This post is based off of a podcast series that Dr. Julia Daniel did for the Baylor Graduate School back in early 2021. This first post will cover the historic and economic reasons for the state of the academic job market and what applying for an academic job actually entails in a post-COVID world. Next week’s post will address some of the mental stumbling blocks that we must overcome to even allow ourselves to consider Alt Ac careers, offer some brainstorming exercises, and discuss what some of your options are. Dr. Daniel is an Associate Professor of English, specializing in Modern American poetry, 20th-century drama, environmental humanities, and urban studies. She has a boundless love of all things T.S. Eliot.

***If the subject of alt-ac interests you, please register here for our kick-off Graduate Pathways to Success (GPS) Workshop on September 14th, 2022. We’ll hear from a group of cross-disciplinary panelists talk about the opportunities for graduate students beyond the walls of the academy.***

Greetings, cool kids. If you are reading this, I am assuming that you are someone who is working on a PhD in some field of the humanities or maybe you’re working on an MA and you’re trying to think through, you know, should I go for the PhD? Is it worth it? The answer to that question is: it depends.

This is just a broad discussion about what does the academic job market look like? What does that mean for you, envisioning your best, most beautiful, radiant, flourishing life? Because guys, we are going to talk about a lot of a lot of not-great stuff. There’s a lot of bleak and I’m going to foreground the bleak.

But the goal here is for each and every one of you to lead a life where you feel nourished and where you flourish. To lead a life where you are taking care of yourself, you feel comfortable taking care of the people you care about, and where, ideally, you enjoy what it is that you do. So in this episode, I want to talk about the state of the job market. If you’re like, lady, I don’t need to hear it – I already know it’s garbage, my heart is already broken. I am ready to like move on and talk about what do I do now?, Awesome. Don’t read this post; wait for the next one. The next post is going to be specifically about how do you do a reassessment: if you are going to start actively working towards non-ivory tower jobs, how do you start imagining that?

But in this post, I’m going to be talking about the state of the job market. But I’m also gonna be talking a little bit about like, if you are one of the lucky 2% (yes, that is correct, 2%) of job candidates who lands a tenure track job what does that actually look like? And maybe it’s not the job that you want, once I tell you what it looks like. It’s a weird fact that being in graduate school, in many ways, doesn’t give you a great vision of what the actual labor of the academic professor is and what it looks like. So I’m going to talk a little bit about that.

I will give away my thesis right here at the beginning. And my thesis is this: getting an academic job should be your Plan B. Your Plan A should be to land a wonderful fun, good paying field-adjacent job. I’m not saying you’ve got to give it up forever. Is somebody somewhere still going to hire a historian or a modernist? Sure. Yeah, I think so. I hope so. You can still absolutely be working toward that. But it should absolutely not be your first go-to in terms of imagining a job. So then the question becomes this: it sounds like you’re telling me then that I’m kind of like actively training myself and developing my portfolio for two different jobs at the same time – or three or four? And the answer to that is, Yep, that is what I am telling you to do. Let’s talk a little bit about the academic job market, shall we?

If you’re here, you already know that it’s bad. We’ve been saying that the job market is bad since the dawn of time. But every year the statement becomes increasingly more true. A little bit about my experience. I went to grad school a long time ago. I had done an undergraduate, I got my BA, I did a two year gap period where I was teaching humanities classes in a women’s homeless shelter; it was awesome. I loved it. Then I got my MA/PhD combined at Loyola University; it took me six years. Then I had a PostDoc, so I did the job market that year, gotten nothing but landed the PostDoc at Loyola. I had the PostDoc at Loyola for a year, then did the job market again. I landed a job at West Virginia University, worked at West Virginia University for two years, and I realized that my salary was literally not going to be enough to feed my family. Again, realized this might not be the job that I wanted, did the job market again, and then landed my amazing job here at Baylor and I’ve been here for eight years. So I’ve done the job market three times. I’ve been working with PhD students and candidates ever since on their own job searches. So that’s kind of the experience that I am bringing with me.

