Sad Thursdays: The Student Perspective on Academic Hiring Practices (in Anthropological Archaeology)

I am delighted to host this guest post, contributed by the following group of graduate student authors from the Anthropology department at the University of Georgia: K.C. Jones, Travis Jones, Matthew Colvin, Justin Cramb, Katharine Napora, Katherine Reinberger, and Brandon T. Ritchison.  These students are part of an initiative in the department led by Professors Jeff Speakman and Victor Thompson, to tell the unvarnished truth about the academic job market. Professor Speakman actually contacted me last year to let me know about their professionalization work in the department, which I support wholeheartedly.  Together they conducted a study that showed the inequities of hiring: the vast majority of TT jobs go to Ph.D.s from just a handful of institutions.  Here is the abstract of the paper summarizing their study:

Over the past 30 years, the number of US doctoral anthropology graduates has increased by about 70%, but there has not been a corresponding increase in the availability of new faculty positions. Consequently, doctoral degree-holding archaeologists face more competition than ever before when applying for faculty positions. Here we examine where US and Canadian anthropological archaeology faculty originate and where they ultimately end up teaching. Using data derived from the 2014–2015 AnthroGuide, we rank doctoral programs whose graduates in archaeology have been most successful in the academic job market; identify long-term and ongoing trends in doctoral programs; and discuss gender division in academic archaeology in the US and Canada. We conclude that success in obtaining a faculty position upon graduation is predicated in large part on where one attends graduate school.

The faculty-student collaboration has led to two publications: the first, a faculty perspective on academic hiring practices in anthropological archaeology, and the second, a co-authored paper by the graduate students, published in American Antiquity, “Choosing a Path to the Ancient World in a Modern Market: The Reality of Faculty Jobs in Archaeology.”

Today’s guest post is a reflective commentary by the authors of the latter paper, which was recently selected by the Society for American Archaeology as their paper of the month.  It will be free to download for the month of March via Cambridge University Press. I encourage you all to check it out.  I’m pleased to give these pieces a wider platform. Although it would put me out of a job, I’d love to see ALL departments in ALL fields work this proactively to expose students to the truth of academic hiring.

Back row (left to right): Travis Jones, Justin Cramb, and Matthew Colvin
Front row (left to right): KC Jones, Katharine Napora, Brandon Ritchison, and Katherine Reinberger
Backdrop: Center for Applied Isotope Studies (CAIS) Accelerated Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of Georgia.



In Fall 2016, a group of grad students (us) and professors from the University of Georgia co-authored a study exploring the realities of the academic job market in anthropological archaeology. This study evolved out of professional development seminar discussions on the “myths” vs. realities of the TT job hunt. We often (lovingly, we promise) called our meetings the “doom and gloom” seminar, or, “sad Thursdays.” This lab group broke with the ivory tower tradition of providing empty, yet comforting assurances to grad students- a divergence no doubt familiar to fellow readers of this blog. Our lab group instructors, Drs. Speakman and Thompson, instead opted for transparency on our chances of finding an academic job. Our goal was to wade through the anecdotes- the good, bad, and ugly- and quantify our own chances of landing one of those coveted TT positions. These results probably wouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Dr. Karen’s writings on humanities graduate education or her CHE column, but we were still desperately hanging on to the stubborn notion that “a TT job miracle will happen for me when I need it most.

Using data from NSF and the American Anthropological Association’s 2014-2015 AnthroGuide, our results indicate that from 1995 to 2014, fewer than 20% of PhDs got TT positions at US and Canadian institutions. Among those fortunate few, over half (56%) received their doctorates from just twenty institutions out of the 100+ included in the study. Most of these twenty universities have controlled majority market share (which we have defined as the percentage of tenured/tenure-track positions in US and Canadian anthropology and archaeology departments that are attained by graduates of a specific program over a 20-year period) in the archaeological faculty job market since 1995 (or earlier). This is by no means a phenomenon unique to the social sciences. The truth is that universities are turning out far too many PhDs for the market to handle. The neoliberal platitude about “pulling on one’s own bootstraps,” arguing that hard work, and hard work alone, will get you that academic job doesn’t actually resemble the reality quantified in our study.

One of the questions driving our research was: Do program name and reputation contribute to employment success? (TL;DR- yes, yes it does) By why is this, exactly? Upon closer inspection of the data, many of the Tier I programs (the top ten universities placing graduates students into tenure-track positions) have healthy endowments that provide internal funding for graduate student research. We would argue that, in part, the success of these programs stems from the opportunities afforded by better access to funding and research facilities, and the opportunities that arise from the institutional reputation that is perpetuated through access to reliable funding—a self-perpetuating cycle of prestige. And, with such a small number of institutions holding the majority share of tenure-track faculty positions, it is also likely that alumni of these universities attain a disproportionate share of grant dollars provided by national funding agencies. With grant monies and faculty positions, top schools are afforded dominant roles in the theoretical trajectories of the entire discipline.

With this information available to prospective graduate students, how should one choose a graduate program if they’re committed to the tenure-track career path? Besides coming to the table with more than a little luck, we suggest that “success in landing a faculty position begins the moment one applies for graduate school” (Speakman et. al 2018: 10). Taking our data at face value, it suggests that if one aspires to an academic position, they should consider universities that dominate the academic market (again, no surprises here). However, some programs with lower market share may produce fewer doctorates, but may have higher relative success in placing those graduates into TT positions (and as students in a Tier III program, we’re reallllllly hanging onto this). We also can’t ignore individual grad student agency! Attaining a tenure-track position still largely depends on the person and their productivity while in grad school. A degree from a top program isn’t worth much if you don’t have the chops to get some papers out before you graduate and nail a job talk, but we can’t overlook the obvious advantages that result from holding a doctorate from one of these programs.

Our data also show that there are several “rising” programs in the lower tiers that have been successfully increasing their relative market share over the course of our study period. We would argue that some of these programs are finding success because they offer alternative models focused on specialized training (e.g., in the archaeological sciences, maritime archaeology, public archaeology, etc.) that provide diversified alternative skill sets for graduates entering the job market.

This study isn’t intended to cast aspersions on non-academic career paths or programs. Our goal is quite the contrary–we would encourage all departments to develop courses that focus on alternatives to academic careers. Modern graduate training should emphasize the value of “non-academic” skills and alternatives to academic training. As grad students in the social sciences, we’ve been conditioned to anticipate the precarities of the academic job market. But, more often than not, these warnings never translate into actual advice for obtaining gainful employment in the academy. We have found that the information needed to prepare ourselves for our eventual (likely painful) job search came through the mentorship of faculty who decided not to turn a blind eye to the declining state of the job market following their own successful passage through the gauntlet (although we note that only one of our two instructors is TT/tenured). Just as importantly as dedicated mentorship, programs should invest in mentally preparing students to accept that non-academic careers are equally as rewarding as the tenure-track. We hope that our work helps not only us, but the multitudes of current and future students who, with the right perspective and strategy can land the jobs and careers they most want, academic or otherwise.


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