Friday, January 16, 2009

I'm an expert on Shakespeare, that's a hell of a lot, but the world don't need scholars as much as I thought


(I'm not really an expert on Shakespeare but you get the idea.) We had a meeting yesterday at school. About the grim realities of the job market. And, let me tell you folks, it's not looking good for anybody, but it is really not looking good for English PhDs.

Here are some of the highlights. And by highlights, I mean lowlights:

* Less than half of English PhDs enter a tenture track position within 2 years of finishing the PhD.
* The track record from my program is even worse -- only about 1/3 of PhD graduates from my program have moved on to tenure-track positions. There are various reasons to explain this -- personal choices mostly, like people who want to stay local, or people who relocate for their spouse to get a job and so don't pursue tenure, people who decide to teach high school, etc., etc.
* The job posting list this year was the lowest it has been in the last ten years. And several job searches that were posted were subsequently canceled or suspended -- in one of my friend's experiences, 7 out of 40 positions he applied for were canceled -- making the number even lower.

Most of this is not a surprise. I knew that PhD tenure track jobs were hard to come by. What I didn't know was just how hard, and that it would be at its worst just as I am prepared to finish.

So now I have some major decisions to make. Here are my options, as far as I can tell:

Do I hit this aggressively, apply for every position I am even remotely qualified for, bust my butt to get an article published, submit abstracts to the major conferences, and do everything I can to get a job as a professor -- even if that means moving to North Dakota?

Do I finish and try to get a job within my university -- not a professor job (that does not happen) but a job within the Writing 1 composition program, something more administrative that would likely include teaching freshman composition?

Do I finish and teach on a course-by-course basis, which would probably mean having to teach four courses at three different colleges each semester in order to make a reasonable salary, but still not having benefits?

Or do I finish and leave academia behind, see where an English PhD can get me in the world of public relations, grant-writing, or publication?

My decisions are further complicated by the fact D will finish his specialist degree this summer. This means that he will be applying for administrative positions in elementary education and fully expects to land an assistant principal gig this year or next year. At least it means that I could have health care coverage if I have to teach part-time, but it also means that if I am moving to North Dakota, he's coming with me -- cashing out his Missouri teacher retirement fund, having to learn a new state's education laws, and starting the process of networking all over again.

David has told me that he is willing to do this, but as we have had other conversations about the fact that he will be able to retire in twenty years at the ripe old age of 51, it seems like the kind of sacrifice that would really have to be worth it. I mean, I would have to be landing my dream job to even want to ask him to do that.

The other reality is that his salary as an administrator will be more than twice what I will make as a post-doc, and considerably more than what I would make as a first year professor. Are we ready to move and take a pay cut? On the other hand, am I ready to work part-time and let D be the career guy? I just always thought we would both have rewarding and ambitious careers. And now I feel like my career future means that one (or both of us) will be making unpleasant and difficult compromises, no matter what.

And don't even get me started on the fact that we might want to have kids before we're 40 -- where does that leave us? New professors who get hired tenure track are under immense pressure to publish -- articles at least, but also books. Teaching full time and trying to write a publishable book as well as do the administrative work required of most professors who are also advisors at liberal arts colleges... well, I think we can all agree that job would take more than 40 hours a week.

I just don't know what I want most right now. I can't picture an ideal situation. Part of me is resistant to change, which is also problematic for someone on the verge of finishing a program. I mean, I love living in my little house in the city, I even like living in St. Louis (it's the city that grows on you). I like the change of seasons. I like being close to my best friends from college. I like being able to drive to my parents' for the weekend. But that doesn't mean that I don't want to be a professor and have a real office and teach real literature classes (I know, let's be real. Most professors at small colleges have to teach composition courses, but still.).

I just don't see a clear right answer and that frustrates me. It is terrifying to have worked for this for the last 6 years of my life and to now realize that I have no idea what comes next or even what I want to come next. And I'm forced to admit that every potential decision has a huge downside for either D or me in terms of moving forward in our careers. I guess people make these choices all the time, but I don't know how they do it without going crazy.

So that is where my head is today. Whew. Time to count my blessings, all Pollyanna style, and try not to freak out. After all, I've still got a dissertation to finish before I can even move on to worrying about this stuff full time.

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