The Academic Job Market Is Terrible So Stop Telling Me Not To Give Up

If you are in any way connected with the sad, sad story of the academic job market, you are no doubt aware that the JIL came out recently. The storied MLA Job Information List informs academics about the few (and rapidly dwindling) job openings for fall 2011. A lot of people are depressed about the state of things. Lives completely upended, plans dashed, marriages ended, professors working at Starbucks. And there will be more depression to come. In fact, though last year was widely touted as the Worst Academic Job Market Ever, this year might actually be worse, if worse is possible.

This year, there are about forty job openings in my field. Forty. That is all. Yes, a few other jobs will pop up this fall, and some of them will be good. But these numbers are just not going to change things for the many hundreds of people with new, newish, and rapidly rotting PhDs who desperately want a job they will never get.

This realization is not as depressing for me as you might imagine because I am honestly not sure that I even want one of those jobs anymore. This feeling is, no doubt, partly a psychological mechanism against the pain of certain disappointment. I prefer to think of it as an example of what French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in Distinction, described as a class-based response to denial and rejection. “Objective limits,” Bourdieu wrote, “become a sense of limits, a practical anticipation of objective limits acquired by experience of objective limits, a ‘sense of one’s place’ which leads one to exclude oneself from the goods, persons, places and so forth from which one is excluded.”

I know this sounds like French nonsense. But, though some academic theory is French nonsense, this most certainly is not. Bourdieu just means that, when you keep getting the message that you can’t have something over and over again, you eventually decide that you do not really want (or deserve?) that thing anyway. In fact, the thing that you might have originally thought you wanted becomes “stupid” and “boring” and “not for me.” Bourdieu is not really talking about a psychological response to disappointment. Rather, he is theorizing how structural determinants in society create “hidden forms of elimination” that make the world seem fair and meritocratic when it is not. The basic idea is that people cultivate the identities that are assigned to them.

And so I have cultivated the identity of the person who used to want to be a professor but now doesn’t. And the job market is a convenient excuse that allows me to easily reject what I don’t want anymore.

The worst thing is having to face these facts in spite of all the cockeyed optimism and ill-informed enthusiasm I get from former supervisors and colleagues (especially those who haven’t had to find a job in thirty years) who say, as one said to me yesterday, “Don’t give up! You’ll get something!”

To those advice-givers: Just stop. Stop telling me that. I know you want to be encouraging, but your advice is eerily reminiscent of the American myth that the world is fair and that smart people who work hard will always see their efforts rewarded. This is not a helpful way to talk about poverty and unemployment in society at large, and it is not a helpful way to talk about the academic job market. So just stop. Really. Let’s agree to dispense with our delusions and move on.

Volunteering is a one way I am moving on. I got a call yesterday from Mary at one of the social service agencies where I helped distribute food to low-income folks. I was going to do some “job readiness” workshops for their clients. But things fell apart after two of their interns left, and the workshops never happened. She called to see if I am still interested. She said, “Are you the one with the PhD?”

I decided to have that question engraved on my headstone.

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2 Responses to The Academic Job Market Is Terrible So Stop Telling Me Not To Give Up

  1. James says:

    I never got over the sage advice of my supervisor when I expressed my concern over future job openings: “well I will be retiring soon” now there is an intelligent way to plan your future….all the best on your new direction.

    James from

  2. Thanks for this! We need voices against chipper, “peer-pressure” optimism. “Can-do” attitude is very dangerous when it is so misguided, as highlighted in the book “Bright-Sided” by Barbara Ehrenreich. We are pitted against one another in a market that increasingly selects workers according to their degree of indoctrination in this tyrannical Sunny Side worldview. Being stupidly positive in the face of systemic collapse is simply not helpful. This is no excuse for being overly pessimistic but skepticism is healthy for any society, even one in precipitous decline as we are. I am not an academic because I cannot afford to “hide out” in grad school into perpetuity like a handful of lucky people I know. But I received my expensive degree with great hope in the future. That hope is dashed and I have set my sights on mere survival for now. A family friend recently completed her PhD and continues to bag groceries at a certain union-busting chain. I am interested in the future work of your blog and what you have on your mind these days. Happy New Year, BP

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