Tuesday, April 03, 2007


In a discussion in the comments section last week, one freeway flyer commented that he keeps adjuncting for a living because whenever he tries to find a non-academic job, he's turned away for being 'overqualified.' He can't get a tenure-track line, due to the lovely economics of higher ed, but non-academic employers assume (accurately or not) that he'd decamp at a moment's notice for an academic job, so they don't want to invest their time and training in him. (Presumably, many non-academic employers – and non-academics generally – have a much rosier picture of the economics of higher education than is actually the case.)

I ran into that one myself a lot in grad school. Since summer courses were few and far between, and TA stipends didn't cover July or August, I had to find regular scut jobs to pay the rent. I got turned away from a surprising number of very low-wage, low-skill places, on the grounds that they didn't want someone who would be gone in a few months.

The 'overqualified' term is unfortunate, since it's sort of inaccurate. On its face, it's a direct assault on any notion that employment and merit are somehow correlated – if the best applicant always wins, then 'overqualified' should be a nonsense term. But it's usually really more about fear of flight risk, a clumsy sort of psychoanalysis about likelihood of sustained motivation, and, sometimes, letting people down easy.

Flight risk is a very tricky reality. I'll admit, I've been on both sides of this one. When I was at Proprietary U, I was on several search committees on which some very strong candidates didn't get interviews because it was painfully obvious, to us, that they wouldn't stick around for more than a year. That might seem arbitrary, but there's a very real cost to high employee turnover. Between search costs and learning curves, you don't hit the sweet spot of productivity immediately. I don't think it takes nearly as long as some of my tenured faculty like to believe, but it's rare to hit it in the first year. Even for experienced instructors, there's usually an adjustment period to a new setting. From the employer's side, if you know you're being 'settled for,' you're the port in the storm and no more than that, then you can expect bare-minimum performance, iffy attitude, and the need to advertise again next year.

At least there, we were in the same industry in which we suspected the candidate wanted to work. I'd imagine the misgivings would be even greater for non-academic employers. If Adjunct Bob showed up at my marketing company, doctorate in hand, with years of ongoing teaching experience, I'd be wary. Did Adjunct Bob have an epiphany, or is he just looking for a spot to land until the job he actually wants comes along? If I'm not desperate, I could see not wanting to take the chance.

The psychological issues here are major and sticky. What can be passed off as 'flight risk' may be fear of being overshadowed. Or the fear of flight risk may be out of proportion to the actual likelihood of someone leaving – I suspect that's true more often than people think. As Bitch likes to say, we aren't brains on sticks; sometimes people take positions that aren't immediately obvious fits on paper, because there are other factors in their lives – spousal ties, family ties, whatever – that offset the apparent imbalance. The employer can't ask about those, though, so information not available is information not considered, even when it would actually be relevant.

And it's fundamentally degrading, as an applicant, to have your motives questioned. How do you respond to “I'm just not sure you'd be happy here.”? Especially if part of you agrees?

(This is where my inner Scandinavian gets his back up. My private thoughts, personal demons, and deep motives are my own, thank you very much. As long as I behave appropriately, how I feel about it is none of your damn business. This is also why I experience motivational speakers as unethical and coercive.)

I think the disparity between the popular image of what it means to have a doctorate, and the actual economic realities of higher education (especially in traditional fields), is making this issue much more salient than it should be. If job opportunities were thick on a ground, the obtuseness of one prospective employer wouldn't matter all that much – you'd just move on to the next one. But full-time jobs aren't thick on the ground. Worse, the shortage of full-time academic jobs is often a secret to non-academics, who just assume that education is the key to success. So an unlucky would-have-been-English professor may be shut out of tenure track opportunities by sheer numbers, and shut out of good corporate gigs out of a misplaced sense of flight risk. This just plain sucks.

Has anyone out there found a good response to the 'overqualified' line?