Tenured Faculty Member Says Quiet Part Out Loud

Prof. Kimberly Hoang, tenured faculty in Sociology at U of Chicago, looked out at a global pandemic and total collapse of higher ed hiring, and decided to write this (find original here; bolding added)

Just five weeks ago, the world was a different place. The unprecedented—which are ongoing—affect our physical and mental health and, for many, create a deep sense of precariousness and insecurity as the unemployment count climbs past 26 million and counting. For many Ph.D. students, new questions are emerging about how to cope with a world in crisis. In particular, students are concerned with how to prepare for a uniquely tight job market amid public announcements of hiring freezes.

I found myself in a similar situation in 2008, the start of the 2008 global financial crisis, as a third-year Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. I saw extremely talented graduate students a few years ahead of me enter an incredibly tight job market. Not unlike today, universities had announced hiring freezes and furloughs. The luckiest among my senior colleagues had a campus visit and an affirmative department vote, only to have the position be taken off the market at the administrative level due to budget cuts. For three years between 2008 and 2011, nearly every person on the market in sociology moved into postdoctoral fellowships, took low-paying jobs carrying high teaching loads, or, in the worst cases, were unable to secure any position within the academy. Then, in 2011, as the market began to open up, the newest Ph.D. students on the market suddenly found themselves competing with postdoctoral fellows who had book contracts or under-placed assistant professors whose publication records would have granted them tenure just three years prior. And today, the job market in the humanities is even more competitive. Looking back to 2007–08 there were 1,826 jobs in English; by 2017–18 that number had dropped by 55 percent to 828. And the state of university finances is poised to be far worse after this pandemic as compared to 2008, with estimated shortfalls between $100 and $500 million.

As we enter into this new recession, it is clear that we have not hit the bottom yet.

Despite the forthcoming challenges, here are a few things today’s Ph.D. students can do to prepare for the academic job market.

First, take stock and recalibrate your priorities. It is important that you take a hard look at what matters most to you personally. Undoubtedly, some of us will have to attend to family members who are sick or working on the front lines as essential care workers in hospitals, grocery stores, and a variety of other occupations. This might mean that you have to shift your priorities in order to juggle the competing demands on your time.

Second, we are in a crisis. Understand that this is an unprecedented time where society as a whole will need to share in the sacrifices made. As scientists and social scientists, we need to play our part in helping to solve this problem—even if that means shifting research agendas or getting involved in collaborative projects led by faculty nationwide. The world needs not only data, but a deep and thorough analysis of that research, in order to inform emerging questions as they relate to: the lack of data and the problems with numbers, existing inequalities tied to race and class that are exacerbated in this crisis, access to testing and healthcare, emergent forms of racism against Asians and Asian Americans, and more. Start by asking yourself how your research can be shifted to focus on what’s needed now.

Third, for those who come from a working-class background, graduate school can offer security, but you need to understand that rejection rates—despite your qualifications—are increasing, so get comfortable with rejection and brace yourself for an academic job market where tenure-track jobs will be hard to come by for at least two to three years. What I’m saying is this: Enter the market with open eyes. Cast your nets wide as you apply to jobs and be prepared to accept your lower-tier choices.

Fourth, recognize that it is an extraordinary privilege to be at an institution that provides $31,000, pays your full health insurance premiums ($4,566), and covers tuition ($60,300), for at least five years—and now longer for newer students. Know that $31,000 is almost the median income in Illinois: $34,196.This funding is also significantly more than what Ph.D. students in the same city at UIC are awarded ($19,300). This guaranteed funding is something that so many talented others, who have joined the ranks of unemployment, would be grateful to have. You are one of the lucky ones. Don’t undervalue that privilege.

As a mentor once said to me in 2008, “This is a time to buck up, buckle down, and get to work on producing an outstanding dissertation because your competition at other institutions are definitely doing this.” If you feel that this is too much of a challenge, or is otherwise detrimental to your mental health, this is the time to think about alternative careers that are suitable to your personal and professional goals.

In sum: Be well, stay safe, and grab your extraordinary privilege by its horns to get solid data, publish, and produce the best possible dissertation you can because this is literally your job right now.

