Thursday, July 14, 2011

This is Your Academic Job Market...

It is July 14th.

I just received an email from the chair of a social science department at a regional university approximately 3 hours away from where I live right now. This email was addressed to about 15 people (presumably all ABDs or adjuncts) from universities ranging around the Midwest, based on what I can see. (I am very glad that the sender did not understand the BCC function of his/her email so that I could see exactly who gets these emails.). In this email, he is "inviting us to apply for this exciting opportunity at Regional Public U's Department of Social Science this fall!"

This "exciting opportunity" is a VAP position to replace two faculty members going on sabbatical. The teaching load is 4/4, and it is a one year, non-renewable contract.

The job starts August 15th, with classes commencing August 29th.

This is not the first email of this type I've gotten, but it's definitely the one that has come latest in the year. And it has left me equally rolling my eyes, laughing at my desk, and lamenting the state of higher education staffing that has caused this kind of position to be described as a "exciting opportunity!"

Okay, I get it. They need this position filled, possibly at the last minute, and they want to place it in the best possible light. I don't blame them for that. But calling this an "exciting opportunity" for anyone, or a contract that any of us living several hours away should be chomping at the bit to take? That's crazy.

First, let's look at what any of us would have to do if we took this position but were still planning to try to get a tenure-track academic job in the future.

They're just now soliciting applications ... and asking for CVs from multiple candidates. Therefore, you're going to have to give them at least a couple of weeks to review applications, select candidates, do interviews, and make an official offer. Realistically, whoever gets this "exciting opportunity" isn't going to know they got it until the end of this month. That then gives them approximately four weeks to hammer out the details and sign the contract, find an apartment (or make arrangements to commute several hours one-way every day), make moving arrangements, actually move and get settled, get acclimated to the new campus, prep four new classes, and begin teaching those four new classes. All in four weeks.

I'm not saying it can't be done, but ... wow. And all for a one year contract? In an academic job?

A one-year contract for an academic position means that the VAP, in addition to interviewing and moving and prepping and teaching, would also need to begin sending out job applications for the following academic year within the first few weeks of the fall semester starting ... a process that would continue into the spring. So while this person would be in a new city, prepping and teaching four classes to entirely new students ... he or she would also need to spend hours each week filling out job applications for positions for the following year. You can't skip an application you're qualified for ... there are too few jobs, and the season is too short.

And trust me - academic job applications are not just a matter of filling out a generic CV and cover letter. It wasn't at all unusual for me to spend at least 4-6 hours doing just one application. But of course, I had no teaching obligations to attend to.

Now, back to our mythical candidate. Keep in mind, they're going to be back on the market immediately. So in addition to doing all of the prep work, teaching, and job applications for next year, the candidate will also have to be working on research in order to keep their CV updated and impressive.

It's worth noting, too, that this job is not located in a major central city, where the "lucky" candidate would be able to find some adjuncting work or something similar once his or her contract was up if they failed to find a permanent position. There are two universities/colleges in this location ... so while it's certainly possible that the person would find some course-by-course teaching work for the following year, this possibility is not as likely as if this job were located in, say, DC or NYC or Chicago. So there is a distinct possibility that if the person didn't land a tenure track job in the next hiring cycle, they'd be packing up and relocating once again for another temporary position.

This doesn't even address the growing suspicion among people who pay attention to the academic job market that people who take temporary visiting or adjuncting positions may actually be less likely to be considered for tenure-track jobs than ABD students fresh out of graduate school. I am working on gathering some resources to write a longer post about this, but it's worth noting as well - if you take a temporary position like this one, it appears that your chances of landing a tenure track job may actually decrease rather than increase. This is yet another thing to think about when considering what these temporary positions will really get you.

I will finish by noting that, as a teacher, I am concerned that this department apparently thinks that staffing their classes in this manner is a good way to provide quality education to their undergraduate students. Asking an overstressed, overworked, brand-new faculty member to come prep and teach four brand new classes, all with the stress of the job market and living in a brand new city with no job security hanging over their head? Only to have them leave after a year?

