Wednesday, October 10, 2012

More Magical Thinking in Academia

More updates on my postacademic life later this week ... for today, a rant. :)

I ran across this link the other day - another post from the job market rumor forum for my former discipline of sociology. I admit, I've been checking the rumor mill from time to time this year, both because one of my close friends is on the market and my curiosity is getting the best of me ... but also, I admit, out of a more general curiosity about how this year's market is shaping up.

This year it feels like there has been a slight uptick in the number of people who are starting to "see the light" about the job market as compared to previous years - they're writing about how they're starting to realize it's all a crapshoot and that their chances of getting a good job are pretty miniscule. I've written about this before, to some extent. So far, most of the commentary has just been generalized worry about how the market "feels worse" or something similar - no one's really talking in earnest about the need to seriously think about a Plan B career.

And that's fine. The social science markets haven't contracted so much that absolutely no one is getting jobs. So I can definitely understand why some people might maintain their optimism. That's all good.

But I have noticed one thing in these "worried" threads that particularly irks me. When someone expresses concern about the job market or starts doubting their chances of landing someone permanent, there will often be a few other commenters who chime in, agreeing with them. "The number of jobs look the same, but it just feels worse," they'll say. "Surely the backlog of Ph.D.s is starting to play a role. Maybe we should start thinking of a backup plan."

But then - then! -  a "wise" commenter will inevitably swoop in to reassure everyone that "everything will work out," or something similar. Because, you know, they managed to land a job a few years ago despite having a crappy publication record and only sending out five applications. "Don't worry," they'll reassure everyone else. "It's discouraging, but someday it'll all work out."

Sure, they admit, these days you might have to take a post-doc or temporary position for a few years, but this is just what the market looks like now. There's no sense in worrying about it, dontcha know?? There's certainly no sense in thinking about leaving ... why would you EVER do that? Just take that postdoc like a good little grad student and then it'll all work out (What's that? Your partner has a stable job so you don't want to move away to take a temporary job? What kind of undedicated slacker are you???)

And with that, the (justified) worry and critical thinking about academia is stopped. Because if one professor says it'll all work out, then it'll all work out. No need to worry!

This sh*t infuriates me. Not because I think everyone should leave academia - I hope I've made it abundantly clear on this blog that I don't think that.

But because I believe that when people can't get a job that makes them happy in one field, they should be encouraged to look at other options. So if they're making their third trip on the market with no success, they should be encouraged to look at other options. If they don't want to take a postdoc or a temporary position but the current market says that they "have to?" They shouldn't "have to." They can look for other types of jobs.

Why is this a hard thing to understand and advise people to do??? This is not hard. If your friend said to you, "I really want to be a doctor, but I've failed the MCAT six times and haven't gotten into med school in five years of applying" ... you might start encouraging them to look into other careers in medicine, right? Sure, they might get in on that sixth try, but in the meantime you don't want them to be discouraged and poor and unemployed, right? So you'd suggest other options.

And yet, when you see an academic talking to someone who's making their fifth or sixth go at the academic job market without success, you hear the same old crap. "Oh, just publish another article. Keep working. Next year will be your year! It'll all work out!!!" There's never any acknowledgement that this might not work out or that it's okay to consider other options. Never. And that shit absolutely infuriates me.


So onto the particular comment at the forum that sparked this rant. The thread in question tallies the number of jobs that are being posted this job market cycle, for reference and comparison purposes. The general consensus this year seems to be that the number of jobs will be about the same as in previous years ... in other words, not humanities-level terrible, but not terrific either. Some people will get jobs, but a lot of them won't ... and will be scrambling around for another year's salary come April and May.

So in this thread, someone notes that job listings are moving pretty slowly, and this seems worrisome. That's it! There's no mention of writing a resume or of leaving academia. Just a general comment about how the slow pace of new postings is kind of "worrisome."

But we can't have that kind of negativity in the magical thinking world of academia! No siree!!! So in swoops commenter "archivist" to save the day. Zie is the person who's been counting the number of job postings over the past few cycles for reference at the forum.

