The central irony of life in academia
November 10, 2015
One thing that always bemuses me is the near-absolute serendipity of the academic job market. To get into research careers takes at least a decade of very deliberate, directed work, and then at the end you basically toss your diploma into a whirlwind and see where it lands. After all of that careful planning, almost all of us end up where we do based on the random (to us) set of jobs available in the narrow window in which we’re searching.
Did you dream of being curator at Museum X, or professor at University Y? Well, tough, those jobs went to Dr. Graduated-Two-Years-Sooner and Lucky Nature Paper, PhD, and they’re not retiring for three or four decades. Or maybe your dream job comes open right after you, your spouse, and your kids get settled in at your new acceptable-but-not-quite-dream job. Uproot or stay the course? Or what would be your dream job finally comes open but they’re looking for new junior faculty and you just got tenure at Tolerable State U.
This drastic mismatch between carefulness of preparation and randomness of outcome was present even pre-2008. The craptastic academic job market since then has only whetted the central irony’s keen edge. Getting grants and getting jobs is now basically a lottery. I’m not saying that good jobs don’t go to good people – they almost always do – but there are a lot of good people in jobs they never imagined having. And, sadly, plenty of good people who are now working outside of the field they prepared for because of the vicissitudes of the job market. A handful of years sooner or later and they might be sitting pretty.
This is on my mind because I recently had lunch with a physician friend from work and he was talking about applying for jobs as a doctor. “The first thing everyone tells you,” he said, “is decide what part of the country you want to live in first, then apply for the jobs that are there.” Doctors can do that because there are more than 800,000 of them active in the US. Paleontologists are mighty rarified by comparison – it’s hard to say how many of us there are, but probably not more than 2000 active in vert paleo. So the usual advice for budding biologists and paleontologists is exactly opposite that for physicians: “Forget about living where you want. Go wherever the job is and make the best of it.”
Oddly enough, I don’t remember this ever coming up in grad school. It’s something Vicki and I figured out at the end, as we started the process of applying for positions. There are alternate universes where we are at Marshall (they offered us both jobs, but not as attractive as UC Merced at the time), or at Northern Arizona (which is bittersweet because we have totally fallen in love with Flagstaff just in the past three years), or other places. If I were choosing a job site based on everything other than the institution, I’d spring for somewhere in Arizona or the intermountain west in a heartbeat.
But with all that said, we are happy here. It’s funny, when we got the job offers down here I thought, “LA? Crap, there goes the outdoor part of my life.” But Claremont has lots of parks, it’s tucked up against the San Gabriels and I can get into the mountains in 30 minutes, or out to the desert in 90. I’m spending more time outdoors than I have since I was a kid growing up in rural Oklahoma.
So I’m not complaining about my personal situation. Vicki and I both landed on our feet – and the fact that we both managed to stick the landing at the same institution is little short of miraculous. But we still had to step into the job market hurricane to get here.
If you’re a grad student and you’re reading this, I didn’t write it to freak you out. Just to let you know that it’s coming, and there are things you can do to improve your chances. Be aggressively curious. Write. Publish. Give good talks (and give lots of talks so you can become good at it). Broaden your skill set – if you’re going into paleo, knowing how to teach human anatomy probably doubles or triples the number of available jobs at any one time, even if many of them are not the jobs you’ve been dreaming of.
Then, at the end, pour yourself one stiff drink and cast your fortune to the winds.