What An Academic Job Search Is Really Like

BerlinerJacques Berlinerblau‘s piece “Better College, Better Scholars, Right? Not So Much” is currently behind the paywall at The Chronicle of Higher Education, but I hope it sees the light of day soon. The piece comes from his new book Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students.  I am looking forward to reading it.

First, Berlinerblau rightly argues that “professorial prestige…is an awfully arbitrary thing.”

A taste:

Amanda and Irene were best friends in grad school. Both studied theoretical linguistics. They received the same training. They worked under the same doctoral adviser. They possess nearly identical publication records — two articles apiece in respected field journals. They even both somehow showed up at the party celebrating their successful doctoral defenses in the same distressed high-rise, skinny jeans from Madewell! Yet Amanda teaches part time at a community college and supplements her income doing data entry for an HMO. Irene has a tenure-track job at a top research university. Their relationship has grown strained.

The rest of the essay probably says more about Berlinerblau and his academic life at Georgetown University than it does about the academic lives of most college professors.

Another taste:

Among professors, where one works is a marker of status. Thus, the assistant professor employed by an Ivy League college accrues greater glory than her counterpart at a midsize regional university. The latter, in turn, is more esteemed than an assistant professor laboring at some far-flung small liberal-arts college. The same hierarchies prevail, I guess, among high-school seniors comparing their college-acceptance letters as they hotbox their parents’ Toyota Priuses.

The juveniles and, distressingly, the professors are just following the logic of popular college-ranking systems. They are assuming that the greater the renown of an institution as measured by U.S. News & World Report, the greater will be the quantity and quality of research produced by scholars in its employ. Is this assumption accurate?

If it were, it would follow that an assistant professor in anthropology at Princeton University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 1) publishes more and better work than her exact counterpart at the University of Southern California (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 23). The USC savant, in turn, outperforms the identically ranked anthropologist at Clark University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 75). The Clark ethnographer has a heftier CV than a comparable scholar employed at Oklahoma State University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 149). The better the institution, the better the research its tenure-line professors produce. Right?

I appreciate what my friend Berlinerblau has to say here, but after fifteen years at a “far-flung small liberal arts college” located in what most cosmopolitan academics would call a “doleful place” (a school and a place where, I might add, I deliberately chose to work), his parsing of the differences between Princeton, Southern California, Clark, and Oklahoma State make him sound like he lives on another planet.

Yet, the planet Berlinerblau describes does exist.  Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home–many of them are my friends–have found themselves living on it.   Other readers do not live on this planet, but they are working hard in the hopes of moving there.

Which brings me to Berlinerblau’s hilarious description of how academic job searches take place at institutions on his planet.

Here is a taste:

Besieged by a surfeit of credentials, the typical harried evaluator will focus on two vital metrics: 1) where a scholar received the doctorate, and 2) what the scholar has published. That takes about 90 seconds. In the remaining 90 seconds, assuming the applicant has not been consigned to the thickening reject pile, the reviewer glances at what courses the applicant can teach. So much for pinpointing precise merits and demerits! And it goes without saying that no psychological evaluations are ever administered.

The search is kicking into high gear. Timeless irregularities of academic culture begin to infest the deliberations. For starters, scholars tend to hire tribally, preferring people with similar intellectual interests. Politics and ideology also rear their scowling heads. The radical Left is notorious for commandeering search committees. That’s why some film departments are staffed solely by Deleuzian Maoists or vegan Derridians. Sometimes professors look exclusively for people who attended their own graduate schools. How many departments have I seen with a forensically suspect cluster of hires who received their doctorates from the same place, under the same thesis advisers?

In accordance with these peculiar criteria, roughly 95 percent of the aspirants will soon be eliminated. The field has been narrowed to three or four outstanding individuals (though that decision is always contested and accompanied by a few resignations from the committee expressed in 10,000-word manifestoes). Once the shortlist is drawn up, rituals of backchanneling, influence peddling, and whoremongering ensue. On-campus interviews are booked. Rumors run rampant. Unexpected alliances crystallize around unexpected candidates.

Cross-cutting through this intrigue are other distractions. Scholars have the ill-advised tendency to fall in love with one another. Their passion gives rise to an “academic couple” — perhaps the most dreaded phrase in a search committee’s lexicon. No search, it seems, is complete without this ghastly spousal subplot. It comes out of nowhere — like the toothy maw of the monster from Jaws emerging from the sullen deep — and drags the entire process down into some dark, litigious murk.

Ought I mention inside candidates? The seamiest secret of the academic job search is that its outcome is often foreordained. A tenure-track line is a precious commodity. Is there any wonder that the desire to attain this treasure trumps our ethical impulses?

Often, the job description, the composition of the committee, the questions asked at the interview — all of these have been rigged to assure that one predetermined candidate (or trailing spouse) is hired. Need I point out that for the poor applicants, the entire ordeal is time-consuming and expensive? Rebecca Schuman, writing in Slate, has chronicled this well. She reminds us that a job seeker in academe actually has another job: applying for jobs. The ritual is needlessly degrading.

If you have access to The Chronicle of Higher Education you can read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.

2 thoughts on “What An Academic Job Search Is Really Like

  1. Am I misreading this, or is Berlinerblau critiquing the view that rankings translate into scholarly productivity? If so, what do you regard as “his parsing of the differences between Princeton, Southern California, Clark, and Oklahoma State” which reveals him to be on “another planet”? If Berlinerblau anywhere provides his own understanding of the difference between those institutions, I am not seeing it (but I do not have access to the entire article). I have been tempted to believe that rankings do not matter at all, but I think I have come to the view that they perpetuate funding level and other inequalities of opportunity among junior professors, and certainly differentially drive their pre-tenure stress levels.

    On the other hand, as someone who trained at the top of the ranking scale and then landed right at the bottom of it (although on it, not off of it!), below all of my comparable grad school friends, I think it necessary to avoid the self-serving conclusion that hiring results are entirely arbitrary. That leads to bitterness, a bitterness I see in many of my colleagues here. I do not wish to become bitter, and my faith in God’s providence leads me instead to look for how I can serve where I am. And there are some definite advantages to working at a school which isn’t a “pressure-cooker” like Berlinerblau’s Princeton.

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  2. You ought to try the murky world of museum and public history job searches. That has the feeling of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Always a surprise ending, but not often a very happy one.

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