And here is his/her wisdom for the worried folks who are starting to be (rightfully!) concerned that even 600 jobs (the same number of jobs as in previous years) might not be enough to spread around the thousands of ABDs, VAPs, postdocs, and assistant profs who are looking for new jobs this year:
Regarding some of the angst expressed about the pace of new postings, I would suggest that "The Serenity Prayer" is a useful tool here, particularly the first clause about acceptance. Personally, if I see a few positions that would be ideal for me, I'm thinking it's a great season so far, whether there are 600 jobs available or just 60.
Oh, come onnnnnnn. *eyeroll*

Let's break this Pollyannaish pile of crap down for a minute. (Do I sound angry? Well, I am. Sorry.) Let's look at the Serenity Prayer that we're supposed to use when we're staring down the barrel of the job market gun at 400 applicants per job and a silent phone and empty inbox:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
Now, is there good advice there for job market candidates? Absolutely.

But not just "the first clause about acceptance," archivist. You freaking nitwit.

By telling people feeling hopeless about the job market to just focus on the first clause - to just "accept there are things they can't change" without any other steps? That is terrible fucking advice.

By doing that, you are telling these people that they are in the black hole of the academic job market where they're unlikely to get a job ... but that there's nothing they can do about it and no point in trying. They just have to quietly accept it and keep on plucking, because they can't singlehandedly change the academic job market.

No. Just, no. No no no. Did you hear me? NO.

Now, it's definitely important for job market candidates to understand that there is little to nothing they can do to ensure that they get a job - that the process is mostly out of their hands and that they are not to blame if they fail to get a job. If they fail, they do need to accept it, because they can't change it and because the crappiness of the academic job market is not their fault.

But they can't stop there. No, no, no. Once they accept the hopelessness of their situation, they need to realize that they can change it.

No, they can't change the market. But they can change how they react to it and where they go from there. That's the difference they need to have the "wisdom to know."

You can't change the academic job market. So instead - especially after the first job market strikeout - you should start thinking about writing a nonacademic resume. You should start thinking about careers you would like that aren't in academia. You should start thinking about transferable skills. Maybe schedule a career services appointment at your university.

Will you need to leave? Maybe not. Can you go on the academic job market again if you want? Of course. Go on it five more times if you want to! But for Christ's sake, make it an informed decision. Don't pretend that there's nothing that you can do to change your situation. Because there is.

In other words, don't listen to this Pollyannish fool. Accept the situation you're in; sure! The market sucks, and you're in it, and that's all true. But don't forget - you do have the ability to make a change in your circumstances if you've had enough.


Oh, and part 2 of the ridiculousness of that comment - the idea that it's a "great season" if there are jobs that look ideal for a particular candidate, no matter how many total postings are out there?

What nonsense, again. What magical thinking nonsense.

Look. When you are on the market - any market! -  with 2000 other job candidates, your chances are infinitely better when there are 600 jobs posted than when there are 60. To paraphrase former president Bill Clinton, I'm not saying anything groundbreaking. It's arithmetic.

It doesn't matter how many job postings are out there that look "ideal" for you. What matters is that there are enough job postings out there for you to have a realistic chance of actually getting picked for one of them.

In academia - particularly in the humanities and to some extent the social sciences - there just aren't. If there are 60 jobs and 2000+ candidates, you are not going to get your "ideal job." You just won't. But if there are 600 jobs? You have a better chance. And that's a better market.

Not rocket science. Just arithmetic. Arithmetic.

God, I swear. Is it too much to ask that these academics just be a tiny bit logical and realistic??


  1. I agree that there is a lot of wishful thinking, but there has been some improvement in my field amongst the recent hires. I was talking to a former classmate of mine that had gotten a faculty position. We were talking about my going on the academic market while also looking for jobs outside of academia, and they were very honest about the fact that (a) they would have not gotten their position without politics and lobbying from their advisors, and (b) because of this they realize that getting a job outside of academia does not indicate a failure on part of an academic. They encouraged me to simultaneously apply to both faculty and non-academic jobs at the same time, and this person has been encouraging their own students to consider jobs outside of academia.

    There's another aspect of this wishful thinking that I have seen in my field. The truth is that there is not a strong correlation between quality of research and landing a faculty position, and I know of several situations of fellow students from my department getting hired at top-ranked universities with weak publication records. (I'm not saying that all hires are unqualified; some of my fellow classmates that have been hired are excellent researchers with quality publication records.) These hires are explained as the candidate having "great potential" and being the "best fit", but the real story tends to be that they had aggressive advisors and the right political connections for that university. The problem is that an unrealistic narrative develops amongst people not familiar with the details: Everyone has a chance to get a faculty position, because if this person I know with a weak record can get hired then I certainly can.

