Is the Tenure Track Right for You?
Or, how to set yourself up for an optimal tenure-track job search.
I recently wrote about how I decided that the tenure track was not a good fit for me. The silly thing about this epiphany was that it should have been common sense. I guess that is what they mean by saying that hindsight is 20/20. To be fair to me, there was a degree of being unintentionally misled by my educators. To be fair to them, they weren’t on the hiring committees that were screening me, and no one can see into the future.
I am a social scientist. As my mentors helped me through my job search (which, I am so grateful that they believed in me and spent hours, nay days, advocating for me as references), I think that they were unaware of the biases in the academic job search that favored a traditional student on a traditional path. Some of these biases could be described as personal prejudices against non-traditional candidates, while others are so deeply ingrained in the system and structures of higher ed (and beyond) that many who are on hiring committees are unaware of their privilege because the system itself perpetuates it.
Can you make it without the following? Sure. But, let’s be honest about how the world works. It might be possible, but it is going to be monumentally harder if you do not have at least some of these things going for you.
Here is how to decide if professorial work is for you and how to avoid the unspoken pitfalls that might work against you on the tenure-track job hunt:
Be the Correct Age.
If you want to be a professor, this is something that you should consider seriously as a career option before starting (or at least during) your undergraduate degree. You should have that moment that most students do when choosing a career. For example, if you want to be a physician, you would have likely decided this early on and would have followed a traditional path with AP courses in high school, pre-med program as an undergrad followed immediately by medical school. You get the picture. If you are still an undergraduate and progressing at the expected or faster than expected pace, you are in a very good position to decide on a career in the professoriate and you should talk to your professors now about the challenges and pitfalls. Also, seek out the wisdom of the adjuncts. They will help set up your path to success.
If you are a non-traditional student, going back to graduate school, this is likely going to work against you. It might not, but if you have a break or take a long time completing your graduate work, this will not help in that field. Also, “real world” experience is pretty much meaningless unless you ran for president or are a public figure of sorts. You will want to be on the tenure-track by your mid-thirties at the latest for optimal competitiveness.
Be Able to Attend a Top-Notch Undergraduate and Graduate Program.
To increase your odds, you will want to go to the best program that you possibly can as early as you can. You may want to rethink your career path if you don’t get into an elite program, or at least consider different career options in addition to teaching at a university.
Have a Super-Supportive Family or Friend Network.
There is a good chance that you will spend multiple years (up to five) on the job market. During this time, you will need to devote your time to additional research and publishing. You will probably not be competitive while you are still in graduate school. I have only heard of two people in the last eight years being offered tenure-track positions before defending their Ph.D. (both epitomes of the traditional professor).
The field is saturated with candidates, who by and large, are pretty much the same regarding qualifications – lots of publications, lots of research. It is very much like the Olympics, full of super performers who are all impressive with their backstrokes or halfpipe runs, but one might just be having a better day than another during the competition. But, to get to that “Olympic” level, you will need a supportive network and time. You will need a parent like Debbie Phelps or a friend like Geller – Monica or Paris.
Well, maybe not that extreme, but you get the idea. You will at least need people who believe in you and will support you emotionally and financially while you do this. If you are worried about being a single parent, your health, or paying the rent, all of that energy will work against you and make it harder to do the work that you need to get the job that you want.
Be Able to Keep Your Private Life Private Until You are Employed.
Unfortunately, things you do or say throughout graduate school may work against you. People remember. People talk. Try to keep it as professional as you can. This will be difficult in graduate school because some of your best friendships may be formed during this time and there will be events that you will want to attend, but remember that there is a good chance that someone you are with might be the key to a future job. Pace yourself and keep your behavior in check. During job interviews, be aware of what can be asked and what cannot; don’t offer up this information.
Be Able to Understand that What People Say They Believe and How They Behave Are NOT the Same Thing.
Even the most liberal disciplines are full of people who do not practice what they teach. Regardless of the theories and ideas presented by a prof to a room full of budding graduate students arguing support for social justice, when it comes to their turf they still want members of their tribe. You may have heard about that ambiguous quality that hiring committees call “fit?” What do you think that means? Hiring committees might argue, “will this person leave us?” to explain this “fit” phenomenon, and they might think of it regarding production of work. But really, “fit” is more than that. It is cultural. It is a way to perpetuate the specific culture of that school or department and discriminate among the candidates as they see “fit.” I would argue that the hiring of professors might best be done with trained human resource personnel.
Be Able to Recognize, Build, and Use Political Advantage.
You will want to use everything that you have going for you in your power. If you are a graduate of a state school, then see where alums, or even better, cohorts, of your programs are tenured. If you belong to a smaller professional organization, this could also help. Seek those out. Who you know makes a huge difference. It might not be fair, but it is a reality. This will also work doubly as well if you are from a leading department in your discipline.
You Can Avoid Contingent Academic Employment.
This is also somewhat a matter of privilege, but sometimes if you get yourself on a contingent track, you just won’t be able to get off – most definitely not at that institution. Being an inside candidate is not necessarily a mark in your favor, and it can work against you. I would argue that you are better off in a post-doctoral position or stringing together temporary research gigs if you can while on the market.
You may have noticed that publishing, researching, or getting teaching experience did not make my list. That is because you should already know this. It is the obvious, safe advice that others will tell you. And to be even more brutally honest, once you have thrown your hat in the ring for a few years and you see the hires that were made, you are prone to ask yourself, “why them and not me?” You will be unable not to take a look at the CVs of a person who beat you out after they are added as new faculty members to the program’s website. Sometimes those people will have more publications or funding; sometimes they will not. Sometimes they will have significantly fewer of these accomplishments. In just about every one of those instances, I suspect, that you can look at the points that I shared and have a better understanding of what happened.