That Shocking Time of Year

Teresa Mangum considers the options when you've reached the end of May, and you don't have a good offer.

June 3, 2009

Every year at about this time I find myself humming, “It’s May; it’s May,” a song from the musical Camelot. This year I took a closer look at the lyrics. I had missed the second half of a couplet mid-song: “The month of great dismay.” For the many people on the job market who are still in limbo, that line has probably become a too-familiar refrain. Now that you’ve reached May without a job, what are your options?

A few candidates will still be hired. Colleagues on search committees at two different colleges mentioned lately that though their searches seemed doomed in February, they are now being revived. In addition, some departments will hire temporary staff at the last minute. Their deans will scrape together funds to cover courses intended for the faculty members they would have hired if budgets hadn’t been unexpectedly cut.

If you don’t have a job yet, what can you do? If you are offered a temporary position, will you take it? Should you take it?

Temporary positions range from perfectly respectable to absolutely indecent. The nomenclature is bewildering and meaningful only in local contexts. A position might be labeled adjunct X, temporary X, or visiting X while the X might stand in for instructor, lecturer, professor, or staff, among other options. Don’t assume “visiting professor” trumps “lecturer” either. Sometimes a department can offer a three-year renewable lectureship while a visiting assistant professorship is limited to a one-year term. The emphatic redundancy of titles can be painfully revealing. “Part-time Temporary Adjunct Lecturer” kind of says it all.

In the best case, a department will offer a full-time position with a living wage, benefits, and a reasonable teaching load -- although reasonable is unlikely to mean two courses per term. Temporary employees are usually hired solely to teach. That means a department has little incentive to support their research. The rare department provides minimal support for professional development, usually travel funds to help you attend a conference or two. However, given that colleges and universities are now cutting travel budgets even for tenured faculty, all of those small but morale-boosting funds may disappear. You probably will not be asked to attend meetings or serve on committees. Not having service obligations saves time, and you’ll need to cash in every extra minute. On the other hand, you are also excluded from governance and decision-making, which is a large price to pay.

Anyone considering a short-term position should gauge just how temporary it is. Moving and even commuting are expensive and stressful. A position that is guaranteed for two to three years offers short-term security, the opportunity to get to know colleagues well enough to request letters of recommendation, and time to look for a permanent position. If the teaching preparation and grading are not overwhelming, you can use the extra year or two to turn dissertation chapters or languishing conference papers into articles. With each publication, you will be moving forward rather than spinning your wheels.

Unfortunately, temporary positions are more likely to be swamps than speedways. In too many cases, “temporary” translates into $2,000 or less per course and no commitment to you. No benefits. No future. Now, there are moments in one’s life when teaching that course might look like the best option (or the only option). What if you need one more year to finish your dissertation and you’re out of aid? In that case, piecing together several courses might be the best way to accomplish a goal that’s within your reach. (As my last column suggests, I would do whatever I could to avoid going into debt.)

Just remember that for temporary teaching to serve you well even in the short term, you’ll need to be a very disciplined writer. Graduate school doesn’t train students to work efficiently. To finish a project under these conditions, you’ll have to train yourself to read a crucial article here and write two pages there in short, steady work periods throughout the day — even if it is a day when you are meeting two or three classes. The good news is that this kind of research and writing practice will be ideal preparation if you want to be a publishing scholar as well as a scholar-teacher.

But what if you don’t get a job next year or the next? For those of us who have to work to support ourselves, most temporary positions should only ever be just that. If I found myself mired in devalued, virtually unpaid, constantly fluctuating teaching positions, I would be ready to take risks and make changes.

If you come to that decision, what you can do?

In my department, we’ve begun mulling over that question. This spring the graduate director and I decided to invite a professional from the university placement center to our “preview of coming placement season” meeting. After I described the academic job search, I turned the floor over to him. As he nervously passed around a handout that matched the training humanities graduate students receive with the “skills” required for non-academic positions, the students shrank into their seats. I quietly berated myself for not preparing students better for his visit. What I floated as Plan B for Bouncing Back deflated, on the students’ horizon, into Plan F for Failure.

