So I'm still on the listserv for my grad department, which means that I get almost-daily updates on what's going on in my department and discipline (most of which I ignore, of course, since I don't care about the 22nd Annual Mid-South Conference on Medieval Widgetmaking anymore, nor the upcoming lecture from Boring-Ass Professor Who Should Have Retired 20 Years Ago).
But this week, I got an email from our department chair with a "summary" of our two successful faculty searches that completed this fall. My curiosity got the best of me, so I opened it. And over the last few days, I've been doing a little bit of thinking about what my (former) department's search says about the academic job market more generally, and about how we can extrapolate from the number of applications Grad U received to the health of the larger job market.
Now remember, my graduate department is in the social sciences, not the humanities. The job market in this discipline is struggling, but is still seen as reasonably decent in comparison to a lot of other disciplines. There are more job listings per candidate than in other fields, so you'd assume that Ph.Ds in our discipline would have a much better shot at getting a job than Ph.Ds in English, history, and a lot of other fields.
Some department-specific background: one of the positions the department listed was an open position - they were looking for someone to teach various quantitative research methods classes in our and another department, with any research interests whatsoever. The second position was looking specifically for a qualitative researcher working in a moderately popular research area.
Also, the department is an R-1 program whose ranking hovers around tenth in the discipline - give or take a few places - every year. The university is in a medium-sized college town - not in one of the hot urban locales where a lot of grad students and faculty would like to live. It's not Bumblef*ck, Idaho ... but definitely isn't someplace where you'd expect people to apply just because they'd "love to live" in our city.
So given this background info, what did Grad Department's job search and candidate list look like this year ... and what does it suggest about the larger market?
In the email we got, the chair noted that they received 408 applications for the first position, and 305 for the second.
Remember, the two ads were targeting very different candidates - one methodologically sound quantitative person, and one qualitative person. Undoubtedly, there was some overlap in the folks who applied to each job, since some people will apply to anything and everything. But overall? I think it's pretty fair to say that there are probably around 600 unique people who applied to jobs in my former department this year.
Now, of course, there are also a lot of people on the job market this year who didn't apply to either of Grad U's jobs, for a number of reasons. Perhaps because of location, or because the jobs were a bad fit in terms of research interests or teaching interests, or because the candidate wanted to work at a SLAC rather than an R-1 school. Or simply because they didn't have the kind of record that would give them even a glance from a top-10 program. There are definitely a lot of people out there who fall into these categories - when I was on the market, I applied almost exclusively to SLACs. And even among the research-oriented people who've graduated from our department in recent years, very few would bother applying to top-10 departments because they knew that their record wouldn't earn them an interview. So it is unquestioningly true that there are a lot of candidates who didn't submit applications for either job. So we know that there are/were more than 600 candidates on the market.
However, it's obviously impossible to know exactly how many people didn't apply to the jobs, and therefore how many total candidates are on the market this year. So let's make what is surely a very, very, very conservative guess and pretend that there were 300 candidates on the market who didn't apply to either job at Grad U, to go along with the 600 who did.*
Grad U hired two people. That leaves 598 unique people who applied but did not get either job. Adding in the number of candidates who didn't apply, that leaves somewhere in the neighborhood of 898 people on the job market this year who went unhired by my former department.
Now, of course, Grad Department is not the only department that was hiring this year.
But, okay. Let's take the (conservative) guesstimate of 900 total job candidates, and look at how many total job listings there were out there this year, around the country and overseas.
According to the wiki for our discipline, there were just over 400 tenure-track job ads posted this year. Assuming all of them get filled (which is definitely not going to happen, since multiple searches are cancelled or fail every single year in every discipline), there would still be close to 500 candidates on the market who don't land tenure-track jobs. It's simple math -- 400 jobs, 900 candidates. Less than half would get jobs even if every single tenure-track job was filled.
Note, in fact, that there aren't enough t-t jobs in the entire market to offer positions to just the 600 candidates who applied to Grad U's jobs.
So what happens to those folks? They find VAP posts, or adjunct gigs. Tiny percentages of them may leave academia altogether, but a majority will stay in academia in some capacity. Which means that in a year or two, when their temporary contracts (or final years on a graduate fellowship) run out, they will be back on the job market ... along with all of the new Ph.D.s who have just graduated.
But their chances of landing something permanent won't necessarily be better than before, since there will probably still be at least twice as many candidates as jobs yet again, and with several hundred other adjuncts and VAPs on the market with you, there's certainly no reason to assume that your specific adjunct gig will make you stand out in comparison to the rest of the applicant pool. Sure, it might make you look better in comparison to the ABDs on the market ... but not in comparison to the hundreds of other VAPs and adjuncts who are also applying to that job.
The academic job market is incredibly random, and incredibly competitive ... and in the end, it's a system where the odds are stacked against you (even in a "good" market like ours) and where there is very little you can do to increase your chances of getting a given job. You have no control over what happens and you're at the whims of the terrible odds and the myth of "fit," and you're far more likely to wind up un- or under- or unhappily-employed after graduation than with that perfect tenure-track job.
You owe it to yourself to understand this - really understand it - and make yourself a contingency plan in case you don't wind up being one of the lucky ones who get plucked out of a 400-candidate applicant pool. Of course, if you still want to pursue an academic job you should do so. But don't leave yourself flailing around in a blind panic if you aren't picked for a good job. It's not your fault - the odds of success are against you. Keep trying, but in the meantime, give yourself a safety net just in case it doesn't all work out.
*I'm sure I am wildly overestimating that 2/3 of the available candidates applied to our two jobs, but it's important to note how bad the job market numbers look, even with a very conservative guesstimate of how many total candidates are on the market.