Sunday, March 8, 2009

Hey, that's MY rock! Or, more of the usual job-search-related grumbling

It's time to be depressed once again. I haven't wailed to the heavens lately and besides, I need to find ever-more-creative ways to avoid doing my grading.

Over at the Chronicle, someone has stolen my persona! Give it back! Just because I use the myth of Sisyphus and the big bad rock to indicate how my story is a near-universal one of the grad school experience, doesn't mean I want other people horning in on my shtick. This chica's in history, too, so I want to note that said person is not me. Humpf.

There's something about first-person columns at the Chronicle though that make me completely unsympathetic, despite the fact that I am in the same situation and I write this blog at least partly to make the structural nature of academia visible. What are you doing with all that credit card debt and a kid, lady? How did you make it all the way through school without realizing you were in a shitbag situation sooner? You married a fellow history grad and expected that both of you would become employed? Hey, graduating with a PhD while pushing 30 is nothing, what about meeeeeee wah wah wah?

That said, I did totally empathize with this section:
Now I just have to decide how long I intend to push this boulder up the hill, and when enough will be enough. The last thing I want to do is drag my family down with me, but at the same time, I hate the thought of giving up and calling it quits. Like it or not, my pride, my sense of self-worth, even my sanity, are wrapped up in the seemingly fruitless academic job search. Will Sisyphus ever learn his lesson? Will I?
Yeah, other people have quarreled over whether academia is special and distinct from other professional-managerial-class jobs in terms of how all-encompassing it is and how much your entire idenity gets wrapped up in it ---- I think it does, particularly in the humanities where you may be researching something that is close to your personal identity ---- but I'm coming to the realization that quitting this profession is as much a process as remaining in it is. Just as you must periodically rededicate yourself to your research and the profession ---- the real point, I think, of conferences and visiting speakers, where getting re-energized by the contact with other scholars is as if not more important than actually presenting your work ---- quitting academia is a daily goal, a resolution which must be reinforced constantly in order to move full speed ahead.

Otherwise, you end up resolving to leave and then resolving to stay, sending out a half-assed app here and there or kinda taking up an outside job and kinda still working on an article and scanning the job list, or planning to quit and then going to, for example, workshops on book publishing, which then leave you even more torn and conflicted. It's like how they say a huge amount of effort goes into turning a battleship; if that effort isn't in a consistent direction the ship ends up going nowhere. It may look stagnant, but in fact there is a turmoil of energy, whamming first in this direction and then in that, producing no movement, only exhaustion.

All of which is to say, I'm tired and hate doing the CC job apps even more than those for 4 year schools, but that watching people I know lose their jobs left and right and get paid in CA scrip rather than money has made me feel that I have nothing to complain about. In just a few short years we have gone from me being totally unable to explain the academic job market to friends because it is so competitive and alien to everyone being able to get exactly what I am talking about but not recognize that academia has always been this way. Back at my cousin's wedding, his relatives were all looking at me like I was a freak for having such a hard time getting a job; surely something is wrong with me or I don't know how to apply to stuff, right? To now, I am sure they would tell me that they know exactly what I am talking about because times are hard and everybody knows somebody who's been laid off. Which is yes and no. There are still problems specific to academia, but it's nice to know that people sorta understand. It would be nicer to actually get a job instead, but, whatever.

I'm still not really ready to throw in the towel, though I am very tired and in some ways feeling totally disconnected, out of the loop on my field and my research already. On the other hand, I keep reading stuff that plainly indicates this was the good year of the recession here in academia; all that shit we saw with the jobs getting cancelled this year was the leading edge of the storm and it's going to take a lot longer and slower to pass through academia than through the business world. There's an ever-cheerful New York Times article here that maps out the various hiring freezes and tough job markets across the disciplines, including these cheerful paragraphs:

“It’s been obvious for some time — witness the unionization movement — that graduate students are caught between the old model of apprentice scholars and the new reality of insecure laborers with uncertain employment prospects,” Mr. Delbanco said. “Among the effects of the financial crisis will clearly be shrinkage both in graduate fellowships and in entry-level academic positions, so the prospects for aspiring Ph.D.’s are getting even bleaker.”


What’s more, nearly half of all the positions are part time — with no job security and no benefits — a situation that many educators expect to worsen.

And over on the Chronicle boards someone has started compiling a list of what various universities are doing to handle their budget cuts. This one is the one you really want to read. I'm serious ---- of any of the links here, that one is the most important. In direct contrast to what profs in my department are advising --- "just wait, the VAP market will be especially good this year," the posters on that list overwhelmingly state that they will not be using VAPs to fill frozen tenure lines or sabbatical replacements, and they just simply aren't going to hire adjuncts next year. Instead, they are being pushed to raise student caps on faculty classes or even remake the teaching loads for faculty. Some of them are going to fire all their tt faculty at their 3rd year review, others will get around the tenure rules by folding departments or combining them, and then firing tenured profs. It will be harder for students to get into their classes because schools simply will not offer them rather than hire adjuncts. This is pretty on par with what I've heard when I go asking around here to the various departments I sent proposed courses to last year ---- and even though our local CC cut all its new faculty lines this year, they say they are not planning on hiring any additional adjuncts to make up the slack (though people who are already adjuncting for them will probably still be able to get something). Thing is, if the CCs won't hire me because I don't have experience adjuncting for one of them, which they might very well think, I have no clue how to get my foot in these days.

Sigh. Cheerful, no? And yet I am still in the magical land of delusion where somehow it will all work out right for me and I will get a tenure track offer for somewhere delicious any day now. Somehow the fact that it was a shitty year all around has managed to convince me, at least partly, that since my failure on the market this year had nothing to do with my qualifications, therefore I could get a job if I just wait and try it one more year. But then I look at these budgets and predictions and think that that way lies madness. (Of course, if ignorance is bliss, then maybe complete psychosis would be pretty fun too?)

