professor

SO YOU WANT TO BE A PROFESSOR?

Last week I attended a conference that I really enjoy. It was good to see old friends, meet new ones, and actually have someone attend my panel for research. I also had the opportunity to talk with a number of newly minted Ph.D.s who were on the job market. Most of the people I spoke with I had some connection with prior to the conference. Either I knew their adviser or they had worked with someone I had worked with. When we were talking, primarily at the bar because that is where the best conversations happen, we kept coming back to the state of the job market in our field. Many of the people I spoke with either did not have a job or if they did it was not their ideal one. Through our conversations it became apparent to me that many of these new colleagues of mine had not been prepared for the job market.

And I wouldn’t doubt that if a lot of disciplines have similar problems with newly minted Ph.Ds and understanding the academic job market. I am sure there are some programs that do a fine job of preparing their students for obtaining a job in academia or at least some individual professors do, but in conversations I have had with my colleagues over the past decade there a lot more that don’t do a good job of this aspect of graduate student professionalization.

Since I am little longer in the tooth in this profession and I try to keep up with the job market as much as I can I thought I might convey a little bit of advice to those people who are going to be graduating/graduated in the past couple of years. I can only really speak for my experience with my particular discipline, but I think what I say here can be viewed for others entering the world of academia. In fact, the academic job market in my discipline (Communication Studies) is much better than other humanities and social sciences so this advice might even apply more to other disciplines.

This is just my opinion and I am not trying to impugn any specific program.

Tips on the Job Market

Before I go a bit further I might describe a little of my background. I am a full professor at a teaching university in the Northeast. I have been at my position for 12 years and have been teaching college courses at some level (e.g. adjunct, full-time, graduate student) for over 20. I have also taught at different types of institutions including community colleges, private colleges, teaching universities, and research universities. I also have interviewed at all kinds of different institutions over the years, particularly when I was coming out of graduate school over a decade ago.

So here are some tips I have gleaned along the way.

First, stay and finish your Ph.D. 

You might be thinking “well, no shit Sherlock.” However, there are a lot of people who obtain ABD status (all but dissertation) and don’t have any more funding for their Ph.D. program. That means no more income. How are they going to pay their bills? So a lot of people who are in this situation will take a full-time job or adjunct full-time without the Ph.D. finished. When you start teaching full-time at a place and start making money finishing Ph.D. can often be on the back burner. You also loose the intellectual network that you had built at your doctoral institution. Your adviser is not there to constantly check on you. Your motivation, egged on by other doctoral students, professors, and adviser will be most likely less. Thus, it is a LOT harder to complete your Ph.D. when you take a job and you are not finished. If you can swing it financially I would advise people to just stay and finish their Ph.D. as soon as possible. You will make yourself much more marketable with the degree done than when you are not.

Second, but if you can’t stay then do two things: teach and work on the Ph.D.

So sometimes it is not possible that people can stay where they are at. There are financial reasons, family reasons, conflict reasons, homesick reasons, whatever they are, some people need to take that full-time job or leave their program before they are finished. If that is the case, then I would advise that person to do two things: teach at the institution where your job is at (if you are teaching) and finish the degree, preferably in the first-year. Don’t do more research, don’t apply for more grants, don’t go on vacation, just finish the degree. If you want to be in academia then the vast majority of the time you are going to need that doctorate. I understand that you might have other things going on, but if you want an academic job or want to keep the one you have then finishing your doctorate is imperative. The only thing that comes before it is family and even then family obligations might have to be put off for a bit.

Third, temper your expectations

. One of the reasons why there might not be good professionalization discussions about the job market is that some academics might not know about. Individual professors who are in doctoral programs may or may not the minutiae of what the market is or they might have different expectations for a student. For example, I know a couple of professors where their students did not get jobs at top schools. Those professors couldn’t understand why Jonny or Susie would want to teach at a certain institution or do some other kind of work. It was as if those students didn’t want to teach at another doctoral institution or couldn’t get that job then they were somehow less than other people. Again, I don’t think that is all professors at doctoral granting institutions and certainly was not my mentor, but there are some advisers out there who take their advisees lack of job success very personally.

Also, I think there are some students who feel the same way. There are some people who obtain their doctorates who automatically assume that they deserve and/or should be teaching at the best institution out there. In fact, I know several young Ph.D.’s who refuse to apply to universities like mine. It is almost like it is beneath them. The problem is that jobs, particularly tenure-track positions at doctoral institutions, are few and far between. There are just not enough to go around. The vast majority of jobs, particularly tenure-track positions, will be at institutions where the teaching load is higher and the research expectations are lowered. You might not be able to get all of the research you want done. I have been lucky and been able to do both, but I joke it is because I don’t have children yet. When/if that happens then I expect my research output to slow down and I am ok with that. Some young scholars might not like that idea, but your expectations of where you “deserve” to be are different from the reality of the market.

Fourth, get to know the different kinds of academic/teaching jobs. 

The holy grail of academic positions is the tenure-track position at a university. That is what many of us spent years wanting to obtain. The problem is that only about 35% of all positions advertised are tenure-track. Most of them are at teaching universities with higher teaching/service expectations.

The job market when I graduated over a decade ago was much better for tenure/track positions. I also worked my tail off to get where I am, but I know that if I were to be coming out on the market today that I may or may not get a tenure-track position.

