The Search for an Academic Job

Some reflections, three years after gaining a PhD

Three years ago today, I passed my viva voce examination for a PhD in English Literature. It was one of the most exciting, thrilling, and exhausting experiences of my life. My wife, Jennifer Dawn Whitney, had recently gained a PhD in Critical and Cultural Theory, and we graduated together in the same ceremony at Cardiff University in the UK.

Since that time, my wife and I have been extremely lucky. We were both offered part-time, fixed-term contracts that allowed us to teach the next generation of literary critics, journalists, philosophers, and informed citizens. It’s been incredibly fun and rewarding, but insecure in its very nature. Now, we are at a point where our contracts are ending simultaneously, and so we are both looking for full-time posts where we can develop our own teaching and research initiatives.

Getting this far has not been easy. It has required hard work, discipline, persistence, and a generous helping of sheer luck. My wife and I were both the first people in our immediate families to go to university and achieve a college degree. As people from working-class backgrounds, we have seen how difficult it is to get a foothold on the institutional ladder. Many of our peers have access to financial support or are independently wealthy, enabling them to research and publish in their own time without needing to worry about keeping a roof over their heads or put food on the table. This financial security can allow some to live comfortably on a part-time fixed-term contract, or to pursue volunteer work or internships that will enhance their academic resume. Without this kind of safety net, pursuing an academic career can be daunting. But we are not letting that deter us.

As our contracts come to an end, we are looking to work at institutions that support the same kinds of values and ideals that attracted us to academia in the first place. We celebrate the university as an inclusive space that recognises diversity and debate. We seek to think critically about our own cultural assumptions and histories, and to reflect on what it means to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life. We also seek to prioritise teaching as a crucial part of an academic’s day-to-day life, not just to share knowledge but as an opportunity to inspire and generate discussion on the issues that matter most in contemporary culture. Wish us luck.

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11 Comments

  1. I do wish both of you the best of luck in your search for meaningful employment in the same place. I’m sure, as you go back on the job market, that you’re learning to ask all the right questions about spousal hires, the possibility of one of you adjuncting, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Harry. To be honest, the idea of working at the same institution hasn’t really occurred to us as an attainable reality! But it’s definitely something we will have to think about going forward. 🙂

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  2. I’ve read this post a couple of times, and I’ve been following your online work for years now, and after all that I wish I had something more to say than “Good luck.” But I don’t. I hope the luck you’ve experienced so far continues into the future. More and more, actually, I’m convinced that luck isn’t just one factor among many in landing an academic job — it is far and away the determining factor.

    I say this partly on the basis of having given up my own pursuit of the same type of employment. My situation was similar to yours (graduation, a three-year contract, looking for something else with my wife) but after a series of setbacks and detours, I can’t sustain it any longer. Luck has played a powerful part in my own fortunes. My daughter was born just two months after I signed a five-year contract, but I had to break the contract when it emerged that she has special needs which require certain public support services. Since these services are only available in a handful of localities worldwide (only three in the UK), a situation I entered purely by chance ended up radically limiting my ability to take a job at most of the institutions that were looking for someone like me.

    But I say this also on the basis of just interacting regularly with many people in the same boat. They have all worked extremely hard — publishing and teaching and doing admin work and facilitating extra activities on the side — and they are all, without doubt, superbly qualified to hold the jobs they’re applying for, but they’re all also competing against one another for a true scarcity of positions. In most cases that I know of, the second- or third-ranking applicant, or even the tenth-ranking applicant, could do work that is just as outstanding as the work that the top applicant will end up doing. The differences between them are miniscule, basically imperceptible — and, far too often, when you look for the differences that can be put down to sheer luck (one applicant happens to be already located close to the institution, another applicant enjoys the flexibility of not having parental or other caring responsibilities, etc.) you find that these end up outweighing whatever differences of merit may exist.

    It’s rewarding work, but it’s carried out in a brutal working environment. Who could possibly doubt that you and your wife are more than capable of doing it, and doing it to an excellent standard? You deserve the sort of position you seek, if for nothing else then as a reward for everything you’ve done (and the precarity you’ve endured) so far. I wish you all the best in the opportunities you pursue — but I also wish you all the strength and resolve you’ll need to navigate your way through the minefield of sheer chance that stands between you and those jobs!

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    • Thank you for your response, Daniel. I agree that so much of our future is dependent upon chance at this stage – of being at the right place at the right time. I also think that what you say about broader personal circumstances is really important for us to remember. Life has a way of reframing our priorities, and if that happens then we shall have to make our piece with it.

      Best wishes, and thanks again,
      Rhys

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  3. Best of luck to you both. Unfortunately, as you say, you’re likely to need it in the current climate. It seems academia isn’t a priority for our current govt (or even less so, perhaps, in the US). A friend’s daughter, also newly awarded her doctorate, is in the same sort of non-tenure, part-time contract, and in London, where it’s impossible for her to make ends meet. I’m fortunate in that when I was an undergraduate, there was a grant system so that someone like us – working class background, first in the family to go to university – could benefit from the excellent British HE system. When I was awarded my PhD in the early 90s the situation wasn’t great, though, and I ended up back in the FE teaching system I’d originally gone into. I’d also fallen out of love with the medieval field I’d researched in, and it’s well nigh impossible to get a university teaching post in a literary area outside of one’s own research. My own fault, I know. But it’s been a fulfilling career, just coming to an end, and I have been able to continue with some academic work of my own. Now these energies are largely channeled into my blog. Just a hobby, but it keeps me amused. Keep us posted with how you and your wife get on – from what I’ve read on your blog you deserve to succeed.

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    • Thank you, Simon. Your words are appreciated. I hope your friend’s daughter also finds an opportunity to do what she loves to do. These are difficult times, and it’s really touching to read support from people such as yourself.

      Best wishes,
      Rhys

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