I have absolutely no doubt that the person who is hired will do their absolute best to teach those students. However, I question the true dedication of the university to "high quality undergraduate education" (according to their mission statement) when they are offering positions in this manner. Why not offer two positions with a 2/2 teaching load and slightly lower pay? Why not ask two existing faculty members to take on one additional class per semester so that the VAP could have a lighter load? This would not only benefit the VAP, but also the students.

But of course, that is impossible. That would require them to actually value undergraduate education, or to actually respect graduating Ph.D. students as future colleagues rather than desperate people they can exploit and then discard when it no longer suits them.

I don't blame someone for taking this job. But I do blame a higher education system that has made this type of job offer not an unusual outlier, but one of the most common types of job offers. I've noted elsewhere that temporary and adjunct faculty now teach more than half of all higher education courses these days. It's true that most of these positions are not offered this late in the year, but it's also true that temporary positions with high teaching loads are quickly becoming the norm in this industry. This is one reason I am choosing to leave. I don't love academia so much that I'm willing to do it anywhere, under any conditions. I value my whole life, not just my work life, too much to take a position like that. I refuse to spend the next ten years relocating around the country and carrying an insane workload, just on the off chance that I will land a tenure track job sometime in the next decade.


  1. Well said. I don't blame people for taking these jobs, either, but I am a bit mystified why so many are willing to uproot themselves for so little. Hope and job market myths are a powerful combination.

    Regarding whether departments care about providing quality undergraduate education -- they don't. It's doublespeak all the way. All they care about in hiring VAPs or adjuncts is that those people aren't so terrible that students file complaints against them -- that they show up to teach their classes, submit grades on time, and don't sexually harass anyone. Of course, if they happen to buckle under the pressure and commit egregious acts of domestic violence, oh well and too bad. As long as it doesn't happen on campus.

  2. "Hope and job market myths" - exactly what I was thinking. When I was on the market last year, quite a few people urged me to apply for one-year gigs. "Oh, but it's SOMETHING! And then you'll DEFINITELY get something the following year!!" I would have to stop myself from reminding them that there's no guarantee of that ... and that uprooting my family and leaving my stable, permanent job for something like that would be (IMHO) a rational decision.

    I guess I've never been enough of an idealist for academia. :)

    Your point about basically getting a warm body who won't harass students and who will get solid evaluations (and of course they will - they're hoping to land a t-t job!) is the only goal of the university. As I read more and more about academe, I just cannot believe the extent to which the idealism and rhetoric doesn't match reality. It's unbelievable.

    I love the comments from faculty in the domestic violence links. "We had no idea s/he would do this!!" Well, of course you didn't ... did you ever even speak to the adjuncts in your department? I doubt it...

  3. I am so tempted to send this to my family to explain why I'm getting out. It's so hard to explain academia to people who aren't in it. And of course it is because who would ever think it works this way? But its especially disheartening because the people who could probably actually affect the system, students and parents, often don't know how their classes are put together. I try to have this conversation with my students, to explain to them what it means that they are being taught by a graduate student. I'm not sure it sinks in, but I think if that conversation were had more often it would start to.

    The thing that especially frustrates me is that I think it's entirely possible that the department who sent this out actually does care a great deal about undergraduate education (though I do believe that they might not care at all), but that the bureaucracy of higher ed might be tying their hands. I worked in administration for a year and I was appalled by how many decision were made by people who didn't even understand the programs they were making decisions for. Universities are set up so that responsibility for making policy decisions is as widely distributed as possible. That way no one has to take the blame, but it also makes changing anything damn near impossible.

  4. "It's so hard to explain academia to people who aren't in it."

    Truer words have never been spoken. Throughout this whole process, it has been SO incredibly hard to describe to people why just "changing careers" has been such a tough process for me, and why I didn't just stick it out because being a professor must be such a fun job with so much flexibility.

    There is just no way to explain the academic lifestyle and mentality to people, or the way the market actually works.

    Thanks for reading. I really am thrilled that someone else is out here, speaking out about all of this...