A fortunate few people out there have lately received calls from prospective employers, deans or department chairs, offering tenure-track jobs. Congratulations, fortunate few. In this historically bad year for academic jobs, your success is particularly noteworthy. You’re either very good, very lucky, or some combination of the two. And if the past is prelude, you also might be a bit miserable.
It’s that misery I want to talk about, if you’ll bear with me. One of the dirty secrets of the academic job market is how much it can suck to land a position. Mind you, it doesn’t suck nearly as much as not getting offered a job. Unemployment is a really bad thing; a paycheck, by contrast, is a good thing. Still, it can suck a lot.
What am I talking about? Well, precious few people, even in times of plenty, are offered jobs they really want, at least not straight out of graduate school. This means they’ll have to move to a place they don’t want to move. Or they’ll have to work at an institution that bears little resemblance to the temple of knowledge they associate with higher education. Because, after all, few people get jobs at schools like the ones where they received their BAs or PhDs. The conditions of employment, in other words, aren’t great in most instances: perhaps too much teaching, sometimes in fields distant from one’s area of expertise; perhaps low pay, sometimes not enough to buy a house or cover the cost of living in one’s new hometown; perhaps a grim work environment, sometimes peopled by unruly colleagues, hostile administrators, and intellectually indifferent students. And finally, the realization that this is it, that this is what all the fuss was about.
It’s that last point that can be most painful. We literally spend years pointing toward the job market. Sure, there are admirable freaks in our midst: scholars who are all about the work, who focus entirely on the intellectual endeavor rather than the relatively crass process of securing employment. But most of us, starting some time in the third week of our first year in a PhD program, began thinking about getting a job. Sometimes we were optimistic, fantasizing about landing the perfect position. Sometimes we found ourselves despairing of ever finding work at all.
Then, after all that time and energy, for those of us lucky enough finally to be offered a job, the experience can be disheartening. A sense of anti-climax: “My goodness, this is it. All that work, and what do I have to show for it? A job. A job in a field I want, to be sure, but still…a job. Nothing more, nothing less. And very likely not even the job I really want. Which means I have to get back on the roller coaster right away.” It can be hard. Again, not as hard as not getting a job. And likely not as hard as getting a job in a variety of other fields. But still, hard.
Especially hard, I think, because there’s not much support for people who find themselves in this situation. Advisers and peers typically expect successful job candidates to celebrate. It can be unsettling, then, to find oneself somber, or at least a bit wistful, in what one’s culture dictates should be a moment of triumph. (Equally unsettling, I imagine, is the case of peers and advisers who don’t think celebration is warranted: “Oh, um, congratulations. I wondered who got that job.” Subtext: “I’m sorry you didn’t get a real job at a major research university.”)
Now here’s where, if this were a better post, I’d provide some strategies for dealing with the issues I’ve outlined above. Unfortunately, I’m short on strategies. Except for this: know that you’re not alone. There are other people out there in the same boat, people who realize that the economy is horrible, that the academic job market is an unmitigated disaster, and that they’re lucky, consequently, to have found work at all. And yet, these same people wish they felt happier, felt more like celebrating. Admittedly, that’s not much. So there’s this, too: some people ultimately find that a job turns out better than anticipated. Hostile environs sometimes hide delightful landscapes. Good friends sometimes lurk amidst scores of eccentric colleagues. And eager mentees sometimes rise above crowds of indifferent students.
Still, in the end, it really is just a job. A great job, but a job nevertheless. And maybe that’s not a bad lesson to learn sooner rather than later — even if it hurts.