The building where we meet for the career diversity workshop teeters for me somewhere between metaphor and irony. It previously belonged to an Urban Outfitters, bold and stylish in the center of campustown, all polished floor-to-ceiling windows, matte black joists, and shining metal ductwork. The industrial-chic aesthetic works well for hawking expensive clothes to college students, though perhaps less well for the building’s current occupant, the university’s stolid, administratively minded graduate college. The juxtaposition makes for an amusing mismatch of purpose and form—a too-cool-for-school storefront that, despite itself, got press-ganged into the banal world of fellowship applications and dissertation deposits.
It was fitting, then, that twenty-odd graduate students, many of them PhD candidates, would meet in this building to explore alternatives to the academic job market.
The students who attended the workshop did so with a variety of goals—active job-hunting, dissatisfaction with research or teaching, idle curiosity. Still, many of these goals tended to trace back to the same root problem: the tenure-track job market for newly minted PhDs in the humanities is not encouraging.
In fact, the tenure-track job market is downright abysmal.
Why it’s bad—why so many humanities PhDs, despite excellent training and impressive CVs, can’t land stable employment as professors—has a variety of explanations. For example, in a narrow historical sense, the blame lies partly with COVID-19. The pandemic prompted tenure-track hiring freezes across universities. Moreover, the departments generally most affected by these freezes—history, English, foreign languages, classics—had themselves never quite bounced back from the declining enrollments and financial cutbacks that followed from the 2008 recession.
But longer-term processes are also at play. As with many other supposedly noncommercial spaces, the university has for decades now been influenced to a considerable degree by what we now call the gigification of work and the normalization of “business ontology,” a term cultural critic Mark Fisher uses to describe the pervasive assumption that everything, from government to healthcare, ought to be run like a business. Under these ideological rubrics, university administrators have attempted to keep costs down and have done so by relying increasingly on cheap, flexible, contingent labor. After all, tenured and tenure-track professors are expensive. They often command decent salaries. They expect pesky, inconvenient things like health insurance and retirement plans. They’re a pain in the ass to fire.
Graduate workers, by contrast, are none of these things. Graduate workers—and with them the visiting lecturers, postdocs, and adjuncts who swell the teaching ranks of most universities—are comparatively cheap to keep on payroll, especially if you can stop them from unionizing. The result of this cost-benefit analysis has sometimes been referred to as the adjunctification of higher ed. Practically that means a shift in hiring patterns at American universities, away from stable, tenured instructors and researchers and toward a class of expert but precariously employed academic workers.
For me and many of my colleagues in the humanities, the effect of these systemic pressures has often cashed out in a roiling mishmash of disillusionment, frustration, and uncertainty. We wonder: Should we stick to the established script, take a crack at the job market despite the odds? Do we do the thing we’re supposed to do, the thing we’ve been trained to do, even though doing it likely means, realistically, taking on a string of temporary teaching gigs—sometimes for one year, sometimes for two, often in entirely different parts of the country—all in the hope of one day pulling that golden ticket?
Or do instead we just junk the script? Try something else? Take our degree and pivot into a future very different from the one so many of us thought we wanted?
In a sense, that flock of PhD candidates that gathered for the career diversity workshop—the lot of us huddled together on the second floor of a one-time Urban Outfitters, nervously pecking at value-assessment tests and picking through nonacademic job listings—represents not a deviation from the trajectory of higher ed. It represents its logical conclusion.
I’m entering the home stretch of my time at grad school. Many of those questions about what comes next, about what my spouse and I do next, have lately acquired a newfound urgency. On good days, I find this urgency more or less manageable. Indeed, on good days, I even find the sorry state of the tenure-track job market perversely consoling. If nothing else, a level-headed account of the market helps me locate myself in a wider context. It reminds me of what I can and can’t control, of what matters to me and what doesn’t, of what failure is and isn’t.
On good days, I remember that a job is just a job and that sometimes jobs change.
It’s just those other days, though, you know?
It’s those other days where it’s hard to maintain perspective, where the future just looks scary, and where the problem of “what comes next” is suffocating in its apparent openness.
On those days, what I really want is that old, outdated script—and the false assurance it brings that things might yet unfold the way I thought they would.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.