Should I Go Back On The Academic Job Market?

Photo by kate hiscock

Photo by kate hiscock

At a recent conference, three colleagues asked me whether I was currently on the academic job market, and revealed their own ongoing job searches.  Their questions echoed a voice in my own head that I’ve almost successfully silenced: am I supposed to go on the market now, in my third year on the tenure-track?

Initially, I felt offended that they would ask.  Their questions about changing institutions were innocent enough — even based on good intentions; but, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed because my career choices have been questioned since I added my current position to the list of jobs to which I would apply.  I had to push back against my grad school professors’ “encouragement” to pursue a career at a research I university.  Since then, I have, on occasion, been not-so-sublty reminded that “you can always go back on the market” (to get a “better” job).  As early as spring of my first year, I heard that there were rumors that I had been applying for a new position — in my first year.  So, I haven’t really had a moment yet in which I wasn’t being asked (or asking myself) whether I could or should go back on the academic job market.

By the end of my first year in graduate school, I became aware of the narrative — perhaps even expectation — that professors, at some point, pursue a “better” job.  In just my six years as a grad student, four professors left for new positions, typically right after earning tenure.  Initially, it seemed these professors stuck it out to get tenure at that school to then move to a school or location that might be a better fit for them.  I’ve never had a chance to actually ask any of these professors why they left and why, specifically, they left when they did.  But, rumors among fellow grad students were that some left because their families were miserable and needed a new location, some threatened to leave to get a raise (but didn’t get it, and then had to actually leave), and some left because of the “two-body” problem.  These caveats made it seem as though going back on the job market was not solely about the job or institution itself; however, these moves were not driven exclusively by personal reasons, either.

What about assistant professors who change jobs — and not to be immediately promoted to associate professor with tenure at the new institution?  That never happened while I was in grad school.  But, while on the job market myself, I saw what seemed to be just as many assistant professors vying for jobs as I did grad students.  One speculation I commonly heard was that these were “underplaced” scholars who had to take a less-than-desirable job initially owing to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession on the academic job market.  Since then, I have seen a couple of colleagues move to higher-ranking institutions, and a few others who moved to accommodate the needs of their partners or children.  Generally, I’m not sure that it’s a common occurrence.

Aside from moving to advance one’s professional status (i.e., because one was “underplaced”) or because of personal or family needs, there still seems to be an expectation to move — and soon.  In hopes of softening the blow that I had decided to accept a position at a liberal arts college, I offered to my advisors that it would be my mistake to make; more explicitly, I noted that I could always go back on the market, which meant staying active on the publication front (thereby exceeding my own institution’s expectations).  Two of my professors told me moving happens a lot in academia.  (Ironically, they have only been professors at one institution for their entire twenty-plus-year careers.)  The three colleagues I mentioned at the start of this essay have their professional or personal reasons for returning to the market; but, I also sensed that they felt they needed to move just because we’re expected to move once we hit our third or fourth year on the tenure track.

The short answer to their question is no, I have no desire or plans to apply for other academic positions (or non-academic positions for that matter). But, what the heck, I’ll give the long answer, too.