I’m also just personally sort of interested in thinking through what does a PhD path of study look like if we’re trying to reimagine it so that our students can pivot and be more versatile? If I could recommend some books that have influenced my thinking on this stuff, the first one that I would recommend is Leaving Academia by Christopher Caterine (2020). It is some tough medicine. So it is an unflinching look at the state of higher education and the job market. Caterine has a PhD in classics from UVA and worked at Tulane for a while before leaving for a corporate gig and writes a lot about that process and the book is fairly recent. I also really liked Going Alt-Ac: A Guide to Alternative Academic Careers by Kathryn Linder. That one is written in a slightly friendlier tone. But I think both of these are great places to start. If you guys know the website The Professor Is In, it has lots of great advice for doing the academic job market but also has pretty good blog posts on thinking through life outside of Higher Ed. I would highly recommend it to anybody out there.

Here we go: Let’s talk about how bad it is. Are you ready? Let’s stop and take a sip of tea. I’m gonna take a sip of my tea first.

When I went on the job market a million years ago (12 years ago), everybody was already promoting the state of the job market. I went into my PhD not really having a great sense of the fact that I was entering into a job market. I felt like I was entering into a field of research, that I was a teacher, that I love teaching, that I was an academic. I thought was joining a conversation. I had zero sense of what that looked like in terms of getting work. But I had been in college and my professors had jobs. And I know that there were colleges and other places in the world. So you know, there must be work out there.
So I kind of went into it pretty blind. I was very fortunate to go to Loyola, where they did a ton of academic job training for us. And pretty quickly, I learned that the job market was very bad. By the end of my time at Loyola, I had been working, teaching English, ELL English for a community of largely Somali refugees in my neighborhood in Chicago. And so I had been thinking about I also had some editorial experience. I was like, maybe I could go into publishing? Maybe I could teach high school? Maybe I want to get a certification and teach ELL?

And then I landed the postdoc. But I was already thinking in terms of needing to make some decisions at some point that were not being an English professor, though I came into that sort of late. I also had the benefit of my partner having a job. My husband and I got married when I was in graduate school. And he was teaching at a Catholic High School in the area. And between that and my postdoc, we were paying our bills. We weren’t living high on the hog, but we’re totally covering our bills. So I was also fortunate in the respect that I didn’t feel the extraordinary urgency of: oh my gosh, I might not be able to eat in three months. And plenty of people find themselves in that position.

My friends, unfortunately, that was a decade ago, but Christopher Caterine’s book came out in 2020. Caterine is pulling from new, updated data on the job market. Katherine’s research says that only about 4% of people who go on the job market with a PhD in the humanities are going to land full time work with benefits, that is 4%. And I will tell you that in the world of COVID, I think we can easily assume that that percentage is down to one.

And you’re thinking, oh, but like, you know, but maybe the rest of them are dumb. Like maybe I’m really good and the rest of them are kind of not great. This is the hope, right? We retain the sense of a meritocracy. But I can tell you as somebody who’s been on hiring committees, 50% of the people out there are easily in the exceptional category. Landing that job in the top 1%, in some ways, is a marker of your excellence because you have to be really good to be there. But at the same time, it isn’t; because there are thousands upon thousands of brilliant, talented scholars who have done amazing projects that are languishing jobless right now. That number isn’t about you. It isn’t about how hard you’ve worked, which I say to give you some solace in this, I hope. It’s about a job market.

If you’re interested in why these numbers are as they are, here is the world’s shortest, briefest gap-iest back story. Back in the day when the GI bill was introduced, there’s a huge boom in the public going to college. In the 60s to 80s, the college-going population skyrocketed and universities expanded to meet demand pretty quickly. However, as we get into the 90s and here we are into the second decade of the 2000s, there is a kind of contraction that is happening, in the humanities in particular, in that most undergraduate students are now realizing like it is very expensive to go to college. The cost of college has absolutely skyrocketed for them. And increasingly, the college degree is the ticket for a job. So you have to sell mom and dad on how this degree is a ticket for a job to explain why you are going into this debt or why they should shovel out tuition costs. We start to see colleges and universities expanding programs that are specifically targeted towards getting jobs; business schools absolutely explode, for example.

