Victor Ray On “The Racialization Of Academic Funding”

victor-rayNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.


This essay is the first of two in which I will provide advice on getting research funding in graduate school. Here, I outline how disparities in graduate funding are deeply racialized and how that connects to racial issues in higher education more generally.

Let’s first take a brief look at the history of higher education in the United States. American colleges and universities were founded as white organizations. Part of their intellectual mission was to further the ideology and material practices of white supremacy. Profits from slavery, the exclusion of people of color and complicity in scientific racism were much more than unfortunate footnotes to an otherwise noble system.

As Craig Steven Wilder shows in the remarkable Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, higher education in the United States was founded on racial exclusion and explicitly designed to further white privilege. The life of the mind was underwritten by the cut of the whip. Although the civil rights movement and tepid diversity programming have reconfigured the racial relations central to higher education, they have by no means erased them. Colleges and universities attempt to project the illusion of a level playing field, yet racial disparities in funding, admittance and graduation rates remain deeply unequal.

Research funding is a racial issue in ways both easily apparent and occasionally hidden. Race shapes funding most obviously through the fact that the bulk of institutional resources remain firmly in white hands. Racial stratification is a defining feature of higher education at all levels of the hierarchy. For example, despite hand-wringing over supposedly “reverse racist” policies, whites are overrepresented relative to their proportion of the population when it comes to scholarships.

According to recent research by Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier, black students graduate with higher debt burdens. This bias extends to national funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health. After accounting for a host of factors that influence funding decisions — essentially, to statistically compare equally qualified white candidates and candidates of color — researchers found that black scholars were still 10 percent less likely than white scholars to receive NIH research funding. Such funding inequalities can make it less likely for students of color to be able to support their schooling and research, furthering racial inequity in higher education more generally.

Wider social factors also influence the ability of people of color to self-fund their education. As William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton and their colleagues have shown, deep racial differences in family wealth persist. Black and Latino families have fallen farther behind since the Great Recession, such that the “median black family has $7,113 in wealth, while the median white family has $111,740 in wealth.” The numbers are similarly stark for Latina/os. Those disparities are directly traceable to racist social policies like redlining, subprime lending and educational segregation, and they may make self-funding more difficult for nonwhite students.

Historical inequalities that can influence research opportunities and educational trajectories do not always show up in obvious ways. For instance, most legacy admittances can easily be construed as white racial preferences, given that many colleges and universities were only integrated in the 1960s. Similarly, the bias in so-called aptitude tests — which are excellent measures of inherited wealth — create the illusion of meritocracy while legitimizing educational inequality. Those historical inequalities influence current research realities. For instance, a dustup at New York University, in which the director of graduate admissions told a black student that perhaps he should rethink his application if he could not afford the fee, is a particularly blatant example of this racialized dynamic.

Because people of color are more likely to come from families without an ample and reliable store of wealth, they may not have the economic resources needed to support some basics of research. In my own discipline (sociology), necessary tools of the trade — such as laptops, digital tape recorders, data analysis software and money for transcription — may be unaffordable. A lack of funds for this basic equipment can put you behind your peers. And, psychologically, the very real sense of shame that comes from lacking resources in a society that measures your worth by your wealth can also constrain productivity. As a critical sociologist interested in racial inequality, I see how unequal funding holds implications for who gets to tell the stories of people of color.

Racial inequalities have real implications for conducting research. Sociologists have long argued that early disparities in funding create a Matthew effect that advantages scholars over the course of their careers. Based on the scripture “to them that has, more shall be given,” sociologist Robert K. Merton observed that scholars who found early success in securing funding were likely to have higher career productivity. Early funding provides vital resources — research assistants, course releases, money for travel — that scholars can use to extend their advantages. Those resources are then turned into the capital of academe: visibility, publications and access to social networks. Like compound interest, the productivity of scholars who achieve funding early in their careers is boosted, and that early advantage opens up subsequent opportunities. Racial disparities in funding thus create a cycle of cumulative disadvantage.

