October 07, 2003

Bourbon versus Yoga: Responses to the History Job Market

I'm pretty sure that fury, bourbon, and violence against plastic penguins rank among the least helpful responses to a professional setback, but after laying waste to Lighty I have auditioned several more-constructive coping techniques and found them all wanting.

I counted my blessings, adjusted my expectations, and refocused my life around processes instead of outcomes. I practiced yoga, hit the elliptical trainer, and lifted weights. I wrote an article, reworked my CV, joined an organization in a subfield I am interested in, and revised my dissertation for publication. I am fit, credentialed, and moderately well adjusted.

-- Jon T. Coleman, "Anger Management"

A history PhD asks, "What is the appropriate reaction to failure on the academic job market?" Having eschewed destructive fury in favor of constructive "process"-oriented anger management techniques, he finds that he still angry. He insists on expressing that anger:

I am making a pitch to include loud and fruitless expressions of anger among job candidates' repertoires of healing strategies. While I agree that acts of self-improvement mitigate the gloom of unemployment, I refuse to let wholesome behaviors like reviewing books and designing new courses completely dampen my antagonism.

My feelings are real, justified, and widely shared among the echelons of young scholars shut out of the tenure track. Collectively, our frustration would blow the lid off a Hilton. Exercise and attitude adjustments siphon off some negative energy, but the remainder needs to be expressed.

Well, this is a bit of a departure from the "Chronicle-Land" mode about which Rana complained a few weeks ago. And it's bound to make some readers feel uncomfortable. I'll admit that it makes me feel a wee bit uncomfortable, and I like to think that this weblog is all about the kind of honesty about the job market that Coleman recommends.

Not that I don't appreciate Coleman's candor. To the contrary, I welcome this column as a bracing antidote to the usual desperately polite and "professional" evasions that characterize most discussions of the job market. I particular appreciate his frank admission that constructive coping techniques have only taken him so far, but no farther. Yeah, I hear that. All those New Age-y "career coach" buzzwords about processes and blessings and inward journeys just leave me cold. Quite frankly (and please don't send me hate mail), if I were prepared to rest easy with such facile nonsense, I wouldn't have become an academic in the first place. But I digress.

Coleman urges job candidates to "[express] their true feelings." While "shouting 'I'm mad!' will not change the system," he concedes, "it will promote honesty -- the taproot of good scholarship." The problem here, I think, is that an honest expression of one's true feelings probably doesn't take one much farther than an honest expression of one's true feelings. What's also required is either a story or an analysis.

In terms of story, there really isn't a satisfying narrative structure within which to place an account of job market failure. 'I came, I saw, I did not conquer' is hardly the stuff of which gripping narrative is made, and who the heck wants to read someone's chronicle of despair? In this regard, it is instructive to contrast Coleman's column with that of Henry Raymond, who finally landed an academic job in the UK after three years on the history job market.

With the very title of his column, "Salvaging an Ego, and a Career," Raymond permits himself to finally publicly acknowledge the shameful truth that one dares not openly acknowledge: the job market is destructive of one's ego. And the fact that his search finally ended in success gives him licence to say a few of the things that one just doesn't say:

Like so many friends in the same position, I went through the standard cycles: self-pity, self-deprecation, self-loathing, self-indictment. I blamed myself, I cursed the profession, I consulted a Magic-8 Ball. I began steeling myself for an alternative profession.

Ah yes. Been there, done that, and thanks for reading my weblog. But while Raymond cites "the standard cycle" as though the existence of said cycle were a matter of common knowledge, as he himself almost certainly knows full well, this is not part of our repertoire of agreed-upon givens but must rather be seen either as a form of hidden knowledge or perhaps as an open secret. Raymond can bring this out into the open because he does so in retrosepect, from the perspective of one who has suffered and endured and then finally emerged in triumph. His story works, in other words, because it offers the relief of a happy ending.

Those who don't have happy endings don't have stories, or at least, don't have stories to which anyone would care to listen. Which leaves us, then, with a broader analysis which moves beyond the realm of individual experience to examine larger structures and developments.

