Post Academic

Fuzzy math: The odds of attending college to teaching there

Since we’re on a math kick these days, here’s an attempt to summarize what your odds are for becoming an academic, from the start of the process–getting into college–to a happy ending–getting a tenure-track position or a postdoc.  There are lots of numbers floating around out there, so we’ll try to gather the easier-to-find hard data on undergrad admissions and the more-difficult-to-guesstimate anecdotal numbers on grad school admissions and faculty job searches.  Since we’re English types, we’re just going to focus on our fields, tracing the odds our hypothetical know-it-all high school senior who just decided s/he wanted to become a lit professor faces from being accepted at a university to teaching at one.

Phase 1, Getting into college: We know that the admissions stats vary a lot based on different demographic factors, such as race, sex, family connections, and geography (especially if you’re attending an in-state public school or you happen to be the best student from Wyoming that all the Ivies want to admit so that they can say they have a student from all 50 states).  But let’s say our hypothetical student spreads around her/his applications, from the H-Y-P-S (Harvard-Yale-Princeton-Stanford; too bad there’s also not a E school before the S of Stanford!) pie-in-the-sky tier to some liberal arts schools to good state universities to “safety schools.”  Here are some of the odds for 2010 admissions, compiled in almost real-time by the NY Times:

Harvard: 6.92% acceptance rate

Yale: 7.50%

Princeton: 8.18%

Stanford: 7.18%

The numbers for the H-Y-P-(E)-S are slightly more exclusive than their closest private counterparts, with almost all Ivies hovering around 10%, give or take a few percentage points.

More stats below the fold…


The odds of academic employment

Aside from March Madness, there’s nothing more exciting–and anxiety inducing–this time of year than waiting for admissions decisions to roll in, whether it’s for college or graduate school.  Over at the very interesting LiveJournal community group So you want to go to grad school?, there have been some posts recently that addressing just how hard it is to gain acceptance into a graduate program these days, with pools of 500+ applicants.  It seems that it has gotten a lot harder to get into grad school these days, compounded by the likelihood that the admitted classes are smaller and the funding packages maybe not be as lucrative, due to bad economic circumstances.  I don’t know so much about college, but I expect that it is harder to get into college, too, not to mention to pay for it.

For those interested in a full-time academic career at the end of many, many years of schooling, whether you’re at the end of the Ph.D., the beginning of it, or thinking about it, here are some of the odds of getting a job in academia.  I perused the results of some searches compiled over at the Academic Jobs Wiki for postdocs and American literature (the latter is my area of specialization), piecing together the following information:

American literature

Case Western Reserve, Asst or Assoc Prof, 20th c. US lit: 1 position, 500+ applicants

Coastal Carolina, 6 positions in various fields: 6 positions, 800 applicants (the odds aren’t so long here?)

Dickinson College, Asst Prof, Contemporary lit: 1 position, 650+ applicants

Macalester College, Open Rank, Literary Theory: 1 position, 400 applicants

Miami U of Ohio, Asst Prof, Modernist lit: 1 position, 380 applicants

U of Maine, Farmington, Asst Prof, 20th c. US lit: 1 position, 400 applicants


Harvard Preceptors: 5-10 positions, 300+ applicants

Johns Hopkins Mellon Postdoc on diaspora: a few positions, 450+ applicants

Rice U, Mellon Postdoc: 2-3 positions (usually), 1000+ applicants weeded down to 150 semifinalists(!)

Stanford Mellon Postdoc (limited to a few fields like Comp Lit and Asian Studies): a few positions, 600+ applicants

Temple U, Center for Humanities Postdoc: 3 times more applicants than previous years

Tufts U, Center for Humanities Postdoc: a few positions, 350 applicants (up from 60 last year)

UC President’s Postdoc, Diversity postdoc: 5 or so positions (usually), 500+ applicants

U Michigan Society of Fellows Postdoc: a few positions, 860 applicants weeded down to 180 semifinalists. (Keep in mind, too, that UM required a $30 application fee, and still got 860 applicants!)

UNC Chapel Hill, Diversity postdoc: a few positions, 400+ applicants

Washington U in St. Louis, Mellon Postdoc: a few positions, 500+ applicants

Bear in mind that the “real” odds are probably a little bit better, since not everyone who applies is either 1)qualified/ready to apply for tenure-track jobs and postdocs; or 2)a good fit for the stated position–I speak from experience on this.  But even being generous by cutting the competitive pool in, say, half, the best you can say is that maybe you have almost a 1% chance at getting a tenure-track position and around a 10+% chance of getting a convention interview out of a given application.  I know I’m playing amateur statistician and demographer here, but I imagine the longer odds and larger applicant pools have to do with fewer scholars having secure tenure-track positions.

Even a senior scholar I talked to seemed genuinely flabbergasted at the current situation and described this year’s market as pretty much a crapshoot.  So when someone wishes you good luck on the academic job market, it’s no formality–s/he probably means it literally.