Academic Jobs and Unicorns

June 02, 2009

The sound of the economy crumbling this year has been audible in even the most remote precipices of the ivory tower. The formerly lucrative soil of grant money has been sown with salt, and the streams of job postings have dried up faster than a muddy foot print in the July sun. My academic friends and all of their academic friends have joined in the mournful Greek chorus that is the current soundtrack to my life: "We'll never get a job." "It's the worst possible time to be on the market." "I've wasted years of my life for nothing."

There is no denying that the employment landscape looks bleak and barren. And I'm pretty sure this is exactly the outcome my parents feared for me when I told them I was going to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology. "And what, exactly, will you do with that?" they asked. They were the first to ask me that painful question, but it's a query that apparently never gets old —for other people. Just last week, the undergraduate techie in our university computer lab kicked off some ill-fated small talk with "Getting your Ph.D. in sociology, huh? And what will you do with that?" Rubbing my bleary eyes while he continued tinkering with my unresponsive laptop, I considered my answer. Since he was holding my future (aka my dissertation data) quite literally in his hands, I decided against using biting sarcasm or sliming him with my current doom-and-gloom attitude.

"Teach," I replied with a forced smile. And it's not a lie. I would very much like to teach. But so would everyone else I know. My peers and I have begun to talk about academic jobs in the same wondrous tones that 9-year-olds use when they discuss unicorns. We'd like to believe in them, but we're just not sure they exist.

And I, for one, have ruled them out completely. Too many constraining factors, too many job postings pulled down due to the economic crash, too many inquiry letters, CV's, and applications gone unanswered.

The Web posting for my dream job —an assistant professorship in medical sociology at a respected university —vanished overnight. I had, I am chagrined to say, gone so far as to tell friends that the job seemed like it was "made" for me. Even before my application packet was complete, I began to think of it possessively as "my" job and daydreamed about my future there as Professor Tennant. This fantasy-based line of thinking is apparently alluring, if unhelpful, for both romantic stalkers and academic job seekers.

With some trepidation, I called the department chairman to see whether the job still existed. Inwardly, I willed him to sound surprised, to chuckle that the Web master must have made a mistake in removing the ad. Instead, he sounded weary, and confirmed that the job posting had been purposely pulled:. "I'm so sorry. We have a hiring freeze on for now, and the foreseeable future."

In the suddenly pitch-black sky of my job search, there was but one tiny pinprick of light. One of my mentors had told me about a new postdoctoral fellowship in the medical school at my university. I scanned the school's Web site immediately. Anxious but optimistic, I called "Sally", who was listed as the administrative coordinator. She seemed pleased by my inquiry, but her accent was distinctly Southern, making it impossible to tell if her kindness was genuine emotion or good breeding.

Sally emphasized that the school would like to get all applications in ASAP, so I lied and said that would be no problem. Immediately after hanging up the phone I e-mailed two girlfriends who happen to be postdocs at a nearby hospital. I knew their clinical knowledge and application-writing experience could be an invaluable help. I signed off with the completely disingenuous line "I understand that you are crazy busy, so if helping me is not feasible at this time, I totally understand!" I'm sure they saw right through that, but luckily for me, both offered to provide their insights and editing at the ultra-cheap price of a couple of cocktails. Their assistance helped me get an interview for the postdoc, which went relatively well.

And that's where things stood as I waited to hear something from my last, best hope for employment this year. While I waited, I began to think about my options. And by "think about my options," I mean thoughts like: "Am I too old to sell my eggs?," "How much cash can I get for participating in research studies on campus?," and "Why am I having to consider how much money an exotic dancer makes?"

It was tempting —and I couldn't believe I was even considering this —to hide out in grad school for one more year and hope the economy changes. Perhaps I had become too comfortable with uncertainty, with not knowing when and how it would all end.

But let me be honest, I am an incredibly fortunate graduate student. While I will moan about my poverty-level wages all day long, I'm not starving to death, thanks to my husband's modest income. I'm drinking cheap white wine and eating expensive chocolate even as I type this (or, engaging in "coping mechanisms," as I like to tell my students). And I'm sure as heck not giving up my therapist. She takes my student-health insurance, doesn't charge a co-pay, and, consequently, sees more than her fair share of graduate students.

Recently, I let my therapist know that her constant mantras of "you should take better care of yourself" and "you're really very hard on yourself" weren't exactly moving me toward graduating from her care. "Listen," she said, "I've never seen anyone in your stage of graduate school who has felt good — -- physically or mentally. I'm just not sure it's possible for you to be wrapping up your diss, looking for a job, teaching, and feeling calm and healthy."

Oddly, I found that revelation very freeing. Apparently, I'm not crazy. I'm just ABD.

Still, my anxiety levels are at an all-time high. Last week, while teaching, I had a panic attack. Or at least what felt like the terrifying beginnings of one. I was giving my "I'm sorry, Santa isn't real" lecture, wherein I detail for my bright-eyed, idealistic pre-med and pre-grad-school students the realities of their academic futures. It's the lecture where I let them know the amount of debt they can expect to accumulate (roughly $50,000 to $140,000); the time it will take them to finish (seven to 10 years for a Ph.D., seven to 14 years for medical school); the age at which they will pay off their student loans (probably in their sixth decade of life); and the number of them who can expect to become seriously depressed while in school (about a third).

Those are mere numbers for fresh-faced, 21-year-olds, akin to facts they earnestly write down to prepare for a test. But this is my life we're talking about here, and it was all too close to home. As I spoke, the world slipped sideways a bit, the linoleum beneath my feet felt wobbly, and my breathing became kiddie-pool shallow. My inability to take a full breath panicked me further, and I found myself ripping off my cardigan in an effort to reduce my sudden sweating. I'm not sure how, but I managed to make it through class and into my car before I started crying and wheezing.

"The thing is," I said to my husband later, while lying prone in bed, an emergency-use-only benzodiazepine melting under my tongue, "I've been doing this for seven years. And I have so much debt.

" And now," I sniffed, "I don't even have a job to show for it! What if my parents were right?"

"Well," he replied, "parents can occasionally be right. But they won't be this time. I have faith in you. You've worked so hard. And something will come along." I reached for the roll of toilet paper by the bed —my now regular crying jags have seriously depleted our tissue supply —blew my nose hard, and said, "I sure hope you're right."

To my shock, he was. Just the other day, I got the call. It was Sally, the administrative assistant from the postdoc program at the medical school. "Margaret," she drawled, "it is my pleasure to offer you a two-year postdoc with us."

My immediate and unfortunate reaction was to scream into the phone like a 12-year-old at a Jonas Brothers concert.

"My goodness," said Sally. "You're the first person to react quite like that."

"I'm so sorry," I blathered. "Yes, yes, I would love to accept a postdoc position in your department. The school of medicine was always my first choice."

I left out a critical sliver of truth —that the position was my only hope. But the time for bleak thoughts has passed. By a bizarre combination of luck, tenacity, more luck, and an incredible amount of help from my mentors, I have landed a job. I called my parents and told them the good news.

"That's wonderful, honey," said my mom. "A postdoc in a school of medicine. Wow." There was a pause.

"Now, what exactly will you do with that?"


Margaret Tennant is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. She has been chronicling her search for her first tenure-track job. Her first column, "Adventures in Sociological Speed-Dating," and her second, "I Just Have To," are available online.