Brock Read

Senior Editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Who’s Getting Tenure-Track Jobs? It’s Time to Find Out.

Full 08262014 jobtracker

Original Image: Work Projects Administration (Library of Congress)

As the academic labor market turns grimmer, and tenure-track professorships become scarcer, it’s hard not to wonder: Who’s getting hired to the desperately-coveted positions that remain?

It’s a question with serious implications, both for the academy and for the hordes of job-seeking scholars. Yet it’s been over a decade since anyone made much of an effort to come up with an answer—to find the names of the fortunate and talented few, across disciplines, and put them all in one place.

At The Chronicle, we’re well acquainted with the last serious stab at this. You might remember Lingua Franca, the late, lamented journal of ideas and academia that stopped publication in 2001. You might even recall one of the magazine’s keystone features, Jobtracks. Jobtracks wasn’t fancy—it was essentially a lengthy list of names and institutions, representing new hires and tenure-winners across the country—but it was popular and surprisingly comprehensive. Did you land a top job in linguistics around the turn of the century? If so, Lingua Franca was going to come looking for your name.

Click the (badly scanned) images to expand.

In the days before social networking, before you could even expect much out of a departmental website, this must have been a slightly gonzo data-gathering project. Now, of course, tracking is easier, and the academy is taking it much more seriously. In December the American Historical Association released the most thorough tracking project conducted by any academic group—a study that located 2,500 history Ph.D’s who graduated between 1998 and 2009, and shattered several job-market myths in the process. The Chronicle’s own Ph.D. Placement Project generated more than 2,300 responses—many of them surprisingly passionate—through a simple survey about graduate placement.

It’s not hard to see why those projects struck a chord. For scholars who have invested considerable time, money, and sweat equity in securing a professorship, the stakes of the academic labor market are high. But information about that market comes overwhelmingly in one of two forms: anecdote and advice. Poke around the Academic Jobs Wiki, and you’ll see an almost-intoxicating mix of rumors and cryptic updates. But the wiki, by design, only tells part of the story—a bunch of small stories, actually, that always end the same way: “Job offer has been accepted.” What happens before, after, and between those stories affords a much realer portrait of academic labor.

We want to fill in some of those blanks. So we decided it was time to bring Jobtracks back—this time we’re calling it Academic JobTracker—and to modernize it.

Over the winter I met with Maren Wood and asked her how we might go about doing that. Maren earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; she’s the founder of Lilli Research Group, a company that provides research and consulting for organizations and career coaching for Ph.D. job seekers. She was the lead researcher for the American Historical Association’s placement study.

Maren didn’t just talk about how to find out who’s getting these jobs; she agreed to spearhead the project for us.

So here’s what we’re doing. We’ve chosen 11 disciplines—anthropology, communications and media studies, economics, ecology, English literature, history, mathematics, musicology, philosophy, psychology, and religious studies. And we’ve gone ahead and identified as many open jobs in those fields as we can find. All told, that’s about 4,000 tenure-track positions. Yes, tenure-track positions: We’ve started by restricting our search to those jobs at four-year institutions in the U.S. and Canada. It’s not that we think those posts are the only ones that matter—in fact, the adjunctification of higher education is a major reason we took this project on. But tenure-line positions are the ones within the academy to which most Ph.D. students still aspire, and they’re the ones for which graduate schools are still (theoretically, at least) training those students. And to be honest, we have to start somewhere. (Same goes for the disciplines we chose: No cross-section is perfect, but we’ve tried to capture a range of types and sizes.)

The next step, of course, is to put names to these positions. Over the next couple of months, we’ll reach out to the programs doing the hiring, and do some research of our own, to identify who lands these hotly-pursued professorships. By the fall, we’ll have a list, and we’ll make it available. We think this is interesting information, in and of itself: If you’re a religious-studies scholar, you’d want to know who your new colleagues were, right?

But this is about much more than keeping up with the Joneses. Here’s where we’re expanding on Lingua Franca’s work. We’re collecting a wide range of data about each opening: who’s doing the hiring, what subfields or areas of focus they’re looking for, what teaching loads they’ve got in mind, when candidates have to complete their applications, and so on. And we’re doing the same for the folks who land the jobs: We want to know where they studied, what they specialized in, and how far they traveled from their Ph.D. programs or previous jobs to their new destinations.

That’s the real reason for doing this. Nearly every day, we encounter conventional wisdom about the academic job market. There just aren’t any open positions in my field. The secondary market is a black hole. To get a tenure-track job, I’ll have to move to [insert objectionable state here]. A lot of this stuff might very well contain elements of truth. But we want to put some hard data behind those perceptions. We’re working to create one of the very best overviews of the real academic job market, warts and all. We don’t have to wait until the fall to start sharing what we find; expect to see observations and analysis trickling out within a few weeks.

Just to be clear: This is a pilot project. We realize that 11 disciplines can’t explain all of academic hiring, not even close. Even in Year One, we think we can answer some important questions about the market. But we’re expecting to turn up just as many new questions of our own. Which subdisciplines appear to be growing (or waning) in influence? How many Ph.D.’s end up taking jobs in entirely different parts of the country? Just how different are the markets in, say, media studies and mathematics?

In that spirit, we’d like to invite you to follow along with us. Over the next few months, we’ll be writing regularly—both about where we are in the process and about what we’re finding. We’d like you to help keep us on track: Follow us on Twitter. Follow Maren on Vitae; follow me on Vitae. Have you landed a job in one of the 11 disciplines we're covering? If so, drop us a line. Tell us which questions you’d like to see us answer, what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong. We’ll provide the data. As for the interpretation: We can get started on that, too. But we’ll need your help. Stay tuned.

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