Reflections on The Market
This past year, I began the process of looking for post-graduate work. More specifically, I faced The Market, the year-long competitive process of attempting to secure gainful employment as a college professor. Like the vast majority of graduate students, adjunct instructors, independent researchers, and early-career faculty who try their hand at The Market, I didn’t succeed. Given that I’ve used this blog to reflect on career milestones and points of transition, I want to do the same for this first—and final—year on The Market.
I’ve gone on the record as promising never to write a piece of “quit lit.” Perhaps I am reneging on that promise now. However, I don’t regard this post as a piece of quit lit, because I don’t regard myself as “quitting” anything. Definitionally speaking, I’ve never held a tenure-track job, so I can’t say that I’m quitting one. I’m certainly not quitting research work: I’m too good at it, and there remain too many professional avenues through which to pursue it. Nor am I even ostensibly quitting the industry of higher education. If I’m quitting anything, it’s the defunct dream of an extremely specific career path, one that functionally no longer exists, and even in the places where it does exist will not do so for much longer. And I think it’s not unreasonable to suggest that that dream quit me long before I quit it.
It’s by now universally acknowledged that everyone who entered the labor market in 2020 has been colossally fucked. This is true beyond higher ed, as all my friends and family who have been laid off across diverse industries over the past year can attest. I’ve long felt that one of the major limitations of how higher ed thinks about its specific jobs crisis is an inability (or unwillingness) to connect it to the labor crisis sweeping across every sector of the modern economy. This all being said, while I acknowledge that my experience has been atypical even by the atrophying standards of academic hiring, I think it’s indicative of broader trends to come—or at least, a taste of what administrators do in moments of crisis, which will only become more common in the face of our collective political, epidemiological, and climatological degradation.
Finally, I’m reflecting narrowly on my experience within my subfields of literary, media, and environmental studies. I don’t pretend to have expertise in any other fields. Nor do I pretend to offer an authoritative, data-driven reflection on my disciplines and their hiring trends. Better scholars than I have pursued such projects. What I offer is my personal perspective: what I saw on the ground and how it reorganized my career goals and trajectories. The upshot of this post is that I think I am better for my time on The Market, if only because it has forced me to articulate my priorities as a professional researcher, and has brought me to understand how I can think those priorities beyond the narrow (and vanishing) scope of academic work.
I applied for eleven jobs between August and December of 2020. This doesn’t represent the full scope of jobs posted in my disciplines this year, particularly given that a handful more have appeared since I stopped applying in December. (I did so both for personal reasons and because I no longer felt it was possible to complete my dissertation in the time such jobs expected.) But it does, I think, represent a fair sample of “good fits”: jobs that were fairly compensated, in decent locations, and that I could reasonably expect to be competitive for. Of these eleven jobs, five were permanent tenure-track contracts; five were temporary post-docs; and one was a staff position. Of those eleven jobs, one was what I would call a reasonable and specific fit to my research area, which is broadly speaking digital media studies from a humanities perspective.
One job. I want to sit with this for a moment. I was lucky (truly!) to interview for this one job; I’m friends with others who did as well. I think that when an industry has produced a single job for the hundreds of graduate students looking for work, many of them forced out abruptly into the market by draconian pandemic-related cuts to their funding and timelines, it abdicates its ability to call itself an “industry.” It’s a social club. I am deeply troubled by how sanguine leaders in my discipline and industry are by this reality. Reproducing the next generation of researchers strikes me as the concern for anyone who is serious about academia as an enterprise and not simply as a space to pursue individual projects. Perhaps the tides will shift and this one job will become many, but I’m turning thirty next year and I’d like to own a home some day. I will have to leave it to others to effect that shift; I simply can’t afford to do so myself.
Enough has been written about the brutality of the hiring process itself, so I won’t add much here. However, I’ll say that preparing even just eleven applications, many of which shared material, was an enormous drain on my time and energy last fall. I didn’t move the needle much on my dissertation, and will be taking an extra (thankfully funded) year as consequence. The time is long overdue to replace elaborate, bespoke applications with a centralized common app with highly limited materials—a CV, cover letter, perhaps a writing sample. No letters of rec. No teaching dossiers. I’ve served on hiring committees before; I know first-hand that these materials are not read, or at least not read closely. Scaling back the expectations creep of applications is the bare minimum toward reorganizing The Market toward something resembling humanity.
As for the jobs themselves, I’ve noticed troubling trends in their scope and content. To the former, postings are asking more and more from early-career scholars, such that it’s unclear when and how “scholarship” would take place. I recall one digital humanities job that expected that the successful candidate would be primary investigator on major grants and provide conceptual and technical support to fellow colleagues, all on top of a full teaching load, regular research production, and service commitments. That’s obscene. I don’t have to say much more about the dizzyingly increasing expectations on grads and early-career researchers for scholarly production. I myself have one peer-reviewed publication, with at least three more in the docket. I’ve had conversations with editors about book proposals. And I don’t even have my degree yet. I no longer understand how faculty can ostensibly trumpet the need to reduce expectations on Twitter and then turn around and demand more and more when they serve on hiring and tenure committees.
