Monday, May 23, 2005

Alternate Paths

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ways that people I know (or have reached through this blog) have found ways to get around the awful entry-level job market in academia. A few examples:

- a bio/chem. postdoc who picked up web design on the side, and used that skill to become indispensable to her principal investigator. Instead of half a job, she now has one and a half.

- a struggling assistant prof. in the social sciences who took some time to study programming language, and is now designing his own program to change the kind of data that can be gathered and analyzed. He has already drawn the attention of his state government, even as his home department continues to dicker.

- a tenured historian of ideas at Mediocre State who has accepted a high-level administrative position at an Australian university. His marching orders are to step up recruitment of students from China who don’t want to bother hacking their way through the worsening thicket of US immigration laws.

- an English Ph.D. with a J.D. (same person!) who adjuncted her way through New England, catching on as a visiting prof in the Mid-Atlantic. Her chemical engineer Ph.D. partner managed to navigate his way to tenure at You’ve Heard Of It New England University by deftly dancing around an idiot dean.

Of course, my own story (social science doctorate; adjunct at proprietary; move to full-time faculty and then administration at same proprietary; move to admin. position at community college) is similarly oddball.

I think that what all of these share (besides luck) is a combination of tenacity and a willingness to adapt. The first step is letting go of the idea that anything short of the Golden Path (grad school to assistant-prof-at-good-university to recruited-by-Ivy) represents failure. It doesn’t. The grad-school ethic that says it’s better to adjunct at Ivy U. than to make a living at Forgettable College is just plain wrong.

There’s just too much talent being wasted out there. As one correspondent noted, academia is coming to resemble the competitiveness of the music industry, but without the payoff.

Your thoughts?