The Ten Million Dollar Question (Academic Job Searches, 2020)

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom dramatic cloudscape

Since March, I have occasionally gotten this question from advisees:

“So…how bad will the academic job market be this fall?”

I understand the reason for this question and the anxiety underlying it. I would, however, encourage anyone still contemplating a run at faculty positions this fall to reflect on a different set of questions.

For starters, it’s hard to imagine the market getting much worse.

The market for tenure-track faculty jobs in the humanities has been abysmal for more than a decade. Even pre-pandemic, I often told advisees that applying for tenure track faculty jobs “is a math problem, not a humanities problem.” In other words, if you don’t get that coveted interview or job offer in a particular search, it’s more likely to do with the vast number of people you’re competing against, than any shortcomings of your application.

But of course, it’s not that simple. Many students can’t fully comprehend how competitive the market has become, until they conduct their own search for the first time. And no truism is going to take away the pain of rejections that can feel deeply personal, and sometimes shake a young scholar’s sense of identity to the core.

Given the discouraging state of affairs for academic job-seekers prior to March 2020, an even more extreme degree of “worse” is not likely to dissuade the most persistent now. If you find yourself in this group, I write to offer two things. First, I’ve seen many people advance their academic careers after leaving Duke, but it’s helpful to have a realistic idea of what these trajectories now typically look like. Secondly, I invite you to consider what it might look like to navigate a Fall 2020 search–regardless of outcome–in defiance of dismal clichés of the hapless humanities job-seeker.

For starters, consider the following:

For most brand-new humanities PhDs, the initial stepping stone to an academic career no longer is a tenure-track faculty job.

Statistical data makes this point abundantly clear, including information specific to your Duke PhD program, maintained by The Graduate School. My experiences as an advisor confirm this reality as well. Each year since 2017, I’ve witnessed a very small number (in the low single digits) of humanities PhD students securing a tenure-track humanities faculty position straight out of Duke.

A somewhat larger number (pre-pandemic, at least) secure short-term scholarly positions, ranging from 1-3 year postdocs, to visiting lecturer positions, to term assistant professorships. Over time, some—but by no means all—individuals in this larger group move into tenure-track positions.

So if you intend to engage in a faculty job search this fall, I urge you to go in as prepared and informed as possible. This does not mean doombrowsing every website and wiki you can find. I suggest identifying a limited number of credible resources (including your PhD advisor and committee, always), and apply your good judgement as you sort through multiple (and sometimes conflicting) directives.

For example, some job applicants swear by Karen Kelskey’s The Professor is In, but please take everything in that book with a grain of salt, and do not—I repeat, do not—routinely read if before bedtime (as at least one of my advisees has confessed to doing). You may find some of my own blogposts on academic job searches of use, including “The Big Picture Faculty Job Search,” and “Tenure-Track Jobs at ‘Non-Elite’ Institutions,” among others.

However, even if you were to read every available book and blog post on the academic job search—in addition to drafting and polishing applications, securing reference letters, and engaging in mock digital interviews–you might still enter the market unprepared. By this, I mean that it’s critical to make the time and space to reflect on the process itself—and how you will navigate your way through it.

So rather than ruminate over “How bad will the tenure-track faculty market be?” I encourage you to carve out some space to reflect on the following questions:

  • What are your motivations for seeking a faculty position? Not only will the odds be steep, but the opportunity cost could be as well. That is, assuming you identify multiple positions for which to apply, the process could easily eat up most of your time and emotional bandwidth for several months. Make sure you are doing this because you sincerely desire a faculty position, and not because you feel like you “owe it” to your PhD program or to your advisor.
  • What is at stake for you in the search? The fulfillment of long-held hopes and dreams? Fundamental questions about your identity? The prospect of financial and job security? Can you accept the risk of losing whatever is at stake for you?
  • What is non-negotiable for you in this search? If you don’t want to move far away from family, then don’t apply for that job two time zones away. If teaching is what you most love, you don’t have to apply for R1 positions that leave you cold.
  • If things don’t go your way, what do you hope to take away from this search process (other than a job)?
  • Can you envision a “good” job search experience, regardless of outcome? If so, what actions to do you need to take to realize this vision?

These questions are critical, because to reflect on them will help you cultivate a sense of agency throughout an otherwise uncontrollable process, and help you respond to whatever comes next from a place of hope and resilience.

I end with hope, because higher ed outlets are saturated by numerous op-eds on this topic that seem calculated to generate despair in an already overworked and stressed-out graduate student population. I agree that the system is broken, but you don’t need to let it break you. You, with all of your extraordinary talent and promise, cannot and should not be diminished by an academic recruiting system that seems more antiquated, capricious, and absurd with each passing year.

Who do you want to be, no matter what happens this fall?

“Cloudscape” by RobW_ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0