Kicking the Tires I: The Academic Job Offer

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement in the Humanities


It is a curious fact that the most astute, savvy, and critical-minded job applicant can be reduced to a puppy-like state of quivering, unquestioning joy when presented with a job offer. Especially if the job offer concludes a grueling, multi-year search on the academic job market, or months on the nonacademic track with few bites from prospective employers.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with celebrating a win, but sometimes in all the excitement, we don’t evaluate the opportunity as thoroughly as we should. While this phenomenon can happen with any kind of job offer, I suspect it is especially pronounced in academia.

Graduate study in the humanities generates all kinds of warnings from well-meaning professors, peers, and worried parents about the dismal state of the academic job market. Potentially, one may enter a program with rosy visions of turning into a clone of the beloved undergraduate mentor from Elite U. Gradually, the warnings take their toll. By years five or six, Ph.D. students may feel compelled to accept any tenure-track job they can land.

This is not a job-search strategy. It is desperation. Choices motivated by desperation or fear rarely end well.

I remain convinced that tenured faculty positions in higher education, at many institutions, remain some of the most intellectually engaging, satisfying, and privileged jobs that exist anywhere, at any time. For those committed to faculty life and all it entails, the rigors of graduate study and the many sacrifices it demands may be well worth the chance of obtaining a suitable tenure-track position.

——- ♦ ——-

Accepting a job, academic or nonacademic, also means integrating oneself into a network of colleagues, and a distinctive institutional identity and workplace culture.

——- ♦ ——-

Emphasis, however, on the word “suitable.” Even if we assume (incorrectly) that all institutions of higher education are currently flourishing—and that universities hum along untouched by economic, cultural, and political pressures—we’re left with the all-important question of fit. Accepting a job, academic or nonacademic, also means integrating oneself into a network of colleagues, and a distinctive institutional identity and workplace culture.

For example, if prepping for class or meeting with students brings you ten times the amount of joy that writing a journal article does, maybe a teaching-intensive college is for you.

If, however, you’d rather die than dress up like a tree for your small college’s Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society pageant (real story), then perhaps a scholarly career at a research I is a better fit for you.

Adding to the challenge of discerning fit are the many pressures now bearing down on colleges and universities: shrinking public support for higher education, a rampant culture of anti-intellectualism, educational programs and curricula in tension with larger market forces—to name just a few. Faculty at most colleges and universities are not insulated from these trends, which can affect multiple aspects of how one teaches, performs institutional service, and conducts research.

A college or university can transition, over time, from being a pretty good place to land, to one where it’s difficult to flourish as a faculty member.

There’s only so much you can learn about an institution from the interview process, but you will want to pay close attention to what you observe, and do as much homework as you can before and after the campus visit. Some questions to ask (whether out loud to your interviewers, or at least to yourself):

  • Do I want these people for my future colleagues? Will they support my growth as a teacher, scholar, and campus leader?
  • Does the university/college/department have resources in place to support my professional development?
  • Have I met at least a few of the students, and would I enjoy working with them?
  • Will I be able to do the kinds of teaching and/or research that most invigorate me?
  • What is the institution’s endowment, and is it financially stable? Have faculty consistently gotten raises over the past few years?
  • Do the faculty (especially at mid- and senior level) seem happy and engaged?

Overall, pay attention: Be on the lookout for red flags (such as the college administrator who admiringly describes his junior colleague to you as “a real workhorse”).

Ask more questions. The decision to take a job needs to align with other values, which will of course differ for everyone. For example, will this position:

  • Allow me to support myself and my family adequately?
  • Place me in a part of the country (or world) that I’d enjoy living in?
  • Allow me flexibility or time to pursue other interests important to me?

If too many of the questions above aren’t answered to your satisfaction, you may consider whether the bare fact of tenure (eventually) is sufficient incentive to accept the position. Do you want your professional trajectory to be determined solely by an overriding concern with job stability?

If the answer is no, you do have options. Among them is to consider positions outside the academy. There are some pretty amazing ones out there, but asking hard questions and kicking the tires is even more vital for the academic who seeks them out.

To be continued (Kicking the Tires II: Nonacademic Job Opportunities) …