“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.

Bowen: The Historical Profession is “abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market.”

bowenThis morning’s post by Mike Bowen resonated with many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and struck a chord with folks attending the Annual Meeting of the AHA in Denver. Read it here.  In this post, Bowen offers some thoughts on the history job market.  –JF

Writing about the academic job market from the inside is very difficult. No one likes a braggart, and no one likes a complainer. If you stray too far in either direction your message can get lost amidst the visceral reactions emanating from the comment threads.

I tried writing about the job market once, back in the heady, pre-recession days of 2008. Frankly, the article is embarrassing and I wish I had never published it. It is too inflammatory and should have been more constructive and conciliatory. The response to the piece is why I spent the next nine years away from the topic.

Based on their reaction at the meeting in the graduate students/junior scholar job panel two days later, the AHA staff didn’t appreciate my contribution. There was no subsequent dialogue about any of the points I brought up. The AHA staff rediscovered a couple of those points in 2011 or 2012 on their own, and others have drilled down on the communication issue on non-academic sites, but there hasn’t been any substantive movement towards fixing the lack of communication or late notices for interviews.

More alarming to me were the grumblings among the job seeking community. You can see that a little bit of dialogue happened on the IHE comment thread, but the readership of the Chronicle forums was severely underchuffed. For the first time in my life, I was called a “special snowflake.” Someone said that I was “entitled.” God knows what would have happened if Twitter had been around back then.

The point for bringing all of this up…the profession is abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market. Everyone knows that there is a major concern that needs to be addressed, but no one will actually make even a half-hearted effort to try. That has compounded the problem.

As the organization that is most closely associated with the job market, this situation comes back to the AHA somewhat. However, in late 2014, the executive director of the AHA wrote in Perspectives that the AHA is not here to help people find jobs in academia. I am legitimately, with no sarcasm intended, glad that he admitted this and has turned the organization to career diversity initiatives. I don’t need the help (see below), but I know others do.

The remaining stakeholders generally fall in to one of four camps. One small group outside the faculty wants to put everyone on five year contracts and do away with tenure. Some proposals have been more radical than that.  Another, slightly larger, group of contingent faculty wants to unionize. That may be a viable solution in some circumstances but, given today’s political climate I can’t envision a movement becoming so widespread that it works at every institution. The third camp is composed of job seekers who hope to God that they can land on their feet next academic year and are otherwise powerless.

The larger fourth camp is generally the rest of the profession, and they tend to ignore the situation. Job seekers make faculty members uncomfortable largely because, while many want to help, they can’t do much. You can’t really blame them either. Is it worth going to battle with a college administration, risking potential blowback down the line, to try to get more lines? More often than not, in an age of disinvestment in higher education and the dominance of STEM, the answer is no. So rather than confront the problem, the faculty retreats inwards and worries about themselves.

The net result is that we continue on the same path we have been on, motivated largely by inertia. We are a profession composed of highly-educated, socially-aware people, yet we have collectively thrown our hands up at a problem that we find too difficult to solve. I wish that we could engage in an honest discussion about this without politicizing it. Our discipline is fading , and the job crisis is part of the reason why.

Postscript: I have received  e-mails from people offering to help me transition out of academia. I appreciate the contacts, but it isn’t necessary. When I received notice of my non-renewal, I connected with a local job coach and subsequently landed a very good job in the editorial department at a research and publishing firm. I now manage a great team, am surrounded by wonderful co-workers, and have a supportive boss.

More importantly, I was able to get on with my life. That distance is what is allowing me to write these blog posts. I still adjunct at JCU one night class a semester to keep a foothold in the field and to supplement my income but, barring a miracle, the new job is my first priority now. It has to be. Do I want to get back into history full-time? Absolutely. I feel that teaching history is my vocation, but my past experience tells me that that is highly unlikely that there is a place for me to do so. That is just the reality.

 

What Happens After 9 Years as a Visiting Assistant Professor?

bowenI appreciate that Mike Bowen will be writing for us from Denver this week as part of our coverage of the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association.  Bowen is adjunct instructor in history at John Carroll University and the former assistant director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida.  He is the author of The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).  -JF

Here is the first of his #aha17 posts:

I consider myself a veteran of the AHA annual meetings. My first was the 120th, held in January 2006 in Philadelphia. I was just a pup then…one semester away from defending with three chapters left to write. Like many, my goal was the elusive tenure-track line. I didn’t succeed in Philly, but that spring I worked something out in the secondary market, finished those chapters, and defended.

My AHA attendance has been sporadic since Philly, usually dependent on the prospects for a job interview. Those prospects have declined dramatically in recent years and became non-existent at the end of the 2014-15 academic year when, after nine consecutive one-year VAP/administrative appointments scattered across three states, my VAP line was terminated early. I was collateral damage to the administrative fallout from an accreditation decision. I remain an adjunct in good standing at that same institution and remain hopeful that there will be a full-time opportunity of some sort for me there. Even though I continue to apply to everything I can, there doesn’t seem to be much left for me as a working historian.

Barring a miracle of some sort, then, this will be my last trip to an AHA annual meeting. I don’t know what to expect, really. I am presenting what I imagine will be my last academic paper (Friday at 3:30, for those of you who are interested in moderate Republicans in the 1970s. I’ll be the one with the Southern accent). It is the fourth conference paper on the broad topic that I had planned to cover in my second book. Also, one of my former undergrads who is now a political organizer in Denver is going to meet up with me. That’s all I know. I plan to watch, observe, and ruminate on the job environment, the state of my field as I see it, and how the annual meeting has changed in my eleven years on the job market.

I will be writing from a position of tacit acceptance. Unfortunately, we have been beseeched in recent years with what scholars have come to call QuitLit. My posts will not be QuitLit because I do not want to quit, even though I likely will not be continuing as a historian. I am also not looking to trash the academy or the profession, because, even though I disagree with a number of their standards and practices, I would love to remain a member in good standing. I hope any criticisms I make will be taken in the constructive spirit in which they are offered. If my posts from the AHA can make people examine how they act when they are on search committees or can dispel some notions and biases that have worked against me, then I will have done a service.

Above all, I recognize that I am far luckier than most to have lasted almost a decade as a full-timer in this business. I do not want sympathy from the profession…I learned long ago that there the profession generally has little sympathy for those not on tenure track. If anyone wants to offer up an opportunity, though, I would gladly listen.