My department ---- and at least a couple other departments I know of ---- has straight-up told its grad students not to graduate this year and to wait it out to apply until next year. I guess the thinking is that someone who graduates during this "low patch" just won't ever get hired as his/her PhD gets slowly staler and staler (thanks guys! way to help me out with the timely advice!). But it has also promised them that they will not be getting any teaching funding from the department, while at the same time breezily noting that they can apply for "all those TAships in other departments," to which I raise an eyebrow, for if sociology and history are refusing to let their grads graduate as well, competition for the TAships in our programs without grad students is going to be fierce. I've already had several people from a better-funded field stop me in the halls and tell me that, now that their gravy train is drying up, they are going to apply out to some of the same programs where I worked. Hmm. I don't know about that. The history people have a better lock in the art history program than we do, and sociology has a better fit with the ethnic studies department. And if your dissertation isn't on film or legal studies or environmental globalism, then how competitive are you really for those programs? When I TA'd outside the department, some of our science departments were so flush that none of their grad students TAd. Ever. And anybody who could do quantitative stuff was desperately needed for the sci classes, so I could be slotted in to any general studies course that involved making the students do the reading and then talk about it rather than stats. Now, I'd think that the flow is going the other way, and no one's going to be offering someone in the English department a spot TAing beginning environmentalism or intro to poly sci any more.

Which all means that it's pretty sure I need to move somewhere else if I plan to eke out some adjuncting next year. Somewhere that doesn't have its own pool of desperate grad students tied down to the region. But where, and how to make the jump off into the unknown? For my last depressing link of this post, I could link to that Time magazine article all about middle aged people moving back in with their parents. But I don't want to have to think about the absolute bottom yet.


Phul Devi said...

I don't really know what to say, except that I'm sorry it has to suck so much.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that leaving academia is as much a process as staying in. I think a huge reason why I went to law school was that I knew that if I didn't make such a dramatic break - if I tried, say, to make money at writing, whether freelance or grantwriting or tech or whatever, or if I tried to carve out an administrative path - I wouldn't *really* leave. And I really needed to LEAVE, not just pretend I was. (I mean, as it is, I check out the job list, "just to see what's going on!")

Which may sound like I'm suggesting going to law school...which isn't the case! Just that I know what you mean.

And you mentioned moving - I think that it is easier to find adjunct work in a place where you live, rather than trying to come in from outside. Which isn't especially encouraging. (There was an interesting graphic in the NYT showing where the recession was hitting hardest - might be worth looking at?)

The point about what depts. are doing is important, too - another blogger just recently found out that her 4-4 load is going to a 5-5 next year, and all adjunct lines (including her husband's) have been cut.

This is, like, the most unencouraging comment ever. I'm sorry. Much sympathy to you in getting through it all.

k8 said...

Yeah, it's been a rough year for me, too, and I'm in an area that typically gets jobs. I haven't, thus far.

I've already decided that at the end of the semester, when my dissertation is done, I will go ahead and apply for non-academic jobs if I don't have a faculty position yet. I'd rather have a salary I can live on and maybe teach 1 class a semester as an adjunct (if possible) than try to scramble around getting bits and pieces of very little. It's incredibly frustrating and there will just be more people on the market next year. I just don't know what else to do.

Dr. Crazy said...

Sending a huge hug your way, and hoping that good things happen for you. Everything really does suck right now for new PhDs, even more than it would have sucked in "good" times. I suppose the silver lining here is that you KNOW it's not about you (you do know that, right? because YOU are great and your work is INTERESTING) but I can't imagine that's much comfort. Sigh.

Bardiac said...


I'm so overwhelmed with the local economic catastrophe, that I can't quite even understand the bigger ones. I'm sorry. My fingers are crossed for you.

emarsh said...

What is there to say? It's been bad for a long time, and now it's worse. You get to a point, though, where you're close enough not to quit, out of pride or momentum or masochism. One problem with quitting academia is what you've missed while toiling away at a dissertation, in terms of job experience. Where is the point of entry for a recent Ph.D. or ABD grad student in the "real world"? It is quite frustrating and enervating.

* said...

What a thoughtful post! Have to say that I was taken aback by the news that grad students might not want to finish right's such a hard position to be in (underpaid, overworked, etc.) to begin with. I wonder if it wouldn't be better to graduate, then start work on a book or project, so that applying next time around, one would have a visible research agenda? Everyone knows that the market is horrid right now, so does it seem logical that hiring committees would hold it against anyone in the future (i.e. a "stale" degree)? In any case, I'm sorry that you are going through such a difficult time. Hugs.

Shane in SLC said...

Ink: Thinking back to my own ABD days, another problem with defending the dissertation without a job in hand (aside from the perception that one grows more stale the longer one spends outside formal academic employment) is that as soon as you graduate, the grace period countdown on the student loans begins. It's hard to just focus on turning the diss into a book when you have to start making (in my case) massive loan payments...

Sisyphus said...

Thanks peeps! I just like getting comments on my posts; it doesn't matter whether they have useful (or depressing) advice in them. : ) They cheer me up anyway just because they're there.

And thanks for reminding me of my impending massive student loans, Shane in Utah! Thanks, thanks. The problem with staying in, though, is that you're tempted to just keep taking out more money to make up for the low TA pay.

* said...

The whole situation just seems so unfair, no matter which way you look at it. Wishing you well, Sisyphus!

Anonymous said...

I am wishing you well, too, and sending lots of good thoughts.

r. r. vlorbik said...

thanks for this outstanding post.
(and sorry for intruding on your schtick:

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