Academia and the people without jobs

The 1960s are over. When are we going to wake up and realize that it’s 2014 and our academic paradise is a smoldering ash heap, a sad leftover from thirty something years of complete and utter demolition? We no longer have a booming economy and tons of federal money going into the university system. The days of cheap, accessible higher ed are done and gone. And yet, we keep churning out graduate students as if they, too, are going to end up as university professors. As if each and every one of them will soon have their own hip little office full of books, dedicated students, and bright, starry-eyed careers ahead of them. It’s not happening. Paradise. In. Ashes.

In other words: there are no jobs in academia.

I’m a graduate student in anthropology. Ya, the discipline that Forbes rated as the “least valued” in all of the land. Lucky me. Over the years, people have often asked me: “Anthropology eh? So what are you going to do with that?” My response was invariably a version of something like “Well, there’s a LOT I can do with anthropology.” That usually followed with me thinking—hoping—that there actually was something on the other side.

There may not be anything on the other side.

Me, and thousands of others learned that lesson the hard way. We spent about a decade learning how to become academics, only to realize the dream has already passed. We’re all trained for positions that don’t exist. We’ve been prepared for a way of life that is rapidly vanishing before our eyes (the secure, tenured academic). We go into debt because of a strange “loyalty oath to an imagined employer” (as Sarah Kendzior recently put it) that certainly doesn’t come knocking the day you graduate.

We’ve been had. And we walked right into it.

I realized how bad things were when I was about half way through my PhD program—and it didn’t help that the global economy was literally crashing right when I started. You know, the whole “Great Recession” thing. After one year, I nearly dropped out. Looking back, maybe that would have been the better decision. But, for some reason, I kept going…in part because of a vague hope that things would somehow “work out.” I too pinned my hopes on that imagined employer.

No prospects yet. But I persist. I keep pushing forward, telling myself that it will be better if I just finish this damn degree. So many of us keep going. Why?

Maybe we’re all in denial. Or perhaps we believe so strongly in the potential of higher education that we choose to look the other way when we start hearing all those rumors about the dreaded, desperate job market. We believe in some idealistic, romantic version of higher education so deeply that we ignore the hard truths that stare us right in the face. Maybe our faith in the idea that learning is about more than just “getting a job” has blinded us to the fact that deeply indebted graduates with few job prospects are hardly going to be able to be those “few caring people” who can change the world.

We have to open our eyes. Because it’s pretty much impossible to change the world when you have the weight of compound interest grinding into your soul. When the debt collection letters flood you mailbox. When the phone calls won’t stop.

The reality is this: maybe we don’t want to accept reality. Maybe we simply don’t want to admit how bad things are. We don’t want to acknowledge that our prized possession—higher education—has run off the rails. We tell ourselves that the institution of higher ed is still doing fine, thank you very much. But it’s not. Imagine applying for graduate school and getting an acceptance letter that actually told you how it is in grad school:

Dear Esteemed Applicant,
We, the faculty at the University of the Real World, want to formally congratulate you and inform you that you have been accepted into our doctoral program. You will be provided funding, but unless you have a lot of financial resources, you’re more than likely going to end up with debilitating debt. Your living costs and other expenses may be overwhelming, so you’ll need credit cards and student loans to shore up your finances. We cannot guarantee any sort of employment after you spend 5-10 years of your life working your ass off in our program. In fact, getting a job in academia is beyond a long shot for most people. But hey, you could get lucky. Regardless, we’re still training students as if it’s still the 1960s. But don’t despair—you might be able to land an adjunct gig. Welcome aboard. Please pay your tuition promptly or you will not be able to register for classes. We accept Visa, Mastercard, and American Express.
Faculty of URW

What would you do if you got a letter like that? Would you accept? Hell no you wouldn’t. Yes, of course the above letter is satirical and stupid and ridiculous—but it’s not far from the truth for many students currently trying to plow through graduate school before they reach the point of complete economic and emotional devastation. Things are that bad. But you’re not going to see universities and academic departments speaking to the situation. They keep reeling those students in with stories about “career opportunities” and other good PR. Ya, right.

The job market in academia isn’t just lukewarm. It’s not “Well, it could be better.” It is, as Karen Kelsky once said, imploding. Meanwhile, many tenured faculty members continue to stand on the sidelines, safe in their own positions, as the collapse ensues:

today’s tenured professors indeed accrued privilege by virtue of birth: they were born early enough to enter the job market and rise through its ranks before the total implosion of the university hiring economy. Yes, the academic job market was tight in the 1980s and 1990s. Sure it was; I was there! But tight is not the same thing as decimated. The tenured may have struggled mightily to find work, but there was still work to find, when universities had not yet begun the aggressive process of downsizing, shrinking the faculty, and eradicating lines.

