Job Market Gloom and Doom: Is It For You?

There’s a whole cottage industry that’s grown up around the misfortunes and fears of people on the academic job market. It’s true that the academic job market has been pretty difficult for a number of disciplines, such as Literary Studies, History, and Philosophy. It’s true that Ph.D. is no guarantee of a job — and neither is being brilliant, promising, and deserving. People should be made aware of that when they start graduate school. And it’s true that going on the job market can be a harrowing and emotionally draining experience — even for a successful candidate.

But in the jobs section of the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website, an elaborate therapeutic discourse has grown up around people’s problems finding academic employment. There is a thin line between “personal is the political” approaches to systematic critique and confessional, therapeutic, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstaps-ism. The former offers personal experience as a way of understanding larger, impersonal structures that need to be transformed. The latter offers personal experience as a spectacle to be consumed for its own sake. Of course you should read what’s there, but do so with a dose of caution.

For instance, as of this update, the Chronicle has been following (or trying to invent, in my opinion) a controversy over whether blogging can hurt your career. It began with a crusty English professor somewhere saying that if a candidate blogged, he would never hire him or her. (Keep in mind that crusty search committee members say all manner of stupid things when given the chance. A search committee is a committee and that person has one vote at one school.) Their latest case in point is Juan Cole, a full professor at Michigan who was up for but did not get a tenured job at Yale. Cole’s response to the forum is to shame the Chronicle for asking the question, and you should too. (Of course, if you’re going to have a confessional blog, do it pseudonymously, and not on your professional site — in other words, “do as I say, not as I do.”)

It’s good to read and hear others’ stories. But more important than reading online, I think people on the market will learn more from talking with their peers — in their field, at their school, at the same stage of their career or just a little further along. Those are the stories that need to be heard and that need to be told, and it’s very unlikely that you’ll find them in a public forum like the Chronicle. I don’t meant to sound dismissive. The stories that you find at the Chronicle document people’s real experiences. But like all experiences that appear in the media, they are selected experiences. They certainly represent something real, but they may or may not be as “representative” as they appear to be.

I say this as an avid fan and recommender (to both women and men) of Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. I believe that people need to be aware of and learn to handle the very real institutional and professional issues that will confront them from the moment they enter graduate school. After all, we should care for our professional lives, and the professional lives of those around us.