Monday, January 12, 2009


The Bright Side of Economic Freefall

As the soufflé of an overleveraged economy collapses, it’s easy to focus on the negative.

I spent most of December writing variations on “now maybe we can finally start to rethink how we do business” posts, so I won’t rehash that. I’ll just note that it would be criminal to let a perfectly good crisis go to waste, and leave it at that.

Instead, this one’s about psychology.

With faculty (and administrative) searches being cancelled left and right, I’m thinking that this dropoff might be the final nail in the coffin of the idea of ‘meritocracy.’ Simply put, the searches being cancelled now are no reflection of the quality of candidates, any more than the boom market of the sixties was a reflection of the quality of candidates then. The market is dramatically tougher now than it was just two or three years ago; to suggest that the candidate pool worsened in that time by several orders of magnitude is simply silly. The disconnect between ‘candidate quality’ and ‘market quality’ is so dramatic, at this point, that the ‘merit’ narrative is simply unsustainable. And that may actually be a good thing.

Although it certainly beats some of the historical alternatives, the ‘merit’ narrative strikes me as not just false, but actually damaging.

First, and most obviously, it suggests that the folks who don't land the positions they want are somehow damaged goods. Some of them may be, but in this market, they can't all be. I can't help but wonder to what degree the otherwise-puzzling persistence of long-term adjuncts who just keep on plugging, looking for the big break, is driven by a felt need to redeem themselves in this value system. It's not economically rational, but there must be something, or there wouldn't be so many people doing it. To the extent that we can start to distinguish 'pay' from 'worth,' maybe some people will finally feel like it's okay to try something else.

Second, the effects on the 'winners' are ambiguous, at best. Some seem to internalize the ranking, resulting in a career wasted in bitterness that they aren't ensconced at some higher-level institution. Those who do manage to land at the really prestigious places seem to fall prey to 'impostor syndrome' at fairly high levels. In either case, the self-doubt is both corrosive and unnecessary. Even the winners lose.

Over the break, I had the chance to read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which is great fun. Among other things, the book spends some time on the idea of a 'threshold' of ability. As he tells it, between the limits of knowledge and the realities of life, it's often silly to pretend that minute differences in ability are actually meaningful. For many tasks -- including very high-end ones -- there's basically a 'threshold' of ability. Either you can do it, or you can't. Among those who can, single-measure differences are essentially arbitrary.

Yet we academics persist in believing that the Great Chain of Prestige, starting at Harvard and working its way on down, is founded in basic truth. And because it's an objective reflection of merit, being anyplace other than the tippity-top must reflect a personal failing.

The ghosts of cancelled searches this year suggest otherwise. If some of us start to realize that, this round of panic will actually have done some good.

Most of the adjuncts with whom I work are NOT looking for the "big break." Most of us are lifers. And when the young ones come around talking about how this is just a temporary step on the way to tenure, we all just smile and nod and say 'see ya' next semester'.

Something that you and others don't seem to get is that if one has little or no corporate experience, or if their non-academic experience is basically in restaurants and bar tending, then ones income prospects beyond adjuncting are really bad. Compared to, say, a $32k entry level salary in a cubicle, adjuncting turns out to be economically better and more rational.

Most of the adjuncts I know, and I include myself here, lack the training or experience necessary to get anywhere in the corporate world. And most of us cannot afford to go back to school to re-train.

I dislike the conditions under which I work -- no job security, and no health benefits topping that list of conditions -- but when all is said and done, I make more as an adjunct than most first year assistant profs. The real difference between the positions is that I work 2 or 3 times more than they do for the money, and mine is a dead-end position whereas theirs is not.
For Anonymous: OK, I am seriously not getting this.

If you are adjuncting because it's really, honestly what you want to do with your life, and you are willing to take the downsides with a smile, then more power to you. What I'm hearing from you, however is "yeah, it sucks, but I don't know how to do anything else." And you've convinced yourself that there's no way to learn how to do anything else.

If you have an advanced degree, which you presumably do if you are an adjunct at the college level, you have been formally taught how to learn independently. Who says you can get experience only in a classroom or in a corporate setting? Furthermore, who says the only employers in the world are universities or corporations?

Try this approach. It's going to take a while, but the job market is not a target-rich environment right now, so no harm done.

1) Slightly reduce your adjuncting teaching load, so that you have a few spare mental resources. Then, use your contacts to find an interesting local employer who will pay you a nominal wage ($10/hour for ten hours a week for one semester, say) to do a short-term job they need done. At that price, the mere fact that you show up on time and do what's asked of you means you're a bargain.

2) Use this time for reconnaissance: what kind of things do people in that industry need to do, but often don't have the skills to do? Do these things involve training in a specific area, and do you have natural talent sufficient to the task? If so, train yourself. If not, find another employer next semester. Rinse, repeat. Keep documenting your work experience as you go.

3) Use your new-found skills and contacts to begin hunting for work in your new profession. Continue adjuncting as long as it makes sense for you, and you enjoy it. If possible, combine your teaching skills and your other skills in a new career.

