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.
Back in December, I started a conversation with the staff at Savage Minds about professionalization, particularly in relation to recent Ph.D. recipients who might be on the job market and who might also be adjuncting. While we often collectively bemoan the state of affairs around non-tenure track employment in academia, it seemed to me that very little had actually been written about navigating the waters between graduating, adjuncting and finding a tenure track job. We began with a couple of surveys — one for people who are currently adjuncting and seeking more permanent employment, and another for people who had adjuncted and successfully made the move to a tenure track job or moved into a different form of work. About 50 people responded to each of the surveys (although if you’re so moved, you can fill them out now). Over the next month, I’ll be presenting some of the findings we collected from these surveys and thinking about the kinds of challenges that people face and how they might be overcome. In addition, I’ll be writing some posts about professionalization in anthropology in our current climate — an extension of some of my work on my professionalization blog based on the series I run in the anthropology department at UC Santa Cruz.
My interest in professionalization is based on my own experience, which has been characterized by a persistent need to pull myself up by my bootstraps. I’m now halfway through my fifth year on the tenure track at UCSC, and was previously employed at Wayne State; I was fortunate to enter the job market in 2007, at the height of jobs being offered. I graduated from Oakland University, a little-known liberal arts school is suburban Detroit, with a BA in Literature; taught elementary school for a year in Columbus, OH; went to the University of Liverpool for an MA in Science Fiction Studies; returned to the US for an MA in American Cultural Studies at Bowling Green; and then went on to work on my Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. By no means do I have an elite background, and I attribute my professional success entirely to robust efforts to professionalize early in my career, a quirky project on sleep in American society, and supportive mentors.