Beyond these reasons, the ability to acquire funding is becoming more important on the job market. Increasingly, departments in the social sciences are looking to hire scholars with a proven record of acquiring funding. Given the well-substantiated racial differences in rates of funding, this is yet another hurdle that scholars of color face — one that sets many of us behind.

Although personal action can never serve as a full substitute for institutional change, some strategies may make receiving funding more likely. In my next essay, I will offer practical advice on how students of color can increase their chances of getting funded and why they should apply for everything.

PhDs Of Color, Don’t Accept The Initial Job Offer!

sylvanna_0Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Sylvanna Falcón (@profe_falcon) is an associate professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and affiliated faculty of feminist studies and sociology. She is the author of Power Interrupted: Antiracist and Feminist Activism Inside the United Nations (U. Washington Press, 2016). She has recently discovered the wonders of yoga and meditation.

You Deserve Better

Over the past few years, I have started mentoring junior scholars, primarily women of color, about how to negotiate tenure-track job offers. This kind of mentoring came about rather organically, as I do not pitch myself as some kind of expert negotiator. But over time I became increasingly passionate about helping others secure better job offers as it started to align with my politics as a brown, Latina, middle-class, antiracist, feminist sociologist.

I became deeply troubled hearing time and time again that academics of color were advised against negotiating beyond the initial offer, to just be grateful about getting a job. Sometimes that advice is coming from other academics of color! Even though resources exist online about how to negotiate job offers, too many people, and recent Ph.D.s in particular, are getting the misguided advice to accept the initial offer, even in cases when they have competing offers from different institutions.

Increasingly, negotiating an offer is seen as a risk that could end in losing the job altogether or that we are being ungracious — or worse, ungrateful. This shift is particularly salient since the Great Recession of 2008, when the academic job market radically declined. Rather than having a plethora of tenure-track jobs to which to apply, such jobs have become scarce and intensely competitive, and many of us are simply unable or unwilling to live just anywhere in the country.

I remember a time in the early 2000s, when advanced graduate student cohorts in sociology would apply for 50 or more jobs; this job mecca was not my experience at all. I went on the academic job market four times, moving from positions as a lecturer to an assistant professor at a liberal arts college on the East Coast and then to a postdoc and an assistant professorship at a research-1 institution on the West Coast.

I would like to posit that our mind-set when negotiating academic job offers has to shift from being grateful that we have received an offer to knowing that we bring value to an academic institution — even in this new job climate. This shift in mind-set directly undermines the gratitude discourse prevalent at neoliberal universities. Why should we be grateful (and hence indebted) to labor for an institution? After all, we worked hard to earn that Ph.D. and receive that offer — facts we quickly forget when we are repeatedly told that we should be relieved to be offered an academic job at all these days. That is not to deny the very real and good fortune many of us have in landing a tenure-track job when too many Ph.D.s are unemployed, in severe debt and/or living the adjunct life. It is always sobering to hear the latest statistic about only 60 percent of Ph.D.s getting tenuretrack jobs in the social sciences and humanities, yet this new normal should not somehow circumvent our legitimate desire to enter a new job feeling happy and respected.

As academic job seekers enter into the negotiation phase for a tenure-track position, I encourage them to embrace three points.

Understand the value that you bring to the institution and your future department, even if you are a newly minted Ph.D. If you accept the job offer, you plan to work at this particular academic institution for the foreseeable future. The students and your future colleagues are going to benefit from your outlook, energy, research, recent graduate school training and knowledge. You will bring renewed enthusiasm to your teaching and research. They extended the offer to you so your future colleagues see your value. Now you should, too.

The offer is yours to accept … or not. I have yet to hear firsthand of a case where someone asked for an increase in salary and it resulted in the offer getting pulled, but there are stories. You are going to hear “no” a lot in academe (so, develop thick skin now), but in order to even get to that stage, you actually have to ask for something. If the offer is not to your liking, then you can walk away. Yes, you can actually walk away! Why should you accept an offer that has not met your standards and expectations? You have a bargaining position that you need to finesse to your advantage rather than be taken advantage of.

