Why Your Cousin With a Ph.D. Is a Basket Case 

Understanding the Byzantine hiring process that drives academics up the wall.

Photo by Mike Watson Images/Thinkstock
It took this professor 1 million years to get this job.

Photo by Mike Watson Images/Thinkstock

It’s your sister’s wedding, and you and your quiet but nice cousin—he’s doing his Ph.D. in something, maybe history?—are doing your best to get drunk off the watered-down open-bar bourbon. You’re just making polite conversation, so you ask him: “Want to come visit us next Christmas?” Why on earth did his sallow face just cloud over at your kind and generous offer? Because he has no idea where he’ll be living two Christmases from now—he just applied to 30 jobs in 30 far-flung towns, so from a logistical standpoint “next Christmas” might as well be Pluto.

Such is the madness of the academic hiring process. If you have a relative or friend who is an early career academic, chances are you have recently set that poor, damaged soul of hers into an existential death spiral, simply by asking what would ordinarily be a friendly question. For example, with your cousin, pounding booze and scoping bridesmaids, you might follow up: “Well, where do you want to live?” He looks even more miserable, like he just swallowed a scorpion. “Well,” you soldier on, “have you ever thought of moving to [major metropolitan area] and working at [world-renowned institution]? They’re such a big school; they’re sure to have something for someone smart like you.” Now your cousin is beginning to shake. “Why don’t you just send them your résumé?”

It’s not your fault that your cousin has dropped dead! But the reasons for this are perplexing and counterintuitive, and to understand them, it’s worth understanding the Byzantine process that Ph.D.s of almost all disciplines go through in their attempts to get jobs doing the things they went to school to do. (Silver lining: It’s a process your cousin no longer must endure.)

The academic job market works on a fixed cycle, and according to a set of conventions so rigid that you’d think these people were applying for top-secret security clearances, not to teach Physics 101 to some pimply bros in Sheboygan. For my examples, I will use the cycle of humanities hiring because I know it all too well; the cycles for the social (and anti-social) sciences vary somewhat but are similarly inflexible, with complex requirements and geographical limitations all their own.

In the humanities, the carnage begins right now, in September and October. It is now that the vast majority of advertisements for open positions in colleges or universities appear in specialized publications. Although a smattering of ads will sputter in through the winter, the primary “market” appears now—for jobs that begin a year from now, in the fall of 2015. That’s why your cousin doesn’t know where he’ll be next Christmas. That’s why asking an academic where she wants to live is akin to asking, “What kind of island do you want to buy?” Academics lucky enough to be on the tenure track rarely—let’s just round down to never—have a choice about where they live. Their home for the rest of their lives is dependent entirely on which departments can hire in which specialties in a given year. No family, friends, or support system in the area? No job for your spouse? Tough testes.

And those jobs are it! A would-be scholar in, say, 19th-century British lit, is limited to exactly this list of jobs, period. There are no other jobs (well, none that pay a living wage. There’s adjuncting, and lots of it). This is not a world in which other jobs can be produced from thin air. In academia, you cannot just march into the department with your CV and be like I’m a smart go-getter! The chair will not respond, Listen up, kid—you’ve got the goods!

OK. So there’s a finite array of job opportunities—it’s not ideal, but you work with what you’ve got. But what you must realize is that applying for an academic job is not just sending in a cover letter and résumé. Here’s what the single most sought-after job in my own discipline, German studies, is currently asking: “Letter of application, updated curriculum vitae, three letters of recommendation, teaching statement, research statement, and one writing sample (maximum of 25 pages).” That “letter of application,” by the way, is no one-paragraph me want job now email. It’s a two- to three-page essay, specifically tailored to that position and worried over for days.

Sure, OK, that’s a lot of work, but this would be manageable—if every job required the same dossier. But they don’t. Every search committee wants something different (and often special), whether it’s made-up course syllabi, or lesson plans, or a DVD of your teaching, or an official undergraduate transcript. (Oh, and everyone’s deadline is different, too.) Going on the market, especially for the first time, can easily suck up weeks—effectively a second unpaid job your cousin is doing while teaching a full course load or finishing a dissertation.

So after your cousin has assembled his dossiers, and submitted them, and followed up with his overtaxed recommenders, he waits until December, when interview requests start trickling in—or don’t. Because of the sheer number of candidates applying for precious tenure-track jobs, a common reaction to the receipt of one of these meticulously crafted (and expensively mailed) 40-page dossiers is a deafening silence; most candidates learn they will not be interviewed by checking crowdsourced discipline wikis, aka the corner of the Internet where dreams go to die. And, of course, the realization—upon procuring five, two, or zero interviews—that one has spent the better part of the past decade dedicating oneself to a specter of a noncareer also tends to coincide with Christmas, otherwise known as peak aunt-and-uncle Why don’t you just work at Stanford? time.

But even this would be fine, if these angst-producing interviews (often conducted at conferences attended at the candidate’s own expense) meant you had a real shot at that job—but they’re actually the first round; your cousin’s still up against 24 other candidates. He won’t know if he’s a finalist until late winter, when he is (or, more likely, isn’t) flown out for a merciless three-day gauntlet of on-campus meetings. If he beats all the odds and gets that precious offer at Southwestern Prairie Technical College, his cycle ends, mercifully, in March. If he doesn’t, then he’s off to the “secondary market,” a rolling collection of ads for one- and two-year “visiting” positions. Visiting from where? you might ask. From nowhere.

So, even though your cousin has been actively seeking employ for almost a year, he often won’t secure something until a week or two before fall classes start—a “visiting” gig if he’s lucky (although this might mean moving away from his spouse), or adjuncting penuriously in the town where he already lives. He’s got about three weeks to be relieved he won’t starve, until the next year’s meager job list comes out—which brings us to the bar at your sister’s wedding, and the set of accidentally awful questions you just asked. Now do you understand why your cousin dropped dead of anxiety in front of you?  

You don’t have to be sympathetic about the life choices of a relative who’s a struggling early career academic—chances are she regrets them enough already for the both of you. But if you’re trying to help—or at any rate not actively trying to wound—when it comes to academics looking for jobs, it’s best to limit the conversation to a nice, light topic. I suggest religion. Or abortion. Or the inevitability of climate change. Anything but the job your relative very possibly will never get.