Path Dependency

I’ve always been fascinated to hear how people fall into their line of work. Some, like me, seem to stumble backasswards into what they do. Some people seem to be able to leverage a hobby into a career. Some, like My Better Half, seem to be oriented to a particular path for as long as anyone can remember. He is an academic archaeologist through and through with a voracious appetite for any and every scholarly work in his field. His insatiable quest for anthropological expertise has been around since he was 3, if not sooner, according to collective family memory. And he can’t help but teach no matter where he goes, regardless of whether his students are actually students.

Too bad academic teaching isn’t so much a thing anymore.

When he started this journey, the job market seemed reasonably rosy. He left behind steady work as an archaeologist for a consulting company to go back to school so he could achieve his dream of teaching. And if his dream of teaching at the college level didn’t pan out for some reason, no matter – he could always pan for gold. Or at least go back to being a field archaeologist.

We always knew how competitive any academic job market would be, but we also thought that, unlike some other fields (I’m looking at you museum studies), he could always fall back on his prior career as a practicing archaeologist working for an environmental consulting company.

What happened next is a story that’s all too familiar to anyone who’s been following changes in higher education, or an adjunct boom, or even adjunctivitis, whatever the hell that is. The recession meant alot of things, including a decline in public funding for higher education, trickling down to departments being unable to hire full-time tenure-track professors and increasingly relying on adjuncts to teach. To the extent that now somewhere upwards of 2/3 of those who teach at the college level are only adjuncts or instructors without any possibility of tenure.

What all that means in our household is uncertainty & inertia. The very few full-time instructor or tenure-track jobs that were available were open months ago, when he was still neck deep in writing drafts of chapters. And taking care of a newborn. And the 2 year old. And teaching at the community college. And TAing at the university. And taking care of cooking, cleaning, & yardwork. Now that he’s only knee deep in putting the final chapters together, there are only temporary openings, 1 year appointments, mostly.

No matter. He can fall back on field archaeology until he lands a teaching gig, right? Not exactly. Even in his former career as a field archaeologist, the recession meant that the kinds of projects that triggered the need for archaeological fieldwork collapsed. No new housing developments being built, no major road construction, no new light rail lines, no substantial construction of any kind at all meant that cultural resource management firms shrunk (read: layoffs) or closed, leaving even those in his “backup” career path under- or unemployed and with no clear path. But even if he could find field work, would that work, uh, work for us? A quick look at our bank account says “absof*ckinglutely” but a quick look at our two (very young) kids says “nah uh.” Not at this stage in our lives.

So what’s left? That’s the problem. He worries that he is path dependent. And in the most general sense, of course he is because we all are. The choices we made in the past necessarily influence the present. But his point is that by choosing to get a Ph.D. he has continually winnowed his opportunities down to such a degree that he now stands almost no chance of being seen as anything other than grossly overqualified for anything other than teaching at the college level. Which, if you recall what you’ve been reading since paragraph 2, is about like the odds of scoring a job in journalism. Or law.

Sure, he’s got a steady recurring gig as an adjunct. Which is going great says no one nowhere. Is it any wonder so many Ph.D. students are jumping ship? Sure, if you’re not destined for academia, then is the Ph.D. necessary? Maybe, maybe not (basically: it depends). And while we should not forget that those who have Ph.D.s also are empowered to make choices, what about those who dream of nothing but a shot at the academic career and nothing else? What about those who want to be dependent on that particular path?

In our household, we’ll have to wait and see. Plan A is to abide by the adjunct’s life for the fall semester while Better Half goes on the academic job market (if there is anything in his area to pursue) and see what happens. Plan B? Still not clear. Selling drugs, perhaps?

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