If you’ve talked to me at all in the past eight months, you’ve almost certainly heard me a) complain about the academic job market, b) lament my misguided career choices, and/or c) enthuse about my new plan to become [insert back-up occupation of the week].
As these are not especially uplifting conversation topics, my interlocutors will be pleased to hear this good news: starting in August, I will be a tenure-track assistant professor in UW-Madison’s Sociology Department!
If words like “job market” and “tenure-track” mean very little to you, read on.(And if you couldn’t care less about the life of a professor, feel free to skip this one – I’ll be back soon with a dispatch on the travails of the dual-career couple.)
What is this “academic job market” you speak of?
If you’ve even remotely considered a PhD, you’ve heard the horror stories: academia is crumbling and there are no good jobs to be had so you’ll have to adjunct for seven years and then work at an underfunded institution and eventually give up broke. And if you haven’t, feel free to check out the tons of articles, books, and blog posts about just how dire the academic job prospects are for PhD grads—particularly in the humanities, it’s true, but to a slightly lesser extent in many fields.
In earlier eras, or so I’m told, doing good work at a good grad school was enough to secure a professorship. But as the number of tenure-track professor jobs has declined (for a whole host of reasons I won’t go into here), the competition for those slots has ratcheted wayyy up.
That’s the job market in a macro sense: the sum total of jobs available and the quantity and quality of the applicants competing for those jobs. In another sense, though, the term “job market” refers to an annual cycle of submitting applications, interviewing, and, if you’re lucky, finding a job.
In my field, that cycle begins the summer before your final year of grad school, when you prepare a host of written application materials: essays about your research, your teaching philosophy, and your commitment to diversity; writing samples; cover letters; etc.
In the fall, academic departments start posting their open jobs. Some are specialty-agnostic (i.e., they don’t care whether you’re a sociologist of medieval Europe or of the prison-industrial complex) and some have very specific requirements (e.g., they’re looking for someone who studies Black women’s reproductive health using computational methods).
You (the aspiring professor) send a bunch of applications out and then wait. And wait. For the most part, departments give little to no information about their decision timeline and, often, will never send a rejection letter. So there’s no way of telling whether radio silence means they’re still deliberating or have already crossed you off the list.
If they’re interested in you, you’ll be invited to interview and deliver a job talk. (Some departments/fields do initial pre-screen interviews, but that’s not common in sociology.) This season, some interviews were in-person, and some were on Zoom. The main difference is that you get a lot more free meals in the former scenario.
“The interview” is actually a series of interviews and meetings over two days. My UW-Madison interview, for example, consisted of 18 1:1 meetings with faculty; one meeting with a dean; and one meeting with a group of ~10 grad students. I also delivered a 40-minute presentation (+35 minutes of Q&A) to the whole department. (Yes, this is exactly as terrifying as it sounds.)
After you finish interviewing, you wait some more. Until, if you’re lucky, the leader of the department calls to offer you a job.
Do you have tenure yet?
I will be a “tenure-track” faculty member at Wisconsin. That means I am eligible for tenure review in the next 6-7 years. This is actually a good outcome! The alternative is to be non-tenure-track, which basically means that you are not on a clear path to promotion or advancement. If you’ve heard of adjuncts, they are an example of non-tenure-track faculty.
If you’re granted tenure, you’re basically guaranteed continued employment as a professor (barring some major transgression) for as long as you’d like it. But getting tenure is no walk in the park. You have to meet your department’s and university’s (often opaque) standards, which usually involve getting a certain quantity and quality of academic publications on your resume; being a reasonably good departmental citizen; and being a competent teacher and mentor.
What do professors do, exactly?
Research, teaching, and service. Research means conducting, publishing, and talking about academic studies. You complete research projects, present your findings at conferences and colloquia and, hopefully, write about them in academic journals and books.
Teaching is what it sounds like. Okay fine, I’ll make it more concrete: in an average year, I will teach 3 classes (a mix of graduate and undergraduate).As my parents very helpfully pointed out, that doesn’t sound like much. And it’s true, I will only spend 3-6 hours per week at the front of a classroom. But that doesn’t account for all the time it takes to prepare those lectures, meet with students, answer students’ emails, and grade their work.
Finally, service is a broad category that includes mentoring graduate students (and to a lesser extent undergrads), serving on department and university committees, etc., etc. The challenge, or so I’m told, is to do your part to keep the department and discipline running without neglecting your teaching or research responsibilities.
Are you still going to write this newsletter?
Yes! It’s been fun and rewarding to connect with readers who find my work helpful, to write in plain English rather than academic jargon, and to try out random ideas. I have no plans to give that up anytime soon.
That said, I’ll have to experiment with frequency given the new demands on my time. For now, I’m planning on biweekly, but I’ll let you know if that changes!
What happens between now and August?
Sadly, this is different than my senior spring in college, when I spent a lot of time lounging on the university quad and eating two-hour brunches in the dining hall.
My goal for the next 5-ish months to make as much progress on my book manuscript as possible (more on that soon, I promise!) before I start teaching. Oh, and to pull off a wedding and a cross-country move. So, you know, minor stuff.
Speaking of Wisconsin: if you live in the Madison area or know cool people there, send me a message! Eric and I are in the market for new friends but will settle for acquaintances.
As usual, I have caveats! 1) What I describe is true of sociology at big research universities (and, I suspect, related disciplines) but probably not of faculty in other disciplines/in other types of institutions. 2) I haven’t actually done this job yet. Professor friends reading this, please feel free to blow up my misconceptions in the comments.
I’m leaving out the postdoc search for brevity’s sake, but here are the basics: many PhD graduates take a “postdoctoral fellowship” (i.e., postdoc) for a few years before transitioning into a professor role. These fellowships vary a lot, with some requiring you to teach, others to assist on faculty research projects, and still others putting little to no restrictions on your time.
Among top research universities, 3-4 classes per year is pretty standard for sociology faculty. At other institutions (liberal arts colleges, community colleges, etc.), teaching loads are often far higher.
Congrats on the job and best of luck in your new role. I aspire to work in a college full time, and I have certainly noticed the issues you are describing. In fact, some of the later year students in my program talked about how difficult the job search process is. If I recall correctly, they were talking about needing to submit a minimum of 40 applications to have a realistic shot of landing an academic job (and that number might be low).
It's a long story (https://markplato.substack.com/p/the-road-less-traveled?s=w), but I decided to take a break from my PhD program.
All of which is to say, I am currently evaluating career paths. I still aspire to work in a college setting, but am broadening my search.
Thank you for the informative and insightful post.
Congrats! Madison is a great town. You'll have no problems finding interesting people and awesome things to do!