Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Jobs, and Tenure, and Other things

On Jobs, and Tenure, and Other Things

I haven't posted this before, because so much has been happening that I wanted to roll into it, including every new post on the job market and the Amy Bishop story and how people have decided to use the violent behaviour of a woman who clearly seems to have come unhinged to critique the tenure system. Honestly, though, every time I started to write, something new has happened. Plus, honestly, there has been a lot happening in my department and at SLAC that have been taking up a lot of time, not least the work that has to be done when you want to re-vamp a program, plus keeping up with the tracking of assessment figures, writing rubrics, cajoling colleagues into agreeing that, if they are teaching the same course, the course should be at least minimally consistent, checking to make sure that the information for the department in the university catalogue is correct. Oh, and now some other report that has to be done that I suspect will lead to my department being lumped into a larger program. In the meantime, I'm teaching 4 courses and am just a little busy. So please, bear in mind that I'm writing on a Friday night when my choice this or marking essays :-) Or, as a furry person on the arm of sofa would tell you, I could be playing with cats.

So I'm just going to post what I've got. I think I've mentioned it here before, but I'm in the post-tenure slump. So I have all sorts of mixed feelings when I read posts and comments castigating those of us who have jobs for not warning the people who don't about how they weren't properly warned about the job market, or how much they resent the years spent in grad school. So I will now say this one thing: I began graduate school over 20 years ago. I went thinking all sorts of things, and not knowing how lucky I was that I had four, probably five years of guaranteed funding. But then, no one in my family had ever gone to grad school; only two had had more than two years of college. I wouldn't have gone, had I not had funding. And even then, I was not ever told, either at Beachy U, where I saw friends who were grad students on the market, and or at Grad U, that we would all have jobs. It was, however, implied that if we were as good as we should be, we would have them. Still, it was never a guaranteed thing, and it was always clear that in order to have a proper chance at the brass ring, we needed to get through and finish and present and publish.

Flash forward 13 years -- or nine years ago, more or less. When I first started to participate in the online community of scholars, the conversations centered on the job market, more or less. And honestly, there was so very much information out there about and by people who were barely making it as adjuncts, worried and frustrated by how much of their lives had been given to grad school and living in a sort of semi-adult status, that one could easily have thought that there was not any good point in going to grad school at all. That was then, long enough ago that, if the people now complaining had looked, or known to look, if they had talked to other students in their programs, they should have had inklings of the risks of going to grad school and expecting a job.

So from where I sit, I do have a hard time with the "but nobody told me" argument. This is for two reasons: one is that, honestly, I cannot imagine anyone paying to go to grad school, except in countries where bursaries or fellowships are incredibly rare (and tuition relatively low in any case); the other is that, if you are a person who didn't pay, then you got the luxury of going to grad school. I mean, yes, it's in many ways packed with all sorts of hazing rituals of its own, but really -- the ability to go and study and research and get paid for it? And even ABD historians get some mad job skills out of it that they can apply to other fields. And that leads me to another thing that sort of stumps me: people lose their jobs and suffer unemployment all the time. I have been the casualty of corporate downsizing and the dotcom bust. X has been laid off, and retrained and learned new computer skills several times. My father suffered an on-the-job injury in his thirties that meant not doing what he loved, and having to re-train and find new kinds of work.

These things happen to people all the damned time. So tell me, my academic friends, why shouldn't it happen to you? Oh, because you are smart and privileged, and somehow that has given you a big ball of entitlement that has ended up dragging you down, rather than giving you strength. And that's a shame. It's always worth something. The sacrifice, and the experiences? They count.

