I’ll be over here, avoiding the interwebz

One article that’s been making the rounds this week – at least in my inbox and on my feed – is this one from Slate that attempts to demystify the academic job application process for non-academics. I had made myself a deal to stop reading anything about the job market. Because it’s all too familiar that the tenure-track job market is bleak at best. Or that winning a tenure-track job isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And that even full-time non-tenure-track jobs are scarce as teaching gets farmed out to adjuncts. And that Ph.Ds continue to face the choice of either accepting the unsustainble pay and working conditions that come with being an adjuct or opting out of their academic field altogether. There may be 100 reasons to go online and find out why you should not go to grad school. But especially if you’re about to graduate with a Ph.D, you just might want to avoid the web altogether.

If you don’t, you’ll be faced with articles like that Slate one. But at least that one comes in handy for explaining to friends & family why this any time of year is a terrible time to ask an academic “So….how’s the job search going?” As you can guess, for some reason, I read it, hoping it would be…I don’t know, funny, maybe? That we could all chuckle at how ridiculously awful the prospects are and how tiny the chances of landing something. See? The potential for hilarity is oh Jesus they just used the phrase ‘existential death spiral.’ Closing that tab.

In my house, we’re already knee deep in hopelessness about this year’s market in My Better Half™’s field. So far there are seven – SEVEN! – jobs nationwide that he at least sort of qualifies for. As we read a result from the job alerts we subscribe to, we even hold out hope because we’ve seen several that open with “The ideal candidate will teach…” YES HE TEACHES ALL OF THOSE AND HAS GREAT TEACHING EVALUATIONS AND

Oh.

That’s when we scroll down to the qualifications and realize the futility in applying. Sometimes it’s because every last minimum and desired qualification is aimed at demonstrating the candidate’s success at securing *research* dollars – nothing whatsoever about teaching experience and abilities. Sometimes it’s because the job specifies “Strong preference for research experience in the river beds of southeastern Ohio” or some sh*t like that. And sometimes – and I’m not even making this up – it’s because the job specifies that while you should have a Ph.D. in one field, you should also have Ph.D.-level research expertise in another entirely different field too. Sorry, we didn’t realize he should have been pursuing a dual Ph.D. in anthropology and pediatric dentistry at the same time. Sure, he’ll still apply because we know that nobody is ever a perfect match for any job in any field. But who knows? Maybe there is that one candidate out there who matches all those qualifications more closely. (There usually is when it comes to academics).

Luckily, My Better Half™ got real with himself two years ago as he began to track the academic jobs and determined that if teaching was his desired end game, he would pursue community college jobs, where work is all about teaching and not 100% research-focused. Wait. Where do community colleges list their jobs? Our job alerts at Chronicle of Higher Education and HigherEdJobs.com are surfacing only university – and the occasional yet even more highly coveted private liberal arts college – jobs. As time passed, we began to wonder about this more and more. After a year of receiving these job alerts, we had seen only one community college job. Perhaps they just don’t advertise nationally? We finally broke down and sheepishly emailed the advice columnist at the Chronicle of Higher Ed who covers the community college job market, and he responded that community college jobs are typically posted at HigherEdJobs.com. Oh, well, let me go in and alter our search alert so that

Sonofab*tch.

Our HigherEdJobs alert HAS been set to include community college jobs for the TWO YEARS we have had it set up. It’s just that there haven’t been any community college jobs for the alert to capture.

Some days it’s easier than others to say “F it. We’ll just take our own path and opt out of this academic job crisis nonsense and figure out plan B and life will be just fine.” Other days, it’s harder to see how to make our way out of path dependency. Especially when you open an article only to be faced with a nice summary of all the work required to apply, only to face such terrible odds.

A fieldwork widow

The spring semester has wound down, and My Better Half™ decided after much deliberation to accept an offer of summer archaeological fieldwork. Normally this wouldn’t even be an option, as the typical fieldwork schedule is 10 days away, 4 days at home, repeat. If you’re lucky. But this year there happens to  be a project within driving distance of where we live, so every morning he reports to the office at 5 a.m., commutes from there to the site, and then returns home at the end of each day.