Potential Drawbacks Of Applying For (And Starting) A New Job

  • There is no real reason to leave.  Outside of the academy, I’ve observed that friends and family begin searching for a new job for practical reasons — that is, I’ve yet to hear “should” or “supposed to” or “expected to.”  They look for a new job to get promoted; that is, when one cannot move up the hierarchical ladder in one’s own workplace, one has to take a higher-level position elsewhere.  They simply get sick of their current position, owing to boredom, need for change, growing hostility or bias, etc.  They cite non-work-related needs like health problems, the needs of their partner/kids/parent (especially if dependent or sick), or having to or want to move to a new city.  Fortunately, I accepted a position that brought me closer to my family, offers the pace and expectations I’d like at work (and that are helping me get a handle on lingering mental health problems), and supports my approach to being an academic.  My partner has finally started working as a fifth-grade teacher; a move would mean asking him to pick up his life and start over again.  Since work is good, why would I disrupt my (and my partner’s) life and career just because of some informal expectation to change jobs?  That’s foolish and selfish.
  • I like my job.  Unless it’s not clear from the previous point, I actually like where I am.
  • Starting a new job is hard.  Starting a new job, in a new department and school, in a new city was incredibly hard.  Sure, this time I wouldn’t also be new to being a professor; but, that’s still a lot of new-ness to which I’d have to adjust.  I’ve finally made genuine friendships — those kind in which you hang out outside of work, and have other things besides work to talk about.  It only took me two years to find them!  And, I’m beginning to feel like a member of the communities in my department, university, and to a tiny extent in my local community (at least among those working for the LGBTQ community).  Others may feel invigorated by the adventures of moving and starting a new chapter of their lives, but I dread the idea.  The world is not filled with people willing to have genuine friendships or positive working relationships with an outspoken Black queer scholar-activist; my energy is better spent on building community where I am.
  • Starting over is worse.  I am too early in my career to realistically hope to take an associate professor position with tenure at a new institution.  So, I’d be starting a new tenure-track elsewhere, with a different set of expectations (formal and informal, transparent and not).  Worse, I may “lose” some or all of the years I’ve already completed on the tenure-track.  That is, there is a good chance I would have to start over.  No thanks.
  • The job market takes up a lot of time.  Starting the application process again would take up a great deal of time.  All of my application materials would need to be revised because I can no longer sell how awesome my dissertation is (was).  In my job talks, I would need to present new work that, ideally, will last me through tenure.  However, I’m currently in the thick of polishing the last couple of chapters of my dissertation and sending them out for publication; I don’t have anything really “new” at the moment.  And coming up with a new project and rewriting my application materials will cut into time I’m spending to finish work based on my dissertation.  I just don’t have the time (or energy) to present myself as a new shiny package again.
  • It’s too late.  Even if I were interested in applying for other jobs, it’s already too late in this year’s job market season (in sociology).  And, I think it would be foolish to devote any of my year-long research leave next year applying to jobs. By that point, I would be in my fourth year (two years shy of filing for tenure); I would start the new position in my fifth year — the year I would actually begin putting my tenure dossier together.
  • I need to work on my health.  I still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and recently discovered I was traumatized by graduate school.  (The latter falls into the category of complex trauma, which doesn’t appear in the DSM, but its symptoms are no less real for me.)  Thanks to these ongoing mental health issues, I was recently diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  Wonderful, just wonderful.  All of this oversharing of health problems is to highlight that taking care of myself and getting healthy is of far greater importance than worrying about and attempting to appease some informal expectation to find a “better” job.  Indeed, my colleagues are aware of my ongoing health problems, and have been incredibly understanding and supportive.  Again, why would I give that up?  Health wise, it doesn’t make sense to reintroduce the stress of applying for jobs, going on interviews, losing sleep because of uncertainty, moving, and starting a new job into my life if it is not necessary.  I’d go as far as to say moving around so easily is a luxury for those in good health.
  • The job search is an awful experience.  As I’ve noted above, the stress of being on the market alone is enough of a deterrent.  My anxiety was at its worst while I was on the market in my final year of graduate school.  I was moody and self-absorbed.  It seemed every conversation I had was about how the market was going — and, if it wasn’t, I couldn’t help but bring it up.  I imagine doing so with some level of secrecy at my current job would be even harder — especially because I have many more demands on me now than I did as a dissertating grad student who wasn’t teaching.  My job would have to be bad enough and/or the need for change would have to be severe enough to even consider sticking my toe into the turbulent waters of the job market.
  • I’ve got baggage.  And, not in that romantic, magical way like Mimi and Roger in Rent.  I’ve been very vocal in my criticisms of the academy, specifically sociology, and most specifically my own graduate program.  Do I dare to ask my dissertation committee members for recommendation letters?  Would they even say yes?  Would they be positive in their letters?  Do I even want their letters?  With little contact in three years, would their letters even be useful or appropriate?  (Baggage aside, I really don’t know to whom assistant professors turn when they go on the job market.  Asking your current department colleagues seems like a risk if you’re secretly apply for jobs, are leaving on bad terms, or don’t want to disappoint or hurt them.)  Besides the letters, I imagine a number of departments will want nothing to do with me because of my blogging and public presence.  Staying active on the research front can only trump concerns about “fit” so much.
  • There are few places that would be a good fit for me.  I am of the mindset that my happiness, health, and quality of life are more important than the prestige of a school.  That means I prefer to work at a school and live in a city that is safe and inclusive for gay interracial couples (my partner and me).  Realistically, no place in the US deserves such a characterization, but there is variation.  Since climate matters (in the department, on campus, in the city, in the state), that rules out most (all?) places in the country.  The odds of finding a good school in a hospitable city for me, an outspoken Black queer man, are too slim to waste my time even looking.
  • There are no guarantees on the job market.  Let’s say I went on the market next year.  I would be limited to the positions that are advertised in that year.  They may not fall into my areas of specialization.  They may be in undesirable locations.  They may include schools for which I don’t want to work.  I could, in the end, not want to accept any position or, worse, I not receive any job offers.  That is time, energy, and hope I can’t get back.  And, what if word got out in my department or college?  Unless I was dead-set on leaving because I had legitimate reasons to do so, it would be incredibly awkward to continue to show my face after the failed job search.  I worry, too, other colleagues might consciously or unconsciously hold it against me.  Maybe they wouldn’t invest as much in me because they assumed I’d be gone the first chance I could get, or that I was never truly invested in staying.
  • Greener grass is deceptive.  I’m going to quote lyrics from two songs.  In the song, “Better Than” by The John Butler Trio (JBT), there is an incredible lyric: “All I know is sometimes things can be hard // But you should know by now // They come and they go // So why, oh why // Do I look to the other side // ‘Cause I know the grass is greener but // Just as hard to mow.”  And, as Big Sean says in Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” “the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, it’s green where you water it.”  JBT’s wisdom points out that a new job may appear better from your current location, but it won’t necessarily be easier.  And, Big Sean’s career advice suggests staying where you are to make the job better, rather than jumping ship when things get tough.  My current job, department, and university aren’t perfect — and, I’d be surprised if any of my colleagues are surprised to hear me say that.  But, as I surmised from my campus interview when applying, and in the two-and-a-half years since, they are all willing to change and grow.  I’m in a place where colleagues don’t remind me of my “place” as a junior faculty member; rather, I’m encouraged to have a voice and be an active member of the campus and department communities.  (We’re simply too small to go 7 years of having any faculty members simply “seen but not heard.”)  It would be naive of me to think I can just shop around for a problem-free, egalitarian, truly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-cissexist, anti-fatphobic … institution.  But, it was certainly worth finding a place that is trying to become that, and working within it to make real change.

