Is There a Window to getting a Tenure Track Job?

One of the questions that Matt Thompson and I had going into the surveys of adjuncts and past adjuncts was whether or not there is a window of opportunity for getting a tenure track job. In other words: is there some cutoff point where the likelihood of getting a tenure track job is greatly diminished? We don’t have a hard and fast answer — the surveys were too limited — but there’s some data to think about.

Of the 50 respondents to the post-adjuncting survey, 32 now hold tenure track positions. Of the 13 that provided answers to clarify what kinds of jobs they currently work in, most were in full-time research, consulting, or non-tenure track instuctorships. Of those same 50 respondents, the vast majority adjuncted as their principle means of income for four years or less (43); the other seven have all been adjuncting for six or more years, with two respondents doing so for 10 or more years. (Based on the data, it looks like the two long-term adjuncters are half of a two-income household, which might explain why they have continued to adjunct for so long.) When compared to the current adjuncts, the numbers are pretty similar. Of the 36 respondents who provided an answer to how long ago they received their Ph.D.s, most were in the five years or fewer category (31 of 36). The other five are all in the nine years or more category.

Taken together, it looks like the window of opportunity for getting a tenure track job is the first five years after the awarding of a Ph.D.

Yes, we have a small sample size – only slightly over 100 between the two surveys — but might it be representative? Is there a logic to this five year window?

Except in unusual circumstances, the economic ability for someone to survive on adjuncting salaries alone is five years or fewer — especially if they’re the sole source of income, and particularly if there are student loans involved. After five years (or four is what our survey shows), people might simply muster out of the discipline or seek out non-tenure track jobs.

Along with that dire economic situation, there’s also the window of intellectual impact. Some dissertation topics — which might find their mooring in responding to something current during one’s coursework —  might just fade in being of general interest to anthropologists. This is difficult to gauge, but it seems like a possibility.

And, finally, if a job-seeker is having a hard time publishing, that might be the real closing of the proverbial window. If someone is out for a year or more and is competing against more recent graduates with one or more articles, the odds might be growing longer by the year.

There aren’t any hard and fast answers here, but it’s worth thinking about: when should you throw in the towel and give up looking for a tenure track job? And, if you refuse to throw in the towel, what can be done to get onto the tenure track?

12 thoughts on “Is There a Window to getting a Tenure Track Job?

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to draw attention to and gather data on an issue of great importance that all too often goes ignored. I think the questions that the data raise are really important, but from what I can discern about your methodology the findings don’t mean much. It’s not just a question of the size of the sample, but how you go about drawing it. That said, I’m wondering if this could be a prelude to something larger. Might there be some means of getting support from the AAA (not that they’d necessarily want to shine a spotlight on this issue) or another source to work with a survey methodologist and do something comprehensive?

  2. Our experience on the hiring side is that few cultural anthropology PhDs are strongly competitive for TT positions right out of graduate school, and need a couple of postdoc years to build a bibliography, perhaps another grant, and some teaching experience. Two or three years of good post-PhD teaching and publishing can elevate a job candidate over a freshly minted PhD with lots of promise but fewer results. My colleagues in other anthropology departments report a similar situation, noting that we’re looking more like the lab sciences, which virtually require a postdoc period before entering a TT position.

    This certainly drives the window you discuss, and speaking again from the hiring side, I think we would be at least slightly skeptical of a job candidate with more than 5 post-PhD years as an adjunct. 2-3 years is a reasonable “postdoc” period, 5-6 years is beginning to look like a permanent “adjunct.”

  3. But if the status of “permanent adjunct” is by and large a structural feature of the current market, how can this be taken as a measure of an applicant’s quality, something to be “skeptical” of?

  4. Gregory: because, like so many other social formations that anthropologists study, it’s a combination of both. Can I reduce this to somewhat simplistic terms? Structural forces push the optimum hire-ability of job candidates to their second or third year post-PhD. Those who have been able to use those years to maximize their hire-ability (their “quality”) get TT jobs within the 4-5 year window that Matthew mentioned; those whose hire-ability is not as high (to take a single cause of several possible causes) don’t get hired, and by their 5th year we begin to suspect that they are not going to be strong scholars or teachers, and they end up as permanent adjuncts. This, I believe, is the assumption most of us on the hiring side make, and I will be interested to follow Matthew’s analysis to see if there is any validity to this belief, even to find that it is simply a self-fulfilling one.

  5. Seconding Barbara’s comments, without making a value judgment about how faculty hiring currently works (and it does vary).

    A faculty candidate who has 2-3 peer-reviewed journal articles per year following the Ph.D. has a very strong chance of getting a tenure-track job. Some of the articles can be replaced by a book contract with a solid university press for the dissertation work.

    Why is this? Hiring committees must to the extent possible hire candidates who (assuming their productivity continues) will earn tenure. Maintaining 2-3 peer-reviewed journal articles per year, or a second book with a solid university press, are strong qualifications for tenure.

    Five years post Ph.D., with only 0-1 publications per year, is not a record likely to earn tenure, even with superlative teaching marks. To hire a candidate with this record, the hiring committee must take the risk that productivity will increase.

    Contrariwise, three or four years post-Ph.D. with 2 publications per year (or a book plus some publications) is a strong record. Most of those candidates will have been hired somewhere before they get to year 5 post-Ph.D.

    Obviously, many other factors come into play for any particular job search, or any particular candidate. There are extremely well-qualified people who could earn tenure anywhere, but personal ties keep them from applying nationwide. There are new PhDs with no publications who land plum jobs.