I’ll do my best to contain my enthusiasm. Because despite the extra income which is helpful necessary, this still presents many challenges. Here’s just one of them: his 5 a.m. start time, for instance. If the Dawdler Toddler would actually go to sleep when we put her to bed at 8:00 p.m., My Better Half™ would stand a chance at up to 8 hours sleep as long as two additional conditions are also met:

  • Baby also cooperates and sleeps through the night (which has yet to happen, ever).
  • Fairy Godmother pulls her weight and relieves us of the nightly household work of packing lunches and doing dishes and putting away laundry and shuttling Dawdler Toddler back to bed after each and every attempt to delay bedtime.

All in all, this means on any given night, My Better Half™ can expect to get somewhere between 0 and 6 hours sleep before reporting for highly physical labor. And once I’ve slept in til Baby’s natural alarm at 5:00 a.m., I get to get the kids up, clothed, fed, and loaded in the truck for daycare drop off before I report to work, only to repeat all that in reverse at the end of each day, exhausted.

Maybe I’m just cranky because I’m dreading the rest of fieldwork season unnecessarily. Maybe it’s just because I haven’t yet had any coffee. Or maybe it’s more that last night presented what I know to be a typical case study. We were up 4 times between 9:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. with Baby, who was uncharacteristically fussy and inconsolable. By the time Baby finally got up at 5:20 a.m., desperately needing a diaper change, I discovered that we had no diapers. None. Not in the house, not stashed in the back of his sister’s closet, not in the diaper bag, not in the truck. So poor Dawdler Toddler also got to wake at an unnaturally early hour to start her day, because last I checked Child Protective Services doesn’t look too kindly on me leaving my kids at home to dash to the store to grab diapers. This may be just the kick in the ass that I needed to change my outlook on adjuncting to note how accommodating it is in allowing for co-parenting and equitable division of household duties. Or maybe it will just make me hate fieldwork more than I already did.

A Public Service Announcement

The following are incompatible:

  • Trying to catch up on sleep at any opportune moment while living in a household with
    • a Dawdler Toddler who invents every excuse under the sun to delay bedtime (because that’s what toddlers do)
    • a 7 month old who refuses to sleep through the night for no good reason whatsoever

– while also –

  • Trying to relieve My Better Half™ of many parenting duties so as to permit him blocks of uninterrupted time and focus to write a dissertation.

The following are also incompatible:

  • Trying to escape the soul-crushing pressure to finish a dissertation so that one can have free time again (aka, sleep, attend to the monstrously long honey-do chores list so our house does not fall down, and for the love of all that is holy, relax for the first time in months years)

– while also –

  • Knowing that ‘free time’ should really be defined as the pressure of “hurry up and get a job, goddamnit!”

And, finally, the following are also incompatible:

  •  Trying to predict whether one will be able to find childcare on such short notice should one accept an offer of seasonal archaeological fieldwork

 – or –

  • Deciding to turn down said job offer in order to avoid bringing in a chess master to calculate and predict the matrix of childcare solutions such a job would require, with the hopes of finding another part-time job that may never materialize

Those who attempt to reconcile these incompatible goals report side effects including sleeplessness, restlessness, frustration, stress, loss of patience, and an inability to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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?

Unfiltered Thoughts: The Academic Job Market

I can’t stop thinking about an article I read a couple days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Most History Ph.D.’s Have Jobs“* Maybe it’s just because I stand on the sidelines of My Better Half™’s (totally unsuccessful) job search (in another discipline) AND scores of close friends who *are* Ph.D.s in history looking for work unsucessfully, but the seemingly upbeat tone of the article strikes me as completely disassociative with what’s actually going on in the academic job market.

On the face of it, maybe this is good news, but even if that’s true, that belies part of the very problem: that the academic job market is so sh*tty as to merit a story that most people in a particular discipline have jobs. Note: not careers, not in their fields, not the highly desirable end goal that most History Ph.D.s have in mind, namely a tenure-track position in a college or university, just jobs. While there are corollaries outside academia that would merit such an article (“Most Journalists Have Jobs” immediately comes to mind), would we take note, for instance, at “Most Accountants Have Jobs” or “Most Dentists Have Jobs”?