For most of us, the prospect of giving up a long sought career would be wrenching, frightening, and, worst of all, humiliating. Such are the lessons faculty teach graduate students and assistant professors, however inadvertently. But is scraping by with random courses, work that probably ends up averaging less than minimum wage if you count all the hours involved, more rewarding than retreat? More of a “success”? I don’t think so.

I wish with all my heart that everyone could find rewarding and secure positions. However, higher education is working against us. A recent Inside Higher Ed article discussed the findings of a new American Federation of Teachers study, "American Academic: The State of the Higher Education Workforce 1997-2007."

According to the report, tenured and tenure-track positions now make up fewer than half of all teaching positions at every type of institution, from community colleges to private liberal arts colleges. When all institutions are averaged together, tenure-track positions comprise just over a quarter of all teaching positions. A quarter. If I were on the job market right now, I would dig into Plan A, but with one in four odds, I would also be laying the ground work for Plan B.

Want to sneak a peek at Plan B? To do so, you’ll join what I’ve come to think of as an academic underground. Mark Johnson’s site Sellout: A resource for PhDs considering careers beyond the university captures the edgy anxiety many feel at the mere prospect of looking beyond academic borders. The comparatively sober Chronicle of Higher Education collects quirky, often informative articles and postings onto a page titled “Nonacademic Careers for Ph.D’s.” One especially helpful article on this site is Gabriela Montell’s 2001 piece “Where to Find Information on Nonacademic Careers.” Montell provides a wide-ranging list of sources organized by discipline. The occasional “Career Talk” columns that Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong write for The Chronicle are packed with concrete ideas and examples. A recent article, “Switching Sides,” includes interviews with four Ph.D.s who are working in advising. By the way, these sites frequently recommend Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius’ So What Are You Going to Do With That? A Guide for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s Seeking Careers Outside the Academy (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2001). I’m also delighted to report that Inside Higher Ed is about to welcome a new columnist, Sabine Hikel, who authors an excellent blog, Leaving Academia.

The underground extends across the Internet. Alexandra Lord and Julie Taddeo have created a smart site called Beyond Academe. Though it is written by and for historians, the tools and resources are useful for those in other humanities fields as well. Another site, Mathematical Sciences Career Information: Project for Nonacademic Employment, serves scientists interested in government or private sector careers. These sites and many others impress me because they provide road maps for the emotional, psychological journey I’d have to travel to change careers along with practical advice, nuts and bolts information and answers, and inspiring examples of academics who have safely arrived at new destinations.

One forum I’ve found especially intriguing is an e-mail listserv founded by Paula Foster Chambers and supported by several groups at Duke University, including the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. Work4Us is a collegial, informative, on-going discussion for humanities, education, and social science scholars. Entries range from appeals for reassurance to shrewd advice and all in between. Periodically the list hosts “Guest Speaker Discussions” with the real experts — scholars who have settled into nonacademic careers.

The personal is also, in this case, professional. Two of my friends from graduate school changed course when academic careers didn’t work out for them. After a couple of rough transitional years, both landed good jobs, one in educational testing and the other in nonprofit grants writing. They live in splendid cities and work with smart colleagues. They research, analyze, and write about complex issues. They know that many people benefit from the work they do. And they are the same intelligent, curious, culturally voracious, witty people as they were in graduate school.

If you are feeling discouraged by the declining academic job market, give Plan B a chance. The tune that haunts me each spring takes a giddy turn from dismay to daring. May, wrote lyricist Frederick Loewe, is also “That shocking time of year/ When tons of wicked little thoughts/ Merrily appear.” If the job market has repeatedly ended in disappointment, consider your alternatives. Instead of worrying about what your graduate mentors or your colleagues might say, take a risk. Apply above ground, but visit the underground. There are infinite ways to be miserable, but don’t let anyone convince you that there is only one way to be happy.


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