Posted in Rants on February 3rd, 2015 by Ed

I'm pretty sure I can do this without running afoul of the law.

So, without getting into specifics, I'm involved in a hiring search at my university. It's in an academic field in which the job market is very, very bad. Bad even by the low standards of the academic job market in general. If there are five permanent (tenure-track) positions in this field available across the country in a year, it qualifies as a good year. And that small handful of jobs is fought over by an applicant pool of perhaps 300-500 people who either have no job or have a terrible one. That number comes from the number of applications that large universities get when they list an opening in the field.

We got about 100. Just over 100. If you toss out the handful of cranks and people in entirely different fields, it's more like 80.

This was far fewer than I was expecting, and it reminded me of a type of story I hear repeatedly in the media and from other academics. NPR, for example, runs a story approximately every six to eight weeks (given their target audience of urbane latte sipping liberals in Volvos) about the terrible state of the academic job market. Here's Joe. Joe has a PhD and hasn't been able to find a job for ____ years. He is waiting tables and hoping for a break. What a nice guy. Poor Joe.

Now, believe me when I say that of all people I sympathize with Joe and everyone else floundering in a very bad market. It took me four years to find a tenure-track job. It was absolutely goddamn brutal. I wouldn't wish it on an Ebola-infected pedophile who chews gum loudly. I wish everyone similarly situated could find a decent job and be reasonably happy. But if you read / listen to those stories closely, you'll notice something with forehead-smacking regularity: many of these people are imposing some pretty exclusive restrictions on their job search. It's all I can do to avoid laughing when I read these stories about academics who say "I can't find a job anywhere, and I've looked all over – Boston AND New York City!"

If you're going to limit your search to two places (that happen to be absolutely choked with jobless people with academic credentials) you're going to be unemployed forever, barring hit-by-lightning luck. If you're going to rule out 90% of the possible places that might be hiring out of hand, my level of sympathy for your admittedly difficult situation drops precipitously.

So when I see a position barely get 100 applications, I think about all these people I encounter at professional conferences and online who talk endlessly about how horrible the job market is. I'm forced to wonder, at the risk of my mortal soul and feeling like a dick, just how hard are you looking?

Look. I will be the first to admit that my current location is far, far, far away from ideal. It is not a desirable location. The job itself, though, is about as good as they come in this particular field. The teaching load is reasonable. Your colleagues will leave you alone and allow you to work. The pay is fine. And it bears repeating that it's one of no more than a half-dozen such jobs available right now. Despite all that, something like 50-80% of the jobless potential applicants decided that they were too good for it. Which is, you know, interesting. Because I came here despite the less than stellar location based on the wild theory that having a job is quite superior to not having a job or having some temp position that works you like a mule for peanuts and dumps you back on your ass after two semesters.

Whenever students, usually juniors or graduating seniors, talk about the post-graduation world I hammer home one point over and over and over: you must be flexible in this weak job market and economy. Be willing to apply for jobs in places you had not previously considered living. Be willing to apply for jobs that you had not previously considered doing. The surest way to be unemployed for a long, long time is to insist that there is one job you will accept and one location in which you will live. The odds of those stars aligning in your favor are low unless you happen to possess some astonishingly valuable skill that, frankly, most graduating students cannot claim to possess.

I'm not suggesting that my job-seeking colleagues should take anything placed before them, but we must all be realistic about how selective we can afford to be in a bad job market. If you can afford to sit around pouring coffee until that absolutely perfect job in Portland or Austin or wherever comes along, more power to you I guess. But there is a serious disconnect between the number of "My god, I just can't find a job anywhere!" conversations I have and the number of applications some of the open positions receive. The perfect is often the enemy of the good.