Now at the same time, though, there’s a lag, where PhD programs are still motoring along, producing volumes of PhD students for a market a hasn’t existed for decade or two. (Think about that, too: have mercy on us, your professors. Our memory of the market is when we went on the market. In many ways your PhD advisors train you the way they were trained by people who were even farther away from the current market, and you really need to make a big effort to be interested in the sort of job landscape for PhDs as a professor in order to keep up what’s going on with what’s going on.) So people are cranking out these PhDs and slowly, slowly, slowly, we have fewer and fewer Humanities majors, and universities need fewer and fewer people to fill those spots. Correspondingly, universities are also thinking, Hey, why am I spending all this money hiring tenure track positions? I can totally exploit adjunct labor, pay them like $2,000 a class get their labor on the cheap and not have to pay benefits. It’s an absolutely horrific and exploitative process. Every year in The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, there are articles written about adjuncts who have been working at three different institutions living in their cars because they can’t pay rent, or dying alone in their studio apartments because they couldn’t afford insulin. So let me stress this: this is real stuff, and it’s incredibly tragic. And one of the reasons that universities can do this is, again, there’s a glut of qualified PhDs. So they can be super picky about who they want for their increasingly dwindling tenure track positions, and take advantage of this cluttered market where there’s all these frantic PhDs running around just trying to pay the bills.

So that’s some of the reasons why the market is as bad as it is. Now. Let’s fast forward to right now, and then place ourselves in the middle of a historic pandemic. I don’t need to tell you guys how horrific it’s been, and I probably don’t need to tell you how bad it’s been for the job market. Lots of universities have put blocks on hiring. They’ve said we’re not hiring any new people for at least five years. We got to sort out our finances. I mean, we’re worried about keeping the lights on. So no jobs, just everything’s on ice for a while. And a whole bunch of little colleges closed. And that was already happening; small Christian liberal arts universities, the kinds of places we tend to find spots for Baylor students, they actually had started shuttering before COVID, but the pandemic just accelerated this process.

But not just those kinds of institutions. You hear stories now about big state institutions that are, you know, breaking faith with tenure contracts and just firing people. So when you go on the job market, you’re going on the job market not only competing with every single other PhD that’s graduating this year, you’re going every other PhD in the last five to 10 years who didn’t get a job and hasn’t abandoned the job market yet AND you are now going on the market against people who had tenure track jobs, who’ve published books, who’ve been teaching for years, and lost their jobs during COVID. So this is why I say that I think you can easily assume that the job market prospects now are should be closer to 1%. There’s a 1% chance of getting a job and the reality is even worse, right? Because in the humanities, we’re very specialized. So you can go on the job market and see sixteen positions in plain sight, but that university is specifically looking for somebody who does liberation theology with a focus on South American contexts. That’s not you, right? So that kind of specialization makes it even harder for us. The job market by the numbers isn’t really your job market.

So yeah, it’s not great. And now you’re thinking, holy cannoli, Julia, I knew it was bad, but ouch. It’s like really, really exceptionally bad. And that is absolutely true. Receiving a PhD, especially in the humanities, is absolutely not receiving a promise of a job. Receiving a PhD in the humanities is a mark of your excellence as a scholar. It is an accomplishment unto itself, one that you should be enormously proud of, but you will be setting yourself up for heartbreak if you think that diploma has anything to do with getting a job.

Now, let me talk a little bit about if you do win the lottery, and you got the job right, you got the job. Let’s talk a little bit too about why that might not be the great thing that you think it is. I want to say that I am deeply aware that I am talking from a place of ridiculous privilege. How can I say things like this when I’m sitting in my fancy office with my tweed coat and patches on my elbows because I read books so hard that I tear holes through my elbow spot on my jacket? I work and teach everyday with an acute awareness that like I might be in the company of one of the last real generations of stable humanities professors. Let me tell you a little bit what I mean by that. One of the things that crunched the job market is that along with a general devaluing of the humanities, as colleges appeal more to “marketable” degrees for students in response to student demand, there evolved a conglomeration of humanities departments. Here at Baylor we an English department, a history department, a philosophy department, a classics department, all as distinct houses. This reality is swiftly receding into our rearview mirror.

