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The Tooling Up Book Club: On the Market

Now that the holiday season is over, you have returned to your regular life, in the lab, in school or on the job market. You may have received a copy of a new career advice book, On the Market, that was published in the fall of 1997. "Oh criminy!" you may have thought. Just when you were trying to escape the anxiety of the job search, someone went out and got you a 381-page collection of horror stories about the academic job search.

But before you shelve that book, I want to encourage you to take some time to read it. It not only provides useful lessons and advice for aspiring academics, but it may turn out to be one of the most important books for young Ph.D.s considering careers in academia.

On the Market is a collection of essays about the academic job search, written by and for aspiring academicians. Rather than simply cataloging helpful tips and advice, the editors wanted instead to create "an emotional guidebook to the academic job search." By doing so, they produced a resource that is part career guide, part therapy session. Those of you who are not presently engaged in a job search may not appreciate this kind of dialogue--but your colleagues who are searching for their dream job, often far from the support of their grad school compatriots, certainly will.

The 29 individual stories, eight introductions, and two afterword essays are structured to correspond roughly with major parts of the academic job search. Rather than hold specific authors responsible for particular subjects, Boufis and Olsen have encouraged their writers to tell their entire story. This results in very compelling reading and allows the reader to compare and contrast individual personalities and approaches as well as job search strategies.

Most of the writers have Ph.D.s in the humanities (only four have Ph.D.s in the natural sciences or mathematics), with nearly half the writers in the field of English. Because of this, science Ph.D.s may think that this book is not applicable to them, but the truth is quite the opposite, because the academic job search in the humanities and the sciences is very similar (especially in smaller colleges and universities).

Scientists would be wise to learn from the tribulations of our humanities brethren. There may also be a bit of Schaden-freude * here--learned especially from tales of the infamous Modern Language Association meetings where so many humanities Ph.D.s must grovel for academic jobs.

The individual stories of academic job seekers are sobering, even when they end in success. For example, there is the story of the Ph.D. in political science who has bounced between temporary or part-time teaching assignments and is paid less than a third of what the lowest tenure track faculty member earns. Or consider the story of the Ph.D. in American studies who was told that he was "one of the better prospects among 920 applicants." These are the "nightmare" stories we have become all too familiar with. Even the successful academics sometimes sound like they have fallen into a trap. An assistant professor in English writes that she keeps telling herself that "I am one of the lucky ones" as she prepares to teach eight classes and hundreds of students--by herself--each year.

As if the job search isn't hard enough, the treatment that these individuals got while applying is downright appalling. A math Ph.D. describes a common practice that some departments use, forcing job candidates to fly out to job interviews at their own expense. The daily humiliations and insults of the academic job search process are present in nearly everyone's story. As one writer concludes: "Any profession that manages to alienate many of its junior members needs to take a serious look at itself."

Within these stories, however, lie some important lessons about job search strategies, lessons that regular readers of Tooling Up will recognize immediately. Sadly, some of the lessons learned by the writers in On the Market came after years of futile efforts. Some writers described their strategy of "applying for anything" and sending out hundreds of CVs and cover letters. Others describe their discomfort with "networking" and "schmoozing" with senior professionals in their field. One even admits that the term team player "simply sticks in my throat." In reality, the job search in academia involves the same techniques as in any other field, including Networking, Informational Interviewing, and The Truth Behind Teaching and Research Statements. The contributors to On the Market have learned these lessons the hard way. After reading their stories, I hope you will be further along in your job hunt preparations.

If the stories about the academic job search are downbeat and depressing, the stories of individual transformation to nonacademic jobs or to other creative academic careers are uplifting, interesting, and encouraging. In fact, the entire tone of the book changes dramatically starting with the section on "Different Path." There is an essay by a self-described "gypsy scholar" who has embraced a life as a full-time adjunct professor. Her chapter contains an unusual amount of good advice and positive outlook.

The academic establishment gets a good share of criticism in this book, deservedly so, I think. Not only do the recruiting and hiring practices of most academic departments seem arbitrary and callous, but the entire higher education institution comes across in this book as being near moral bankruptcy. In one of the final sections, Louis Menand, a professor of English and a critic of higher education, observes that "the face of higher education has completely changed since 1960, but future professors are still being trained as though it has not."

Perhaps the saddest message of On the Market lies in the fact that so many bright, passionate, newly minted Ph.D.s are driven into this terribly screwed-up system by a profound desire to teach. At the same time, it seems that so many of those now filling the ivory tower have lost that spark. On the Market does not present any easy remedy for the present dysfunction of academia. But it does send a clear message that our current system of higher education is seriously broken.

Whether or not you are aiming for an academic job, On the Market may be a useful and meaningful book for you to read. It does more than simply inform: It gives voice to issues about our training that have yet to be clearly articulated.

I welcome your comments about this book.

* This is a German phrase that means taking "forbidden" pleasure from the misfortunes of others. (Isn't that great? The Germans have a word for everything!)

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