Potential Drawbacks Of Staying (And My Responses)

  • Don’t settle.  I can already hear concerned voices shouting at their laptops/mobile devices, “NOOO, ERIC – WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”  I’ve heard the advice to treat the tenure-track like dating.  There’s no ring on this finger (for now), so perhaps I’m naive to settle in this position and, worse, to publicly declare that I’ve settled.  (I mean “settle” in the sense of getting comfortable, not as in lowering your standards.)  I agree that it’s healthy to know that there are other options and, more importantly, to keep oneself competitive (to an extent) in case the time ever comes to apply for a new job.  But, I have learned from experience that a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude in a relationship takes a toll.  It makes others resentful, just waiting for the day that you finally leave or quit; and, you don’t fully reap the rewards of being committed to something/someone, even through the tough or uneventful times.  So long as my institution is committed to me, I will commit to it.  I sense that we both share the goal of making it a lifelong commitment.
  • Being taken for granted.  I suspect the underlying concern with the previous point is that your colleagues or institution will take you for granted.  The best way for them to bow to your feet is keep them guessing whether you plan to stay.  If more is desired, you can actually actively seek out a new job — thus, the threat of leaving.  Fortunately, I’m in a place that respects and values me because I’m here and committed; I don’t need to play psychological or emotional warfare to demand respect and attention.  (Frankly, that seems really unhealthy to me.  Imagine if I had to threaten to dump my partner every time I wanted him to buy me flowers.)
  • Know my value.  I’ve heard, on occasion, it’s good to toss an application or two (or 20) out just to see your value (presuming your department or university isn’t valuing you at your actual worth).  You can get a self-esteem boost from getting interviews, or even offers.  Nah, I’m good.  I’m working to get to a place where I don’t derive any of my self-worth from an institution.  That means not suffering six months of depression if I were denied tenure, nor throwing myself a party because another school said they like me.  I do not intend to criticize those who use this as a power-play or even a self-esteem boost.  I just feel I have better ways to use my time, like pursuing the things I value, rather than playing games at work.
  • Increasing my status.  Related to the previous point, I never set out to land at the “best” (i.e., highest ranking based on some convoluted way of placing schools in a hierarchy) school.  I don’t want others to give a damn about me because I’m at Harvard or Wisconsin or UT Austin.  I prefer to be recognized on my own merits, for the specific kind of work I do.  At conferences, when eyes gloss over “University of Richm…” on my name tag, and then dart to find another, more worthy person to talk to, they’ve saved me 15 minutes of meaningless conversation.  I’ve always been skeptical of academic fame because it seems we go out of our way to make ourselves feel important because, at some level, we realize we’re not seen as important in the rest of the world.  Being a “somebody” to other (elitist) academics seems at odds with making a recognizable contribution to the community.  With few exceptions, the more popular you are among academics, I assume the less you and your work matter to the world outside of the academy; the more involved you are in your community, the less other status-obsessed academics care about you.