    This narrative is particularly dangerous when taken in conjunction with the meritocracy myth in academia that you have written about before, and I think it is the myth of meritocracy that keeps many people unrealistic about the academic job market. They view their failure to secure a faculty position as a failure of their research and their ideas, but this is very far from the truth. Many of these people have done amazing research, have fantastic ideas, and are extremely hardworking. In quite a few cases, their research is far better than that of the new faculty hires in my field. And so they stay in academia because they believe that their merit will be recognized one day.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with the belief in meritocracy and this is largely perpetuated by academia itself as certain students get the funding while others don't through this elaborate competition. The same rules hold but no one questions it because of the professors continually shoveling out the belief that inequality being somewhere "out there" and not within its own ranks. So it doesn't just come from students, it is the whole culture which pretends to work of meritocracy (that the almighty academia is purer than the rest. Seriously, these profs really belief it even as they don't hire you with way more credentials. It's called privilege. They teach it but they don't see it. It really is incredibly hypocritical and the worst offenders are "the most aggressive advisors." And the wishful thinking is not the same as the MCAT. These people are not just sitting one exam, they've invested 5-7 years of their life, if not more, to pursue this "career." It's like a marriage and just like a marriage, people don't just up one day and leave. They do it in stages as it is often an embarassment to tell people that you are pulling out after all that sacrifice. So you can't really compare the experience to one shot deals. It's more like a total life has to be revamped at the level of identity--an identity which universities hungry for students are all too willing to inculcate and exploit, so let's not blame the adjunct for an addiction which is not only of their own making.

  3. P.s. There are lots of people who just love to see adjuncts strung out and working for peanuts--including campus admininstrators, university professors and sadly other profs. The fact that they do nothing, although they say they do, demonstrates their own complicity in this disgraceful set of affairs. Even someone working at McDonald's would have more chance of advancing from minimum wage than these adjuncts and this is the real secret no one wants them to hear. If they knew, if someone were REALLY open their eyes, and not pretend opening as some many adminstrators and professors claim to do on these job sites, they would not doing it. I give this lecture ever year and its dries up my students gonads and ovaries up for grad school martrydom permanently. If they all heeded what I said, there is a good chance that other students would as well if they were given this simple mathematical equation, so in my estimation, all of this protesting on the web is just another big lie they must tell themselves (oh no, the students are protesting over increased wages. Oh no, we haven't really destroyed someone's life.) Have they no cake? Did they not know they were going to be lied to continuously for 5 or more years even up until day? These are the types of questions that are not being asked when we blame the individual for not "seeing the light." The adjunct is kept in darkness so long that at the end of all, they don't know what the light means anymore. They have accomodated to their prison cell and SADLY no one lets them out and tells them any different as they are the pariahs on campus. This is why I am so glad people are writing about their reentry into society. You are so very brave to do this because its important work and you do it for the love of others who are still enslaved. It is TRULY heroic and I hope you will continue to keep your blog here as a sign of hope for the lost. Do not worry about accomodating the full-time professors/administrators who eat well and have a nice bank account to fall back on and full of (often unearned) privilege. The world backs their voice up enough with a good salary (if you going to complain that you "only" make 60,000 a year, please do not even think about writing anything when so many adjuncts make less than 25,000. Do not display your ignorance and insensitivity in this way and do not pretend your work load is higher as most adjuncts drive between 3 schools, often creating new courses each year.) So the work you are doing here is important social justice work and I encourage you to keep writing no matter how much you are attacked for the sake of thousands of adjuncts who continue to live in misery.

  4. Agree, agree, agree x 100000. It's delusional and misleading to pretend things aren't really as bad as they are.

  5. Such wonderful commentary! I don't know if I can add any more thoughtful observations, so I would like to comment on, well, the comments and offer my own insights.

    First off, I LOVE this phrase: "grad school martrydom". It truly is. While I don't have a PhD or MFA, I HAVE gone to grad school 4 TIMES. Yes, 4. Now being a learner, I do enjoy learning. However, there are other ways to do it. The first trip was for a masters (finished, in full, proud owner of M.A., pretty good experience). The second was a teaching license for about 18 credits (it got me a job, so it's all good). The third was grad hours in Liberal Arts program classes (only did 18 there because I thought grad school would "make me a writer") and the fourth was more classes for what I thought would be a "career change" IN higher ed, from FT lecturer to instructional designer.

