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.

Teacher helping students in lecture hall
Enlightening students while academe dashes her hopes and dreams.

Photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Thinkstock

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

The year 2011 was, for me, one of celebration. I finished a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago, with a dissertation on the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the cultural Cold War in Latin America. My dissertation was awarded distinction, a denomination I had not even known was possible prior to my defense. A couple of months later, my wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy, our first child. Soon after that I started a prestigious two-year postdoc in the humanities: one of six candidates from a thousand or so applicants. The salary there was in line with a beginning professor’s salary, and I felt, for the first time in my life, that I had reached the middle class. Optimism was easy to come by.

Yet of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market. Of course I knew that the job market for Ph.D.s in the humanities was bleak. When I started graduate school in 2005, most graduating students I knew (admittedly, mainly from fancy programs) were taking excellent jobs before they finished their dissertations. But the years following the financial crisis were catastrophic; hiring ground to a near-standstill. I saw talented friends leave for other work; others struggled to get hired with completed dissertations and years of teaching experience. People started to publish memorable essays about the gains of quitting academe, and po-faced graduate programs began to think about how they might prepare Ph.D. students to enter more than one tight labor market at a time.

And yet, each time I applied for a job—and I am not alone in this—I invested a little part of myself in the idea of success. You craft a personalized letter saying how you think you would fit into the department, and that makes you think about the colleagues and programs you might enjoy joining. You add a personal connection—a family member nearby, perhaps—and that makes you think about how much you would like to live there. Especially if you have never lived in a house, you probably check the real-estate listings and think about what you would be able to afford. You do this 10 times—20—30—if you’re lucky enough to have that many jobs to apply to. And then you wait. Three months to dream. And then they begin to take your dreams away, one by one by one.

The first year should have been easy. I had a second year on the postdoc, after all. Rejection would not mean a total loss. But, alas, one of my dream jobs came up that year. I was passed over for a senior scholar—an eminently sensible decision by the hiring committee, but a disappointment. I was also rejected by the university that employed me as a postdoc. The university owed me nothing, but I wished that I had had a chance to defend the work that I was doing with a job talk. It was harder than it should have been.

The second year should have been hard, and it was. That year I had no campus visits at all, in spite of dozens of applications. I did sign the book contract I had long coveted: Harvard University Press would be perfect for reaching scholars outside my own subdiscipline within history. I browsed for nonacademic jobs in education and in government, but my only work experience for years back was in academe. Besides, it is hard to know how to give up on work to which so much time and energy have been devoted. So I took a full-time lectureship at an excellent public university nearby. It paid me less money than I had earned 10 years previously as a high-school teacher and meant putting off my dreams of middle-class comfort and security.

Nonetheless, I loved the work and the students. I felt hope again. Countless people told me that this would be “my year,” that it would be inconceivable for me not to find work. I had teaching experience and stellar reviews at stellar institutions. I had a nearly complete manuscript and an unbeatable book contract. I had published several academic articles and had raised my public profile by writing for think tanks and magazines. Surely, this would be “my year.”

Signs were mixed. I got a number of interviews via Skype and a few early rejections. In November my wife and I welcomed a second son. We were still near my in-laws, and it seemed a good idea to take advantage of the proximity of family. At the end of the semester, my mother flew out to visit the new baby. On Christmas Day she had been climbing at the playground with her grandsons, in perfect health. That night she complained of chest pain, and we took her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with an aortic dissection. Surgery followed two days later; she was expected to make a full recovery. I had a paper to give at the conference of the American Historical Association; I thought of withdrawing but was given the all-clear by her doctors, and she wanted me to go.

She was released from the hospital on Jan. 1 to recover at her brother’s house. I flew to Washington, D.C., the next day. When the plane landed, I had multiple messages waiting for me, telling me to call home. My mother, age 64, had died in her sleep. Her youngest grandson was 7 weeks old.

The AHA was a daze. I walked the streets between conference hotels in tears. I told friends. I told strangers. To others, with no logic to it, I said nothing. I might have gone home, but the severe weather in the Northeast scrambled routes and made it nearly impossible to rebook my flight. As a lecturer with no research support, I had spent half a month’s salary to travel there anyhow. My mom had wanted me to give my paper, so I did: to an audience of three. I shook hands at mixers. I had no interviews.

I mourned; a week later, I did a job talk for an excellent position. Two weeks after that, I held it together for a different job talk at a university where I had looked forward to working because it would have brought my family within driving distance of my mother. The very next day, I eulogized my mother at her memorial services. I came in second for both jobs. Those who received the first offers took them. I have nothing. This was “my year.”

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.

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.

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