the mythical job.

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.

20 thoughts on “the mythical job.”

  1. Yes, yes, yes. In the early 1980s, when I had just transitioned from a regional campus with no PhD program and a 3-3 teaching load (which we all actually took to 4-4, teaching in the night school to make extra money) to Wisconsin, I’d give a talk to the grads “there are no Disneyland jobs.” That job you fantasize that is all about what you want to do and makes no demands on you is not out there. You’ll just have different types of work to do.

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  2. Of course there are no such things as mythical jobs, especially when we imagine a grad student or professor who aspires to do nothing other than what she/he wants to do. However, there are better and worse jobs for work-life balance, relative freedom to work on research that interests you, teach classes that interest you, etc. The job market sucks, and there are no guarantees. However, my experience is that you can never judge a quality of a job by the reputation of the institution, what category institution it is in, or even the job description. A good portion of what makes a job better or worse has to do with the intangibles: culture of the department, institutional norms, and your “fit” with both.

    In many ways, I am very grateful that I failed to get high status, high paying job at a prestigious institution, and that I instead got a low-status, low-paying job at a school that nobody knows or cares about. Because I ended up in a job that looks bad on paper but is good in practice. I do have weekends off. I do get to teach classes that I care about. I do have colleagues who support me in meeting realistic tenure expectations.

    My advice to grad students is to not drink the kool-aid that high-status institution = better job. In many cases, the opposite is true. Cast a wide net in your job search; don’t reject jobs out of hand just because you didn’t envision yourself at a place like that; wait until you actually visit a campus and find out what the actual job, the actual department, and the actual people who are working there are like before you make a decision.

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    1. Very very true. Job quality in the lived experience probably has a zero correlation with institutional prestige no matter how it is measured and much more to do with a particular institutional and departmental context (which has many dimensions) and the particular mix of people you end up working with.

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  3. This is a nice thoughtful post. I find that I have a lot more freedom in my research agenda in particular because I am at a four year comprehensive. I publish and write because it is what I want to do, and not because of external demands from a faceless tenure committee.

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  4. that job very much exists if you’re TT, and i would guess at pretty much any university. you just have to be willing to do it. yeah, the academic job market sucks, but getting the job is the hardest part. timewise, teaching 2-2 is what, 6 hrs/wk? (yeah ok, prep and grading. add on a bit more.) i teach 3-3, so 9 hrs classroom time. (ok, cc folk teaching 5-4 or 5-5, oy. and you rock.) how many hours of meetings are you going to/wk? 10? 20? advising? 5? 10? much of that meeting stuff can be cut. (just say no.) and if you’re putting in 20-30 hrs research/wk, well, i salute you. (but are you efficient?) basically we decide the bigger chunk of our schedules. who does that? if you’re working 60 hrs/wk, you made that schedule.

    srsly, we have the most flexible schedules of almost any class of f/t worker and can work as little or as much as we want without affecting our pay. i can’t complain to my real job friends about my work. (certainly not my wife. though she appreciates my ability to pick up and drop off kids and go grocery shopping.) these peoples have to go to that place everyday. five days a week! i nap in my office. i would start giggling if i complained. i couldn’t keep a straight face.

    and if you can’t find two weeks in your summer to relax, well, that’s on you.

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    1. This is true. But just like writing gets easier over time, so does teaching. The first few years of the TT, when you are writing the initial lectures, takes a lot of time, particularly if you have little to no independent teaching experience. Some jobs, you can teach the same courses over semesters or years, while others (particularly SLACs) expect you to offer new courses for each of the classes in your 3/2 (or higher) load.

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    1. This isn’t about top status jobs. This is about the non-elite jobs that graduate students who want out of the rat race they see in their graduate departments believe exist. This is about the students who don’t aspire to a life like the faculty in their grad programs – people who they (erroneously) believe work 80 hours a week all year long and have no life outside of work – but believe that if they just wrap up the PhD and the market wasn’t so crappy, they’d find a job with all the trappings of an elite job, but without the pressure of it.

      As the posts above allude to, there are trade-offs in different kinds of positions. There are also periods of time when jobs get a lot closer to the mythical job than others. Like Syed notes, academics have it really good. But students can’t believe that this mythical job is what’s waiting for them at the end, especially when these beliefs cause them to decide not to work as hard as faculty in their grad programs suggest they should because they’re sure this mythical job exists for people who are a little less obsessed with work.

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      1. Ok, got it. Sorry to be dense. I don’t think I’ve encountered this attitude (at least not expressed to me). With respect to my (excellent) students, we have never been at the point of asking whether we want an elite TT job versus some other one.

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  5. I appreciate people sharing their own experiences in the comments, as this is exactly what students need. They need information. They need to realize that, like OW says, “You’ll just have different types of work to do.” They need to know that there are so many factors outside of teaching load or location or pay and prestige that makes jobs more or less satisfying personally and professionally.

    As far as the work-life balance debate goes, I’m hoping that in the not-so-distant future there’s a published piece on faculty perceptions of work-life balance across institution types that shows that there’s not nearly the differences people think there are.

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    1. There is actually a pretty substantial literature out there on work life balance across institutional types, especially as it relates to gender (Wolf-Wendel, Ward, Rosser, Fairweather and Rhoads, etc.). In my own research group, one of our grad students did research precisely on institutional type, work hours and work/family conflict. ( for reference: http://hdl.handle.net/1853/49095 ). And that, I think, addresses your post directly: differences in terms of work-hours and work-family balance are much smaller across teaching and research oriented universities than most people think.

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  6. Thank you, jessica! I would also add that the position that one aspires to find should also probably change throughout one’s career. I am very fortunate to have a position that I really enjoy, with senior faculty who have supported my ambitions, and to live within walking distance of family that help care for our children.

    But the things that are important to me now will likely change. At some point, my children will grow, my ambitions likely change — as will my spouse’s. One wants to be in a position to act on those changes and the best way to do that is to demonstrate success in what you are doing at any point in time.

    A second pernicious problem that you actively seek to solve in your post — but which is not shared by all — is that only jobs in top-10 departments are worthwhile. I had a senior faculty (male) member say to me at an alumni gathering that “We have done a lot better, we’ve gotten better placements in the last two to three years.” I, of course, was four years out; I wanted to say (but didn’t), I guess my job didn’t mean anything to the department. I wonder if the unrealistic expectations that you hear come from your willingness to entertain other options AND the fact that the students might not have other faculty to whom they can turn to work out their ideas of what they want.

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  7. my perennial on-the-job-market-migraine just reared it’s ugly head.

    Perhaps I’m at the (dis)advantage of being (ahem) a tad older than the traditional Ph.D. newbie, but I can honestly say this bill of goods was not sold to me at my institution. In fact, since I am not emerging from an R1 (or is it now very high, slightly high, sorta high, and kinda high? – can’t remember) spot, perhaps our expectations were tethered to the more reasonable idea that 1) higher ed is changing and the market sucks, 2) don’t be naive enough to think you will not require a strong teaching portfolio when you are done, and 3) if you love your work, work at your work, and commit to your work, you will eventually float to the top. No unicorns here.

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