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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Academic Jobs . . . and Other Highly Competitive Jobs: Who Is Your Competition, Really?

Our three sons have prudently decided to avoid the perilous world of academe and to pursue careers instead in the perfectly predictable, boringly safe industry of . . . film-making.

What I say to them as they make their way into this volatile and mysterious job market is what I’ve said to a generation of aspiring Ph.D.’s who intend to get a job in the academy but are thoroughly daunted by the statistics one reads in the Chronicle of Higher EducationUniversity Affairs, and other well-meaning sources of terror.

You are not competing against everyone else who is applying for the job. You are competing only against your peers and your superiors.

(The obvious exception, of course, is when there is a hidden agenda, a secret hiring criterion that you cannot possibly satisfy: sex, disciplinary orientation [e.g., analytical philosophy instead of Continental], denomination, etc. But no one can say anything to help you with that. You just have to move on to the jobs for which you are qualified.)

Otherwise, though, in anything like a truly competitive situation, you don’t have to worry about the people below you on the merit scale, whatever scale is being used in a given situation. (What I mean by that is that in one situation, teaching ability and experience might count considerably, while in another it will be published research, and of a particular sort–say, in the denominational press versus refereed professional journals–that matters most.)

You are competing only against people as good as you are or better. And if you have sufficient grounds to believe that that number is small (and my “Thinking about a Ph.D.?” page is meant to help you discern a useful answer to that question), then you have sufficient grounds to believe that you are, yes, competitive.

One of the brutal truths about the academic job market, then, is similar to what I understand it to be in movie-making: Lots more people want to do the job than there are jobs to do. But the mere popularity of a career doesn’t say anything about your particular likelihood of employment in it. Lots of people want to play in the NHL or NBA, too. The question is entirely about how many jobs there are for people who are qualified as well, or better, than you are. Sort that out, and you have a much more realistic–and for some of you, more hopeful–picture of the situation.


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