Two weeks ago, the National Football League held its annual draft. For a select few, the draft was a time of excitement and expectation, but for many others, it was a time of extreme and profound anxiety. Academe has its own version of the draft complete with scholastic combines, scouting reports, and team visits. Of course in academic speak, these are more familiarly known as conference interviews, letters of recommendation, and campus visits (Team ProfHacker has addressed some of these issues already in the links above). The academic draft lasts for more than a weekend, and unfortunately, even a best-case scenario doesn’t usually involve multi-million dollar contracts, but nevertheless, there are some useful similarities. Namely, such a comparison can help to explain some of the idiosyncrasies of the academic job market to civilians—that is, non-academics. For a host of different reasons, the summer tends to bring with it the questions from well-intentioned family and friends about what the future might hold. Perhaps rephrasing the issue in more familiar terms can help to shed some light on the challenges and difficulties of the market for those who haven’t experienced it themselves.
Before I get ahead of myself, it’s worth pointing out that this analogy has been in circulation for a few years now, and there is even a thread dedicated to it on the CHE Forum. Moreover, there are several other analogies that might be useful here if you are not a football fan. The NBA, NHL, or the PGA might be your vehicle of choice if basketball, hockey, or golf is more your style. Or you might opt for American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, Big Brother, or even Survivor (certainly the show’s motto “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” seems relevant here!). In each case, where sports or reality television, the stakes are high, and there is a kind of pressure-cooker stress-intensifying anxiety that is unlike anything most candidates will have experienced previously. As many of us know, the job market can make even the coolest of cucumbers sweat bullets, and it has a way of eroding the confidence of the most self-possessed candidate.
But I’m interested in the NFL analogy here, not only because I am a football fan myself, but also because this year’s draft had an interesting twist that I’ll get to shortly.
But first, a few key similarities:
There are more players than there are spots. While this is not the case in every discipline, it is a fact of life in many of them. As a result, every year talented people are forced to make very difficult decisions. In the words of the immortal Clash, “Do I stay, or do I go?” Put another way, do they accept visiting or contingent positions (if they have the opportunity), or do they look for employment outside of academe? Or do they try both and hope for options? It isn’t easy to contemplate walking away from a career for which one has trained for 5, 6, or more years. And at the same time, one has to eat, pay rent, and often provide for children.
Players go where they are drafted. It often doesn’t matter where you would like to live, where your family lives, or where your spouse lives. In many fields, if a candidate wants a job, they go where the offer takes them, be it Green Bay, Dallas, or Detroit. I’ve known more than a few people who have ended up in locations that they love, but such an outcome is no guarantee.
Players often get traded. It is increasingly common for academics to change jobs at some point in their careers. In some cases, mobility has been more of an issue in the current economic crisis for many academics, but it is still a possibility. Some faculty apply elsewhere looking for the elusive “better fit” while others face the elimination of positions due to budget cuts and are forced to look for other opportunities.
If your last name happened to be Manning or Tebow, your agent might be able to contact a coach and express interest in playing for the team, otherwise, forget it. In most cases, cold-calling a department of InMyDreams University won’t give a candidate any advantage whatsoever. For many non-academics, this is the part of the market that is most difficult to process.
There is life after football. Or at least, so it seems. Being a professional athlete requires a skill set that isn’t easily or obviously transferrable to a wide range of other vocations. Similarly, a Ph. D. in medieval French monasticism or contemporary American poetry doesn’t seem like it would necessarily prepare one for a career outside of the academy. But appearances can be deceiving. The difficulty is repackaging the degree into the marketable skills which helped you to earn it. The Chronicle has featured several articles on non-academic and alternative academic career paths, some serious; others less so. Those who have pursued such paths have reported that not only are their personally rewarding, but many of them are also financially more rewarding that an academic career. Finding those jobs is another issue.
In a particularly interesting twist this year, one undrafted athlete received a great deal of attention because despite receiving calls from several teams with contract offers, he wanted to pursue his education. Specifically, he wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in history. When I read that, my heart sank. Not because I am opposed to the pursuit of higher education (clearly, that isn’t the case) or because I think that this particular person is unsuited for the degree. I’ve never met this student, so who am I to suggest what he might or might not be capable of achieving. But I have read the essays by Thomas Benton and others about the difficulties of securing full-time employment in the humanities (See “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” for a start), and I could not help but worry while many in the sports media applauded him for choosing his education over football. In fact, in many other scenarios, I myself would applaud an student for choosing their education over other pursuits, be the athletic or artistic or otherwise extracurricular. Of course, if a student plans to make their living as a concert violinist, then she better spend her time in the practice room, but if that same student plans to apply to medical school after college, then at a certain point, the bow must be placed in the case in favor of the pencil (or laptop). Please note, I spent three years as a music major in college, so I’m not at all knocking those who make other choices here.
Ultimately, Scott Sicko decided to sign with the Dallas Cowboys and put his dreams of a graduate degree in history on hold for the time being. At the end of the day, it sounds like he is happy with his decision, and that’s what really matters. The only thing I know for certain is that if he does decide to go back to school at some point, those NFL paychecks (even if they aren’t for millions of dollars) will make life as a graduate student in the humanities a whole lot easier.
But for the rest of us who were not actual NFL prospects, perhaps this analogy might help to explain the difficulties of the profession to those outside of it. How do you explain academia to family and/or friends? Have you found other strategies? Please share your stories and experiences in the comments below.