What should one do? Looking for practical advice for people on today’s academic market

Over the past few months various friends, professional contacts, and random people have asked me for advice about succeeding – or surviving – in today’s academic job market in the United States.

These folks (and their friends) are well-educated, passionate, and skilled people, committed to the life of knowledge.

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 They love their respective fields.  But they face a market committed to part-time, at-will gigs, and fear not being able to make it: to support a family, or even themselves.

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Some are adjuncts now.  Others are grad students, post-docs, unemployed PhDs.  Some are exploring complementary gigs outside of academia.

How would you advise such untenured academics to proceed?

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 In 2016, what practice recommendations can one offer?

I’m not asking for policy solutions in this post, but rather help with giving career advice to professionals in a job market that’s a sustained humanitarian disaster.

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6 Responses to What should one do? Looking for practical advice for people on today’s academic market

  1. Billy Pritchard says:

    Undoubtedly, I’m one of the dozens of people you mentioned in your introductory comments. As a grad student, I struggled for years with Social Darwinism that pervades academia. Not all of my professors were guided by the “survival of the fittest” logic that claimed the hardest working, most innovative scholars get the best jobs; however, many did. They tended to come from top-10 programs in their sub-field specialization in History. They, too, had floundered on the job market for 1-3 years before landing the gig they currently occupied. They had done all of this 10+ years ago and assumed that the same market existed for their grad students who were on the verge of finishing.

    Nearly everyone in my cohort who has finished the PhD in my program at a large public 2nd-to-3rd tier R1 school has struggled. Regardless of whether they are great or “average” by the litmus test of academia. Here is a list of what the past 10 or so are doing now:

    *One works as an administrative assistant, social media outreach specialist, grant writer, and community events organizer at a National Park Service historic site

    *Another one parlayed his Master’s of Library Science + PhD into an excellent library/history department gig at a small university in the Northeast. He got the job (in large part) because he had already spent a year in North Dakota as their legislative historian and librarian. His library credentials have gone much further than his PhD in History.

    *One recent grad just landed a spot at the National Holocaust museum.

    *Another is in charge of local museum network. She works on fundraising, educational outreach, curating exhibits.

    *Another is a stay-at-home mom who writes for several history-related blogs and adjuncts.

    *Another got a job at a small college in Montana.

    *Another teaches in some strange hybrid program in Singapore, but is quite content.

    *Another works for a non-profit group in a rust belt city as a policy analyst dealing with issues of poverty, social justice, and race.

    *Another got a job at a university in Moscow, ID. I never knew such a place existed.

    *Another works as an editor for the American Historical Association’s monthly magazine/newsletter and lives in D.C.

    *And, finally, I teach at an excellent private/independent high school back in my home state.

    For the most part, we’re all happy even though the brass ring university and college jobs never materialized. These are my stories from the grad school trenches over the past few years.

    • Bravo, Billy, for a generous, rich, and thoughtful answer.
      Your list makes it sound like alt-ac is at least as viable as traditional paths.

      I wonder how some of those jobs will fare in an era of austerity and automation.

  2. If I had known at the beginning of my so-called career what I know now, I wouldn’t have gone into academia.

    Seventeen years of part-timing at three different colleges.

    Thanks to old-girl networking, eight years of a .85 “Teach Writing Only” contract with .15 hourly as a Faculty Tech added.

    I landed on my feet by virtue of joining PERS at Level One back in the day, so my retirement is decent (but still under $3000/mo, so it’s not exactly a golden parachute.)

    However, the entire community college/university system sucks. I am retiring no longer believing in grading or teaching as we know it (including all contemporary theory and best practices–I mean ALL), which are at the core of the entire system.

    My advice is: do your research into your options BEFORE you decide that because you love great writing you want to devote your life to evaluating bad student writing EVERY DAY OF YOUR LIFE.

    No, that isn’t okay.

    Yes, there are other career paths out there. RUN WHILE YOU STILL CAN.

    I am not exaggerating for effect.

    I don’t have any homiltic reassurances that it will get better. It won’t.

    The screw has a size and a shape. Take a good look at it then ask yourself exactly how much wool you have pulled over your eyes if you insist on “looking on the bright side.”

    If being a pink collar offshore worker until you’re 65 it’s okay with you; please! Be my guest!

    • “If I had known at the beginning of my so-called career what I know now, I wouldn’t have gone into academia.” Dang, Sandy. That’s powerful.
      And “I don’t have any homiltic reassurances that it will get better. It won’t.

      The screw has a size and a shape. “

      • And I have multiple teaching excellence awards–the most recent last fall for innovations in digital storytelling curriculum. So it’s not that I am a bitter teacher because I am a shitty teacher; not at all. I was and am a cheerful and dedicated teacher because like most of us, I am capable of doing well that thing I have come not to believe in. Lots of vegans sling burgers!

  3. Chad says:

    Why do so many delay pushing the eject button for so long?

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