Megan McArdle’s piece on Bloomberg builds off Kelsky’s argument, and puts the brutality of the situation into sharp relief:

academia is now one of the most exploitative labor markets in the world. It’s not quite up there with Hollywood and Broadway in taking kids with a dream and encouraging them to waste the formative decade(s) of their work life chasing after a brass ring that they’re vanishingly unlikely to get, then dumping them on the job market with fewer employment prospects than they had at 22. But it certainly seems to be trying to catch up.

Ok, sure, there are some jobs in academia. But the chance of getting one of them is so infinitesimally small that grad students might be better off buying quick-picks at the local 7-11 than spending 6-10 years of their lives slogging away at a PhD that doesn’t even lead to anything remotely worth the time and effort. It seems that everyone knows about the bad job market. We all know. But for some reason the grad students keep trudging forward. Behind them, legions of new graduate students send in applications and willingly join the whole fiasco. It all begins to look like The Grapes of Wrath, when thousands and thousands of people made their way to the golden hills of California…only to find out that all of the promised jobs didn’t exist and people were so desperate they were willing to work for almost anything. We all know how that turned out. Can anyone say “cheap labor source”? Yet we keep going. Hoping.

This isn’t a new story. Early in 2013, Sarah Kendzior highlighted the role that faith—or hope—plays in maintaining the current status quo:

The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays—academic or otherwise—is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes. Hope is something you should have for other people, not for yourself. Hope holds you down and blinds you to possibilities.

The future that never comes. That’s what keeps us all going. So we work harder, hoping to be the one who makes it through. Hoping that just one more grant, paper, or presentation will be the magic bullet that leads to success. Despite all the evidence, despite the odds, we push forward. We all push—and we end up crushing ourselves like a frenzied crowd.

The numbers are not on our side. If you don’t believe me, have a look at this chart. Do you see? That’s approximately 36,000 new PhDs each year, and only around 3,000 new positions created.

Do the math.

Specifically relating to anthropology (my discipline), check out some of the stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the BLS, there were approximately 6,060 anthropologists and archaeologists at the time of the survey. A paltry one percent of them worked at universities, colleges, and professional schools—and those who did made less, on average, than all the rest.

Back in February 2013 Matthew Wolf-Meyer wrote this post about job prospects in anthropology. He mentions the BLS claim that there would be 21% growth in anthropology-related jobs. On the surface, that looks promising. But he takes a closer look at the numbers. First, he points out, the number of PhDs granted in anthropology has greatly increased over the past two decades (up from 341 in 1991 to 555 in 2011). Second, the actual number of jobs is still pretty low. With a 21% increase, the approximately 6100 jobs in 2011 would translate to about 7400 jobs by 2020. By his calculation, this would lead to about 300 new PhDs out of work each year “for the foreseeable future.” The final issue Wolf-Meyer highlights is the fact that most of the actual growth will be in contract archaeology (CRM) and consulting work. The numbers—just like the rumors we all hear—are telling us that academia is not going to be an option for many—if not most—new graduates. And yet, we persist. The applications keep getting sent.

When will it stop?

The title of this essay is a play on the title of Eric Wolf’s 1982 Europe and the People Without History. That title, as Wolf explained in his introduction, was meant to be ironic. His book wasn’t written to imply that there really were people out there who had no history before the Europeans arrived. His whole book is about the fact that all those “others” are clearly and undeniably a part of the human story. They have always had history, and been a part of history. His point was that there are no people without history—but there are people who are actively left out of history. Wolf’s project was meant to address that very problem, to make explicit those other histories that are often cast aside, forgotten, and marginalized. Because those histories matter. Especially if history is supposed to be something more than just the propaganda of the victorious.

There are histories and stories missing from the narrative we tell ourselves about academia and higher education. We tell stories of success. These are the stories that drive the whole system. This is what pulls in thousands of undergraduates, and what motivates others to continue on into graduate school. Everyone loves a success story. Besides, success sells. But what of academia’s others? Who are academia’s people without history?

They are ones who didn’t make it. The ones who went through the system, but whose careers didn’t pan out well enough to end up on department home pages or university press releases. They are the people who can’t be used to recruit new students, whose stories don’t give us a wondrous picture of higher education.

My title is also written with more than a little irony. The “people without jobs” aren’t all simply jobless. They just don’t have the right jobs to be included in academia’s big self-promotional story. They are academia’s others. The ones who aren’t working as deans, provosts, and department chairs. They are the adjuncts, the lecturers, the people who work at Home Depot or spend their nights as waiters and waitresses. They ended up switching careers, starting all over, or worse. Their stories give us another view of academia. Another version of events. Their histories—contrary to the shiny pages of university websites—tell us what higher education isn’t doing. Their voices can tell us what went wrong, and what needs to change.

Our paradise burns. We stand by watching. We burn with it. We have to change the narrative. We need to listen to those other voices.

*Photographic side note: California desert sunset, 2013. I figured I’d at least give you a pretty picture to look at while you read a not-so-pretty essay about the decline of higher ed.