What the guy on the airplane wants to know about academia
Recently, I was on a flight and became embroiled in a conversation that spanned the entire four-hour homebound trip. Those who know me will know that I did not initiate the chit-chat, since I try to look as surly and petulant and indifferent as possible around strangers, often with earphones in. Anyhow, the chatty guy next to me started talking to me about sports, which I enjoyed, and we eventually started talking about our jobs. Of course, I let him take the lead and just asked questions so 1.) I didn’t have to talk a lot and 2.) I was actually interested in what he did. About three hours in(!), I figured it would only be fair and neighborly of me to offer some quid pro quo and tell him about my own professional life, since he asked–hey, it’s probably good practice for a mumblemouth like me, too, to be engaged in a conversation where I’m talking a little about myself, but making what I say seem like it’s about my audience. After all, isn’t that what an academic interview is all about?
So, I figured I could talk about basically what I blog about: the academic job market. We started with him being surprised–or, “vexed” in his words–that I could train for so long for a Ph.D. and not have a job. For all the talk among academic-types about a general ressentiment against us smarty-pants, I do think your average joe respects those of us who’ve strived to get our advanced degrees. In some ways, I think we misperceive what misperceptions about academics are out there, something that I learned in the course of my flight-long talk…
More below the fold…
Anyway, he started by asking questions about the process of getting a job and whether I could just go to a top-level university and basically apply. I then described the bureaucratic red-tape every job application is wrapped in, starting with the fact that there needs to be a job in a specific department in a specific field at a specific rank before you even get a sniff at these things. That’s not to mention the few hundred other applicants, a good number of which are just as (over)qualified as you might be for the position. Admittedly, he was getting a bit sloshed, but he seemed shocked that I wasn’t able to just have an interview to teach at a university because I had an elite degree. Again, “vexing” was the way he put it.
Here are some of things I had to unpack in describing all the hoops we have to jump through to get a job that pretty much anyone outside of the university find strange and mystifying…
Terminology and what it means: At a basic level, it’s tough for folks to distinguish the difference between the ranks and titles academics hold–after all, someone qualified is teaching your college-aged kids, whether it’s a professor or a lecturer or an instructor or a TA, right? My seat neighbor knew about tenure, but he had a hard time following the distinctions between tenured, tenure-track, untenured, and so. And who could blame him, when we academics can have some difficulties grasping ranks, since it’s not even really the same from field to field and from school to school?
Anyway, I just described how the different statuses would affect his kids, comparing what it’s like to have a prof teaching them and freeway flyer teaching them, even if they had equivalent Ph.D. degrees. On the one hand, you can have a prof who has relative job security and experience teaching within a single, given system. On the other hand, you have likely a very smart lecturer who just doesn’t have as much time and energy to devote to teaching when s/he’s working at 3 different schools with barely any time to get to the jobs, much less do them. OK, that’s an extreme comparison, but it can give folks a sense that not all teaching conditions are the same.
“The lazy professor” myth: The more we talked, the more he realized all the work that academics do. Even though this particular guy had a healthy respect for profs and Ph.D.s, he did use the term “lazy professor” as a short-hand for the commonplace idea that academics have their heads in the clouds, locked up in the ivory tower, to mix metaphors. When I told him about the time and effort it took to complete my Ph.D., he was a bit blown away and even more miffed on my behalf that so much training yielded so little career opportunity and so much uncertainty. Hearing about how so many academics are hanging on and getting by just to have a chance at staying in the profession they trained for pretty much disabused him of the notion that Ph.D.-types are just lazy idealists.
Structural explanations: My favorite explanations are structural ones, where I step away from the self-pity even as I can comfort myself in knowing that my travails aren’t just about me. So when my airplane friend started feeling bad for me personally (which was nice of him, btw), I explained to him that 1.) this is a bigger problem affecting academic institutions as a whole and 2.) it’s connected to job problems in the economy as a whole. Still, he found it hard to fathom that a Ph.D. couldn’t just find a place for him or herself by just going up to an institution and submitting a resume.
In response, I explained the problem of how an undersupply of positions is matched by an oversupply of applicants, as well as academia conspiracy theories about how departments weigh the costs of investing in tenure lines versus going with cheaper but good labor that temporary instructors can provide. And whenever his sympathetic–and probably drunken–reactions could have prompted me to go down the path of self-pity, I just explained to him that, hey, it’s hard for anybody to get any kind of job these days, so academics aren’t immune to the different economic times and we understand it. If anything is gonna convince those unfamiliar with academia that we don’t live in a world of our own, it’s explaining that we’re all subject to the same conditions.