However, you have to be an effective and strategic negotiator, meaning that you request reasonable considerations typical of that particular institutional structure. Asking for things typical of a research-1 job offer at a liberal arts institution is not in your strategic interest. It is in your interest to consult widely — online and with multiple mentors — and to give serious thought to what you need in place to excel at that particular institution.

Do not pre-emptively sabotage yourself by not asking for anything. Ignore the advice and reaction from your mentors or other supporters to just sign the initial offer. I have helped women of color negotiate increases in salaries, research funds and course releases after people they trust told them not to ask for anything. I have literally lost count of how many people of color I have helped to negotiate better packages against the advice of their academic mentors. This help has translated to larger salaries for senior positions (by $20,000), substantial increases in research funds (by $15,000) and modest increases in salaries for assistant professors (ranging from $2,000 to $5,000).

Now, you will not get everything for which you ask; negotiations means compromises. But even I have been stunned at some of the aforementioned successes when people of color get serious about negotiations. That is not because I have some inside secret or deft negotiation skills to pass on, but because, with some close mentoring, people of color began to think concretely about what they needed to thrive. The key, I believe, is that they offered an effective explanation as to why they merited these items. Your salary has a chance to increase if you can provide a clear and compelling rationale for the increase based on the value you bring, not because you have a lot of debt. This same logic applies to your research funds, summer salaries and course releases. If you ask for it, you must be able to explain why you deserve it.

With a tight and scarce job market and the trend toward neoliberalizing universities, people of color — especially women — seem scared, literally, to ask for anything beyond the initial offer. You do not want to start a new job from a place of fear or misplaced gratitude. The content of the job offer sets you on a career trajectory. Change your mind-set about the purpose of job negotiations away from indebtedness to an institution and academe. Nurture an understanding of what you need for your well-being and to thrive professionally.

Transphobia On The Job Market

alex-hannaNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Alex Hanna is an assistant professor in the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology and the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on how new and social media have changed social movement mobilization and political participation more generally. Methodologically, she is interested in computational social science, textual analysis and social network analysis. This article will also appear in Reflections on Academic Lives: Identities, Struggles and Triumphs in Graduate School and Beyond, a collection of essays to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.

Being Transgender on the Job Market

Being on the academic job market can be traumatizing for a job candidate. With the current disparity between Ph.D. holders and available jobs, the casualization of academic labor, and the shrinking of public university budgets, what was once a field of possibility has become one of rabid competition.

An ideal job candidate is supposed to have a track record of publishing in top academic journals, a broad range of teaching experience and a commitment to university service. And in a field with so many candidates, it is — as Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In said in her self-titled 2015 book — a buyer’s market. Any slight edge may mean the difference between getting a campus visit or never hearing back. The uncertainty of a highly competitive market makes anxiety, depression, stress and other mental and physical health problems commonplace for job candidates.

Transgender people on the market have to negotiate a host of additional difficulties, even before getting a campus visit and interview. Obviously, I cannot speak for all transgender folks — I identify as transfeminine and a trans woman, am a person of color, and transitioned during graduate school. As a whole, transgender people are drastically underrepresented within academe — a fact that was apparent to me during the last meeting of the American Sociological Association. Although the theme of the conference was “Sexualities,” only a handful of transgender people were in attendance, mostly transmasculine and trans men. In fact, as far as I could tell, I was the only transfeminine person or trans woman in attendance. I had an overall positive experience, but in disciplines that don’t talk about gender explicitly, the lack of transgender representation may be an even starker problem.

