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Let me tell you

January 25, 2008

a little bit about some of the realities of the academic job market.

Those of you who are all too aware of those realities can skip this post. (Go read some comics.) The rest of you gather ’round.

monk.jpegThe first thing you need to know is that the university developed in the middle ages, and while many of its characteristics are quite in tune with advanced monopoly capitalism despite what some will tell you, academic positions themselves — faculty positions — still follow close to their medieval antecedents in the ways in which they are structured.

Not to put too fine a point on it, we are twenty-first century monks.

As graduate students we study for years and work hard for subsistence wages. We spend hours a day in small cells, called library carrels, with our books and our pens. Many of us live communally, and there is often fasting, or at least Kraft dinner. We are part of a hierarchical structure, beholden to powerful mentors. We are subjected to inexplicable and arbitrary rites of passage such as comprehensive exams. We specialize, and as we follow our own crooked paths, doors close behind us at every step. Not all find a vocation and some fall by the wayside.

But it is only after graduation that the full scope of the analogy becomes clear. We never look for a job in the same way that other professionals might: where would I like to live? What sort of entity would I like to work for? Corporate? Non-profit? Should I be self-employed? No, while we may have opinions on such subjects, the one question we ask ourselves is: are there any jobs in my area this year (for jobs tend to come seasonally, in step with the academic year)? If the answer is no, we wait until there are; if the answer is yes, we apply for them. Or it. And if we are offered a job, we take it no matter where it is, like any medieval monk going where the head of his order assigns him.

And let’s not even talk about gender issues. This is a system designed originally for bachelor scholars that later stretched to accommodate married men with portable wives. And there it stopped. If you are part of a couple, your partner better be willing to relocate or you will have to enter into the dreaded “commuter relationship,” because you sure as hell don’t have many options.

(Perhaps now is the time to mention that while women who work in medicine, law or other professions have children at roughly the same rate as the general population, as do men in academe, women in academe have far fewer [source]. A rich topic, for another time.)

Let’s put this in concrete terms. Since this whole PSE schmozzle started last winter — back when the first rumblings began — I, and I am sure many others, have paid closer attention to the academic job market. Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t been madly applying for jobs; I’ve been too busy Photoshopping . Which is just as well, as there has not been one job in the past calendar year in my area. And it’s not such an esoteric area, it’s just that Canada is a comparatively small country; there are not all that many universities here; and finding a full-time position abroad is rarely an option. One of my colleagues works in a slightly more popular area and there were exactly two (two) jobs in their field in the same period. This colleague knows someone at one of the institutions that posted one of these jobs, and found out the following interesting facts: this institution posted three jobs in English at the same time, each in a different area. The funding for the job in my colleague’s field did not materialize — a common enough occurrence — though there were twenty-five or so applicants for it. (Presumably they have all applied for the other of the two jobs in that field, which as far as one knows are still being funded. Well, good luck to them.) For the other two jobs at this same institution — the two jobs that look like they will be funded — there were over sixty applicants for one, and over one hundred for the other. This, in a job market where in a good year there are three or four jobs in a given field. I am talking about English literature here; others’ mileage may vary.

To the low numbers of jobs relative to the applicant pool, add the fact that 99.9% of jobs advertised are entry level. One usually needs to be something of an academic star to get one of the very few jobs at the middle or higher levels. There is not a whole lot of job mobility in academe and the most mobile are junior faculty. And it is indeed mainly the younger faculty who have actively entered the job market in response to our current crisis at UNBSJ.

Yes, those of us lucky enough to get full-time jobs can get tenure. And yes, we are generally well-paid. Just like medieval monks who never had to worry about where their next meal was coming from or how they would pay for a bed for the night. All taken care of.

And in exchange, they gave themselves over to their institutions, body and soul, ’til death did them part.

I’m not defending this system, please understand. I am merely describing it. Much of it needs to be reformed, but it is entrenched, international in scope, and not all that amenable to change, transformational or otherwise.

And it offers benefits: full-time faculty members, once they have jumped the hurdles of finding a job and achieving tenure, have the luxury of security, a security that enables them, ideally at least, to develop their careers over decades rather than go for the quick-fix. And institutions have the stability of a long-term work-force, committed to building their careers and indeed their lives within the community. Without that core of long-term members, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the university as such would be impoverished to the point of dissolution. Indeed, we need to extend the safety of the community to include the scandalous numbers of contract or contingent faculty, numbers that are growing every year because part-time faculty are considered expendable and, being poorly paid, without benefits and without security, they help the bottom line.

No, I’m not defending this system of which I very much want to remain a part. I’m just describing it, because most outsiders have no idea.

Procedamus in pace

  1. Linda Hansen permalink
    January 25, 2008 9:50 am

    Just for the “hoo-hah” factor … and because it seems to be another part of this issue that folks outside the university talk about a lot, let’s play the salary game.

    A quick look through the Public Accounts of the Province of NB — Salary Listings of Organizations ( reveal some interesting things (a side note: if you are interested, has the actual salaries for our colleagues at Dalhousie … as long as they make over $50,000 per year)

    Fredericton High School Teachers (2007):

    Rick Hull — $66,193 — English teacher
    Deborah McIntyre — $60,846 — English teacher

    FHS Principals — I think principals are required to have a master’s degree in this Province:

    Dianne Tissington — $73,674 VP
    E Kilfillen — $74,939 VP
    H Kennedy — $74,939 VP
    Ann Krause — $81,155

    Now, for comparison purposes:

    As of 1 Jan 2007, newly appointed Librarians (who must have at least a MLS / MLIS from a professionally accredited institution — our “guild” is the American Library Association — there are, I believe, 40 such institutions in the US and 7 in Canada) at UNB with 5 years experience and who work a twelve month year had floor salaries of:

    $53358 (Lib I)
    $63216 (Lib II)
    $69696 (Lib III)
    $83841 (Lib IV)

    Talk among yourselves ….

    Linda Hansen


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