I'm sure this sounds incredibly naive to you. I'd think so, too, if I hadn't actually done something like this myself, and watched several other people do it. It is not easy, nor is it quick, but it beats waiting around for an illness or life crisis to render you destitute.

I'm currently still working in the profession I was trained for (I'm a researcher and a professor). However, my level of self-training and documented experience in my other field is sufficient, according to my headhunter, to place me in an entirely different career track with a good salary. My non-college-educated husband was selling truck parts when he self-trained enough to become an IT professional, and he is currently working in a very, very large corporate environment. Career modifications are possible, if you want them.
While I agree with much of what DD says, I can't let the remarks about adjuncts pass me by. I work in a unionized system, and, though I'm technically an adjunct, like many of my colleagues, I'm now full-time, with great benefits and significant job security (3-year contracts with renewal based on satisfactory performance). My department is 2/3 adjuncts at this point. We move up the salary scale with everyone else, even though I started at the low end. There's nothing special about me--I've just hung in there and now make about as much as an associate professor. I also love teaching and wouldn't want to do anything else.

Maybe it's more important to stay and fight for our rights than to leave work we enjoy.
Forgot to say this before....I completely agree with DD's point about the success of career outcome being a direct and complete measure of the quality of the individual.

The academic work environment is weird in two ways. One, it's one of the few places that F. Scott Fitzgerald's comment about their being no second acts in American lives is basically true. Either you get it right the first time (for very strict values of "right"), or you are very likely to remain marginal or worse forever. In other lines of work, it's possible to be what they call a "stretch threat" in horseracing: slow out of the gate, but a very strong finish.

Second, and I think more important, is that teaching is founded on the idea that if you're good enough and work hard enough, you'll get your reward. It's very easy to psychologically turn that around, and decide that a sub-optimal outcome is due to a personal failing rather than something extrinsic. Took me years to get over that.

Right now, the academic job market is set up on a curve: 3 kids in the class will get A's, 10 will get B's, 20 will get C's and D's, and 30 will flunk. Does that mean the ones who got A's are probably better at the coursework than the ones who got D's? Yes, it does. But if a score of 96 on the final is a C, and the coursework is hard, what is your grade measuring, exactly?
Even in the best of job years, there are many more applicants than jobs. Those who don't grab the golden ring indeed do move on to other necessity if nothing else. Once these non-golden-ringers move on, however, they are no longer visible, giving the impression in the field, especially to new grad students (and perhaps, also, to the handful that get the top jobs), that everyone has an academic job and that the meritocracy DD describes is in place. But it's an illusion, not the truth.

We went through the same cycle in the 70s and 80s as today, and the duration of the hiring downturn is very long lived. It doesn't appear to me that anything was learned from the last cycle, so we seem doomed to repeat it. The only difference now is that costs are up so much for the students, it seems difficult to imagine that the extremes of undergraduate borrowing that are propping up the current system can continue.

DD's community college, of course, will see increased enrollments.
Is a $32K starting salary really that bad, if it comes with benefits, a little more job security (maybe), and the opportunity to move up, and develop new skills that could make you more widely employable?
For those of you too young to know what cycle 'observer' was writing about, you can see some relevant historical information from physics in part 1 of my jobs articles from last summer.

I think the cycle for the humanities has a different structure (later?) because it was not driven by sputnik funding the way physics was. It's probably also the case that humanists didn't collect data quite the way physicists did. I don't know. But what has happened in physics is that the supply side reached its peak when the market was worst and reached a minimum when it was best. That made the 'good' markets really good, and the bad ones really REALLY bad. Right now it is starting to look like the 1973 recession did, only a lot worse.

The URL linked from my name points to the entire "jobs" category if you want to look over the other ones, which include the demand side for my field and applying for CC jobs in any field.

Part 1a from last summer is particularly interesting from an historical point of view, but only in the sciences.

PS - my word verification was "travill", oddly close to travail!
Thanks CCPhysicist for your links to your own posts on the history of physics jobs. I'm in a smallish humanities field, and I had not previously read an account of the situation in the sciences. The humanities fields (eschewing statistics!) have not by and large produced quantifiable data on hiring until recently. Nevertheless, the ups and downs in the humanities parallel physics very closely, much of it having to do with the size of the baby boom population. My field had the best job market ever in the last two years, owing to the retirement (finally) of those hired in the 50s and 60s, and the few people hired in the 70s and 80s (surprisingly!) moving on to dean/provost/+. The current freshman class is the largest in history, the first to top the height of a boomer year back in the 70s.

What's new this time is student debt, the internet which (in the humanities at least) allows graduate students to do the level of independent research once restricted to senior professors with a cadre of grad assistants, and the (surprising) emphasis in recent years on getting students through to the doctorate in four years.

Those hired in the early 2000s will parallel the careers of those hired in the 50s and 60s, so it looks to me that there will not be new positions for a very long time.
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