The difficulties of applying to academic jobs as a transgender person begin before submitting any applications. The first question is whether you should even disclose your transgender status. Parts of your application may need to be explained, such as the disparity between the name that you use on an application and the name under which you have published. Outing yourself may lead to subtle or even outright discrimination, but because those negotiations are made behind closed doors, you have no way of knowing for sure. If you do choose to disclose your transness, you have to decide how to do it. There aren’t many places on the cover letter to talk about gender and sexuality. A supportive adviser can do so in recommendation letters, but an unsupportive adviser may misgender you just the same. Recommenders also have to use the correct pronouns, and therefore you can be at the mercy of ignorant or hostile writers.

The experience of being transgender on a campus visit can go south quickly. Such a visit requires you to be professional at all times, and keeping up your emotional guard to gender issues makes it doubly trying. Bathrooms pose a glaring problem — although this is improving, it is still fairly rare for academic buildings to have unisex or gender-neutral facilities. Professional clothing can be a problem for more clearly expressing gender, and the process of getting those clothes can be stressful in itself. In all interpersonal interactions, misgendering is continual fear, including one-on-ones, a group meal or, in the worse case, when a senior faculty member introduces you to a room full of people with the wrong pronouns.

I recently had a nightmare interview in a sociology department at a college in a major metropolitan city in the Northeast. At the job talk, the (older, white male) search chair — let’s call him George — introduced me with the wrong pronouns, which meant the rest of the audience took his lead. He knew my correct pronouns, but he didn’t seem to be able to get them right at all. The situation came to a head at dinner, attended by George and three women faculty members. His misgendering was constant, and the other faculty members were repeating it. It annoyed me less that he was consistent in doing it but that the other faculty members were acquiescent in it. I remember at one point, he said something to which he wanted to engender a big response or laugh but managed to misgender me in the statement. While everyone else laughed, I just looked down and felt humiliated.

I considered not returning to the second day of the interview, but decided to soldier on. That evening I wrote an email to one of the faculty members at the dinner, with whom I felt more free to speak — let’s call her Charlie — about all the misgendering, and how it was disrespectful and degrading. The next morning, Charlie, George and I sat in George’s office, where he offered an apology and said something about needing training on transgender issues. George and I then went to another meeting with the head of another department. Upon entry, that person asked, “How’s the visit going?” to which George responded, “Oh, not too well,” and then we had to rehash all that had happened.

At that point, it just felt like the obsession with my transness and George’s inability to get my pronouns right had become the focal point of my visit. After George came back from taking a phone call, I turned to him and said I couldn’t continue the interview and wanted to go back to the hotel. Although this is a worst-case scenario, it displays many of the tensions and emotional exhaustions of being transgender on the market.

How does this get better? A tenure-track faculty interview, even though potentially anxiety producing and traumatic, is still a relatively privileged situation. Before getting there, there are significant barriers to entering the higher education pipeline, including proper K-12 education, parental well-being and income, and adequate housing. According to a survey of transgender people commissioned by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 78 percent of respondents had been harassed in K-12 settings, 57 percent had experienced significant family rejection and 19 percent had been reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives because of their gender identity. In addition, 41 percent of respondents have attempted suicide. Nearly all those numbers are worse when considering people of color, especially black transgender people. So things for transgender folks in academe will probably get better along with larger movements for racial, educational and housing justice.

For transgender people currently in academe, strategies for coping in other spheres of life go double when it comes to the job market. Having a good support system is vital. Find other queer and trans academics going through the job-seeking process. In addition, be mentally prepared for worst-case situations. Finally, try to find allies among the faculty and on the search committee. As a last resort, it’s OK to just leave. Seriously — if the environment is toxic at a two-day campus visit, then it’s no place you want to work.

Advice On Writing An Effective Diversity Statement

Note: this blog was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza (@tanyaboza) is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her most recent book is Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism (NYU Press, 2015). She blogs at Get a Life, PhD.

Tanya Golash-BozaFaculty job postings are increasingly asking for diversity statements, in addition to research and teaching statements. According to the University of California at San Diego website, “the purpose of the statement is to identify candidates who have professional skills, experience and/or willingness to engage in activities that would enhance campus diversity and equity efforts” (emphasis added). In general, these statements are an opportunity for applicants to explain to a search committee the distinct experiences and commitment they bring to the table.

