Thursday, November 17, 2005

Ask the Administrator: Stopping the Cycle of Abuse

A young Midwestern correspondent writes:

I am a History-Secondary Ed major at Midwest State and will be finishing my student teaching next fall.

As this is early in my career, I still have many options open to me. I know I will teach high school history for a few years, but already think I’d like to pursue a career somewhere in higher education, either at university or a junior college. I’m fully aware that grad degrees are requisite, but outside of that, I’m really in the dark about entering the higher ed world. So, my questions are:

What advice do you have for someone considering these areas,
at this early stage in their life?

What would you have done differently?

What books, journals, magazines or people should I consult to prepare me?

At the risk of alienating my entire readership and everybody with whom I work, I’d strongly advise against targeting a career as a college history professor. That’s not to say that adjuncting would be out of the question – those opportunities look to be plentiful for the foreseeable future – but I wouldn’t give up the day job.

The reasons have nothing to do with your ability, about which I know nothing. They have to do with the job market in the field, the length of training involved, and the opportunity costs.

The job market for history professors is dreadful, and has been for a generation. In fact, you can strike the word ‘history’ from that sentence and replace it with any liberal-arts discipline without invalidating the meaning. It’s absurdly difficult to find full-time work on which you could make an adult wage. I consider that unlikely to change, since the combination of increased vocationalism among students (the single largest undergraduate major in the US is business), cost pressures on colleges, and the repeal of mandatory retirement for tenured faculty means the only way for colleges to cut substantial costs is through hiring freezes.

Oddly, the same is not true of high school teachers. Since (at least to my knowledge) there’s no such thing as an adjunct high school teacher, and since high school curricula are much more prescribed and classic than college curricula, history teachers who retire actually get replaced. (There’s a GREAT dissertation in this for some ed.d. I’m just sayin’…) Your chances of finding an actual job as a high school history teacher are far better, and tenure in public high schools usually comes much faster than at most colleges.

The length of training for college professors is dysfunctional, archaic, and abusive. Ph.D.’s in liberal arts disciplines usually take about 7 years (including the master’s), though that can range anywhere from 5ish well into the double digits. That’s after four years of college. Master’s degrees are much quicker (2 years or so, usually), but it’s increasingly difficult in many states to get a tenure-track job with only a Master’s, even at the two-year level. (Admittedly, this impression may stem from my location in the Northeast. Credential creep may not have hit the heartland quite as hard, yet.)

During those (let’s say, 7) years of graduate school, you will live on a pauper’s income, falling farther and farther behind your peers who got real jobs after college. If you go straight through, let’s say you hit the market at 28. Even if you score a tenure-track job your first time out (which is highly unusual), that’s 7 fewer years during which you were building up equity in a house, stashing away money for retirement, and generally enjoying life. (The cost of income foregone is what economists call ‘opportunity costs.’ Most academics try very hard to repress this knowledge, since it’s profoundly depressing.)

(A more realistic scenario would have you hitting the market multiple times, bouncing from one-year temp gig to one-year temp gig, before landing a tenure-track job. Each new job would involve a substantial geographic move, often across time zones.)

So at 30 you finally land a tenure-track job that pays about the same as what you could have made as a high-school teacher at 23. Of course, if you became a high school teacher at 23, you’d have tenure by 30, and probably several years’ worth of equity in a house.

A more life-friendly option that would still allow you to teach in a college would be to get the high school teaching gig, use tuition remission to get a Master’s degree in history while you’re working there, and then sign on as an adjunct at a nearby college. It’s not unusual for high school teachers to adjunct at cc’s in the evenings or on weekends; it gives them some extra income, and a chance to stretch their pedagogical wings. More importantly, it allows them to have lives.

I know that one of the first commandments of academia is Thou Shalt Reproduce Thy Own, but I can’t in good conscience. If you manage to get a fellowship to Harvard, then by all means, knock yourself out. But if your graduate institution is likelier to be Midwest State or its equivalent, don’t. Just don’t.

I don’t know what I would have done differently. Had I not moved to the state in which I went to grad school, I wouldn’t have met The Wife, and my life would be unimaginably different. My career path has been idiosyncratic enough that to generalize from it would be silly, so I won’t. But I certainly don’t recommend this to anyone who could imagine himself happy any other way. The chain of abuse has to stop.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.