Friday, September 30, 2011

If You're Reading Here, Go Research the Job Market. Now.

Today, I'd like to highlight a recent post at AfterAcademe (recentPhD has been giving me a lot of food for thought lately!!) about what the job market in academia objectively looks like … how many jobs are there, how many applicants you’ll be competing with, and how many jobs are actually a good match for your interests and wants. In this post, recentPhD notes that several English departments in jobs s/he had applied to over the past two years noted that they had received up to 700 applicants for a single job posting. 

Think about that, young English Ph.D. students who find themselves here. You're competing with 400-700 other people for every single job ad out there. Via a job market that lasts approximately 3-4 months. If you don't win the lottery with one of those ads, you'll be scrambling for 6-8 months until you can start applying again (with a few hundred more fresh Ph.D.s joining you on the market). The odds are tremendously against you of landing a particular job … or honestly, any job at all.

I'm not trying to be overly negative. I'm just trying to encourage you to be informed.

The various markets in the social sciences aren't that tight, but you will still be competing with 100-200 people for every job ad, if not more. Those are long odds. I haven't done a scientific count, but there are currently around 200 tenure-track jobs listed on the wiki in my discipline. By a quick perusal of the top 10 programs in our discipline, it appears that there are about 125 students on the market in those top programs alone. Add to that the students from programs 11-20 (still seen as pretty decent, and probably adding another 100-150 students to the pool), as well as the current postdocs and adjuncts out there who will be back on the market (4 alone in my top ten department)? And those are some long odds for the likelihood of you landing a tenure-track job.

I'm highlighting this because it's important for people who've not yet gone on the market to understand this. (First and second and third year grad students reading here??? I'm talking to you!!) 

Sure, everyone gets told that the market is competitive. Everyone knows that. But it's important for you to actually see the numbers, and to really understand that you'll be working within a narrow application window and competing with thousands of other people - hundreds of whom will likely come from more prestigious programs than yours - for a finite number of jobs. And that if you go through the first market year and don't land something, you'll not only be scrambling for an income for the next year, but you'll be thrown back on the market the following year with hundreds more candidates as well as people from your first market year who didn't land jobs or who were working on temporary contracts. There’s no guarantee you’ll do better on the market your second time around – as we’ve talked about previously, the idea of fit for a particular job often has nothing to do with whether there are one or two extra lines on your CV. Another year probably won't do much ... you'll still be facing the same long odds.

Another important point for students early in grad programs to consider is that even by looking at the sheer number of jobs, you may not have a good sense for how many will actually fit your interests. There might be 400 Basketweaving jobs listed out there ... but if only 50 of them are for your subfield of Basketweaving and only 30 are in places that you'd be willing to live? That's a lot different than having 400 jobs to apply for. Go read recentPh.D's post and think about it. And then, go to your relevant discipline's page on the Academic Jobs Wiki, or go look at the job ads on the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Education, and see how many jobs match your interest area and would be in places you’d want to live, if you were on the market this year. You can look at previous years as well, on the general wiki or on wikis for your particular discipline. 

Things are not going to be tremendously different when you go on the market. You need to know not just the total number of jobs that are out there in your discipline, but approximately how many jobs you can expect to be a good fit for your interests and wants.

As I've said before ... it's not that you stand no chance of getting a job. It's just that the chances are slim enough that you really owe it to yourself to do your research and to formulate a plan B, just in case. There’s no clearer way to really understand this than to actually look at job listings and think about your numbers. Do it, so that you’re prepared for what’s to come.


  1. I am pretty well-informed about how dismal the odds are of finding an academic job, but these concrete numbers make me queasy. Thanks for confirming my decision to get out before academia probably kicked me out.

    I cannot second the Plan B advice loudly enough. I was lucky enough to happen to be in a workshop in which the leaders made all of the attendees come up with a Plan B. And I did it in a purely hypothetical, I will never ever use this, kind of way. But those like 15 minutes that I spent doing that 2 years ago made a ridiculous amount of difference in my ability to imagine another life for myself when I decided that academia wasn't going to work for me.

  2. I should add that the numbers vary for English jobs depending on your sub-field (e.g., British 19th c., American 20th c., Rhetoric and Composition). I have the misfortune of being in one of the most over-populated sub-fields.

    But still ... Does it really matter whether you're in a pool of 200-300 applicants for 20 jobs rather than 400-700?