I certainly agree with Coleman that job candidates need to be less reticent about describing the horrors of the job market. But of course it's not enough to say "I'm mad!" that this has happened. The next step is to ask, Why has this happened? and then, What, if anything, might be done to prevent this happening to others? Is the history job market crash the result of inevitable forces beyond the reach of human intervention? And if not, then what kind of interventions should be made? And if so, then it's my firm conviction that anyone who knows what is happening has a moral responsiblity to warn prospective and would-be historians of just what it is that is happening.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 7, 2003 09:41 PM

I think the article was a parody. A book from Yale about wolves in American history? (Before anyone posts a link to the actual book, I invoke my belief that any universe in which such a book exists split off from the original when the column was published, or, rather, when the first person believed that such a book existed.)

If the details offered are correct, it's almost certainly true that the job market in history is worse than it is in English, generally speaking.

I may have made this point before, but people would go into graduate school even if they knew with absolute certainty that they would never, ever get any kind of academic job. People, esp. the young, just find it more appealing than Bartleby-style cubicle-work.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 7, 2003 09:55 PM

I have an appointment to talk about going to graduate school with one of my advisees. She knows I'm going to say "don't go". What else do I do? Make her read blogs and write a 3 page response paper?

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at October 7, 2003 10:00 PM

I believe the book is forthcoming. But here's an article that does exist, though presumably you would place this too in an alternate universe?

"If the details offered are correct, it's almost certainly true that the job market in history is worse than it is in English, generally speaking."
On the basis of what, exactly, do you make this observation? I'm pretty sure there are many English PhDs out there who could write similar columns.

"I may have made this point before, but people would go into graduate school even if they knew with absolute certainty that they would never, ever get any kind of academic job."
Sure, some people would. But many people wouldn't. And there's absolutely no justification for witholding information on the assumpton that people wouldn't act on it anyway. Tell them the truth and let them decide.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 7, 2003 10:10 PM

Yale English PhDs with books forthcoming, I'm willing to bet, either have or have the opportunity to have tenure-track jobs.

We've discussed this before, but I was personally never encouraged to go to graduate school even though I was told that I was very good at whatever in the hell it is we do. When I asked people about it, they said it was unlikely that I would ever get a job; and if I did, it wouldn't be the kind of job I'd want.

A lot of this was attributable to being at a regional comprehensive university with faculty from very fancy places who undoubtably had once thought they'd end up elsewhere. I'm sure that students at self-annointed top programs are told different stories. We can agree that they should be given a more realistic picture, but anyone who takes the time to learn what graduate study is like is going to, in fact, learn what graduate study is like.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 7, 2003 11:15 PM

From Raymond's article:

"First, the market is capricious. A week after Oxbridge offered me a job, I received a rejection letter from a community college in the Northeast. There's just no rhyme or reason to any of this."

Yes. That seems about right to me. In graduate school, I got praise for two of my published papers from some of the biggest names in my field. After my first, and only APA interview, the interviewers would not even talk to me at the conference smoker. You see, the job I'd applied for was a non-tenure track, 3 year appointment. They were more interested in talking to the people who'd applied for their tenure track positions.

This is absurd. Kafkaesque, even.

Anger is too mild a word to describe my feelings.

Fury. That's more like it.

Posted by: David at October 8, 2003 08:32 AM

"Yale English PhDs with books forthcoming, I'm willing to bet, either have or have the opportunity to have tenure-track jobs."

Now that the Lingua Franca list is gone, I don't know what happens to Yale grads in particular. It's impossible to produce reliable stats, but I remember other Ivy-League grads with books who dropped out of the profession after their three-years as post-docs. Nothing is enough to ensure a tenure-track job today. I once heard an interviewer at a not-so-prestigious university say (between interviews, while I was in the hall but the door was open), "We can hire God, why are we talking with these people." God as assistant professor? "God, could you make some coffee?"

So much for my Ivy-League degrees, book contract, articles, presentations, famous advisors, and so on. How does one become God? I don't think the column is parody. Academic reality is the parody.