  6. One of the biggest issues is mentioned by John Hawks: The limitation on mobility. Academia selects for people who are willing to go on the national market, and against those who cannot or will not move for family reasons. In part I think this is due to the fact that jobs are cast so narrowly that a national search is necessary. But, there is also a bias created by the fact that most of the people on the hiring committee tend to hire people like themselves–i.e. those who are willing to sacrifice local ties, for a job. The latter is a bit ironic for anthropology, isn’t it?

  7. Tony: Thanks for making this observation, which is of personal significance to me, since it has often been wives who are tied to a husband’s career choices. (Happily my husband is a cardiologist who was happy to practice anywhere I was able to land a TT position, but that was nearly unheard of in the past.) My own university has been pretty good in recent years about creating a position for the ‘trailing spouse’ or significant other, and that helps, but mobility still is required for the vast majority of academic disciplines, and I expect that a non-trivial percentage of adjuncts are well-qualified for TT positions, but find themselves unable to move for domestic/personal reasons.

  8. Thanks for weighing in on this so far. Here are some partial responses:


    I agree. A more robust survey would be great. Unfortunately, I think it’s highly unlikely. Part of the problem is that the people you most want to reach — those who have mustered out of the academic work force — are the ones least likely to be found. If they no longer participate in disciplinary organizations, they’re probably lost to any survey (and even those people who do belong to organizations like the AAA are hard to get survey data out of…). So there would be huge sampling errors. And you would also want to get data from other disciplines, and then the problem would just magnify.

    @Barbara & John:

    You get to a really interesting tension in the hiring process: in many ways, people are looked at as if they’ve been on the tenure track whether or not they actually are. So if someone is out for 5 years, they should be able to go up for tenure in a year or two. Or if they’ve been out for a year or more, they should have at least an article each year. I’ve long thought that this was the case, and have always recommended that grad students and job seekers always publish as if they were at the institution of their dreams — since that’s how they would have to publish if they landed that job. But it does seem to reinforce the window of opportunity being 5-6 years: if you could go up for tenure at that point, then you should still be marketable. But if you can’t get tenure, then it might be time to throw in the towel.

    @Tony & John:

    I always talk about the need to find a job somewhere other than where you got your Ph.D. (and I mean geography here, not institution) as a kind of cosmopolitanism. If every department was full of people who had received their Ph.D.s nearby, the stagnation of social reproduction would get pretty intense pretty quickly. So people want colleagues from other places who represent other genealogies of thought — which is just what anthropology is about, right?

  9. I think this issue of a “window” has some cache as a kind of urban legend among post-grads, not unlike competing in the job market against persons who have earned a PhD at an elite institution (or having a PhD from a school that has a well represented clique within a dept one is applying to). I recall feeling sorry for myself after losing out on one job that, according to Internet gossip, the finalists were all from Michigan. It’s interesting to learn that the window seems to be panning out as a real phenomenon, but apparently as an artifact of structural conditions. Anthropology does seem to have the market cornered on you-are-correct-but-not-for-the-reasons-you-think type of explanations.

    Anyways, these are the sorts of things that fellow job seekers commiserate over at the pub on Friday nights, so its very enlightening to read these comments and analysis.

  10. @Matthew

    I’ve long thought that this was the case, and have always recommended that grad students and job seekers always publish as if they were at the institution of their dreams — since that’s how they would have to publish if they landed that job.

    It’s the best advice. Aside from reading Karen Kelsky!

  11. @Mathhew:
    ” If every department was full of people who had received their Ph.D.s nearby, the stagnation of social reproduction would get pretty intense pretty quickly. So people want colleagues from other places who represent other genealogies of thought — which is just what anthropology is about, right?”

    I think that the problems sometimes is that departments have only “cosmopolitans” which is itself a sub-culture. I would think that a good dept would have a mix. Cosmopolitans look for people like themselves, as surely as locals do. How often have I heard that so-and-so must be good because of a similar pedigree from a distant high status university?

    I would not define a department composed of only people from Brown, Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan, and Duke as being particularly “diverse,” though it may be pretty cosmopolitan.

    As for spousal hires…that is a modern reality. I have mixed feelings about the situation people and departments find themselves in, and don’t know of any magic formula.

  12. Why would anyone in his/her right mind WANT a tenure track job is what I happen to be thinking at the moment. I got one right away, even before completing my Ph.D., and after almost three years of very enjoyable, rewarding teaching, and extremely stressful “politicking” I realized the whole academic thing amounts to a system of infinitely deferred rewards, at every stage of which one is being manipulated by an impossibly demanding and potentially extremely destructive system.

    Sure, if your only interest in life is in producing unreadably acceptable papers and of course the obligatory unreadable book, and you have so little self respect you are willing to do just about anything to please “those who must be obeyed,” then maybe the system is your cup of tea. I won’t even mention all those loans that will burden you for the rest of your life. In my day we were actually paid to be grad students, so I never had THAT particular problem.

    I got out after three years, and never regretted it. And no, I was not bounced out, I was in fact reappointed (after a battle royale) but decided to resign anyhow — in disgust. From then on I became a firm believer in part time teaching, which is how I supported myself and my wife for many years.

    For me the ideal job is as an under-the-radar part-timer (aka “adjunct”), routinely rehired year after year unless I truly mess up big time (which I never did, thankfully). It’s amazing how it’s possible to survive on what for the average full professor would be vacation money. The great advantage is that, as a part timer, one never needs a vacation. One’s life is a great big vacation, during which one has ample time to do something truly useful and rewarding.

    The tenure system is among the most insidious, unfair and destructive aspects of “Western” culture, right up there with the banking system, imho. Good people have killed themselves over tenure, both figuratively and literally. And many campuses have been disrupted due to absurd tenure disputes. Now that’s it’s just about impossible to get on that tenure track anyhow, my advice is, very simply: why bother?

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