    Each and every time, I thought MORE SCHOOL was the answer. I was so sold on MORE SCHOOL with the last bit being an online program. Then one day, I looked at my student loans the reality of my job. I was bored with my career, had no room for advancement, and the only thing more education was going to get me was more debt. I had NO LIFE and was miserable. So I quit.

    It took a while to detox from constant graduate classes with only a year or two break for a period of 12 years (yes, that long)but I got off the merry go round when I started to see that the rotating pretty ponies were laughing at me. I had given up so much to "take classes" that didn't get me much of a life. It doesn't help that I am in an environment that just CHEERS when anyone gets MORE education (and more debt). It's like the drug dealer who both SELLS and DOES coke as a side benefit.

    Things are better these days. I still have the full time lecturer position but I'm getting ready to start applying to jobs outside of academia. I want/need to leave for good. I have a feeling there are going to be cuts in programs at my school anyway, so now is a good time.

    I think calling this blog "important social justice work" is right on the money. I am SO GRATEFUL for JC's blog that I credit hir for helping me quit the graduate school drug (I was a part-time addict) and for helping me to see that the world "outside" is not so scary after all and can be quite nice. This blog couldn't have come at a better time for me and I am grateful.

    Please keep posting! I especially find the "day in the life" posts to be very helpful. You are breaking down myths and I think your work will have a ripple effect throughout an educational system that needs to be completely redesigned from the ground up.

  6. I'm glad you are coming to this informed sense of reality, as sobering as it may be. I'm through the worst part of this dysfunctional marriage and severed a lot of my emotional connections with respect to academia, however, there is still a lot of anger at the duplicity involved in leading someone down a garden path for years on end where there is nothing but weeds--rather like taking someone from the third world and promising that they can get a job in a first world country, when really they are really being groomed for is sex work. Graduate students are vulnerable, particularly if they don't come from wealth and don't know much about the system in which they are in. Fortunately, blogs like these will give them an alternative voice in which to grad students can understand their circumstances--certainly, a voice I didn't hear when I was going to grad school. I believe that when people realize they can leave an abusive marriage and do okay, this is a moment of liberation that should be celebrated, as hard as it may be to leave our vampire lovers who told us they were doing something good for us. It really is a very sick relationship and yes, it does make a lot of people both physically and mentally unhealthy.

  7. You rock JC. The pressure weighs on me each time I put in an application for academic jobs that I don't really want. I fall into a deep depression when I think about it.

    I was going to put one in at my Alma Mater tomorrow. I'd been waiting for a job to come up there for years, and it has finally appeared but as of yesterday I decided "stuff it"! Reading your blog today has made me feel even better about it.

    I lost my faith in Academia three years ago but even so still managed to slog through to the end of my PhD. I have a sizable debt but it comes from my undergrad degree, as the system is a bit different in Australia and local students can do PhD study for free.

    We often get bullshit about "we want to keep you here" but no job ever appears. Jobs here are for high-fliers who have published and taught for years on popular subjects. It's very difficult to go from being a student here to being a lecturer.

    I have a part-time research job that keeps me going and will last for two more years. It gives me time to write some things, and perhaps publish my thesis. It also gives me time to think about how to find a new job unrelated to academia. My dream now is to take all the academic stuffing in my head and move it into a compartment of my brain where I can just enjoy thinking about it in a leisurely way now and then, instead of making it my life.

    I want to leave the world of worrying and depression about my academic future behind. I'm 37 and have done little else but study my whole life. that puts me at a huge disadvantage in the non-academic job market I'm sure, but it can't be that bad. I can spell and punctuate, and read and translate almost any kind of Chinese that is thrown at me, so there is no need to be too pessimistic. I did what I did purely for enjoyment, and if there is no job to be found in that, then I suppose I just have to bite the bullet and do something else.

  8. Ah-hah! I knew you were an ex-sociologist! All of your comments about the discipline you were in sounded WAAAAAY too familiar.

    I quit a sociology program too. Around the time that I was making the decision, this blog was a huge comfort to me.

    Leaving ended up being the right thing for me to do, I think. I landed in a desk job that doesn't pay super well (it's at a non-profit) but it pays. And the day after I filled out leave paperwork I found out that I am pregnant, so boy am I glad to be in the real world economy with a real world job that pays real world benefits. I am grateful that I decided to leave before the news, that I saw the above (in post) situation for what it was. This blog helped. Thank you.

  9. Yes, yes, and yes. That's all I can say to this post. That shit infuriates me, as well.