Let’s Make the Academic Job Market More Humane

Like many in the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW) is concerned about the current state of the academic job market and its effects on students, recent graduates, job seekers of all stripes, and contingent faculty. We understand that some of the problems that job-seeking anthropologists face are endemic in the academy and beyond—reflecting structural issues that are difficult to change. However, we believe that there are meaningful steps that the AAA and anthropology departments can take to improve the ways in which people apply for and seek jobs within the academy, as well as how they are treated once employed.

Many of these issues seem to quickly become hot potatoes in a game of shared responsibility.

In April 2019, we sent out a survey to gather information on how the AAA might help job seekers and received 265 responses. On the basis of these findings and the knowledge we have gained from our own research and teaching about what makes workers’ lives better, we have identified a few key areas where the AAA and anthropology departments can make a positive difference in how people experience both the academic job market and contingent labor conditions. We shared the results of this survey with the AAA leadership. Now SAW wants to summarize the key findings, and contribute to the many discussions already underway in the anthropological community about how best to advocate for job seekers and contingent faculty. We are partnering with other sections, and are encouraged by the many events during the recent AAA meetings geared towards addressing issues surrounding precarity such as the contingent faculty rights workshop, as well as mentoring events for students, recent graduates, and those interested in or currently pursuing alt-academic careers. We welcome more collaborators around this important issue—consider joining SAW if this is an issue you care about.

Many of these issues seem to quickly become hot potatoes in a game of shared responsibility.  Departments can only do so much, the AAA can only do so much, and search committees can only do so much—and who can actually create productive change can be mysterious to many of the people involved.  Sometimes our respondents wanted changes that are already AAA policy, but that it is not possible for the AAA to enforce, only suggest. Sometimes our respondents wanted changes that might be possible in some institutions, but not all. Yet what this survey and our many conversations with job seekers revealed is that we are all contributing to practices that make each other unhappy, and have managed to replicate gate-keeping practices that leave many junior people miserable and also frustrate more established scholars. What follows are some humble and potentially meaningful suggestions to address some of what can be done along reformist lines.

Job ads

Our survey revealed that job ads are a major source of discontent, both for what they require from applicants and for what they leave out. Although the AAA already asks that academic departments not overburden applicants and recommenders by requiring letters of recommendation up front, some organizations’ internal procedures require letters as part of an initial application. To address these issues, departments need to comply with existing AAA policies that aim to protect and inform job seekers. Failing to do so creates more work for applicants, recommenders, and eventually hiring committees when large numbers of people apply for positions that do not meet their employment needs. To enforce existing policies, we suggest that the AAA mark when job ads are non-compliant with AAA best practices. There is precedence: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) censures universities that fail to uphold their standards. The AAA could also provide an easy way for job seekers to report these postings.

Applying for jobs can be an all-consuming, costly, and opaque process.

Job seekers are often frustrated that job ads lack vital information, such as salary ranges, health insurance coverage, whether moving expenses are included, what the teaching load and period of employment are, and whether ABD applicants will be considered. Not every department will want to provide this information for good reason—sometimes it is possible to negotiate better deals for a candidate if the job ad doesn’t spell out all the details of a possible contract. Yet job-seekers are frustrated for a legitimate reason—job ads omit information that could help job-seekers as they choose whether to apply to a particular job. This is especially the case for non-tenure-track jobs. Providing this information signals that the department is treating everyone’s time with respect—the potential applicants, the writers of recommendations, and their own time. The AAA could tweak the format itself to nudge employers to provide some information job seekers would appreciate (such as benefits, teaching responsibilities, contract term length, eligibility), while recognizing that some hiring organizations are bound by internal HR policies and practices that are not consistent with what AAA might consider best practices.

The discussion of moving expenses in particular elicited expressions of deep frustration among job seekers. There seems to be a widespread impression among job seekers that not many who hire recognize how costly it is to move every year or so from visiting assistant professor (VAP) to postdoc and back to VAP (if one is lucky) before landing a tenure-track job. It is especially difficult to save money for an anticipated move when one also has to repay student loans.

Going further, the entire application process could be made more efficient for job seekers and hiring departments by standardizing the materials required up front to a cover letter, CV, and sample publication. Ninety-five percent of our survey respondents supported this change. In the same vein, the AAA could follow the lead of other academic disciplines by creating a job application platform such as MathJobs. All involved could advocate for an end to position-specific recommendation letters. Moving to a general letter of reference stored on a job application platform would save recommenders the substantial time it takes to tailor letters to each position and save job applicants the anxiety of asking and waiting for new letters for each position to which they apply. In response to our survey and others’ requests, the AAA is considering developing a “common application” process analogous to the undergraduate common app and the medical school residency match program, while recognizing that a large percentage of academic jobs advertised with AAA are outside of traditional anthropology departments, posing some challenges to standardization among hiring organizations.

Lastly, to increase transparency, departments could update applicants at particular stages of the search process, such as when long and short lists are made and when the position is filled. Finding out on the academic job wiki is demoralizing for many. One of the most common frustrations that job seekers voice surrounds rejection, yet this issue could be addressed fairly easily. People vividly remember the thoughtful and timely rejection emails they received because they are so rare.

