Labor & Work-Life Issues

On the Academic Job Market, Does Patience Pay Off?

October 04, 2015

How long am I marketable?

It’s one of the most difficult questions an academic job seeker can face. And it’s one of the most important questions we hope our Academic JobTracker project can help answer.

If you don’t get a job in your first year on the market, should you stay the course and take another swing in the next hiring season? Or is it already time to start exploring different career options?

Explore JobTracker

Who's getting hired to tenure-track jobs? Vitae's new project, Academic JobTracker, aims to answer that question. Try a beta version of our interactive tool that takes a data-driven look at the academic job market. 

We're tracking tenure-track hires from the 2013-14 season in 11 different disciplines. Browse our tool to see who's been hired in your discipline, institution, or state. And stay tuned for updates and analysis.

Try the beta tool now.

To learn more about what we're doing — and why we're doing it — read on here.

 We’re looking at only one year of data at this point, so please don’t base any major life decisions on these early returns. But we have collected a large sample — 2,500 jobs across several disciplines — from last year’s hiring season. And in the social sciences and humanities, to start with, what we've seen so far suggests that if you’re looking for a tenure-track assistant professorship, you may be most marketable in your last year of graduate school.

In most disciplines, at least half of those assistant professorships went to candidates who were A.B.D. — having finished "all but dissertation" — or had graduated during the previous calendar year. Of course, most of the candidates in the A.B.D. crew were in the final year of their programs and went on to finish their degrees before taking up their new posts.

What’s more, at least in the social-­science and humanities disciplines we tracked, another pattern holds: At least three-quarters of tenure-track jobs for assistant professors are filled by scholars no more than four years removed from earning Ph.D.s. In many fields, that proportion surpasses 80 percent.

We’ll show you how this plays out in some specific disciplines. You’ll see how quickly hiring falls from A.B.D.s, who make up a substantial portion of the new faculty pool, to candidates who graduated in 2011 or earlier.

Are search committees passing more-experienced scholars over, or are those candidates dropping out of the job search sooner? That’s not clear.

We can’t reach conclusions about the STEM market just yet. (Math is the only STEM field — the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — that we’ve tracked, but we’ll follow up with ecology and psychology this fall.)

It’s no secret, though, that  job seekers in the STEM fields face a different market than do their peers in the social sciences and humanities, as the prevalence of postdocs makes a big difference in the STEM market. Our data for math bear that out: Candidates seem to remain viable much longer, provided they find postdocs or visiting assistant professorships.

Of course, many STEM job seekers have pointed to this as a problem: It can take years after graduating to land a tenure-track position. So while humanists and social scientists might lament how few positions are going to candidates with significant teaching and research experience, the flip side is that Ph.D.s in those fields might be able to get a quicker read on their odds of landing a tenure-track position.

These are early numbers, of course, and we need more data before we can definitively say, "This is what’s happening in such-and-such field."

But it is, maybe, a reality check. Just a few years ago, many search-committee veterans said they weren’t looking to gamble on A.B.D. candidates. Some advisers still warn their Ph.D.s against entering the market too early. In fact, A.B.D.s may face long odds simply because everyone faces long odds. But if aspiring professors are sitting out the job market during the final year of grad school, they might be skipping a period when their CVs could get a real look.

Now on to the numbers. (A couple of notes: 1. In these data, we exclude associate- and full-professor positions, so when we say "jobs," we mean "assistant-professor positions." 2. We’ve defined A.B.D. as anyone who graduated in 2014 or later, though most of them graduated before taking up their new tenure-track positions.)

Variation by Field

Our sample of jobs in English includes positions in literature, creative writing, and composition and rhetoric. In this analysis, we focus on the job market for Ph.D.s, so we omitted jobs that went to candidates with M.F.A. degrees. (You’ll find M.F.A. recipients included in the JobTracker tool.)

Of the jobs that were filled by Ph.D.s, nearly 60 percent went to candidates who were either A.B.D. or had graduated in the previous calendar year. But there are really two job markets — one for literature and one for composition and rhetoric. So we’ve broken those down in the chart.

That’s where the results start to differ. In composition and rhetoric, nearly 75 percent of the assistant professorships we tracked went either to A.B.D.s or to Ph.D.s who had graduated in the previous year. In English literature, A.B.D.s and first-year seekers accounted for just 46 percent of those filled positions.

All told, 92 percent of assistant professorships in composition and rhetoric went to candidates with degrees in hand for four years or less. In English literature, that figure was 84 percent.

What about all those scholars landing tenure-track jobs three or four years after getting their Ph.D.s? Most of them had positions as postdoctoral or visiting assistant professors. We don’t see a lot of adjunct instructors in that group. There are Year 3 or Year 4 bumps in many humanities fields — a sign that the right appointment can help you remain marketable a little longer.

And what about the jobs that went to scholars who graduated even earlier, in 2009 or before? Half of those were lateral moves — professors leaving one tenure-track post for another.

Here’s a look at how the situation plays out in history and anthropology.

In history, 52 percent of the jobs we found went to candidates who either were A.B.D. or had graduated in the previous year; nearly 90 percent went to scholars who had earned degrees within the past four years. (Of the handful of assistant-­professor jobs filled by scholars who earned degrees in 2009 or earlier, half went to people who already had tenure-track appointments.)

Anthropology showed a somewhat longer hiring trajectory. While A.B.D.s and recent hires landed 45 percent of the jobs, the drop-off between Year 1 with degree in hand and Year 3 was less than in many other fields. Still, 73 percent of the jobs we tracked went to candidates within four years of graduation. (Of the small number of jobs filled by those who graduated in 2009 or earlier, most went to people who were working in non-tenure-track positions.)

In some other fields, like communications and media studies, hiring often rewards industry experience. In our analysis of that field, we’ve excluded the small share of jobs (15 percent) that went to people with M.A. degrees in order to focus on the job market for Ph.D.s, 65 percent went to A.B.D.s or those who had just graduated, and 86 percent went to people who’d graduated in 2010 or earlier.

Mathematics is the one field we’ve tracked in which having a Ph.D. in hand clearly betters a candidate’s chances of landing a tenure-­track position. This, of course, reflects the expectation that people will complete postdoctoral training before they land such a job. The largest group of hires had their degrees in hand for three years. The A.B.D. cohort was second.

That said, even in this STEM discipline, 74 percent of jobs went to people who had degrees for four years or less. And there was a steep drop between those who landed positions three years post-Ph.D. and those who did so after graduating in 2009 or earlier.

In future articles, we’ll explore the marketability question further. And we’ll try to tackle some other pressing issues. What types of institutions are hiring? How much of an advantage do scholars from the very top institutions get? Stay with us.

L. Maren Wood is an editor of Vitae's JobTracker project. She is the founder and lead 
researcher of Lilli Research Group, a company that provides research consulting services 
for organizations and career coaching for Ph.D. job seekers. 
She lives in Denver.