Getting a Job in the Academy: Some Thoughts From the Other Side

This post isn’t just another lament about the sorry state of the job situation in the academy. The US is undoubtedly undergoing a crisis on that front, accentuated by the huge increase in the numbers of people completing  PhDs  in liberal arts subjects and the scale of student debt. The effects of this crisis spill over into what is now a global market in academic jobs. This is clearly evident in the UK where the numbers of applicants for academic posts in anthropology frequently reach well over one hundred, compared to  perhaps fifty or sixty only a decade previously.

The problem is  partly structural- the mismatch between numbers and posts on the one hand, and the impacts of selective shrinkage in the University sector on the other.  But demand is also a factor. People continue to study at graduate level because they are motivated by research as much as anything.  Doctoral study isn’t only about entry into  formal academic employment, in any discipline. And, while the casualization of higher education is a concerning trend, in the US and beyond, it’s not the only issue. It’s hard to imagine under what economic system there could ever be sufficient secure jobs in the university sector for those with higher degrees at a time when it seems that more people than ever are pursuing postgraduate research.

This doesn’t mean giving up and not trying to get a university post, if that’s what you really want. But it does entail a healthy dose of realism combined with the practical career building tips of the sort offered so eloquently by Karen Kelsky aka The Professorisin whose site I wholeheartedly recommend. Having been on the other side of the job process over the past year, as a search committee member and chair of a department, I’m going to offer a few of my own. The first is optimistic, if you are an anthropologist at least.

People with doctorates in anthropology and field based social research expertise can find a home in the cognate disciplines which routinely borrow from anthropological production. Anthropology is a sending discipline which exports people and ideas to allied subjects. Explore possibilities in disciplines such as sociology, development studies and cultural geography. Read their journals. Think about where you publish and where your work could claim a wider interest. Be open.

My second tip is be yourself, in terms of your priorities and what your research is about.   Increasing competition in the job market  coexists with the increasing homogenization of research topics and the standardization of the aesthetic of what counts as significant in terms of outputs and achievements. It’s hard to stand out.  Try. Your field site is unique. So is your research. Don’t smother it in off the peg theory.  (Hint: Not everything in the world today is explained by neoliberalism).

Third, don’t sacrifice productivity to busyness. Presenting at  a million conferences is not in actuality game-changing. What committees are looking for is evidence that  your papers will be converted into interesting and engaging published pieces.  Sure, do some conferences. But limit them. You don’t want to run out of time for getting that paper into press. A published piece goes on working for you long after it has appeared, establishing your reputation and getting your work known about by a far wider constituency than could ever fit into that conference hotel room.

Finally, make connections- between different areas in your own research,  with different  institutions and with different people. That’s how you’ll get to know about new opportunities which arise and it can prompt unanticipated synergies. It is these which yield the most creative possibilities for writing, teaching and thinking.


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

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