It's not that I don't understand the hell that is the job search, by the way. I do. I went through four years of job applications and interviews that did get me adjunct and visiting positions, but not the T-T job. I was even offered a T-T job I'd applied for, but only after they had changed it to a visiting position so they could hire someone else in a different position. Um ... no. But it hasn't been all that long since I was applying for 20-35 positions a year. Oh -- and that's not a sign that the job market was better, by the way. I just applied for a lot of generalist Community College and SLAC positions as well as the very few in my specialty. And I could legitimately apply for them, because I somehow had the good sense to have made sure that my coursework was broad -- I had fields in Early Modern and Asian History, so I could apply to Ancient/Medieval and to Medieval/Early Modern, plus positions like the one I have now, where I am the only non-Americanist in my department. That sort job-market investment, on top of a 5-5 load and, the last year, a divorce, is damned hard. It's scary and bad and some search committees are hugely incompetent or insensitive. Even some of the ones who are trying to do their best are sometimes just awful. I once had a call at ten o'clock at night about a job, a week after my campus visit. When they told me they were calling to let me know that I didn't get it, I hung up the phone and cried. I mean really, who calls and gives you bad news like that? And yet it was in many ways far more considerate than the letters I've never got -- including the one I never got from a noted university this year, telling me I'd not made the cut, or that the job had been filled. It hurts. You feel horribly rejected, even though part of you knows it may not have been you. I know people who got jobs I applied for, and honestly, I know why they got them, but sometimes I think, "you know, I still think I was a better fit." But then so could others have been.

So why am I writing this now? Because I'm going to say something else that probably will annoy some of you, but that I think sometimes needs saying. This job is not a bed of roses. It is hard work. Read any academic life blog, and you will see evidence that many of us, especially the women, struggle to balance just our academic lives, and gods help us if we try to juggle home, family, and partner (and, as someone just reminded me, Cats!). Many of us, if not most of us, work 40-60 hours a week, just to keep up. Some people are definitely better at it than others. Some of us have heavy loads. Most of the people I know think it's worth the stress, the politics, the heavy service and teaching loads -- because in return we can do the things we love, at least some of the time. I honestly don't want to do anything else. But some of us do burn out, or decide that the costs are too high. And that's fine. They haven't wasted their lives. They've just moved on. We do.

When I was looking for a thesis topic, my Doktorvater told me to pick something I could love and live with for at least twenty years, because the average academic's relationship to her research lasted longer than the average US marriage. And that's true. And in that way, I also understand the grief that some people are feeling, and the resentment that they have expressed toward some of my colleagues. Going through grad school and not getting a job is in some ways like having to decide whether or not to end a relationship. You get to the point where you have to decide whether or not you can put in just one more year, that maybe you can salvage it. And the longer you stay in, the more you have invested, and the harder it is to break up. And when you do, even if it's a good decision, you grieve.

But it doesn't mean that those of us who have the stable (or stable-looking) relationship don't know we're fortunate. And it doesn't mean that it's easy. And some days, it really is so hard, physically and mentally, that it's difficult not to look at things with a somewhat jaded eye. And a little survivor guilt. As I said, I love what I do. I work for an institution I like, and I have a fantastic dean and provost, and some tremendous colleagues. I have some of the nicest students I've met, and working with many of them is incredibly rewarding. I get tons of support, and feel constantly worried that I won't live up to expectations. And I often think that there are any number of other people who could do my job. But you know? I'm not going to apologize for having it, just as, when I hear stories of other people's searches, I am not going to gloat. It is what it is.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi! I haven't been checking in much lately, but I just wanted to say how much I really like this post.

And yesterday, as not one but TWO non-academic friends posted about having just lost their jobs, I am grateful that, as tough as things are at my uni, they're much tougher outside of it.

I think I need to examine my own sense of entitlement.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Notorious, I haven't posted much lately, so there you are. But it if it helps, I think you are one of the people who checks her privilege pretty regularly.

Stephen Chrisomalis said...

What a fantastic post! I also was very lucky (but also made some of my own luck) and very naive as a grad student. And my department was one in which publishing as a grad student, and even going to conferences as a grad student, was not encouraged - which is insane.

Your Doktorvater sounds exceedingly wise - I don't think I could have made it through with my sanity intact if I weren't in love with my core research area. Which, as you know, is still near and dear to my heart. But if the mainstream wisdom had ruled, no one would have ever let me anywhere near my project as a doctoral student, because it was just too weird, methodologically and theoretically, within my discipline. I'd like to think it's worked out OK for me. But then, I'm still untenured, so who knows?

One point of disagreement: Maybe not at 10pm, but I do want at least the courtesy of a phone call even if I didn't get the job. I spent countless hours prepping for two days of the campus visit, the least I can expect is for someone to sound apologetic about it. Even though it hurts like hell.

Steve Muhlberger said...

"Nobody ever told me."

In the very same letter that accepted me into Toronto's PhD history program, the department warned me that things looked bad in the job market.