  3. And for some reason, I'm unnecessarily hyphenating everything today. Must be a symptom of my academic self asserting itself against my post-academic self (or some-thing).

  4. Thanks, guys.

    @anotheracademic, exactly. I would never tell anyone to NOT take a shot at the academic market ... after all, *someone* gets those jobs.

    But the Plan B isn't just something to think about. It should be a required step in the process.

    @recent Ph.D.: exactly. The odds in a pool of 250 are better than in a pool of 500, but come on. The odds aren't great anyway.

    And of course, people could always say "there's stiff competition for every job, everywhere."

    The difference, though, is that other job markets and hiring cycles don't operate on strict "seasons." I can't think of another profession that will leave you high and dry without employment for 6-8 months, without even offering you new positions to apply for until the market opens up again.

    I genuinely think the numbers themselves wouldn't be so horrifying if it wasn't for the limited application season.

  5. I think from what I've heard from friends in other disciplines that these numbers aren't unusual sadly elsewhere. Yes, plan B also shouldn't be something that one thinks about as a 'maybe' option. I know that many of my colleagues in gradschool didn't have a Plan B...only Plan A which was that they'd get an academic job!

  6. Yep, I didn't even have a real Plan B when I was finishing up my grad school career. I had a "part-time job that would buy me some time" until I could land an academic career.

    It's only now that I'm realizing that this real-world job experience that I was barely even considering to be worth my time may have saved my life and well-being. Not only am I more financially stable, but I have real-world job experience to take out into the world. That matters, and it's something every Ph.D. student should be encouraged to get.

  7. Until recently I was on the academic job market interview circuit in my field, then decided to stop. I had already done a 3-year postdoc funded by a prestigious funder in an elite university, and been a research assistant, so I wasn't a stranger to actually being an academic after my PhD. What really ANGERED me was seeing a job for which I'd been interviewed go to a former fellow student who was not as qualified as I was, had had mixed teaching reviews (from students who said he was prejudiced in class against a certain large demographic) and who had admitted to a mutual friend that he knew he would never be a good academic, whereas most people who know me know that I am a good academic. the decision to hire this person was political. I was treated very rudely in the interview by the department chair, who lied by telling me to stop as I had gone over my 10 minute prescribed time to discuss my research. (I hadn't - I was looking at the clock.) She just didn't want to hear from me. I knew from friends and acquaintances she had a bad reputation in the faculty as a bully. When she was the one who called me to tell me I hadn't got the job, I got angry at her and asked what were the qualifications of the person who got it. She was so shocked that she told me, thus giving herself some rope on which to hang herself, as I knew exactly who she was talking about. I've no idea whether she told the person who got the job, but he looked scared the next time he met me, as if he had been told to be careful. (Mine is a small field where everybody knows everybody and nobody is going away anytime soon.) I like to think that in that small way, I stuck two fingers up at the whole politics of hiring people for permanent jobs when they aren't fit for them. About 3 months later, I attended a conference at that university, in my field, where there were major international scholars plus major funders, and alumni, including one rather famous alum. He joked publicly about how many underqualified people with qualification X there were coming from that (elite) university. unfortunately, one of these people was the person who got hired for the job I'm talking about! How embarrassing! I wonder if we can do more to simply expose shoddy hiring practices. I know for a fact that in my field, there are several people in permanent jobs who have either not full undergrad degrees or PhDs in the field. This is a real disgrace as it means one less job for a properly qualified person. This unethical reality needs to be exposed publicly.

    1. So, agree with you! I am undergrad that thankfully got a wake-up call before I committed to anything and I am so glad I did. My dept, is hiring for a new position, possibly t-t and my friend told me that the same person that didn't get the job last year was there again. He taught our class and was great. He used pictures and a clear powerpoint that was better than the actual person that teaches the class. I hope he gets the job as he was denied last time by someone else whose contact never fell through.

      Other people are coming for the job and they are all from the Ivies. I wonder if my classmates, especially those graduates realize that they are screwed! Our school is ranked 3rd if we are lucky in the Southern stat I live in and we have people from the Ivies trying to get a job here. Location does matter, guys! If you never imagined yourself living in the South, but disregard the advice of "you will have to move from place to place for your job", you will get a nasty wake-up call. As for my dept. they hire based on "fit", so if you are from another social sphere then them, you are fucked! Even if you gave a great class lecture!