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Successful and Unemployed

April 9, 2014

In my weakest moments I have broken down emotionally. Like many recently minted Ph.D.s I am witnessing the shattering of my dreams of becoming a full-time college professor by the vagaries of an academic job market destroyed by a fledgling economic system. Balancing the heartache and disappointment with the repeated failure to find gainful academic employment is not easy. How could it be? I have dedicated my whole adult life to this. In the past two years I have sent out hundreds of applications, mostly to small liberal arts institutions, community colleges, and private religious colleges in the hopes of landing a position as a fulltime sociology instructor – somewhere, anywhere.

Reading the recent, moving piece by a struggling new Ph.D. in the humanities, and the conversation that followed, made me want to share my experience. Sadly, in the social sciences, things aren’t much better for many of us. This is my story.

I put a little piece of myself into every job packet. I become acquainted with the curriculum of a department, seeing how I might fit in. I check the publications of faculty members, seeking the potential for collaboration. I try to look up an institution’s student organizations with a mind toward being a faculty sponsor or even starting a new club. I often include a plan specific to a particular school in my C.V. I sometimes send sample syllabuses with policies consistent with the college to which I am applying.

I have come up empty-handed every time. To date, only five institutions have responded with further interest – three phone interviews and two requests for additional materials -- only two of which happened in the past year. Other than these five slivers of hope, the only other contact I have received from prospective employers is acknowledgement that my materials were received and rejection letters. I have never been a finalist. I have never visited a campus. I am devastated.

In contrast to other disciplines, sociology still offers a fair share of opportunity for tenure-track employment. Indeed, spending 40 hours a week on employment dossiers is not uncommon for me. Moreover, most of my friends were able to land jobs before defending their dissertation even in the bleak job market. I am happy for them, but it makes my inability to find work sting harder.

My job market struggles are made all more the inexplicable by the fact that I maintain an active publication track in a hot field of study – zombies. In the past year alone I have published three articles, and I have an additional three under review, and numerous projects in the pipeline.

While my research on zombies may be an odd topic for sociologists to tackle, my scholarship garners much interest. My first sole-authored article “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture,” for instance, can net 100+ downloads in a day on my academia.edu webpage. The same piece has been quoted in numerous press outlets, elicits interview requests, and even gets me open invitations to present at professional conferences that, ironically, I cannot afford to attend.

One of my "under review" articles “The New Horror Movie” is required reading for a graduate seminar taught by a friend at Aarhus University in Denmark. While some in sociology may be turned off to my research on zombies (something they do without reading it), I have also published and received grant money in the sociology of race – a topic of perennial sociological interest.

Perhaps I am a capable scholar, but a lousy teacher. Not so. My instruction receives high marks – the evaluations are posted on my website. I can say that one of my proudest professional accomplishments has been achieving racial parity in student performance. With the encouragement of my former adviser, I translated my techniques into a brief pedagogical piece that will soon be sent out for review. If I ever find employment, one of my goals will be to develop a workshop for fellow instructors on how to reduce stereotype threat in the classroom.

While my academic and teaching successes have made my job market failures confusing, a series of setbacks and struggles have made them nearly insufferable. Prior to 2011, my position as a graduate student in the University of Missouri’s department of sociology had been gaining steam. I was the second graduate student selected by the faculty to present at the department’s colloquium series. I was also invited to deliver a talk on white privilege by the black studies department. Both engagements went well. I even presented a paper at the Midwest Sociological Society that would become a book chapter. A series of health scares in 2011 halted my momentum. I passed two kidney stones and began experiencing a number of gastrointestinal problems. My health issues would inevitably delay the completion of my dissertation.

After careful consideration, I moved to Pennsylvania to be close to family. We feared something might be seriously wrong with me. Eventually I would require surgery. I’ve physically recovered, but I had to fight my insurance company for six months to cover any of the surgical fees. Even with some of the costs defrayed, my medical bills mounted and I was forced to move in with my 62-year-old mother, something, despite her kindheartedness, I found embarrassing, humiliating, and degrading. I’ve been scraping by as an adjunct instructor ever since, never knowing if I would be teaching from one semester to the next. I made the sacrifice in the hopes that I could finish my dissertation and fulfill my dream. I did the former, now I’m praying for the latter.

Right now, I’m unemployed and desperately (perhaps quixotically) clinging to the hope that I will get any kind of college teaching position. I don’t like looking back and asking what could have been, but I am tempted to imagine where I would be had I not experienced any health scares. In my feint glimmers of optimism, I like to imagine what I could do if I had stable employment, stable income, and a collegial work environment. I established an impressive track record with almost nothing. I am afraid I will never know what I could be. If something does not happen soon, I will have to walk away from the discipline I love. I cannot afford to stick it out for another year. I have poured my heart and soul into sociology. I feel I have received so little in return.

 

Bio

Todd K. Platts is an unemployed sociologist.

 

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