That was over 35 years ago.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Stephen, it wasn't the phone call -- that was very considerate. It was that they called late at night. IME night and weekend calls come when a place really doesn't want to lose a candidate. And also, at that time of night, one isn't necessarily able to prep for a negative outcome.

Jonathan Dresner said...

[nods slowly and sadly]

Stephen Chrisomalis said...

Yeah, I agree that the timing is very weird for a rejection call. I suppose I'm just so sensitive to the opposite end of the spectrum, not getting a call at all, that anything seems better than that.

Anonymous said...

Jumping in here, if I may, I agree that the late-night timing is inconsiderate, but I also know that personally calling a rejected applicant is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I still remember one call I had to make *NOT late at night* where the woman on the other end cried. I waited her out and listened to her rant and rave and finally calm down, and eventually become sane again. It was horrifying, but it made me feel especially happy that we had NOT hired her.

Historiann said...

Sorry to be so late to the party. I appreciate your post--and I agree with you (which you're probably not too surprised to hear!) I love Steve Muhlberger's comment about Toronto's warnings 35 years ago!

I was one who was able to earn a Ph.D. for free--well, I was funded for 5 years, but then found a job as a lecturer in my 6th year by virtue of my (free!) training thus far. I'm sure I'd have a somewhat different view if I had never found a t-t job, but then again, I'm sure that at age 28 with a Ph.D. in hand, I would have been able to find something else to do. (Who knows: I may yet, at age 40 or 50 or 60-something, find something else to do. . .)


Janice said...

Hear, hear! The hiring world works in mysterious ways, I know, but it's not completely opaque. I really can't think of any point in my life where graduates in the "evergreen" disciplines felt they had a sure thing.

I'm pretty blunt with my students that a History B.A. or even a Ph.D. is just a license to hunt for jobs at best. However, the skills that come with that degree, particularly the abilities to research, write and share information, can be the building blocks for great careers. The most daunting catch is that you'll often have to go out and find those same careers.

Anonymous said...

A 5-5 load? I didn't know there was such a thing. I thought the 4-4 load was incredibly awful, given the fact that one is rewarded less for teaching than research. How do you even keep your sanity?

But I don't think anyone in adjunct hell thinks that someone in your position is in a bed of roses. It's more about their own situation. And then people can get downright mean and resentful when they're hungry and have to fight over table scraps, which clearly happens on the other side of the tenure line too.

The internet discussions you speak of were not available to me when I took the plunge. They only became obvious during the writing phase of my dissertation. Even then, of course, the ideology that one will always make it if one is good enough is powerful. But, of course, a lot of talented people won't make it, and they have to learn not to take it personally. More importantly, they have to have the skills to get back on their feet and do something else.

I've not wanted advice about how studying history will lead to the poor house. Instead, I wish the history department where I did my PhD knew how to help people prepare not just for academia, but also for public history and who knows what else. That's the problem, from my point of view. There needs to be more work on what one can do with a PhD in the first place besides have an academic career, and those options need to be treated as respectable. But how, when everyone in the department knows nothing but academia?

Related to this issue, there needs to be more honor in teaching, not just publishing.

Anonymous said...

(I followed you here from LJ)
As someone who is still waiting in quiet dread for the results of the PhD, I know I'm not in a good position to comment on the availabilty of jobs. But I do know that my supervisor repeatedly stressed to me the difficulties of the job market (further compounded by coming from a tiny country with only 6 universities, many of which do not do medieval anything). There was never any promise of a job, but encouragement to broaden my field, and be willing to do whatever came my way.

I'm not expecting anything great to fall into my lap anytime soon. I'm prepared to move (along with my husband, also just finishing) anywhere in the world that will pay me. I know hours will be hard, pay will be low, and am ready for a range of things, in English or History. And so I am surprised that people are complaining of jobs not appearing. Those in our university who are paying their own way are not expecting jobs, but rather doing it for fun - they are lucky, but not sane!

The biggest problem with all this is not that I may not get a job in academia, but rather that, in preferring Medieval over anything else, I have not really made myself useful for anything else. If the worst comes to worst, and I have to apply for a retail job, I will have to hide the PhD, or they will not hire...