Job seeker support

Applying for jobs can be an all-consuming, costly, and opaque process. To make job seeking less costly, we advocate for video conference interviews in lieu of the tradition of in-person interviews at our AAA Annual Meeting, as conference attendance is cost-prohibitive for many. Many departments are offering video interviews as an option already, yet many applicants worry that doing video interviews put them at a disadvantage in comparison to those who can attend. Perhaps it is time to go a step further and do away with job interviews at our Annual Meeting entirely.

We believe that anthropologists and our professional organizations can do more to combat these trends and ameliorate their effects on our students and colleagues’ lives and livelihoods.

There are many ways in which departments can make the lives of their recent graduates and visiting or contingent faculty better. Ninety percent of survey respondents asked that departments begin to automatically extend library access to all their former students for five years after graduation. Currently affiliation tends to occur on a case-by-case basis. Departments could also more actively nominate graduates for the AAA program which offers a “graduation present” (a free year of AAA membership) to graduating students through Department Services Program partner organizations.

We also suggest that, as much as possible,  non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty could be afforded similar kinds of support and treatment to what tenured and tenure-track faculty receive, perhaps most essentially by paying them an equitable pro-rated salary and including basic benefits such as health insurance. They should have office space, mailboxes, and clerical support as well as support and transparency in hiring, review, and teaching assignment processes. NTT positions should include substantive opportunities for professional development, such as funds for attending conferences.

SAW members often do work that illuminates and critiques working conditions in a global economy that is moving toward flexible and precarious labor contracts and away from long-term job security and stability. The academy is by no means unique in its shift toward greater reliance on contingent workers. However, we believe that anthropologists and our professional organizations can do more to combat these trends and ameliorate their effects on our students and colleagues’ lives and livelihoods. If you are chairing or sitting on a search committee, or if you are a department chair, please consider the effects of the practices we participate in and think about ways to improve how jobs are posted, what materials and resources are required of applicants, and how contingent and NTT faculty are treated once employed. These are three areas where straightforward, meaningful change is possible.

Elizabeth Youngling is an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at DePaul University and the section news contributing editor for SAW.

Ilana Gershon is the Ruth N. Hall Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington and the author of Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Todayand, as editor, A World of Work: Imagined Manuals for Real Jobs.

Cite as: Youngling, Elizabeth, and Ilana Gershon. 2020. “Let’s Make the Academic Job Market More Humane.” Anthropology News website, January 17, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1341

Comments

In the last 15 years, since I left a tenure track job and became a “trailing spouse” adjunct, I have noticed a rise in post-docs and short-term appointments for which applications restrict eligibilty to candidates only 5 years or less beyond the PhD. This restriction contributes to creating a class of non-tenure-track (NTT) professors who, despite their accomplishments (whether in publishing or teaching/service, etc.) never receive promotions or recognition (eg. through job title), nor other benefits such as travel funding, parking privileges. In addition, many funding sources restrict eligibility to tenure-track faculty. Many such second-class faculty (who also usually lack rights to vote in dept. affairs) are highly productive academics; many develop second income sources or part-time careers off-campus to supplement their tentative positions in the academy. Many NTT faculty who remain at an institution then grind their teeth when dept. job searches produce short-lists of candidates with far less publishing experience than NTT faculty, prompting colleagues to go to bat for one or another new graduate, while ignoring how the tenure system has sidelined other meritorious faculty and created a shadow class of underpaid academics who must self-fund their projects. [Eg. In the last 2 years I’ve self-funded new research on energy/debt at two distant locations (one in Europe) that has resulted in peer-reviewed publications, as well as the funding of a 53 min. documentary film — amounting to over $12,000 out of pocket. Many other NTT faculty, I’m sure, have similar tales.]
There is a pretense — widespread in the academy — that merit is what drives hires, promotions and tenure. And with hundreds now applying for some jobs, it is easier to find merit in the larger haystack. But you don’t have to look very hard to find gross inequity built into the increasingly corporate university. I recently compiles statistics for an talk that traced the tight linkage between corporatization and ballooning of administrative ranks in higher education that closely paralleled the soaring of NTT faculty to over 50% of new hires nationwide. Can the tenure track system survive? I would say not if tenured faculty do not recognize that their fate is tied up with the fates of both the “shadow” NTT faculty within their ranks and the many newly trained PhDs their departments continue to produce who will not find academic jobs.

For an example of the burden and hypocrisy found in employment ads and why some of us have decided that academia no longer warrants consideration for employment, you might look at my comment in the Association of Senior Anthropologist. “Why Academic Anthropology turned me off.” When we think about an academic job, we tend to think of a nice tenured position with time to research and write as well as teach advanced courses. Today, the trend that I have seen and experienced is toward “Adjunct” faculty, low pay, no time for research or writing, and great amount of immediate uncertainty about whether the class will make or not (you will or will not have a pay check).

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