Monday, January 16, 2012

The Academic Job Market, in Numbers

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.


  1. Your posts always make me feel so much better about deciding to leave academia with my masters and do something else than try and to become a tenure track prof!

  2. What is it from that old Bush/Gore debate..."fuzzy math"? This is more like scary math. I was flabbergasted when I read the MLA stats and realized there were only 75 jobs in English studies this year period, let alone in my field.

  3. Seventy-five jobs total????????? Wow. WOW.

    See, that's the kind of thing that departments need to be telling incoming grad students. "Well, last year there were 75 jobs in our field. The year before there were 68. Look around you. See how you have nine cohort-mates? And how there are hundreds of English graduate programs around the country, each with their own group of 8-10 candidates per cohort? At least 3-5 of whom will make it to the Ph.D. and be looking for a job with you from EACH of those 100 or so schools? That's 300-500 candidates, at minimum, for 75 jobs. Think about those odds. THINK ABOUT THOSE ODDS."

    I don't know that it would really do much of anything, but ... sheesh. Seventy-five freaking jobs. That's unreal.

    1. Then each year, remember that the people who didn't get jobs the year before will be looking again. So if there were 450 candidates looking for 75 jobs in 2012, and 275 of them did not get tenure track jobs, and then only 75 of them left academia (which is a gross overestimate I think), then you've got 450 in 2013 + the 200 that were left over from last year - 650. But those 200 candidates from last year have PhD in hand and have an extra year of teaching and publications on you. And so on...

  4. Got my first rejection letter of this year's 3rd and final try on the market today. It was a shitty 3rd tier regional public teaching intensive kind of place. It appealed to me largely because of its location - i.e. a serious commute from where I now live but close enough not to require relocating.

    You know how many applications they got? 600. Last year, committees at similar places sent me rejections saying they had 300-400 applications.

    Freakin' unreal is right. It's a farce.

  5. @JC--Yep. 75. I think if someone had told me there were only 75 jobs when I walked into my graduate program, I may have run for the hills. But who knows? Hindsight is 20/20 and all that.

    @recent PhD--You got a rejection letter! I'm so envious! I hardly ever get notice that a search committee doesn't want me. All joking aside, that stinks. And you're is farcical. Sad, frustrating, and maddening...but farcical.

  6. @recent Ph.D. ... I'm sorry about the rejection letter. I know that you know how awful the job market is, so hopefully it wasn't too much of a blow, but still ... it sucks.

    I can't get over these numbers you guys are telling me. I mean, I'm reading these comments and thinking "400 jobs? 300 applicants per job? Those odds aren't bad at all! What am I complaining about?"

    But of course, those odds are terrible as well. They're all terrible. The whole freaking system is terrible...a farce, as you say, propped up to make sure universities have cheap labor forever and ever. How depressing.

  7. A few reports from anthropology. TT position open to those with narrow topical focus at school in freezing, impoverished city: 225+ aps. Post-doc in midwestern uni open to all social sciences: 375+ aps. One-year VAP at rural midwestern uni: 100+ aps. TT position in SLAC near major US city: 500+ aps.

  8. So four people out of over 1000 applicants will get jobs. Fantastic.

    Again, even if we want to go best-case scenario and assume that all of the applications are from overlapping candidates, that still means there were 4 hires out of 500 candidates.

    I mean, there just simply has to be a point where people realize what a joke this entire thing is, and before schools have to respond by training their graduates for nonacademic careers. Right? Right????

  9. I think that point, sadly, is when they go on the job market.

    What will probably happen relates to your earlier posts about privilege. Right now there are tons of unemployed PhDs still trying to work in academia, because they started their degrees before the market really collapsed in 2008, and now they're stuck. It was always bad, but it was never this bad. In the past two years or so, there has been a lot more stark criticism of the academic system, the adjunct track, and chronic unemployment. These have been amplified by the rise of social media, which has allowed articles on the dire situation that might not have received much attention to be passionately debated and discussed.

    The result, I think, is that many more people considering applying to grad school are aware of the risks they face. They will start factoring in economic status and stability into their decisions. For those who have the least to lose -- i.e., the wealthy -- the current state of the job market makes the least difference, and will not act as a deterrent. So academia will become even more privileged than it was already.

    (The flip side to this, of course, is that many undergrads from all economic classes will continue to use grad school as a way of hiding from the non-academic job market, which is not in great shape either. Although it is in MUCH better shape than the academic job market.)

  10. You've captured the current 'bottle neck' dilemma of academia beautifully here.

  11. Thanks, Anonymous @8:28. It's amazing to me how long it took me to see it - and how few other people seem willing or able to see it. I didn't see it either ... until I decided to leave and started thinking about it.

    I mean, there are hundreds of people who don't get tenure-track jobs every single year. And hundreds of people graduating every year. Every year, then, hundreds of people enter their second or third or fourth year on the market - in a pool that increases by hundreds every year as new people graduate. Their odds of getting a job aren't getting any better ... and in fact, they are most likely decreasing year after year as fewer jobs are posted and more and more people graduate (with some of them failing to get t-t jobs as well).

    It's a bottleneck, indeed.

  12. hi jc,
    it's anonymous@8:28 again--i've seen discussions on postgrad forums where hopeful graduates are discussing a time when lecturers will be retiring and creating more posts, but they forget about the backlog of graduates over the years, just waiting desperately for any opening, as you've discussed.
    i dropped off my phd after two years on the programme because i became increasingly aware of the lack of opportunities post-PhD in my field. (i was also self-funded, which fuelled my questions about the viability of what i was doing). i kept encountering dispirited graduates in my field who had to resort to call centre work to make ends meet because they couldn't find a job when they graduated. my own decision to leave my phd was based on the 'investment/returns' argument (i know that sounds a bit business-like, but it made alot of sense to me). i realised that i was investing all of myself, financially, mentally, emotionally, physically, and making so many sacrifices, and knew that i would not see a return on it. this sealed the decision for me.