When to Let the Academic Dream Die

December 14, 2001

Question: I've been applying for academic jobs for three years without any success. I sent off several applications this fall but am not feeling very optimistic. Each year I've had some new publications or presentations to add to my CV and I've gotten some more teaching experience. Yet, the tenure-track position I've always dreamed of is seeming more and more elusive. What should I do?

Mary: You've asked one of the hardest questions, and certainly one we can't answer, beyond offering questions you can ask yourself. However, at the outset I'll begin by stating my bias. I hate to see highly competent, talented people spend year after year in poorly compensated teaching and postdoc positions after they seem to have reached the point of diminishing returns in terms of their quest for an academic job. I hate to see it even more when the cumulative frustration and insecurity starts to produce bitterness, despair, and cynicism. These emotions depress productivity and are likely to come across in interviews, setting a downward spiral in motion. It's a fine thing to have focus and dedication, but at some point changing your focus and goals can lead to greater happiness.

Julie: It can be difficult to say goodbye to a goal you've aimed at over several years. It can be challenging to explain to parents, partners, spouses, and friends why it's so tough to obtain a tenure-track job and why you're thinking about "abandoning" the search. Family members who aren't in academe don't always understand what you've been doing all these years. And even though the economy isn't good now and people in many industries and occupations are being laid off, some people just don't understand why you, with all your education and your degree, can't get a good job. That lack of understanding can undermine your confidence. Find people who can support you as you decide how to broaden your career prospects.

Mary: We've seen many, many people who've said to themselves, "I have to be able to do better than this," and worked their way into a variety of challenging and satisfying new career paths. We've also seen some candidates, albeit a lesser number, who suddenly landed that tenure-track position after it seemed all hope had passed. So it really comes down to what odds you consider "good enough" as you assess whether to change direction. Start by looking at the norms in your own field. If you are a scientist, what's the average number of years that people in your field spend in postdocs? If you are in the social sciences or humanities, how many years do people spend as adjuncts or teaching temporarily before moving into a tenure-track job?

Julie: Being a year or two beyond the average would not be a good reason, in and of itself, to give up. However, as you pass the normal time for finding a tenure-track job in your field, it may become even more difficult to find such a position.

Mary: Assess your research competitiveness. Check out the Web sites of institutions that interest you to review the CVs of faculty members in the department. Look particularly for the CVs of recent hires; you'll be able to tell by their starting employment date. How much had they published, and in what venues at the time they were hired? If you repeat this process, you'll start to get a fairly accurate idea of what it takes to be competitive in the market you've defined for yourself.

Julie: Consider your own mood. Are you still challenged by the work you're doing? Do you enjoy it? Are you fairly optimistic about your future prospects? If you answered yes to these questions, you're likely to come across as an upbeat job candidate, which can increase your chances of getting hired. Or are you feeling more and more discouraged, boxed in? Are you starting to make more cynical jokes about your situation and responding with bitterness to the success of others? If so, it's easy to spiral into a cycle of negative, self-fulfilling prophecies.

Mary: It may be that your financial or family situation is such that you can afford one or two more years without health insurance and a higher salary. After that point, it's time to consider your options. Your decision doesn't have to be stark. You might decide: "My first choice is a tenure-track job at a university in the Northwest. My second choice is a job in nonprofit administration. This year I'll devote myself to the academic search, but I'll start networking with nonprofits and take a short course in grant-writing. If, by May, I don't seem to have a shot at a good academic job for 2002-2003, I'm going to switch gears and devote my best efforts to pursuing those administrative jobs."

Julie: Plenty of advice is available to you on careers outside of academe. One easy place to start is with articles about nonacademic jobs for Ph.D.'s on this site. Let your adviser know that you are thinking about ending your search for academic positions. Your adviser as well as other faculty members you've worked with may have strategies or suggestions of people to contact. You'll probably have the best luck if you're in a discipline where graduates have plenty of nonacademic opportunities.

Mary: Does your university offer career counseling to graduate alumni? Many Ph.D.-granting institutions provide a wide range of career services to their doctoral students and alumni. Find out what's available. Even if you are on the opposite side of the country from your doctoral-granting institution, it may be possible for you to get career assistance via e-mail messages, the Web, or the telephone.

Julie: You may find it particularly helpful to talk with Ph.D.'s who have successful careers in campus administration but who continue to teach and do research on the side. Look at the meeting programs and membership directories of your scholarly association to find people who present research findings but appear not to be affiliated with educational institutions. Are there adjuncts in your department who seem to work at other things full-time? You might talk to them.

Mary: Many people who leave the academy find they can happily leave behind both teaching and research. Career dreams, like many other aspects of life, can be reshaped and still provide much satisfaction. If you decide to give up on a faculty position, there are many other opportunities out there for you to use the skills and abilities you have developed in your academic training.

Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms. Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.

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