• July 30, 2014

The Odds Are Never in Your Favor

Why the academic job market is like the Hunger Games

The Odds Are Never in Your Favor 1

Murray Close, Lionsgate, Photofest

The prospects of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in "The Hunger Games" might be seen as a life-and-death analogue of the academic job market.

If you're on the faculty job market, or will be soon, you may find yourself explaining the real possibility of failure to well-meaning family and friends.

Doctoral students are usually type-A overachievers, and so your loved ones have faith that you'll come out OK because, well, you always have.

But the academic job market is a process that necessitates failure. Your application materials will end up in the slush pile at dozens of departments, regardless of how well suited you are for the position or how carefully you tailor your materials. Outstanding candidates can easily fail to find a position. And that's why, when I can't quite convey that grim reality, I tell my family and friends that if they want to know what the job market is like for Ph.D.'s, they should read (or watch) The Hunger Games.  

Whether you see yourself on the job market as Katniss Everdeen (plucky heroine), Peeta Mellark (sensitive but somewhat clueless), or Cato (ruthless killing machine), only you can say.

The odds are never in your favor. I recently asked a successful job candidate—hired as an assistant professor at a very good college—what he viewed as a good application-response rate. That is, how many interviews should you get in relation to the number of applications you submit? He said, calmly, "Talking with other graduate students, I'd say somewhere in the neighborhood of one in 20 to one in 30."

Those are your odds of even getting to the interview stage. That's not an official statistic, but official statistics don't exist for this sort of thing. The odds of surviving the Hunger Games? One in 24.

Haymitch Abernathy and your Ph.D. adviser have been there, done that. Your adviser in this process—much like Haymitch, who is Katniss and Peeta's guide in The Hunger Games—is someone who has already succeeded at what you're about to do: get an academic appointment (job hunt) or avoid being murdered on live television (Hunger Games). They should, therefore, be ideally placed to help you.

But in both cases, the crucial problem is this: They've already gotten a job/survived. Sure, they'd like to see you employed/alive, but there will always be more students/tributes. In fact, there are so many that it's hard to care about any one in particular.

This has not been true in my case—my adviser is a stellar human being—but I'm also lucky enough to be in a department with a good placement rate. If I were in The Hunger Games universe, I would be from, say, District 4, not from District 12 (the most impoverished district, where Katniss and Peeta lived).

It's all about appearances, but it really isn't. Katniss gets important help in her quest to survive the games from her stylist, Cinna, and her PR rep/agent, Effie Trinket. They help District 12 tributes Katniss and Peeta attract sponsors with insider connections and flashy (quite literally) clothes. But clothes don't do anyone any good in the arena.

Likewise, on the job market, you'll get practical, wonderful advice and then, perplexingly, extensive advice on what to wear. Kathryn Hume, author of Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt (surviving!), is right: When you're sitting in a suit, no one should see bare skin between the cuffs of your pants and the tops of your socks. But having watched the hiring process several times at my university, I've learned that the candidates' fates didn't seem at all determined by their wardrobes. Ill-fitting suits and smart outfits didn't seem to count either way.

So why is so much ink wasted on fashion tips and warnings? Because the people advising you honestly have no idea what specific conditions you're facing and, absent substantive advice, fall back on "Dress for success!"

The rules change midgame, but never really to your advantage. In the first Hunger Games book, the Gamemakers (they control the arena where the games take place) change the rules midway through to allow for two winners and then, quite abruptly and without warning, change them back.

It's the same on the job market. All the advice I read had me expecting a certain timeline: Application deadlines in early to mid-November, conference interviews in January, campus visits in February, and, if I was lucky, job offers in March. Instead, what I got were phone interviews in early November and campus visits in December.

Many application deadlines were much earlier than November. I applied for 15 jobs with deadlines in October, some as early as the first of the month. Yes, fine, that is not a big problem for candidates who are prepared. But that wasn't what I had been told to expect.

The rules will continue to change, and most certainly not to your advantage as a candidate.

Your colleagues are your allies, then your competitors. A major theme in the first Hunger Games (both the book and the movie) is the question of whether Katniss and Peeta should team up in the arena and, if they do, at what point their alliance will have to end. There is, after all, only one winner.

Graduate students nearing matriculation face the same dilemma. We must work together before and after the job market as colleagues. During, however, harsh choices are often to be made. Should I tell graduate-school friends and colleagues that I'm on the market? Should we exchange strategies? Look at one another's letters? Share inside information? Tough to say.

Of course, the academic job market is not exactly like the Hunger Games. If you lose in the games, at least it's over quickly. The job market, on the other hand, stretches on for months, perhaps years. So when you write that email to your adviser to say you want to go on the market, it might be better just to raise your hand and shout, "I volunteer as tribute!" Better yet, just run off in the woods with Gale.

Atlas Odinshoot is the pseudonym of a doctoral student in the humanities at a research university in the Midwest. He has volunteered as tribute on the academic market this year.

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