Posted by: THB at October 8, 2003 08:40 AM

I think anyone who is contemplating graduate studies in history should read Russell L. Johnson's 1998 Job Market: A Realistic Appraisal and Ted Margadant's The Production of PhDs and the Academic Job Market for Historians.
If you explain why you cannot recommend history grad school, then I think you have done your bit.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 8, 2003 08:46 AM

I think the anger John Coleman expresses is very natural and I remember experiencing it. It can totally destroy one's life if you let it. There's no way to change the economic structure of the profession -- let's escape that particular psychosis right away. Rather, tell yourself every day that the historians you've emulated are dishonest and their work isn't important culturally, anyway. Topple the icons! Now get out there and do something else. THAT's the best therapy.

Posted by: JT at October 8, 2003 09:40 AM

I am currently in the process of sending out faculty job applications. I am in engineering and the job market looks great (26 postings as of today). However I delayed graduation last year to continue reseach with my current advisor since I wasn't selected for any of the 35 postings last year. I did receive two callbacks but nothing further. What is humorous to me is that I contiue to try. When I graduated with my BS I applied to about 50 engineering companies nationwide. I have all their rejection letters in a box at home. Same thing goes for jobs after my MS (15 rejections, 1 sucess). Now I am on target to break 100 rejections this year, and sadly I and my supporting faculty KNOW I would be good as a professor.

It is hard on the ego. Life is hard on the ego. All I can say is that you keep trying if it is worth it to you, and try not to see failure as a personal judgment. Its worth it to me, so I continue... but I wonder hold much more water my ego can take on before we go under?

Posted by: Plainspoken Sam at October 8, 2003 11:20 AM

How does one speak "honestly" with one's (PhD) adviser and other colleagues (ahem: rec. letter writers) about these emotions? Mine tell me not "lapse" into negative thoughts or emotions because that will only ensure failure on the job market. The message I get is that they, themselves, don't want to hear honesty either.

So who has the strategies I can use? Or, failing that, the happy pills?

Posted by: TreeTop at October 8, 2003 11:35 AM

Well, I blog about them. Sometimes it helps.

The problem I'm having right now is that I've moved beyond anger to apathy regarding the academic job market, which makes applying for the 10 jobs in my field challenging. However, I've not moved yet into a position where I can chuck it all and go do something else (financially speaking at the very least) so it's hard to press forward with an alternative. *sigh*

Sometimes I wish I had a penguin to punch!

Posted by: Rana at October 8, 2003 01:11 PM

"I've moved beyond anger to apathy"

Rana: big step for you. Congratulations!

Posted by: JT at October 9, 2003 10:57 AM

"A book from Yale about wolves?"

Understanding wolves is central to understanding the American West. Ranching and farming are the major businesses in the American West (ranching is, I believe, a billion-dollar business; it has re-shaped the landscape of the West, for better or worse, and ranching has, of course, been central in shaping the culture of the West and to some degree America--think cowboys). For over a century, the presence of wolves has provoked a major debate between ranchers/farmers and environmentalists (beginning with the budding of the environmentalist movement in the late 19th century). Ranchers want to get rid of wolves; others disagree. This debate is central to the business of ranching today and I am pretty sure (altho' I am neither an American historian nor an environmentalist) that this debate has been a constant in the West. I haven't read Coleman's work but I cannot help but assume that Coleman looks into this debate/discussion regarding wolves in an attempt to understand the culture of the West.

I am a little surprised (okay, I'm not surprised at all) that Chun, who attacks others on the Jack Blake blog for their ignorance about various different regions of the United States, is so ignorant about the American West, a pretty large region. You don't have to live in the West to know this.

I wonder if Chun's ignorance is typical of the people who are reading Coleman's application. Why is it that academics (who are often extremely narrow and rarely ever read outside of their own area of interest) feel qualified to jduge (and condemn or dismiss) the scholarship of people outside their field?

Posted by: HAL at October 17, 2003 08:45 AM