Closing Thoughts

“Okay, so you’re not leaving,” you might say.  “Why write a blog post about it,” you might even be asking.  My intention here is to highlight the unspoken (though sometimes explicitly stated) expectation that, on top of trying to earn tenure at one institution, junior professors should also be looking to start a “better” (i.e., higher-status) job.  The question, “are you on the market,” doesn’t come from prior knowledge that I’m unhappy, that the job is a bad fit for me, or that I or my partner need to move.  It doesn’t suggest that applying for a better job is the only way to get promoted because I’m already working my butt off to get promoted in my current position; leaving could actually set me back and introduce new challenges.  Rather, at the root of it, the question just reflects pressure to advance one’s professional status (even if it’s at odds with your personal needs).

In the spirit of promoting self-care in academia, I ask that others rethink this mindset of going after “better” jobs purely to advance your status. Specifically, I mean not relying heavily on your institution to signal your worth to other academics.  You can do so by publishing another great article, or winning a teaching award, or being awarded a fancy grant, or putting research into action (either in the classroom or in the community), etc.  I think a healthier approach is to 1) think long-term to advance professionally and 2) place your professional status in the broader context of your life.  On point number two, I worry, for example, about those who neglect their health or continue to be single and miserable as they jump to a better job; I doubt there is any direct (positive) relationship between the status of one’s institution and one’s own happiness/health/self-esteem/purpose.  But, I’m aware this all depends on your values and goals, particularly as it relates to your career.  I just don’t see the point of being at an Ivy, for example, if I don’t have a community, am miserably single, in therapy, and am far away from family; the status alone isn’t enough to sustain me.

I can’t help but think about a romantic relationship as a parallel here in my suggestion to consider staying — or, at least consider not automatically leaving when the getting isn’t necessarily good.  If we constantly look for a “better” romantic partner, then we are taking energy and investment away from our current relationship.  We’re not fully committed, and thus our partner may not fully commit to us because they can sense we’ve got our eye on the door.  (I know this from a past failed relationship, unfortunately.)

I should note that I’m not naive enough to ask that others commit to a department or institution while they are on the tenure-track; don’t commit to an institution that hasn’t fully committed to you (yet).  But, by hiring you, they’ve made some level of a commitment; your colleagues are “dating” you and, in places that aren’t sink-or-swim or practice academic hazing, they actually hope dating becomes marriage for life.  You can, however, make a commitment to make your job more satisfying for yourself.  To the extent that you can without jeopardizing tenure, take on fun projects, teach fun classes (or at least a few lectures within a class), make at least one friend on campus (there are faculty in other departments and, gasp, there are staff members, too!), or volunteer for a community organization.  Outside of work, join a club, take a class, make an effort to find community, get an account with MeetUp/OkCupid/Tinder (whatever other apps kids are using these days), go to a community event, etc.  Even if you one day leave, at least you’ll have made an effort to make your present situation harder to leave without saying goodbye or shedding a few tears.

Additional Resources

If you are considering going back on the job market, or at least open to the possibility, check out what others have had to say about it.

One thought on “Should I Go Back On The Academic Job Market?

  1. So, here’s my question, and the resulting reason as to why the person was (possibly) asking you: are you even _sure_ that the tenure track you’re on is working in your favor? I have two friends who were (and I stress WERE) both tenure track this year – one in Soc and one in Cultural Studies. Both were great, teaching mega loads, doing the committee service, and publishing. Both seemed to be getting positive feedback and had no reason to believe they wouldn’t get tenure.

    NEITHER got tenure. Neither of them. One just found out a month ago, and was already scheduled for spring classes. He’s dejected and back on the market. One was very “kindly” told in September and is frantic on the market. Both were doing things “right” in terms of filling all of the blanks to get tenure, but one got cut because of his “social” stances, and one was cut because, essentially, a part of the department didn’t think she was “friendly” enough…and that’s all it took.

    So, maybe the “are you on the market” is all about in a shrinking tenure track market, some people are being REAL picky

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