Me (I was alerted to it by a reader, by Twitter DM):

In the face of this elitist, classist, gaslighting take, I say this:

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Tenured Faculty Member Says Quiet Part Out Loud — 13 Comments

  1. With all due respect, instead slamming Prof Hoang’s article with labels such as “classist, elitist, and gaslighting” , can you please explain what is wrong precisely with the message this article is trying to convey? I read this article and watched your video in full but still couldn’t quite understand why Prof Hoang’s article deserves such vehement condemnation. The message I took from her article is simply this — job market will be tough/PhD students need to adapt and make the best of the situation in terms of research focuses/also need to adjust expectation cuz reality will be cruel/ finally don’t forget what you have is already an privilege so don’t be too upset if u don’t get what u what. What is wrong? I am genuinely asking.

    • Just to mention a couple of things. Do you really think that “the be thankful” approach is appropriate? Do you think the comparison with other times is fair? The lack of empathy and the old idea of “I need to be thankful because I have a job” undermines all the effort and mental decline during a PhD program. It’s privileged people like this that makes academia suck!

  2. While I am generally sympathetic with your feelings, you provide pretty much no reasons for why this is bad practical advice. Care to offer some?

  3. Buckling down and trying harder will not magically make more jobs appear. This is the entitled “bootstrap mentality” that no matter who you are or what your background, if you just work hard enough you will be rewarded with all your hopes and dreams — and if you don’t, well it must be you just didn’t try hard enough. This is usually said by white people who are not conscious of their own privilege, and it comes off as extremely condescending to everyone who knows that hard work and parental financial support and a private school education and all the best internships due to dad’s connections and therapy and good health will get you a hell of a lot further than just buckling down and trying really hard.

    The “you need to understand” section is breathtakingly condescending. It is acting as if based on someone’s socioeconomic upbringing, they are in fact not very bright and they need to have the basics of the situation spelled out in small words or they won’t understand. This isn’t meant to educate, it’s meant to shame.

    The paragraph beginning “fourth” is where the gaslighting gets intense. It’s not intended to be helpful; it’s intended to make the reader feel guilty, to invalidate their feelings of helplessness and frustration and despair. There is an implied “see how generous we are, you should be grateful for the crumbs we have thrown you,” rather than saying, “how can we support you during this difficult time?”.

    I sometimes look at the CVs of people who graduated 20 years ago and just shake my head. They got hired into lifelong tenure-track positions with a couple papers published, possibly two sections of being a TA, and a good recommendation. Today, people who have five years of full-time teaching, published book(s), and more conferences and publications than some tenured people have had in the last ten years may not even make it to the campus interview. The job market now is not what it was five, ten, or 20 years ago. And people who lecture graduate students on what they need to do to be successful, who are ignorant of how different the situation is now, come off as tone deaf, condescending, tenuresplaining assholes.

    • This is so well put, Jennifer.

      In addition, the idea that one should be grateful for the opportunity to go into debt (while there is a stipend for TAs, it generally is not enough for that person to live on. So, many do what I did during PhD studies and take out loans to support themselves because they can’t have outside jobs–as if they would have time for their graduate courses, teaching as a TA, and sleeping). After 20+ years of teaching at the college level as an adjunct and full-time, non-tenured faculty, I finally got a job as a Program Director and made an annual salary that was more than my student loan debt total when I graduated with my PhD.

      And, my program only funded five years total with no summer teaching guaranteed. I took a job in 1999 and moved away, in defiance of my dissertation director who told me I would never finish. I did finish, and within two years, while teaching full-time at a well known university. My starting pay? $26K for a nine-month salary on a quarter schedule with a 3-4-3 teaching load. When I left that job (they only funded full-time slots for a maximum of five years by the time I left), I think my salary was up to $30K or so.

      Or about 1/2 of what I owed when I was hooded.

      I left that school and turned to online adjuncting, where I made more than at any full-time job I had after. Granted, I was teaching in my field, but it was always lower-level freshman and sophomore level gen ed courses. That’s not what I trained for, nor was it in line with my publication record at the time. While I enjoyed my time teaching, I was (and am) aware that the reality of my career did not line up with the fantasy I had when I started grad school, and it certainly doesn’t line up with the vision Hoang has here.

      The idea of “writing to market” is not new for graduate students–one of my mentors in my MA tried to guide me in that direction. I resisted.

      What I tell people who ask if they should get advanced degrees in my field is this: If it is something you have to do–you feel called to it and the work itself has value and meaning for you–go for it. However, if you think that teaching is easy or that it will afford you time for the research or other things you want to do (writing, art, whatever), proceed with caution.