And I second clioandme's comment on the need for more honour in teaching - that is what actually brings in money to the universities, is it not?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

zcat -- don't set your sights so low, if you end up working outside of academe (and don't forget about uni admin/library jobs). That's something I did, initially. But what I found was that, if you have to go entry-level, go for something that uses your skills in writing, thinking, processing information, etc. I had a nice gig for a while working in a study abroad office for the University of California, helping to judge what courses at foreign unis fulfilled the objectives of similar courses on UC campuses.

I had a couple of administrative assistant jobs that got me into companies that promoted me within a couple of months, after they saw that the advanced degree (I only had the MA at the time) came with a person who could work independently, and paid attention to details, didn't gloss over inconvenient facts when writing reports, etc.

I hope that you find a job in academe, but please don't fall prey to the idea that you aren't qualified for anything but retail!

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading this post but as someone who remains firmly on the other side of this debate, I do have a few thoughts.

First of all, I've seen a lot of professors blog about how they refuse to feel guilty for having a job and I have no idea where they're getting the idea that they should feel guilty. As far as I read the debate, the issue is not that individual people should be apologizing for having jobs. The system worked as it should.

And yes, people lose their jobs all the time. But losing your job suggests that you had one to begin with, not that you spent a decade earning qualifications and never got a job that you could then lose.

For what it's worth, I don't think individual professors are to blame necessarily, although again I should stress that not every advisor is as up front about the realities of the job market as the professor side of this debate assumes. But graduate school is incredibly difficult (it's taken a hellish turn for me in the past several months) and I don't think it's too much to ask that there be a decent shot at getting a job. I do know this: should I not get a job, going to graduate school will have been a waste. Yeah, I'll have a PhD and I'll be proud of it, even as I hide it on my cv to get employed elsewhere. But nothing's going to make up for the ways in which my life has not progressed in service of pursuing a certain professional path.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Frog Princess -- here's the things that, for me at least (and I expect some of the other people who have commented similarly) are problematic in your statement:

*Those of us who have jobs have also gone through grad school. It is incredibly difficult, and has been hellish for many of the people I know. I had all sorts of health problems in grad school that ended about 4 months after I finished. All stress-related. I joke sometimes that Prozac finished my diss. I also lived with very minimal possessions, hand-me-down furniture, seldom going anywhere nice, never had a real vacation for years. Even now, I live in a small apartment because I'm only just at a point where I might qualify for a mortgage. Yes. It's difficult in what we have to do to get the degree and the sacrifices many of us make to get the degree.

*You can think grad school will have been a waste. Fine. But it's a choice, and in life there are tradeoffs. I would most likely have got a job sooner and at a better institution had I not chosen to get married and raise a child. That choice, and that marriage, totally derailed my academic work for a long time. And I don't have that marriage anymore. Ironically, I probably would have met someone else who I love very much much earlier had I put grad school first, and we might even be together now. Or maybe not. At any rate, I have an ex-husband who is a dear friend, a child I love very much, a bunch of in-laws I adore, and my share of the post-divorce debts is almost paid off. We make choices and live with them. You can spend your life bemoaning where you might have been without grad school, but you have no idea where you'd be now. None of us do. And even getting the job doesn't mean we don't look at people who are "ahead" of us and wonder what life would be like. Hell, my little sister had a baby a month after graduating high school, never went to college, and makes $30k more a year than I do -- and theoretically can retire on a full pension in about 5 years, at 49 years old. She made some shitty choices and ended up "ahead" of lots of us.

*yes, you need to have a job to lose it. But grad school is a job. And there are no guarantees in any training that there will be jobs. Nor is there any guarantee that, had you trained for something else, that you wouldn't be changing careers. I can very much understand feeling that you deserve a decent shot, and I don't know what your subject is, but honestly, I think "decent shot" is pretty nebulous. I know many people who would not ever have applied for some of the jobs I've taken, because they had heavier teaching loads than they wanted or because they weren't FT or T-T. But those 'lesser' jobs gave me the experience I needed to get the job I have. It's still a crap market, but it's a crappier market for people whose idea of what sort of job fits them is limited to certain sorts of institutions. Either way, this goes back to the feelings of entitlement I mentioned in my post. Grad school is already a fantastic luxury compared to what non-academics go through.

