“Stale Ph.Ds” and “Overqualified” Applicants

bowenThis morning Michael Bowen is back with more insight on the academic job market in history.   As you now know, Michael has been writing for us from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver.  I think this post raises some very important points about the hiring process in history departments around the country.   Read all of Michael’s posts from the 2017 AHA here. –JF

After studying the job market for well over a decade, some clear, systemic biases have become evident. It might be too strong to call them biases, but the cumulative effect is to disqualify many good applicants right from the start. These observations will come over two blog posts in the hopes that interested search committee members might at least be more cognizant of them and job seekers can be prepared and make smart decisions regarding publishing.

Some caveats are in order first. These are qualitative, not quantitative. I don’t have a spreadsheet in front of me crunching the statistics for every hire in the last decade. I am open to arguments that they may be unique to my situation, and I am sure that there are exceptions to every rule. These are also only valid for the initial screen, where committees determine their AHA/Skype lists. Since the majority of applicants for any given job never make it to the first interview, these decisions are the most crucial.

For this post, I want to focus on time from degree. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that job candidates from ABD to about four years from their defense date are hirable, while everyone beyond that is not. There are exceptions…I know of one person who went on the tenure track for the first time after ten years…but those hired after an extended time as contingent faculty are in the minority. The higher ed press refers to these individuals as “stale PhDs,” which is incredibly insulting and implies that good academic work can only be accomplished in the dissertation stage or on the tenure track. Controversy erupted a few years ago when a couple of English departments posted ads that explicitly required a degree received within the previous three years.  History has not been so brazen, but we have a similar bias.

Maybe once, long ago before postdocs were readily available and the academy shifted the burden of instruction to adjuncts and lecturers, it made sense to make a “first cut” of applicants based on time to degree. Now, with individuals stringing together years and years of contingent appointments and producing good scholarship in the meantime, it seems unwise to do so. My dissertation director always told my cohort that as long as we can add something substantive to our vita every year, we would be fine. That has been my goal, which has been met eleven out of eleven years. He never envisioned a scenario where I would need to do that for eleven years, but his advice is still good. I would argue that such a benchmark would be a better measure of a candidate’s employability, than an arbitrary line on the calendar.

However, the aforementioned measure for success runs counter to the second pattern prevalent in today’s job market; the “overqualified” applicant. With so many people finding survivable, contingent employment for extended periods of time, more and more applicants are going for assistant professor lines with books in hand and a significant number of courses under their belts. In theory, this should be a good thing…you can bring in a new faculty member who you do not have to train and needs little prep time. But it goes against the old idea that faculty lines are apprenticeships. An assistant professor must learn the ropes from their colleagues and, when deemed sufficiently qualified, be granted tenure. If someone exceeds those requirements from the start, should they be hired? In most cases, search committees say no.

Historians who are working on an extended contingent faculty track find themselves treading a fine line. Do you hold off publishing a book because it could hurt you on the job market, or do you go ahead and publish because it is ready? My first inclination is to say publish, but I have lost enough jobs (both VAPS and TT) to individuals with a single journal article or a handful of book reviews to question whether or not I should have published mine before I had a tenure track line.

If you are a search committee member, do you see a book as a sign that an applicant will produce no further research of merit? It is a valid question. We all know of professors who have an early burst of scholarly productivity, get tenure, and then coast for the next thirty years. There may not be an answer to this, but it would be nice if we would get past the traditional expectations for a hire and take into account how academia has changed. Committees should factor in both logged experience and future potential.