But getting beyond the headline itself, as I read the article, I came across several points that were troubling. The article is about a study conducted by the American Historical Association that tracked the jobs of 2500 History Ph.D.s. One of the first points made is: “A Ph.D. in history can be more than just a gateway to a faculty appointment. Among the positions held by the group studied are: archivist, foreign-service officer, lawyer, nonprofit analyst, pastor, and schoolteacher.” So *after* achieving a Ph.D., many folks have had to go get additional credentials to gain employment (see: lawyer, pastor, schoolteacher) and we’re supposed to consider this good news?! They even cite the lead researcher for the study as saying “People are using their degrees” in these other careers. This wouldn’t be noteworthy, except that it has become so bad for folks in the humanities and social sciences that they are now in a position as to have to justify that such degrees actually get used. People who dedicate years of their lives diving into historical sources, analyzing, writing, and editing their narratives in order to graduate didn’t spend that much time accruing useless skills and aren’t going to toss aside their many skills and abilities that they gained in honing their craft.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the AHA study is that the latest data they have on any of these History Ph.D.s is 2009, which might not seem like all that long ago, but consider even this:

“Of the cohort who earned their Ph.D.’s from 1998 to 2001, about 14 percent worked in faculty jobs off the tenure track. That number grew to 25.6 percent among those who earned a Ph.D. between 2006 and 2009, a time period that included the after-effects of the recession.”

I would hazard a reasonably well informed guess that since 2009, things have gotten a lot worse for those on the academic market as the recession’s effects lag, especially, though by no means exclusively, in the humanities. Humanities degrees don’t tie directly into a career or line of work like nursing or business for example, so humanities folks find themselves in a defensive position lately. (Just google “humanities crisis,” if you’re curious). The study’s data show that 17.8 percent have landed a “non tenure-track faculty position” at either a 4 or 2 year institution. That’s pretty decent, actually (and even that 17.8% is decent should be telling). But what percentage of those 17.8% are adjunct-only? Can we at least get an over/under? While many colleges and universities have in recent years started offering non-tenure track full-time benefits eligible faculty positions, that doesn’t mean those positions are any more numerous than traditional tenure-track faculty jobs. I would bet (from personal experience) that even such “staff” positions have become highly coveted and unbelievably competitive, given the drawdown in the number of tenure-track faculty openings.

Finally, the article quotes from a former director of the American Historical Association, “Hopefully, the AHA can find out more about what choices people made that led them to take the jobs that they did.” I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here and presume that ‘choice’ was a poor, er, choice of words. Because, yes, people have agency to make choices about their lives, but I’m not sure ‘choice’ is an accurate description of what’s happening here. Unless you’re really characterizing the ‘choice’ between eking out an existence as an adjunct making a pittance per class with even more restrictions on income possibilities now due to the Affordable Care Act and the alternative: choosing a line of work instead that provides at least a reasonable amount of job security and/or benefits and/or income in order to pay bills. And here I just mean housing, transportation, food – I’m not even taking into consideration astronomical student loans and credit card debt incurred in pursuit of a History (or any other) Ph.D.

People are being forced into making the choices they do as a result of an imbalanced labor market. Unless you have an unbelievably patient partner and/or enormous cash reserves and/or a trust fund, you can’t really survive on an adjunct’s pay, where you may toil for years on end waiting in the wings for even the chance to compete for a teaching opening, whether that’s tenure-track or not. Case in point: My Better Half™ makes about $1500 a class. If we assume that both of his assigned classes make enrollment each semester (because now he’s limited to being offered only 2 classes per semester so they don’t have to provide him health benefits, and he’s not able to get any classes during summer sessions as those go only to full-time tenured faculty at his community college), he’s bringing in a maximum of $6000 a year as an adjunct. A year. And that’s zero benefits, zero job security, zero guarantees, zero job growth over time. Versus a choice to leave academia behind to make even a reasonable living (because it’s not like he can leverage his Ph.D. to make giant piles of cash working in his particular industry) that may be indirectly tied to his educational training, but which provides benefits, more predictability, less work-life imbalance, and the potential for growth & promotion over time in order to pay daycare, the mortgage, credit card bills, and even go out to eat once in a blue moon. Is it really a choice anymore? For the vast majority, I suspect the answer is no.

*The article is behind a paywall, so if you can’t access it, I guess that means that you may be one of the scores of history Ph.D.’s who has not landed a job and therefore has no access to a university’s library journal subscriptions. Ugh. Also, while the article title lacks an exclamation point at the end, you might as well mentally insert that yourself, because that’s how the article reads, although, again, that may be becuase I’m so cynical about the job market & just reading the article through that filter.