Paige Harris has an informative piece over at Online PhD Programs on some best practices for landing an academic job. Despite one factual error–Paige claims that academia has long been “unscathed” by the vicissitudes of the economy, when in fact the job market, at least in the humanities, has been abysmal since the 1980s–I think it is all sensible advice, though I would say that the understated tone of the piece may be misleading to those in or aspiring to graduate school.
Paige writes: “There’s no doubt that building a career in academia is a challenge these days, but it can be done.” There are challenges, and then there are challenges. Running a 6-minute mile is a challenge for many, but pretty much anyone can do it if they discipline themselves. Running a 4-minute mile is nearly impossible; it depends not just on an unusual degree of hard work and determination, but on winning a genetic lottery. As someone who has just hazarded the punishing fire of the academic job market and lived to tell the tale, while I would not equate landing a tenure-track or secure position in academia with running a 4-minute mile, it’s not far off. I will recount my harrowing tale–which, I can assure you, has a most happy ending–in a future post, “There and Back Again.”
A couple of things that Paige does not mention (and, to be fair, need not mention, as her subject is simply HOW to get a job) are how “success” is measured in academia, and whether “success” is really as desirable as wide-eyed graduate students tend to believe. First, reading her post, you might be wondering how, with all of the energy that goes into “packaging” yourself, you ever find time to focus on the ACTUAL job: teaching, thinking, reading, and writing. As I recently told a group of young graduate students, the first rule of the job market is also the first point in Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life: “it’s not about you.” It’s about a persona that you will create that will, hopefully, be selected in the lottery that we call the academic job market. This is essential not just for marketing purposes, but for maintaining mental health.
But this marketing does not end once you get a job. As you will see–through attending conferences and publishing papers and getting your nose dirty in department politics–academia is a game–everything is not as it seems. This is partly why Frank Donoghue claims, in his book The Last Professors, that today’s academic is less an intellectual than a kind of salesman. I will be blogging on Frank’s book–and, hopefully, interviewing him via podcast–in the coming months.
Second, as Paige rightly emphasizes, people need to think very, very carefully about whether they really want it–and what they’re really signing on for, financially, geographically, socially, and professionally. To paraphrase Ian Malcolm, the eccentric mathematician from Jurassic Park: “Academics are so focused on whether or not they can get a job, they never stop to think if they should.”
I will be posting about these and related issues in the coming weeks.