There’s a tenure-track academic job I hear students talk about – one with work-life balance and a forty-hour work week and at least two weeks (but hopefully an entire summer) of carefree, completely unplugged vacation; one where you have all the autonomy and prestige of a professor, along with job security and a professional level paycheck, but there aren’t external pressures on your time except for those that you select because they’re consistent with your values and life goals…that job – that does not exist. And, even if it did, you would not increase your chances of landing such a job by eschewing the professional advice of faculty or colleagues because they are seen as somehow biased toward a different kind of job, one that just doesn’t fit you or your life goals.
I am in full support of students who don’t aspire to a job like mine. You can choose a teaching-intensive position instead of a research-intensive one. You don’t even need to be a professor. You can go into the private sector or work part-time. You can decide to write novels or try to break into journalism. You can choose a career that you believe makes a real difference in the world. I am happy to support my students in any endeavor they wish to pursue. However, I can no longer stand by as the myth of this dream academic job is perpetuated among students. Here’s the cold, hard truth: The academic job market sucks. It sucks worse for people who are holding out for a particular job because they’re too good for this job or that one. Furthermore, the suck-factor of the market is exacerbated by a weak record. To land even a close approximation of that job requires that you buy into the system, the system that you are somehow hoping to rise above post-graduation.
More cold, hard truth: Tenure-track, academic jobs across sectors require people to work long hours (sometimes occasionally, more often regularly) and there are always trade-offs. Faculty at smaller schools do less research, but more service and often more teaching. There are more committees to serve on, theses to direct, fewer professors to spread the work between. Faculty at regional schools teach more and sometimes a lot more. They, like their community college counterparts, have more first-generation students, working parents, and non-traditional students in their classes and are less likely to have programs and resources outside of themselves to offer these students support. Faculty at selective liberal arts colleges are hired to be teacher-scholars, to be outstanding in the classroom and in their discipline. They are expected to stay active in research, publishing regularly, while nurturing the best and the brightest and being deeply involved in campus life long after the work day is over. Pay varies widely at all of these schools.
Some of these attributes are clear from job ads. Others are less visible early in the process. As touched on in Katherine’s post at OrgTheory yesterday on “navigating the academic pipeline,” schools vary in their ability to confer important perks to faculty (e.g., travel funds, tuition benefits, subsidized housing) that help make jobs more amenable to balance between work and non-work. These benefits, along with autonomy in scheduling, course selection, service roles, and myriad other aspects of one’s daily life in academy, tend to be greater in higher-status institutions (whether R1 or not). In other words, pressure to perform might be higher, but so are the resources to help you meet those expectations and your say in how to go about doing so.
So for all the students out there who say they don’t want a job like mine because there’s too much pressure to get tenure or not enough time with your family, please stop to ask people – real, live people who are living and working in the positions that you think you would like to end up at – what their experiences are like and what it took to get there. Hell, even ask people who are in the jobs that you think you don’t want, as they might surprise you. Craft your goals with full information, not myths, and work toward a record that appeals to a range of schools so that you are more likely to have options in your quest to find that job, or at least the job that’s best for you, whatever that job is. If there is the equivalent of a career unicorn, I’ll bet a job market star is more likely to find it than someone who refused to work weekends in grad school as a matter of principle.