  4. In response to those asking what is wrong with the original piece you actually don’t need to go further than the phrase “for those who come from a working-class background”.

    I agree with some of what is said. It will be a hard job market looking forward. But it has been in many disciplines and fields for a decade now. But why does Professor Hoang specify working class graduate students? Surely it will be hard for everyone; surely the best candidates will get hired for a reduced number of positions irrespective of their social background. Yes….I am being somewhat sarcastic and facetious here.

    I’m from the UK originally, I moved to the US to a tenured full professor role 4 years ago. I will say that I have been stunned by how more elitist, classist and downright discriminating US institutions can be than institutions in the UK and also Ireland where I obtained my doctorate and subsequently worked. I have heard more inquiries about where someone obtained their PhD in the four years I have been here in the US than in the previous 19 years post PhD in Europe. From my perspective, I do feel that whether it was intentional or not, Professor Hoang is coming from a position of privilege in that she feels that students from working class backgrounds should take particular note.

    Can I also just note, that in one aspect I do in part agree with what Professor Hoang said and that is that candidates are going to have to flexible in what positions they consider. I would also extend that argument that it would help if more PhD students from the US looked further afield to overseas institutions. So few US trained academics look beyond these shores, in the vast majority of cases it is international students returning ‘home’. How many actual American academics work outside North America? Far fewer than the number of international scholars, such as myself, who work for US institutions. It is 23 years since I finished my PhD in Ireland. I stated there for another 8 years, returned to the UK for 11 and then to the US. In the 27 years since I started my doctoral program I’ve been overseas for 16 of them (and counting). That is not unusual in Europe or Asia but so so rare here.

    As for it being a privilege to receive funding, this is in part a cultural and structural difference. I would have loved to have received the funding that many PhD students obtain in the US, but that in part reflects the enormous differences in the economic structure of universities. However, I don’t believe students, especially those from working class backgrounds should be made to beg and doff their cap to their “superiors” in never ending thanks.

    I don’t come from a working class background per se, I wasn’t a first generation university graduate, but my father was. He went to Durham and went on to become a Chemistry teacher. My grandfather worked in a woolen mill in the North of England. I benefited in that my parents supported me through my education, they saw the benefit of it, just as my Grandparents supported my Dad. I am though still close enough to find incredibly insulting the comment about working class students. It is unquestionably elitist and classist.

    Should PhD students work hard to try and deliver the best possible work they can? Absolutely, especially in a tight job market but surely they were doing that anyway. But to follow it up with effectively saying that those from certain backgrounds should consider their future can unfortunately be interpreted as saying walk away and leave the jobs for those who are more suited to an academic lifestyle and who are wealthy enough to self support their studies.

    Finally, I would also like to just say that I do disagree with Professor Hoang’s comment about changing topic to do something more relevant. I think this is actually quite a risky strategy and not only in terms of the delay in completing it would lead to. As a former Department Chair. I do think there is a risk that it could be perceived as jumping on the bandwagon of a topical issue. It could lead search committees to ask what can that student do when this has crisis has, hopefully, receded. Are they a one trick pony? Naturally, in some disciplines, some thesis topics may have to be adapted or incorporate into them issues relating to the pandemic. But I’d always advise students to only do that where necessary or appropriate.

    But most of all, “for those who come from a working-class background”, just…..wow

  5. So uh… nobody gives a shit about any of this. We all just want to know when the tenured faculty job market will realistically reopen.

        • Just google “impact of COVID on higher ed” and you’ll see 20+ articles minimum on the catastrophic impact of this economic calamity on an already crumbling financial landscape for higher ed. TT hiring was decimated in 2009 and never came back; our starting point now is LOWER than the lowest point post 2009. Not only tenure track hiring but tenure itself will likely disappear. Educate yourself. Resist denial and delusion. I should NOT have to be the one to spell this out for you.

          • Karen is 100 percent right. It’s over.

            The situation was structurally bad before the pandemic struck. A systemwide enrolment squeeze was already being felt, partly driven by the increasingly questionable valuable proposition of many UG degrees. The draw of the overall student experience on campus – which let’s be real was driving a high proportion of these diminishing enrolments – is now eliminated.

            This is only the beginning of retrenchment.

  6. Waiting for Professor Hoang to tell everyone how she herself has some connection to a working-class background, what her graduate stipend was, and how grateful she was to have it.

  7. Tenured faculty member here. I appreciate the advice in final
    Part of video about how to approach students. Thank you.

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