Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

Horrible Job-Market Platitudes (and How to Retire Them)

Full reeves careless talk

As someone whose dubious renown comes from admitting catastrophic failure on the academic job market using both my real name and a modicum of human emotion, I have found myself in many passionate discussions over the past months with faculty, grad students, and “post-academics” about how to make the market less of a soul-crushing debacle.

These days, even candidates who have a platinum CV, a superlative pedagogical record, and a scholarly disposition might garner but a handful of interviews. And with odds that are sometimes 500 to one, it’s just not enough. When every search has a glut of “truly spectacular” applicants (as one committee chair bemoaned to me last year), there is no way to know who will be the right fit. This engenders helplessness in both job seekers and the advisers who want to support them.

However, one element of the whole sordid mess keeps recurring in my discussions with other academic miscreants: the language that advisers use with job candidates needs some serious work.

The clichés seekers hear have already been thoroughly pilloried (see the Old Academe Stanley meme), so I would like to offer some sincere replacements. Hear ye, advisers: If you truly want to help, consider my suggestions the next time you feel the need to spout any of the following tired, inaccurate, and often cruel party lines.

1. “You didn’t do this for a job, you did it to learn.”

(Variation: Nobody promised you a job.”)

A soon-to-be new Ph.D. is in tears in your office, terrified that she spent the last eight years in your apprenticeship for no reason. Instead of offering words of strength or inspiration, you come out with this confrontational, defensive line that assumes that not only does she apparently not love to learn, but she also feels entitled to a tenure-track job. In my experience, academic job seekers do indeed love to learn, and they don’t feel entitlement—what they feel is pressure to turn into their adviser’s replicant. What they feel is fear that if they fail, they will be disowned.

Here’s something better: “The rigor of this program has caused you to grow tremendously as a reader, writer, and teacher. No matter what happens to you out there, you are a scholar.”

2. “The market is bad, but it isn’t that bad.”

(Variation: “There are jobs, and somebody has to get them.”)

This offers both hope, which is often unfounded, and expectation, which instills in your advisee the directive that not only are there jobs, but that if she is only good enough, she will get one.

Here’s an alternative that is both more accurate and more compassionate: “Everyone has a different experience on the market, but for many, it can be harrowing. Your CV looks great, and we’ve written you terrific letters—but remember, there is no way to know what will make one applicant a good fit in a particular department and the other 250 a poor one.”

3. “There are always jobs for good people.”

Anyone who utters this abhorrent statement should be sentenced to 10 years as an adjunct in his own department.

Here’s what to say if you’re not a psychopath: “Any department that wants an[insert advisee’s strengths here] colleague would be lucky to have you. If they pass you over, we will give your CV another look and beef up your credentials, and we can give you tips to help you shine in interviews. But remember, even though most of the candidates who receive tenure-track offers are deserving, the inverse is most certainly not the case.”

4. “It’s totally normal to do at least one VAP gig before landing a tenure-track job.”

(Variation:“You have to be flexible and willing to move.”)

Most of your advisees are already willing to move anywhere, dragging along partners reluctant to schlep to a remote location with no career prospects—or, sometimes, leaving those partners behind. And often, there is no “before.” I have seen the Visiting Assistant Professor world from the inside, and it looks like this: An academic will often keep relocating from one contingent position to the next throughout her entire career, never anywhere long enough to start a real life. The NTT position is no longer a stopgap on the way to the tenure track. It is the new tenure track.

There is no way to sugarcoat this, and you shouldn’t: “Because more than three-quarters of college instruction in the United States is performed by contingent faculty, your odds of ever making it onto the tenure track are slim. The good news, however, is that soon most of us will be replaced by MOOCs, and all remaining human faculty will be equally undervalued.”

5. “Well, academe isn’t for everyone.”

(Variation: “Don’t feel bad; you just chose the wrong field.”)

I’ve written at length about this gem, usually uttered with spite after a broken job seeker has begun to envision a new life outside of the hallowed halls and dared share this plan aloud. One of the most common refrains I got from schadenfroh strangers after laying bare my own failures was: I shouldn’t blame the market, since it was obvious that I chose the wrong field. I’m far from perfect, but really: If someone with a stellar teaching record, multiple publications (in the “right” journals), a book under contract at a distinguished press, and one of the most prestigious postdoctoral grants in the country “chose the wrong field,” what kind of person chooses the right one?

Instead of lashing out at a broken person’s sincere desire to change her life, how about this, which my own adviser was kind enough to say to me? “I am so proud that you are putting your health and happiness before the job market. Here are some terrific alt-ac resources. I am here to write you any letters or make any calls you might need. You have my full and unwavering support whatever career you choose.”

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