The Crap Shoot that is the Academic Job Hunt or Why You Don’t Have to be Faster than the Bear, Just Faster than your Slowest Friend

Posted on November 29, 2011


A couple of blogs have been posting, and linking to each other, about getting an academic job- Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor, You Aren’t the Exception, and Why Do Grad Students Think They Can Beat the Odds? The basic gist of all of these articles are that most students will not become professors. While taking different slants, several themes run through these articles which are: you, the graduate student, are not as special as you think you are; everyone thinks they can beat the odds and get a job even though this will not happen; luck has a lot to do with who gets a job. I would agree with all of these assessments but I think there are some critical differences in the world of archaeology, maybe in other disciplines too.

First, I agree with the above authors that what makes someone “special/great” as an undergraduate will not set them apart in graduate school e.g. everyone has a first or 4.0 or 5.0 or whatever the top level on their grade scale is. However, this does not mean there are not exceptional postgraduate students who publish ten papers by the time they leave graduate school, publish 2 books, etc. Like everything else in life, even at the top people tend to thin themselves out into levels of skill. People may not recognize this fact when they are in it but everyone else does. Ask the faculty, they will tell you flat out, yes some students are better then others even at a postgraduate level. Then they will tell you the most destructive lie that any aspiring academic will ever hear- “there aren’t many academic jobs but there are still some for the good ones”.

This is where I differ slightly from the above articles and that I believe that luck is most prevalent at one critical point, the job search. The above articles talk about luck in finish a degree (not having to drop out) and in that luck does help but really it comes into play with job opportunities. I can’t speak for other disciplines but in archaeology people don’t advertise for a “archaeology professor” they advertise for a “archaeology professor with specialty in …..”. Take a look at the first three positions currently listed on the Archaeology Academic Jobs Wiki

Lecturer in Archaeology- interests in the Pacific region and/or Australia

Assistant Professor in Archaeological Science- specialty and geographic area open but in an area other than our existing strengths in geoarchaeology, GIS, and remote sensing

Assistant Professor-  a preference for the archaeology of the Great Basin/Southwest, Preference is given to qualified candidates who are members in good standing of the affiliated church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Yes, a PhD qualifies a person for an academic job but the process also makes that person a “specialists” i.e. you know a lot about very little. It also means you are not a specialists in any other subject.  While there are academic jobs out there, they are for “specialists”, not just the run of the mill archaeologists with a PhD, and if it is not your specialty your out of luck. Look at the job posts above- can’t be a specialists in GIS, a Mormon who studies the great basin. That last one there might be half a dozen people that qualify, probably fewer then that, even though 200 will apply.

Who decides what specialty a department is looking for? The specialty of the other members of the department, department politics, funding, etc. There are hundreds of possible characteristics that could decide this, that we can not possible know or even  track,  which means in  effect the odds of a job you can get is actually close to random. This wouldn’t be bad but really the shelf life of a new graduate for academic jobs is 4-5 years after they get their PhD but the best odds are in the first year or two. Which means you need to have a job you qualify for come up over a 2-5 year period. Maybe 50 jobs a year come up in the US that is only 250 jobs, not bad. Yet, when you consider that there are 170+ countries, plus regions in those countries, that could be the geographic area you have to specialize in. I could easily think of 100 plus archaeology specialties, from time periods to skills, which would mean possibly 17,000 combinations. Add in other “requirements” like nationality or “religion” and you could potentially be looking at 100,000+, maybe 1,000,000+, combinations. Suddenly, 250 chances don’t really look like great odds of hitting that right combination of aspects needed to get the job.

What this really means is that luck decides who gets an academic job. Yes, so and so published two books before they graduate but it was on ceramics in the medieval period of the Isle of Lewis and there are no jobs for that at the moment. This means an average PhD, or below average, who has the right combination at the right time does not need to have published two books they just need to publish more than the other people they are competing against in x, y, or z specialty.

You don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than your slowest friend.

What does this say about academic archaeology? Well chances are that those with the job owe it more to luck then most anything else. Does this mean they are not the best? No, “the best” is subjective but be cynical about academia as a meritocracy.