The Dream-Crushing Grind of the Academic Job Market

News and views from academia.
March 13 2014 1:33 PM

Should I Just Quit Academia?

It’s the last thing I want to do, but I may have no choice.

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An only child, I am now the manager of my mother’s estate, a father of two, and a teacher of three courses. All of us who teach have students who are visited by personal tragedy during the semester; now it is my turn to do my best to hold things together for them. It is not easy. I have to finish out the year; I do my best to prepare good lesson plans and lectures out of a sense of responsibility, and because I care about my students. But my employment status is vampiric, undead. I work without a community and without a future.

If the past few months of my life have featured more than their share of heartbreak, my employment experience is sadly common. Universities trade on our hopes, and on the fact that we have spent many years developing skills so specialized that few really want them, to offer increasingly insecure careers to young scholars. Although a fortunate few make smooth transitions onto the tenure track, many are lost in a phase of lecturing, adjuncting, or even unemployment. To those of us on the outside, the current academic employment system resembles a two-tier contract in which we are punished simply for having made the poor decision to graduate in the middle of a recession. Compensation for our labor is unprofessional, and we and our families are expected to bear this as a sign of commitment to disciplines and institutions that reserve the right never to commit to us.

I could perhaps hang on for another round: After all, I’m in for nine years, what difference is 10? But I know also that each time I apply, I lose a little bit of something I’m afraid I’ll never recover. Depression has been the predictable price of failure in the past few years, and I know that it has sometimes robbed me of experiencing the joy of having young children. It has certainly made me a less patient husband and father. Next year would be my fifth on the job market, in one way or another. Not so very long ago, I might have earned tenure with as much as I’ve done. Now I’ll spend the next months praying for the chance to move my family across the country for a one- or two-year position.

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I wonder if I should work so hard to stay. My older son is the same age as my Ph.D., and he’s grown from a blob to a little person who can tell you about the moons of Jupiter. Is it time to trade my hopes for his? To give up on the work of my adult life and just find a way to give my family some security? If I could do it all again, it would be madness to say that I would take the same path. But now, another year will pass, with no promise of success. And I wonder, channeling John Kerry but with lower moral stakes: How do you ask a year to be the last one to die for a mistake?

Last week, for the first time in a decade, I did apply for some jobs outside academe. But starting a new profession requires years of dues-paying that I have already done as an historian and nowhere else. And fundamentally, this is the job I should be doing; the one that I have long wanted to do—and still want to do. It would seem natural to quit after years of poorly explained rejection. But my work as a scholar is respected. My work as a teacher is valued—if not institutionally, then at least by my students. These are my strengths; and it is precisely in doing this combination of tasks that I believe I can make the greatest contribution. The academic job market has taken so much from me over the past years; I don’t want to let it take away my career as well.

Patrick Iber is a visiting lecturer at the University of California–Berkeley.