Monday, September 30, 2013


Isolation and Jobs

Folks who have been following the academic labor market for some time are familiar with the  “two-body problem.”  It’s an inelegant term for the difficulty that couples have in finding good jobs for both people that are geographically close enough that they can continue to live together.  Given the shortage of full-time academic jobs, couples are frequently put in a position where they have to choose between serious underemployment for one of them and living separately.

Rebecca Schuman’s recent post on a job listed at Sewanee is well worth reading.  Among other things, she notes that the two-body problem is only a problem for people who have partners who don’t stay home; whether intentionally or not, it rewards the single-earner family.  She further notes that faculty from racial or cultural minorities can easily find themselves severely isolated at many rural jobs, so in effect, they face an even more constricted market than they otherwise would.  (Schuman is especially good on this point.)

That’s not the fault of any particular college, but the impact adds up over time.  For graduate students and new doctorates who aren’t superstars from superstar pedigrees, there’s a clear expectation that the only way to be seriously competitive is to be hyper-mobile.  Go wherever the opportunity is, all else be damned.  

But that’s a tough way to live a life.  In the discussion to the piece, some readers noted that similar demands are made of military families, although one could probably argue that the military is far more upfront about it.  (It also has a significantly earlier retirement age.)  I’d be surprised if most prospective graduate students were apprised of just how mobile -- and therefore unattached -- they’d have to be.  That’s tough to ask of people in their late twenties and early thirties, which are classic family-formation years.

The bad news is that location issues don’t really go away after that.  In the community college world, it’s rare to hire faculty directly at senior levels with senior-level pay.  Someone who starts here at age fifty, with decades of experience, does not make what someone already here with the same age and experience makes.  (They’ll get more than a rookie, but not as much more as you might think.)  In effect, that means that once you’re well into a system, you can’t leave without either changing roles altogether -- going into administration, say -- or taking a significant pay cut.  If you have kids who are hurtling towards their own college years, a significant pay cut can be a deal-breaker.

The market for administrators is also national.   Sometimes moving up requires moving out; at that point, you have to decide how much you’re willing to put your family through (and you should expect your family to have some opinions on that).  If you have school-age kids, you don’t pull up stakes without feeling it.  Add the two-income issue, and the pull of rural locations gets that much weaker.  In a rural setting, it’s unlikely to find two jobs; if one of them doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, it’s nearly impossible to recover without moving.  

In a less straitened market, having options around the country could look like freedom.  But when options are few and far between, that kind of freedom looks more like desperation.  It’s one thing to daydream about the wide open spaces of Montana before snapping back to reality and applying nearby; it’s quite another when Montana (or wherever) is the only option.  

In grad school, I remember absorbing by osmosis the lesson that if you were truly “serious,” you wouldn’t think twice about applying nationally.  Acting on some sort of preference for place, or even region, was considered selfish, and reaching above one’s station.  At twenty-two, I didn’t think much about it; I was young and single, and the sheer brutality of the market hadn’t hit me yet.  At this point, though, I would not -- and do not -- advise my kids to follow in my career path.  Life is too short for nomadic monasticism, and wanting a family you actually see doesn’t make you less intelligent or less capable.  The core of the two-body problem isn’t the second body; it’s the missing job.  I hadn’t figured that out yet at 22.  I hope someone tells this generation before it does anything stupid.

I'm always bemused at those places that rank quite similar to my institution but pull in huge numbers of job applications for positions. We've often seen a few dozen applicants but rarely more. Location is everything and for a lot of people, our location appears impossible.

That's sad because, really, this place isn't all that it's thought to be in Canadian pop culture (just go search on the term "Sudbury Saturday Night" to see what's the basic idea) but for big city people, it can seem like the end of the world.

Sometimes colleagues have moved elsewhere to solve their own two body problem. Others have come up with very creative ways to make it work despite the challenges. Frankly, I owe my partner my eternal gratitude for agreeing to the very real sacrifices that following me here entailed. Sadly, academia adds all of that stress to itinerant and tenure-track uncertainties making this an especially wearing and fraught career prospect.
"For graduate students and new doctorates who aren’t superstars from superstar pedigrees, there’s a clear expectation that the only way to be seriously competitive is to be hyper-mobile. Go wherever the opportunity is, all else be damned."

For what it's worth, I don't know anybody - Yale PhDs, Harvard Phds, Oxbridge PhDs,with fancy advisers - who didn't have to go where the jobs were, who didn't have to do a national search. Sure, I'm in English, which is a notably glutted market. BUT. Seriously, I know nobody in the whole world who had a choice about location, when it came to getting a tenure-track job out of grad school.
Dr. Crazy I limited my job search. I am in a STEM discipline where a post-doc is expected prior to a tenure track position. Year 2 of my post-doc, I did go on the market as a test run to force myself to get my materials together & refine them. I got a number of interviews at a range of PUIs (focussed on them) all across the country. I got an offer from an institution in a location that upon further inspection wasn't suitable for my spouse as the local economy was in the middle of a terrible downturn with no signs of recovery.

When I went on the market the following year,I only applied to SLACs situated in communities that had reasonable options for my spouse. My search was very limited in terms of location. Once again number of interviews and offers. We choose the place that was best for both of us.

In terms of getting advice to be mobile, professors at my undergraduate institution did tell us if we went to graduate school, expect to be mobile to find a job if you want to stay in academia. Industry is even more limited in location.
You know what's funny, is that people are increasingly expecting similar sacrifices for non-tenure jobs like mine (I am a full-time, non-tenure-track lecturer). While I appreciate and enjoy my job, when I originally accepted it, it was mainly to solve our own "two body problem." My husband got a tenure-track job in the same field at a nearby school. We had a young family and wanted to work within a 100-mile radius of each other. This was the solution that we found. I've been told, repeatedly, how "lucky" I am to have this job, and how, now-a-days, even these non-tenure positions at my school are open to national searches. And that is simply crazy. Not only does it make the "two body problem" even harder to resolve for academic families, but it makes unreasonable demands on people who would take the non-tenure positions. Bad as the isolation and upheaval of a job market that requires national searches can be for tenure-eligible folks, at least there's the potential for tenure/stability, a decent salary, and good benefits at the end of the day. Expecting people to go through all of that for a non-tenure job where pay is iffy and benefits might not exist, is unreasonable. But that's a reality on the job market in some areas, and our young grad students ought to be told about that, too.
The need to be hyper-mobile is a big part of why I decided to end my tenure-track chase. The idea of moving somewhere (almost anywhere) for the first few years out of grad school was fine. But eventually the growing realization that such a career would probably require multiple short- to medium-term moves collided with the desire to build a stable family with children. Combined further with the uncertainty of even getting work, this just wasn't worth it.

The other advantage of the military over the tenure-track chase: You know they'll keep paying you even as your location gets shuffled.
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