Also, tenure-track positions come with more baggage for universities. Tenure is basically a lifetime contract that costs a university millions of dollars in wages and benefits. The job market has changed. Tenure is expensive and because of it universities have come up with new different job classifications for faculty.

For example, many universities, particularly bigger schools, are offering positions like “Clinical Assistant Professor” or “Assistant Teaching Professor” or “Teaching Specialist.” The titles for these jobs, for the most part, did not exist as much when I came out of school.

Now more and more universities have these titles. The disadvantage of these jobs is that there is often no tenure with them. These jobs are cheaper for universities. Because universities know that there are more Ph.D.s than job they can offer these positions and they will get applicants, good applicants. So there is little incentive to go back to the “old” way of academic jobs.

The advantage with them is that these new job classifications are typically full-time and you often can be promoted. You just don’t have the security of tenure and those positions are usually contract based (e.g. 3 years, 5 years or more). These positions offer job security at some level, but at less pay for the individual.

For some people, these can be great positions. For others it is not often what they want. But if you want to get a job in academia you should understand the different levels of positions.

Fifth, prepare to take one of these positions. 

The truth is that for the vast majority of Ph.D.s coming out of graduate school that the jobs I listed above (e.g. Assistant Teaching Professor) or Lecturer positions (full-time positions with less pay) is what many newly minted Ph.D.s will have for their first positions for a couple of years or maybe even their careers. Tenure-track positions are a dime a dozen. And the positions in the “prestigious” institutions are even more sporadic. Before you land the “holy grail” job you might have to take a job being a lecturer for a few years where you are primarily teaching (not necessarily a bad thing for many), build up your teaching portfolio, build up your research and keep trying the market. But these jobs also come with less stability and less pay.

You might even have to go to multiple institutions for a bit and feel like a bit of a gypsy, but unfortunately that is what a lot of the market looks like. My discipline does have a lot of full-time positions, but they are often temporary or annually renewable depending on budgets and that can be scary for a lot of people.

Sixth, be geographically flexible.

A lot of academics would love to live/work in some areas of the country. There are some places that just have a mystique about them. For example, Boston is one of them. Lots of my academic friends love Boston. Don’t get me wrong I do too. Boston is the Mecca of higher education in the United States. I teach at a university not too far from Boston.

But Boston has its draw backs. It is really EXPENSIVE to live here. And trying to live here on a professor’s salary, particularly one that isn’t tenure-track, is hard. In order to teach at a university in Boston you might have to live in another state (e.g. like my wife and I do) or move to a part of the state where the cost of living is less and then commute about an hour or so. In other words, the mystique can wear off when you start running the numbers.

That is why taking a job in a geographic area that might not be your ideal, might be the way to go. That might mean you take a job in fly-over country (I like flyover country personally) or some rural area or an area away from a big city. In those first jobs you have you might not get ideal location so you often have to go where the job is.

Finally, consider the benefits of that position.

 One of the things that continues to bother me about my profession and just in life in general is that we don’t talk enough about money. So many of my colleagues (including myself) come out with huge amounts of student loan debt, no money saved, and not a clue about how to plan for the future. Because the pay in academia is not as lucrative some of the fringe benefits can be. For example, the salary for a position might be lower, but you might get a retirement match on your retirement plan that is more than what you would get in the private sector (I wish I got that). For example, the match on the retirement plan for a university or college might be 7-10%, whereas in the public sector you might only get 3%.

Whether we know that or not that is REALLY important. That is free money. That is a GREAT benefit. So many people don’t consider things like retirement plans and/or health insurance when they obtain jobs. They are just happy to be there. But if you are lucky enough to have more than one offer or the potential to do so I would encourage you to look long and hard at those benefits because they can be a game changer later on in your career.

One Final Thing:

This is more of a message to academic programs and professors alike. I am sure there are a lot of programs/individuals that offer good advice on the job market, but a lot of them do not. To me that is criminal. To not talk frankly to incoming graduate students about the job market, particularly if they want to be a professor, is just plain wrong. To not talk or fully explain to newly minted Ph.D.s about the expectations of the market and where they should be applying is wrong. To not offer workshops on the different kinds of jobs, benefits, and other things in the academic job market is a mistake.

Graduate programs often do a great job of teaching you the content of that discipline, but they don’t talk about the intangibles of an academic position, particularly surrounding money. It becomes a system that you have to navigate on your own through trial and error. For my colleagues who are in doctoral granting institutions, I hope that you are running workshops about what to expect on the job market, what to look for, where to apply, what kinds of different job talks to give for each institution and job, and what other jobs there are. What is the state of the job market for your discipline? If not, I think more professionalization is definitely needed, particularly over the issue with money.

Most doctoral granting institutions have a seminar where graduate students gather to hear different topics on professionalization. But I don’t remember ever having a discussion about the job market in my doctoral program. I don’t remember ever having a discussion about benefits, salary, retirement plans, health insurance, etc that go with this job. I don’t remember ever having a discussion about money. And from what I hear anecdotally from other professors and graduate students it seems these discussions can be few and far between.

It is high time we have those discussions and the “realities” of the academic job market. If we don’t then we are doing a disservice to the next generation of professors who will be teaching our children in the future.

I hope this blog can make a small difference in changing that.

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