Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blog XXXVI (36): Job Hunting

The following news story originally appeared in The Houston Chronicle on October 15, 2009. The title of the article is "Job-hunting with a Ph.D. isn't what it Used to Be: Tenure Track-track Positions Elusive as Academia Suffers from Cuts" and the reporter that wrote it was Jeannie Kever. This story discusses some of the same issues I raised in April 6, 2009 in Blog IV.
Samuel Condic looks unbeatable, on paper: A new Ph.D. in philosophy, with a dissertation on the hot topic of stem cell research. A decade of experience in the oil and gas industry, a sign that he knows the business world as well as academia.
And yet he is happy to have a temporary appointment to the faculty of the University of St. Thomas.
Next year?
"At this point, I'll take anything I can get," Condic said. "Tenure-track is what you'd like to shoot for, but to be honest, I would be happy to have something that's full time and permanent. I don't have the luxury to be very selective."
The academic job market has been tight for years, especially in the humanities. But finding a job is even harder now, as colleges and universities caught in an economic squeeze delay hiring and in some cases, order unpaid furloughs for faculty.
"There are a lot more people in love with English literature than there are jobs in English literature," said Mary Catherine Sommers, who chairs the philosophy department at the University of St. Thomas.
There are no definitive statistics on how the recession has affected hiring in higher education.
"But it probably is the case that there are even fewer openings now," as schools hire part-time or temporary teachers to stay within tight budgets, said John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors.
Warning students
Already, he said, 68 percent of faculty jobs nationwide are part-time or contract, known as adjunct positions, rather than the tenure-track posts that have traditionally been at the heart of academia.
Tenure doesn't guarantee a job for life, but it does require certain procedures to be followed before someone is fired, intended to ensure that faculty members don't lose their jobs for pursuing unpopular ideas.
Adjunct positions are cheaper - they often don't include benefits, and the pay can be half or even less than that of a tenure-track position.
"They don't have benefits," Curtis said. "But they also often don't have an office, a campus e-mail address, a telephone on campus. Because they're hired only on a limited basis, they're often not available to students outside of class time."
Nowadays, Sommers feels compelled to warn students entering a doctoral program.
"I think I have to deliver the brutal news," she said. "You try to tell them, this is not enrichment. This is professional training. You're forgoing income in those years, sometimes coming out with a debt."
So why do it?
Condic, 42, grew up in the academic world, where his father was a university professor.
"That's the best kind of job you can have, to pursue ideas and learning and knowledge," he said. "It is a rare honor to be tasked with that job."
And it's a pleasure
"I think my gift is in teaching," said Ken Martin, who has worked as an adjunct at several community colleges since earning a master's degree in statistics in 2006. "I love teaching. I could do analysis with my statistics degree, but that wouldn't be as fulfilling to me."
Pressure to deliver
Martin, 58, took a circuitous route to college teaching, working as a civil engineer in his native South Africa and then coaching tennis when he arrived in Houston 26 years ago.
Without a Ph.D., he is limited to community colleges, which don't always require one. But increased competition for faculty jobs at four-year schools means people with doctoral degrees are more likely to consider two-year schools, pushing the competition downward.
Still, Martin said, the additional degree would be unlikely to boost his earning potential enough to justify the expense.
He's now a full-time adjunct at San Jacinto College, a position that offers benefits but no job security.
Finding a job is only part of the puzzle for would-be faculty members. Once hired, academics are under increasing pressure to justify their salaries and the security offered by tenure.
Dan Wells, a biology and biochemistry professor at the University of Houston, started his term as president of the Faculty Senate last winter by giving board members an idea of how faculty members spend their days.
The pressure increased in Texas last year when Gov. Rick Perry urged university regents to consider several changes that would make higher education more responsive to the marketplace, equating students with customers.
"It has been a morale issue, especially in public colleges and universities," Curtis said. "There isn't really an understanding of what goes into teaching."
Nonetheless, there's no shortage of people who want the jobs. Consider Anne Heath Welch, an adjunct at Kingwood College.
"There are lots of people who are extremely well-qualified who are working as adjuncts for extremely poor pay," she said, estimating that the average adjunct earns about $20,000 a year.
"Clearly, people wouldn't do that if they had another option, and obviously, you can't live on that," she said.
‘It is what it is'
Heath-Welch, 56, was in the middle of a doctoral program in vocal performance at the University of Texas at Austin when she left to perform in Europe 25 years ago.
She returned to Houston in 2005, drawn by family and looking to support herself by teaching.
Her husband is an adjunct at Kingwood, too. And while money is tight, Heath-Welch said the work is satisfying.
"It is what it is," she said. "Maybe that's just the way American academia is going."
Maybe so, said Harvey Yarborough, a math professor at Brazosport Community College and vice president of the Texas Faculty Association, who said the use of adjuncts is a growing issue at community colleges and four-year schools.
"They have this love for academia," he said, "and they'll sacrifice all kinds of things to pursue their passion."


  1. I have read through your posts on the various potential career paths for history Ph.D.s with great interest. After receiving my own Ph.D. in history, I did considerable research into several of these paths, including museum work, library work, community college teaching, and government service. On reading through your posts, I was surprised to discover that (so far as I can tell) the path which I finally decided to pursue, secondary education, was not among those which are discussed in your posts. I wonder if such a post is forthcoming; if the omission is intentional, I would be curious to know the reasoning behind that omission.

  2. A blog on secondary education is forthcoming. It should appear sometime in February or March, depending on when the author finishes.