Many universities are restructuring these separate departments into one humanities department. And the reason that they can do that is your tenure. Tenure is protection, right? It’s the it’s one of the reasons this job is so appealing. You go through six years of hazing, and if you pass it, you publish your book and your articles and everybody’s happy with you. You have a job forever, right?

No, you don’t. Most tenure contracts state that you can be “terminated for cause,” so like, if you punch a student in the face. Don’t do that. But also for restructuring. So lots of universities restructured humanities departments into one department as a way to fire a whole bunch of faculty, and all of a sudden, you are one English professor teaching all the English classes for your entire university, and you wake up every day and thank Jesus that you have a job because six of your colleagues got fired in the reorganization. I think that that is increasingly the kind of thing that is going to be happening as we move into this brave new world of the post COVID university.

But beyond this, why else should you maybe not want a tenure track job? What is the work actually like? The job itself, the job itself might also not be what you think it is. The pay varies greatly. And this is the thing we don’t talk about, right? But if you look at our paycheck, I guarantee you that a master electrician is making double what most English professors are making, easily. If you manage to be in that 1% that lands a job, you can expect to be teaching a four-four load, have a pretty heavy service obligation to your department, and if you’re clearing $55k in your first year, you are you are winning. And if that sounds a little ridiculous, it sure is. Especially if you think about some of the places that have lots of universities are big cities, which are great because they’re cool places to live and there’s like lots of cultural amenities and it’s amazing, but those are expensive places to live. There’s not a lot of wiggle in salary. Why? Because remember, if you don’t want that junky salary, somebody else will, because there’s 300 other people applying for the same position. If you are a human who you know needs shelter and food and transportation and medical care, it is totally reasonable and fair and just and prudent to stop and ask yourself: am I willing to do this? Can I live on $47,000 a year out in a field in Ohio next to a university?

And that’s another thing to think about is portability. If you want to land that 1% chance of getting a job, you absolutely have to be willing to move. Absolutely non-negotiable. In some ways, this profession is kind of like working in the military: you go where you’re stationed. So if you know that your mother has a lot of health issues, and you need to live close by to her, this is not a profession for you. Or maybe you have autoimmune issues that are really exacerbated by the cold, and you can’t work anywhere above the Mason Dixon Line without being an incredible pain? I don’t want that for you. As I said, I want you to flourish. If you’re somebody who has a partner, can your partner do it? How far are you willing to be away from family? It is okay to say no.

So this is the good news guys. There has a huge stigma about considering alternatives to academic careers, in my experience. Hopefully this is not your experience. But in my experience as a grad student, I was embarrassed to talk to anyone about the fact that I was thinking of getting out of the game. I certainly didn’t want to talk about it to my dissertation director. I don’t know. I felt shame about it. Feel no shame. Feel no shame. You are a sentient pillar of stardust with this one gorgeous life gifted to you, and your priority needs to be thinking about what are you doing with it? How can you be happy, healthy and living your vocation in the world? And whatever the answer to that question is, you should feel very comfortable in boldly and fully thinking through the answers to that question.

So stick with me: all the like really great, awesome stuff is going to be in the next post. Please hang in there. But I want you to end for today with this: there are so many wonderful ways for you to be moving through the world. Provide for yourself and the people you care about in a way that is sustainable or life giving. To start imagining some of that can be really daunting.

I also want to say that it’s okay to give yourself room to mourn, because if you got if you’re in a PhD program right now and got into it because you wanted the jacket with patches on the elbows or because you had the wonderful experience of being taught by someone fabulous, or because you’re energized about debates in your particular field, you need to make yourself have a moment to mourn for the fact that that is not really a thing anymore. And the sooner that you can grieve about it and feel mad about it and like walk through that storm of loss – because it is it is a real sense of loss – the sooner that you can do that, the more you’ll be on the other side of it and take a breath, wash your face, take a breath, stretch out and really begin your new discernment process. And as I said before, I don’t think that this new discernment process means entirely giving up on the hope of academia. And we’ll talk more about the technical ways you can do that in next week’s post.