So, how do you write an effective diversity statement? If you are a job candidate who actually cares about diversity and equity, how do you convey that commitment to a search committee? (Note that if you do not care about diversity and equity and do not want to be in a department that does, don’t waste your time crafting a strong diversity statement — and you need not read any farther in this essay.)

My first piece of advice is: do not write a throwaway diversity statement. Some job applicants think that writing a diversity statement that shows they actually care about diversity and equity may be too political. Thus, they write a blasé statement about, for example, how they encourage students to come to class in pajamas if they feel comfortable. That is not an effective strategy, because it does not show a genuine commitment to diversity and equity.

Of course, it is true that many faculty members overtly reject campus efforts to enhance diversity and equity. However, it is also true that search committee members who do not care about diversity do not read diversity statements. Just like search committee members who do not care about teaching gloss over teaching statements, those who do not care about diversity gloss over diversity statements. So, don’t bother writing a statement directed at faculty members who do not care about diversity. Write one for those faculty members who will take the time to read your statement carefully.

I can assure you that many faculty members truly care about diversity and equity and will read your statement closely. I have been in the room when the diversity statement of every single finalist for a job search was scrutinized. The candidates who submitted strong statements wrote about their experiences teaching first-generation college students, their involvement with LGBTQ student groups, their experiences teaching in inner-city high schools and their awareness of how systemic inequalities affect students’ ability to excel. Applicants mentioned their teaching and activism and highlighted their commitment to diversity and equity in higher education.

Here are seven additional suggestions to consider as you write your diversity statement.

  • Tell your story. If you have overcome obstacles to get to where you are, point those out. If, in contrast, you are privileged, acknowledge that. If you grew up walking uphill to school carrying two 20-pound sacks of rice on your back, by all means, tell that story. If you were raised with a silver spoon in your mouth, acknowledge your privilege. Either way, use your story to explain how you can empathize with students who confront challenges on their way to achieving their educational goals.
  • Focus on commonly accepted understandings of diversity and equity. Concentrate on issues such as race, gender, social class and sexual orientation. Don’t try to tone down your statement by writing about how it is hard to be a Kansan in Missouri, for example. Instead, write about racial oppression, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism or some other commonly recognized form of oppression.
  • Avoid false parallels. By that I mean do not equate the exclusion you faced due to being a Kansan in Missouri with the exclusion an African-American faces at a primarily white institution. You do not have to be an African-American to have insight into the challenges they face, but if you do not have experiential knowledge of racism, then do not claim it. Instead, focus on writing about what you do know. If you feel comfortable getting personal, you can write about your own experiences of privilege or oppression. But you don’t have to get personal; you can cite statistics or studies to make your points.
  • Write about specific things you have done to help students from underrepresented backgrounds succeed. If you have never done anything to help anyone, then go out and do something. Sign up to be a tutor at an underperforming school, build a house with Habitat for Humanity or incorporate antiracist pedagogy into your teaching. In addition to having a rewarding experience, you can write about it in your diversity statement.
  • Highlight any programs for underrepresented students you’ve participated in. If you have had any involvement with such programs (e.g., McNair Scholars Program), describe that involvement in your statement. This involvement can either be as a former participant or as a mentor or adviser to someone who has participated. These kinds of specific examples show that you understand what effective programs look like and how they work.
  • Write about your commitment to working toward achieving equity and enhancing diversity. Describe specific ways you are willing to contribute. You can mention your willingness to contribute to pre-existing programs on the campus or you can express interest in creating new programs based on models at other campuses.
  • Modify your statement based on where you are sending it. Your statement for a land-grant institution in the rural South should not be the exact same one you send to an elite institution in urban California. Look up the demographics of the institution to which you are applying and mention those demographics in your statement. For example, if the university you are applying to is a Hispanic-serving institution, you should be aware of that. Or if it has a well-known scholarship program for underrepresented minorities, you should mention that program.

