Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Other Job Market

with 2 comments

by apini

There is more than one way to run a job market.  I’ve participated in the US market and am currently in the midst of the UK’s most recent round of applications.  I’m not particularly convinced that any one is completely better than any other, but here are two examples of the history market based on my experience.

US Model: Begin searches as early as August for the next academic year.  Collect applications with information varying from CV and cover letter, to a full “portfolio” including teaching evaluations, syllabuses, and writing samples.  Most Tenure-Track jobs then hold a first round of interviews at the major professional meetings in the Autumn/Winter, with call-backs for two or three candidates to give job talks by February and decisions by March.

UK Model: Jobs come up as they open.  This means there are positions opening throughout the year – even up to the month before the academic year begins in October.  For Oxbridge JRFs (Junior Research Fellowships; i.e. postdocs), applications require some combination of references, project proposal, CV, and online application form.  For most regular jobs (lectureships – there’s no such thing as ‘tenure track’ or ‘non-tenure track’ in the UK as such, but there are permanent lectureships), the online application form is accompanied by a CV and a covering letter and these are more like ‘normal’ job applications in that the references are contacted after the candidate has progressed to a certain stage of the filtering process. There’s usually one interview/job talk for a smaller selection of candidates.

So, if those are the broad outlines of the application process, what are the benefits and drawbacks of each?  In the American case, you know really early if you have a job for the next year, which is a definite plus over the sporadic and somewhat nerve-racking  UK market.  But, if you don’t get through this process, you might have to wait a whole year to get a job; or you might have to take a job off the tenure track.

Part of the issue facing US graduate students (and overseas graduate students interested in applying to the US market) seems to be the prestige attached to leaving the PhD with a tenure track job.  My aunt (an academic) told me when I started grad school never to take a job off the tenure track, because that’s where I would stay.  Now, I’m not sure how accurate this is in today’s market, but I have encountered my fair share of people at the AHA who have said that they will take nothing less.  Or that they’ll stay in grad school until they’re offered a tenure track job.  The general sense amongst terrified AHA participants seems to be that if your first job is off the tenure track, getting back on will be incredibly difficult, except in certain circumstances, and that you might spend years trying.

There isn’t the same kind of non-tenure track stigma in the UK that there is in the US system.  It’s fairly common practice for people here to string together a series of research fellowships and/or temporary teaching positions (stipendiary lectureships, teaching fellowships, part-time teaching) before finally landing a permanent lectureship.  But that kind of part-time existence is feasible in part because of the nature of the welfare state here.  I like to blame this on the ‘health insurance factor’ when discussing it in the UK: holding part-time teaching positions does not mean that you lose your health insurance or dental insurance. You’re still included in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (pensions).  And, most crucially, your teaching experience can help you get a permanent lectureship down the line, rather than shifting you into some ‘non-tenure track abyss’ that my aunt warned me about.  In the UK, this is the accepted ‘year in the wilderness’ that lots of young UK academics talk about.

There are some obvious downsides to this approach as well.  One is that, because of the prevalence/acceptability of ‘wilderness years’, it’s more difficult to get teaching experience as a graduate student in the UK.  It’s expected that there will be some graduate teaching for those who look for it, but there is less pressure for it because teaching experience is presumed to be gained in post-doctoral positions.  (This is one reason our PhD programmes are shorter).  And therefore, related to this assumption, there are very few people who finish their PhD with job offers in permanent positions – they are expected to earn their stripes elsewhere before securing a permanent job.

But another downside to the UK system is the corresponding prestige attached to the Oxbridge JRFs.  These are elusive, fairly cushy, and almost entirely internal research posts at Oxford and Cambridge colleges.  While they aren’t permanent, they do acquire some of the same mythology that surrounds the tenure track job because they’re seen as a launch pad for a high profile career.   They also frequently call for applications from ANY research field, from the humanities to the social sciences to the hard sciences, which increases competition enormously.

Just from observing the US and UK job markets over the past two years, one positive change seems to be a growing number of post-docs and ‘visiting assistant professor’ positions in the US, and a growing number and variety of teaching and research fellowships at other universities in the UK.  Maybe this growth in the US will help to contribute to a change in attitude toward the non-tenure tracked.  Maybe if health care changes ever take effect in the US, the lack of ‘benefits’ from part-time or non-permanent jobs will generate less concern/stigma.  Maybe in the UK, the growth of more post-doc options will provide more paths out of the wilderness.  But with fewer jobs available in total, it seems like a more generous attitude toward various tracks will be necessary in both the UK and the US.

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Written by apini

March 15, 2011 at 14:33

2 Responses

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  1. I enjoyed this post. The “growing number of post-docs and ‘visiting assistant professor’ positions in the US” is due to fewer tenure-line openings, yet persistent demand for courses to be covered. So though I understand your optimism here, and agree that it will become less career-killing in the US to leave grad school without a tenure-track job, this bespeaks of an overall trajectory that is depressing.

    Andrew Hartman

    March 15, 2011 at 23:51

  2. […] More practically interesting is the attitude this happenstance gives the characters.  ”Lucky” Jim Dixon’s fairly easy decision to leave academia is particularly interesting given current university career office advice in the UK.  Like the US, UK universities claim oversupply of PhDs for available jobs.  Unlike the US, the PhD here is roughly 5 years on average (including the masters) as opposed to 7 or more.  So university careers offices play up the ‘transferable skills’ aspect of the PhD.  At my university, there were regular career events aimed at advertising careers outside of academia – at the BBC, at think tanks like History & Policy, in the civil service, as a trade history writer, in museums, as a 6th form teacher, in journalism, in academic publishing.  This was always accompanied by a talk from a really terrifying careers specialist who would tell us how many people actually get jobs in academia in the UK (not very many) and how to sell our PhD as a set of marketable ‘real world’ skills.  And in fact, I have a number of friends with PhDs in the UK who do work in ‘real world’ jobs, from university administration, to finance, to consulting, to primary and secondary education.  All of them from humanities or ‘soft’ social sciences. This could be another reason for a slightly more relaxed attitude toward non-tenure track academic positions (as discussed previously in my post here). […]


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