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Stranded on the Academic Job Market This Year?

Written by: Karen Kelsky
Published on: Apr 17, 2020

Thanks to Covid-19, we are in a brave new world — except we are all scared, and it feels downright medieval in many ways.

As a career consultant who works with academic-job candidates, I’ve been hearing many questions and anxieties voiced by clients as well as by readers of The Professor Is In series. Higher education is reeling from this global pandemic, and everyone is stressed about budgets and money. But a lot of untenured faculty members and graduate students, in particular, are worried about what’s next for them and their future in academe. I’ll be blunt: The prospects are not good.

What does Covid-19 mean for people in the middle of job searches? Here’s what I’ve been telling clients who have a tenure-track offer in hand and need help negotiating the terms: Try to sign the contract as soon as possible. I am not saying don’t negotiate at all. I’m saying: Do your very best not to drag it out.

Colleges and universities are adopting hiring freezes left and right, and taking different approaches to searches that were already in progress. Some institutions are allowing searches that were already authorized to be completed. Others are hitting “pause” on all searches, regardless of what stage they were at, or rescinding job offers altogether. Some places seem to be honoring signed contracts of new hires but effectively nullifying ones that may have gone through every stage except for the final signature.

This is all understandably anxiety-provoking for candidates and hiring departments. The only slim silver lining: This crisis is motivating administrators in usually slow-moving hiring systems to move fast, as departments want to salvage the hires they often desperately need and probably will not be able to get reauthorized for the next budget year.

In some ways, the job seekers and the departments are in the same position right now — trying to catch the last train, as it were. So, as you negotiate, if it seems as if the institution is anxious to wrap things up quickly, that’s very likely because some sort of hiring freeze is imminent.

Don’t drag out your asks. That may be especially difficult if you are juggling two or more offers, if you are seeking a counteroffer from your home institution, or both. You may have to accept that the timelines you would normally have at your disposal are drastically shrunk right now.

What does this crisis mean for assistant professors going up for tenure? Research and teaching are disrupted, just like everything else. In addition to the daily trauma, anxiety, and uncertainty that is taking a mental toll, and the disappearance of child care for millions of people, research has become literally impossible for chemists who need access to lab equipment, historians whose book requires archival research, anthropologists who usually spend summers in the field. We don’t know how long scholarly infrastructures — laboratories, libraries, air travel — will be closed or severely restricted.

Additionally, academic conferences are canceled, scholarly-book presses are dealing with their own budget cuts and disruption of operations, and the editor of that journal where your article is under review may be sick with the new coronavirus, or have a family member who is sick, or just have a hard time finding reviewers, because everyone is shell-shocked. Meanwhile, the rapid shift to remote teaching has been hard on professors and students alike — courses suddenly look very different from what they were designed to be.

So if you are an assistant professor, what does that mean for your tenure dossier, which is built on specific deliverables that are now impossible to deliver?

Some institutions have been trying to respond to those pressures on junior faculty members. If your campus has not, advocate for some or all of the following — via the leaders of either the faculty union (if there is one on your campus) or the faculty senate (or other shared-governance system):

  • Give assistant professors the option to extend their tenure clock by at least a year. That is the only sane and reasonable thing to do under the circumstances. The optional part is necessary, though, because people who already have met and fulfilled their tenure criteria may desperately want the security (possibly illusory) of going through the system and securing tenure and the contractual salary bump that often comes with it (not illusory, although some places may postpone or eliminate it as a result of the austerity measures sweeping higher education). Many professors may now find themselves their household’s sole earners if family members are part of the wave of Americans who have filed for unemployment in recent weeks.
  • Cancel any requirement that makes student evaluations of teaching mandatory, at least for this term. Let assistant professors choose whether to allow this year’s evaluations to be included in their tenure dossiers. Colleges that require course evaluations for a certain number of semesters or quarters, as well as classroom observations of teaching, need to make it possible for those to be rescheduled.
  • At institutions where service duties are a heavy component of the tenure dossier, scrap and/or overhaul the established criteria that usually pivot around committee membership and campus organizational activities. Make sure tenure-track faculty members are not penalized for not being able to do any of that during the Covid-19 crisis.

What does this crisis mean for contingent faculty members? Unfortunately, as is always the case in an unequal society, the most vulnerable groups are hit hardest by a crisis, and we see that playing out in every way in the United States today. Race and class disparities are reflected in morbidity and mortality rates from Covid-19 itself, and in the fallout from the socioeconomic crisis unfolding.

Contingent instructors are the most vulnerable in higher education’s faculty hierarchy, and they are the most in danger of having their contracts revoked or not renewed. This is where tenured professors should step up and petition that the first fiscal steps their institutions take should be salary cuts at the top echelon of administration — as senior administrators are already doing on some campuses — rather than eliminate precariously positioned contingent labor.

What does the pandemic fallout mean for new and returning graduate students? Depending on your personal situation (finances, family, location), if you are newly admitted to a graduate program with guaranteed full funding for 2020-21, or are already enrolled in one, that may be as good a place as any to weather the economic storm of the next few years.

For students in American graduate programs, the April 15 deadline for accepting financial-aid offers has just passed. Students and programs are governed by that deadline, which means the universities that were (shamefully, in my view) going to rescind funded offers have already done so, and students deciding between graduate programs have made their final choices.

So I won’t sound the same alarm of “try to wrap it up fast!” as I did for job candidates with an offer in hand. But everyone enrolled — or about to be enrolled — in graduate programs needs to be aware that the funding sources you had in mind may disappear or become attenuated and, consequently, more competitive in the months ahead. You may be TA-ing online rather than in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. Your research agenda may need to change drastically in ways that are impossible to anticipate right now.

What does this mean for all academics? Covid-19 is, in my view, an extinction event, not just for some small and marginal campuses, but for a whole traditional mode of operations in higher education. Remember that once financial exigency is declared on a campus, even tenured professors can be removed. Academic hiring never recovered from the 2008 recession, and this contraction may dwarf that one.

In short, it is folly to count on any form of academic employment for those who are not yet on the tenure track. And for those who are, it is unwise to assume you are safe. Everyone in academe, including the tenured, should be entrepreneurial — imagining how they might translate skills into freelancing and other consulting work in the event of sustained unemployment, unexpected job loss, or deep salary cuts. Avail yourself of the many resources on the web about career options for Ph.D.s and career transitions. Begin to allow yourself to imagine a life outside the academic career.

Karen Kelsky, an academic-career adviser, is founder and president of The Professor Is In, which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of her previous Chronicle column here.