Diversity statements are a relatively new addition to the job application packet. Thus, search committees are still developing assessment tools for such statements, and many campuses lack clear guidelines. Nevertheless, you can use this novelty to your advantage by writing a stellar statement that emphasizes your record of contributions to diversity and equity as well as your commitment to future efforts

On The Price LGBTQ Academics Pay For Safety And Well-Being

bonnie-morrisNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Bonnie J. Morris has been half-time faculty at both George Washington University and Georgetown University for over 20 years and is the author of 15 books, including three Lambda Literary Award finalists. She is also a consultant for Disney Animation, the AP U.S. history exam and the AP unit on high school psychology.

Academe’s ‘Gay Tax’

Like all part-time or contingent faculty members, I have learned to stretch the dollars from my fluctuating salaries over the years. Like many but not all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer faculty members, I am comfortably out in the classroom, my identity never a secret. And like many historians passing the age-50 mark, I sometimes enhance my lectures with personal anecdotes, reminding my students that I Was There at this or that rally or riot, this or that cultural turning point, earthquake or election. But all of those eyewitness aspects are part of a triad that I have not seen addressed when we speak about fair adjunct wages.

For years, my LGBTQ colleagues and I paid a “gay tax.” We paid higher costs in food, rent and other services because we lived and worked in America’s more expensive cities: those cities where civil rights statutes recognized our equal rights in housing, adoption, partnership and workplace arrangements. We may very well have pored over tenure-track job ads for positions offering better packages than our adjunct appointments yet found only prospects in states or cities (or at faith-based colleges) where we would never be free to be open and out, acknowledged or housed.

It’s easy to forget the legal climate of open homophobia and biphobia that prevailed so recently. My long-term renewable half-time appointment at George Washington University, for example, began in 1994 — the year when a court in Virginia cheerfully removed a child from a loving home with two moms simply because one relative complained that no child should grow up in a lesbian household. Young people wanting to learn more enlightened views on this topic in 1994 had another problem: some Northern Virginia public libraries forbade youth under the age of 18 from taking out books about bi- or homosexuality without a parent’s permission.

It would be another decade before Lawrence v. Texas overturned the state sodomy laws that declared someone like me a criminal, even a felon, in Virginia and in other states — but felon status made us less favorable in many a state university job search. In 1986, as I was taking my M.A. exam in graduate school, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick decision grimly reminded all of gay America that private, consensual lovemaking with a partner in one’s own bedroom was not protected action and could result in arrest, jail time and a sex offense record. Such a record was hardly the best résumé for a hopeful educator.

So, we avoided Virginia. We avoided Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas. We ground our teeth during the American Historical Society discussions about whether to hold annual meetings in cities that openly discriminated against LGBTQ people. We knew we were thus an inconvenience to our straight peers. Meanwhile, as America lumbered toward a greater understanding of full citizenship, we competed against all other gifted LGBTQ colleagues for that one tenure-line job in San Francisco, Ithaca or Chicago. And I continued working two or three jobs in order to live in D.C., rather than in its more affordable but LGBTQ-inhospitable southern neighbor, Virginia.

We put ourselves on the line financially and politically by insisting on ordinary quality of life up through very recent years, which the nation risks forgetting in all the focus on the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-gender marriage. It was not long ago that one of my colleagues won an academic appointment in Florida that she ultimately left, given that state’s rules against gay adoption, gay foster parenting and hospital visitation rights for same-gender couples. Even at liberal GWU, I was not immune to homophobia’s depressing tentacles. Well into this 21st century, I received threatening calls and letters due to my curriculum on gays in the military, and I watched tensely as our terrific women’s basketball team — including some lesbian players and at least one beloved transgender man — competed against Liberty University, the evangelical institution still banning LGBTQ students and faculty members.

