Monday, March 11, 2013

Paying for Academic Job Market Advice? Just Say No

How do we know the job market is broken for academics?  Because people are willing to spend money hiring advisers.  Really.  This article documents the costs of being on the market these days.  To be clear, this piece is deceptive and unrepresentative.  But as a result, it is representative.  Huh?  How does that make any sense?

Because the academic job market is so tough, it is poorly understood, and people then perhaps over-think what it takes to succeed.  Plus some stuff has changed, some has not.

First, let's talk about the biggest expense: conference travel.  In some fields (not political science), going to the national conference is a must as there are interviews there that weed out many folks or even perhaps choose the winning candidate (I have no idea how those fields operate).  The reality is that whether one is marketing at a conference or not, going to conferences is the cost of being a professional professor.  Aspirants need to go to learn how to profess--how to present research, what research is hot, to network outside of the presentation rooms, etc.  Going to the interviews should be just one part of a much larger and essentially required event.  The change may be that there might be less $$$ support for students to go to such events.  My students got some money from my departments, but did pay a fair amount themselves.  They tried to save money (sometimes) by splitting rooms, staying off-site, etc.  Universities have cut travel support for professors as well as for students, so getting grant money or covering the costs oneself (tax deduction) is a way of life.  If you don't want to go to conferences, don't join the profession which is an inherently social enterprise.  Sorry, but that is just the reality.

Second, do NOT pay for advice.  Your adviser should be advising you.  Whether your adviser is up to the task or not, there are other sources of free advice--peers, past graduates, other professors in the department, people you have met at conferences or even twitter pals (I provided some advice this year to a twitter pal who got a new job, and I am most pleased with the outcome).*
*To be clear, the person deserved the new job--I doubt my advice had anything to do with his/her success.
The reality is that there is actually less mystery to the process, so that a paid adviser really is not going to pierce the veil of the job market much better than other folks.  Sure, you can buy a book or two, but do not pay an adviser.  That is, unless you give me chocolate chip cookies or good beer.  I am cheap that way (no wine, please).

Third, interfolio apparently sucks.  The per cost adds up.  The bad news is that universities used to cover these costs--my packages of recommendation letters and transcripts were sent out by UCSD long after I left.  These days, with budget cuts, departments do this less.  The good news is that more departments now accept letters via online systems or email, so it makes it easier for a recommender to send out a bunch of letters.  Just do not give profs the job of mailing stuff--we suck at envelopes, mailing and other basic tasks that require being organized. 

Fourth, don't major in English lit. Someone entering a Phd program in English lit in the 21st century should know that the job market in that field will be mighty tough.  Sorry, but it is true.  I worry about political science aplenty, and caution students who want to head on to grad school.  I wonder what English profs are telling aspirants other than RUN AWAY.

Am I blaming the victim here?  There is plenty of blame to go around--that universities have followed incentives to produce more PhDs while cutting back on tenure track positions;' that departments work on many things but often not so much on getting their students placed; that plenty of professors are truly crappy advisers, refusing to read their students' stuff, giving lousy, out of date advice for the job market, and committing other crimes and misdemeanors; and students will often obsess about that which they cannot control instead of doing what they can.

What can students do?  Work really hard, publishing before they go on the market.  Work creatively, so that their ideas stand out.  Be as well trained as possible so that one has the appropriate tools for the question (and I am a firm believer that the question determines the tools).  Take a look at the CVs of those who get jobs--not just the content but the style, and check out the helpful blogs on such stuff.  Seek out advice from many sources, not just one.  If your adviser sucks, get a new one.  Either formally or informally.  Build networks of friends in your department and beyond so that you can get advice and not just groupthink.  Do not believe what you read at the job rumor sites.

The academic job market is hard, it takes a great deal of patience, it requires a heap of self-awareness, confidence (well, faked confidence that is short of arrogance), luck and more.  I am so glad I am not coming out of grad school today as the competition is mighty stiff.  I did finish my PhD at a really bad time (just not as bad as this time), it took me three years to find a tenure track position, and it was in Lubbock.  But my journey has been a rewarding one, ultimately.  Even it took three years to find any ultimate in Lubbock.

Good luck.


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