To the content of such jobs, it’s been darkly fascinating watching my two major fields, digital media studies and the environmental humanities, either shift dramatically in orientation or fail to launch from a hiring perspective. Over the years, I’ve been accused (often by fellow grad students) of being a trend-chaser: of researching what I research because that’s where all the jobs will be in X number of years. (Implicit in this is the assumption that my programming skills and I are swooping in to, say, rob the early modernists of work somehow.) It’s with dark irony that I tell those folks not to worry, because neither of my buzzwordy, trendy fields has produced meaningful jobs (for me at least).
On the digital media studies front, I’ve seen two trends. The first is a reorganization away from humanities methods, epistemologies, and archives and toward those common to the social sciences. I applied to many jobs with titles like “assistant professor of algorithmic studies” or “post-doc in data and society.” To be clear, these are excellent and urgently needed postings, but by and large they emphasize trainings that are not my own: they are data-driven, quantitative, ethnographic. They would be (and no doubt have been) excellent fits for folks in communications PhDs. However, they’re not a great fit for what I do, which is to study data, computation, and mediation from the perspective of cultural objects and processes. Once again, I think these are great jobs and I’m happy to see them posted. However, I think that the fact that these are evidently the only form digital media jobs may now take (at least this cycle) is evident of the scarcity thinking that has seized our industry.
The second trend, more salient to the digital humanities, is the continued aversion to permanent jobs in favor of temporary, grant-funded staff and post-docs. I have more to say about this in another blog post on the short life and death of DH as a discipline, but suffice it to say that “assistant professor of digital humanities” is not a common job description at all. DH continues to be relegated to a sub-speciality attached to more “traditional” fields, usually around literary or historical period. When it does appear—which is rare, as “data science” is now the new DH—it’s usually as a temporary position tasked with “building capacity” toward bigger and better things to come. Politely, I think that if an institution has not yet “built capacity” in DH and related methods by 2021, it has no intention of doing so.
On the environmental humanities front, the story is somewhat shorter. There were precisely zero jobs to which I applied this past year that emphasized the environmental humanities or environmental studies in any capacity. Those few jobs that did emerge were oriented once again toward the social sciences, or perhaps to environmental history. But none towards what I do, which is to consider environmental questions alongside media objects and practices. Now, I don’t expect a job to perfectly cater to my research agenda, by any means! However, it’s notable how, despite the massive climate collapse we are all experiencing first-hand, the environment once again takes a back seat in our decision-making process. In particular, I have been troubled by how little attention has been paid to the environment in the profusion of jobs in critical race studies posted this past year, as though questions of climate, race, and equity were not all intimately aligned. This failure to consider these questions from a hiring perspective gives me serious pause as to whether academia is in fact the right place for me to pursue my research.
So where does this all leave me? First, I think it’s an intimate illustration of the market forces under which everyone in my generation operates. Some of us are lucky and can benefit from the old structures. But the vast majority of us will have to build new structures for ourselves. Second, I’ve realized that I have in fact a strong appetite for imagining and building those structures. The question that I’ve left my year on the market with is not “how can I eventually succeed in this (broken) system?” but rather “how can I join the ongoing work to build a different system for pursuing humanities research broadly construed, one organized around justice and equity, that draws together interdisciplinary knowledges and collaborators, and that perhaps can afford me a living wage while doing so?” This question is certainly not the easy one of the two, nor is it anything even remotely new. But it’s the one I’m more energized by, and that I think “becoming a college professor” is not the only or most interesting avenue to address. And third, I’ve discovered that I no longer have an attachment to the day-to-day work of a college professor. It’s precisely because I have such affinity for research, writing, and infrastructure building that I want to ensure that my career centers rather than marginalizes these activities—or at least, if it’s all work I have to pursue in my nights and weekends, that it’s at least not the primary way I’m evaluated at my job! I have to confess that I’m no longer energized by teaching, particularly under the constraints of Zoom University. But more to the point, I’m exhausted by academia’s casual cruelty and its conditions of manufactured crisis. I know the world well enough to know that it doesn’t have to be this way. And I know my worth well enough to know that while my transition will not be an easy one—after all, who has an easy time in the world nowadays?—it will be a gratifying one.
This is all to say that I’m not going anywhere. I still believe I have a book (or two, or three!) in me. I don’t regret the time I spent on The Market, if only because it fulfilled a promise I made to myself when I started my degree: that no matter the odds, I would give it a shot and find out how I felt about it. I’ve done that now. And I’m looking toward the rest of this spring, summer, and the year to come as a time of continued renewal and reinvention. I want to learn how to love my research again, to luxuriate in it as best I can with the time I have. I have a number of projects softly simmering that I want to bring up to a boil, and that I can’t wait to share with all of y’all. I don’t anticipate I will be applying for any professor jobs in the fall, tenure-track or otherwise, unless they are themselves non-traditional in their scope and bearing. But I think in that regard I’m lucky in that my research interests have long supported generations of fellow weirdos who build different kinds of (often temporary) structures, and I want to get to know those worlds more intimately.
And I want to say in closing to my fellow grad students: y’all are inspirations and wonders, every last one of you. One of the hardest things I think one can maintain over the course of a graduate degree is a sense of possibility: that the letters “PhD” after our names mean opportunity rather than defeat. Perhaps I am being wildly optimistic and incorrigibly naïve. I don’t mean to suggest that anything about living in 2021 is easy. But what I’m trying to practice for myself is to hold more fiercely to that idea that my world is more wide open than The Market would like me to believe.