I have lived on a budget as a gay historian in a gay neighborhood (or “gayborhood”) for 22 years, and just as we move to almost (but not quite) universal protections, I now face losing my job as LGBTQ historian altogether. This year, my women’s studies position was marked for elimination in new budget cuts, effectively gutting the LGBTQ minor that I helped create. Where my curriculum and I will go is a question in arbitration. But having been a living role model for my newly arriving students every fall — Be out! Live authentically! — I intend to go on speaking as a living relic of that recent, gay-taxed time. In looking back on how I planned my budget, I know that surviving on contingent labor pay was always linked to living freely, where possible — and required carefully weighing isolation against income.

Substitute black for LGBTQ and this story is an old one; for my ancestors it was Jew and for others, Irish or Native. We can’t always search for a job where we’re not wanted. I have personally also experienced the discomfort of teaching women’s history where women faculty members were not wanted and where the campus climate was not merely hostile but also unsafe for women students and faculty members, regardless of our personal feminist identities. Where we see a high ratio of women (and women and men of color) in the adjunct or contingent labor pool, the intersectionality of these issues is clear: Which of one’s interrogated identities benefits a college or university seeking to “diversify” yet places the applicant in a miserable situation — the unsafe and isolated exhibit A of their own identity? In a job interview, is it fair to ask how one might not merely survive but also thrive at an institution offering a salary yet lacking a community? What quality of life is an adjunct professor allowed?

Over the years, those friends who asked me, “Why don’t you have tenure?” were usually not LGBTQ. Their job-search engines did not drive with a rainbow flag flying up front. I am asking that we call attention to these stories as we talk about the “living” in the living wage agenda, for there is much to learn from everyone who paid the gay tax and, in gentrifying cities, formed the gayborhood locus that often displaced longtime residents/people of color. We are the faculty members who taught the very history we lived out. We lived it out, on part-time pay, in zip codes that were the safe zones of our time.

There Is Life (And Happiness) Outside Of The Tenure-Track

julie-shayneNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Julie Shayne is a senior lecturer in interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and affiliate associate professor of gender, women and sexuality studies and Latin American and Caribbean studies, as well as faculty associate, at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington Seattle. She was born and raised in California and seems to be living happily ever after with her family in the Pacific Northwest.

“Off Track, On Point”

I should be an advanced associate professor by now. I am not. I should serve on tenure review committees. I do not. I should have had one sabbatical at my current institution by now. I have not.

I earned my Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2000. I cannot lie; I do feel a twinge of frustration watching assistant professors whom I helped to recruit and mentor earn tenure while my position stays relatively unchanged. I have one tier above me on my track (principal lecturer), for which I recently became eligible. But after that, I hit a glass ceiling.

I certainly feel that I am long overdue for a well-earned sabbatical. And I do wish that my primary title were associate professor, not senior lecturer. I am confident that I have the academic qualifications congruent with that title: three books, decades of teaching and service, awards, yada, yada, yada. The longing for a title that equals my years and accomplishments post-Ph.D. is fleeting, especially when I reflect on why I am where I am today.

In 2006, I resigned from my tenure-track assistant professor job about a year before I submitted my tenure portfolio. Yes, I wanted tenure — who doesn’t, especially after going through the hell of the tenure track? But I wanted a happy family and personally rewarding life, as well. And being a West Coaster living in the Southeast made the nonwork happiness an unattainable reality, tenure or not. So I resigned. (I discuss that decision and move in an essay called “Mother’s Day,” which is the afterword in my newest book, Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas.)

When I resigned, I had no idea how things would work out. As a straight, white, upper-middle-class woman, I had the privilege of knowing that my family and I had my husband’s salary and health insurance to fall back on if my career move proved unsuccessful. Fortunately, I had very good timing. I showed up at the University of Washington Bothell just two years after it started admitting first-year college students (as opposed to just transfers), and the campus needed people to teach new freshman classes. I am now housed in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, a unit that encourages me to frame my research, teaching and even service in a way that prioritizes passion and social justice over the treadmill of self-doubt and limiting professional norms. (I have written about this part of the story here.)