*About the apology thing: I think some of us are refusing to apologize because of the underlying message that I see in many of the posts about this -- that we somehow just don't understand, or that somehow, we were more fortunate than we know. That's probably true for some people. But it's a lot less true than we are given credit for, I think.

Damn. This might have to go into a separate post.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with what you've said, really. I just think there are legitimate reasons to question what's going on and I don't like the attempts at silencing that are going on. In my opinion, silencing the debate only perpetuates the aspects of academia that are grossly unfair. Just because everybody's been through it doesn't make it right. And I think the extraordinary sacrifices academia demands people make with little reward isn't right. There's a "trial by fire" mentality (and I don't think you're making this claim but it's out there) that I think is nonsense.

And I guess I wasn't clear: I don't think anybody should be apologizing for getting a job. At all. Your getting a job hasn't taken a job away from me, it's a totally separate issue. And while I don't think I've seen any calls for the professoriate to apologize in this debate, I do notice this among graduate student colleagues where bitterness increases when a person gets a job that other people feel didn't deserve one. That's ludicrous. My concern is the larger structures in place that have created a situation in which there are significantly more students than available jobs.

All I want is for the field as a whole to be honest about what it demands of people and what little it may give. But hey, I guess I should be suffering in silence for the comfort of the field as a whole.

And yes, I'm living with the choice I made; that doesn't mean it was the right decision, nor does it mean that the field is acting in an ethical way.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I don't wish to diminish your sufferings at all, thefrogprincess, not least because I halfway share them being a job-hunter also, albeit in a very different environment, but I have seen this conversation in so many fora now that, whatever silencing is going on it seems to me that it isn't working.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and, ADM, the relationship analogy is so awfully apposite. This whole post is both excellent and humane.

Terminal Degree said...

Wow, what a great topic, and interesting comments.

Just a small point: You mentioned that you couldn't imagine paying for grad school. In my field (music), most of us pay at least part of our own way. For example, at the R1 where I did my master's degree, with a population of about 50,000 students, there were about 15 graduate students in my program. Two of them had teaching assistantships. About half of us got out-of-state tuition waivers. And we got an extra $1K per year if we played in the band (sheer torture, and I eventually decided the money wasn't worth it). Some of my fellow grad students got no money at all, and they were damned good performers and students. My second year in the program, part of my scholarship got yanked away; my professor admitted that he knew I was already at the school and wouldn't leave, and he wanted to use my funds to recruit a new student. That was, sadly, normal there. A lot of us who were producing at a high level got shafted that way.

In the R1 program where I did my DMA, I was fortunate to get an out-of-state tuition waiver my first year, as well as a small scholarship. In my second year, I got a teaching assistantship. But even that only paid for 6 credits a semester, part of my health insurance, and a $1K/year "living stipend." I was considered very fortunate to receive this funding, as other very strong grad students received no funding AT All, and paid $14K a year in out-of-state tuition. Again, in my graduate program, there was ONE teaching assistantship.

To the poster who couldn't imagine a 5-5 load: during my second year at my current location, I ended up with a 6-5. I made an additional $3K for the year but was still expected to do research and perform.

No criticism is intended in my post above. Just wanted to mention that other fields do things differently. :)

Anonymous said...

Serious musicians are just insane--er, insanely dedicated to their art: the world is set up to remind you over and over that you're doing something the mundanes regard as "playing," and therefore you must pay the penalties over and over.
Recently, the Coast Guard Band (which provides a reasonably-paid gig in exchange for long long hours of work and following military discipline) had an opening for French Horn. The finalist auditions (I have no idea how many must have initially applied) brought in 164 candidates. Yes indeed, jobs are scarce.

Steve Muhlberger said...

I think many academic disciplines suffer (if maybe not so badly as music) from the image that what we do is not work, or at least not worth paying for.

Now if our decisions could destroy the world economy, we'd be rolling in it. Or diving into it like Scrooge McDuck.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

TD -- that sort of sucks. And I think music is a hard field because it is treated as professional training (and I think professional schools are different to grad schools), but then so many people in postgraduate music are doing it to teach. I think here there are different tracks -- Music Ed, Music Therapy, DMAs that seem to be all over the place in terms of academic vs performance rigor... But I think there should still be a way of funding at least some of those students, depending on the emphasis of the program.