Eventually the system will have to restructure to meet our our demands.

  • Thanks for your post. As I see it, the only thing that will fix the system will be the revolution in universities driven by cost pressures combined with online learning. Universities will need fewer professors and will be less likely to encourage research, which will shrink graduate schools. With a number of colleges going out of business, and putting tenured faculty on the street, the job market will be truly broken. Colleges will switch to a model of specializing in only a few research areas where they can gain the biggest reputational advantages. The end result will be many unemployed historians. But this might force historians to start trying to communicate with the public, not just fellow academics. And the public badly needs informed historians who can talk to them in a serious but engaging way, since the vacuum is currently filled by intellectuals and journalists who don’t really understand how history works. I have a PhD in economic history and I gave up on academia two years after finishing. I went into business publishing, both writing commissioned histories and ghostwriting non-history articles and books, and the demand is overwhelming. Underemployed PhDs are a waste of the country’s intellectual and human capital, so let’s figure out a way to retrain them so they can be useful.

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