Like many academics, I was a professional organizer before I was a professor; that is, a grassroots leftist turned institutional leftist. I became an organizer in 1984 as part of the U.S. sanctuary movement and Salvadoran solidarity movement, working with the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador. I started as an undergraduate student at University of California at Santa Barbara. But not long after getting sucked into the movement, I decided to drop out of college. (Every Jewish parent’s dream: a child who’s a college dropout, right?) I moved to Washington, D.C., ironically, to be CISPES’s full-time national student organizer. I went across the country, campus to campus, traveling with Salvadoran refugee activists, in order to inspire college students to organize on their campuses in solidarity with the Salvadoran revolution. It was a heady time, to say the least.

Health issues forced me to reroute my path, and eventually I returned to college, this time at San Francisco State University, where I earned a B.A. and M.A. in what was then called women’s studies. During my very first semester there, I decided that I wanted to be a professor. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in rooms full of leftists, mostly women, discussing things like black women, music and politics with Angela Davis (who taught at the university at the time) — and I was getting credit for it! Who would leave that reality? Plus, the institution was full of nontraditional students like myself and had great ethnic studies departments and a wonderfully diverse student body. (Very sadly, the future of ethnic studies at San Francisco State is presently under attack.) I wanted to teach at a place like that. And as many of us probably know, when we decide we want to be professors we are not thinking about writing books, academic service or moving to the middle of how-the-hell-did-I-end-up-here U.S.A.

After San Francisco State, I went back to the University of California at Santa Barbara to earn a Ph.D. in sociology. The longer I stayed in academe, the more I could feel my passion being pushed to the margins. I landed my tenure-track job and read the memo all lefty academics get: leave your politics at the door. I didn’t quite realize what was happening as it was happening, because when you’re on the tenure track, you’re not given a lot of time to stop and think, let alone second-guess any earlier decisions.

But leaving the tenure track allowed me to remember why I wanted to be a professor in the first place: to teach about and inspire social justice activism, especially feminism. The longer I teach, the more invested I become in this profession as my locale for social justice activism. In having Latinx students who have never seen their histories taught in a class, I know that fleeing the tenure track for what I originally thought were incredibly personal reasons was also my way of bringing my long-buried activist back to the surface.

And the longer I stay at an institution that lets feminists reshape old and build new degrees to center intersectional analyses, the more I am convinced that prioritizing personal quality of life is invariably connected to our political sanity. It is actually quite embarrassing that it took me so long to notice this.

Colleagues, including feminist colleagues, have invariably looked down on me for presumably prioritizing family over career. Put another way, happiness over self-implosion. In retrospect, I think others have mocked me because I haven’t played by the rigidly outlined rules, rules that say profession first, family and activism, at best, next. I don’t like those rules. I decided to be a professor to teach and do social justice activism, and I am grateful that I have accidentally figured out a way to make that a reality.

But I cannot lie: I do still wish my primary title was associate professor and that I would be submitting my dossier for promotion to full professor in a few years, as many of my grad school colleagues probably will. But not if that means exchanging the emotional and professional satisfaction that I experience in my current reality for what, in the end, is only a title.

I suppose my message here is to ask, why did we decide to become professors in the first place? Did we even know which titles and tracks existed? (I certainly didn’t; I didn’t know what tenure was until a few years into my Ph.D. program.) Are we really advancing a social justice agenda if our so-called professional pursuits are forcing us to abandon our convictions?

I am not suggesting everyone jump ship. As I said, I am very privileged to have the family resources available that allowed me to take the risk, combined with impeccably good timing. From where I sit now, I am quite confident that if I showed up unannounced at my university today, as I did eight years ago, the trajectory would be very different and far less secure.

That said, I do think it’s important for people to pause and ask themselves, “How did we end up on the path we are on, especially if it’s not where we hoped to be?” Although we do not often talk about it, the reality is that there is more than one path through academe. Despite the dominant professional narrative that suggests otherwise, all of us are not meant to be on the tenure track.

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.