You Can’t Kill It With Kindness

Basic decency and treating people better isn’t going to get at the core issues of what makes job hunting so demoralizing and damaging for most recent Ph.D. graduates, Zeb Larson contends.

June 23, 2020
 
 
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The academic job market is a place where casual cruelty is, unfortunately, normal. It doesn’t take a whole lot of asking to hear stories about committees that interviewed somebody but never bothered to write them back, or job talks where people were asked intrusive or sexist questions without so much as a second thought. Even 70-page applications -- with their requisite cover letter, CV, teaching philosophy, research statement, writing sample, student evaluations, references and sample syllabi -- are unkind things to ask for when most applicants will never proceed to the interview stage.

COVID is only likely to make this worse: even in the best-case scenario, the academic job market will be terrible for the next few years. The competition will be relentless, bordering on cutthroat.

In some ways, it’s a good thing that some pushback against such actions has occurred. Twitter has a number of threads where academic authors encourage committees to be kind in the expectations they place on candidates. Rebecca Wingo wrote a piece a few months ago for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives noting the very large investment of time it takes to find a job. It came with some suggestions about how to make the process a little more humane for interviewees: reducing the number of documents required for the initial application, offering per diems for visiting interviewees, sending timely rejections and so on.

None of this is bad advice, though it shouldn’t be this difficult to get search committees to treat applicants as human beings and not cattle. However, while kindness and basic decency are important traits in life, they also will not solve the core problems of the academic job market. At best, they make an awful process slightly more bearable, but they will not avert the fundamental hurts that the job market inflicts. Simply put, treating people better isn’t going to get at the core issues of what makes job hunting so demoralizing and damaging for most recent graduates.

Those core issues include:

Hierarchy. It’s a vicious paradox that some Ph.D.s are worth more than others, but trends in hiring reflect this. Academic hiring is driven in no small part by prestige, and that shuts out a great many people who are extremely talented and capable. Perhaps a culture shift in kindness could change this, but if so, we are thinking in a very long-term sense. After all, those students at elite institutions command more research support that will make them stronger on the job market. Teaching people to disregard the impulse of a prestige hire is difficult.

Expiration dates. Ph.D.s have a sell-by date, and in some disciplines, your value declines with alarming speed. It varies among disciplines, and in STEM, the time it takes to find a permanent position takes longer. In history and most of the humanities, however, finding a job seemingly favors the more recent Ph.D. Most candidates who get a job were able to acquire a prestigious postdoc or visiting position. Pass year four, and your odds dwindle away very quickly. This holds true for many other disciplines, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the frustration and hurt you could feel knowing that the work you put into a Ph.D. has basically expired.

Contingent life. Adjuncting devalues scholars and erodes their sense of self-worth. Studies show that they feel less respected by their peers who have tenure-track positions. Of course, all that pales in comparison to the financial disrespect meted out to adjuncts, the vast majority of whom are underpaid, without benefits and lacking even an office. To stay on the market, many people endure contingent life in the hopes of getting the job they want, but statistically speaking, that probably won’t happen. In all of that discussion of kindness, it’s worth remembering that most departments have adjuncts who have worked there and would like a permanent position, but will likely be ignored.

Unrealistic expectations. Many people in academe hold a difficult-to-dispel attitude that those who get jobs are the ones who do “good work.” Of course, it’s hard to get a job doing bad work, but it has set off a kind of arms race in terms of publishing, conference presentations, service and anything else that might give a candidate some kind of advantage. Nobel-winning physicist Peter Higgs famously said that in today's academic job market, he wouldn't have been hired. This puts people in the position of working themselves right into exhaustion in the hopes of getting a job. Because everybody is encouraged to do it, though, the expectations simply just keep getting higher.

What ties these things together and reinforces them is the scarcity of the academic job market. The ruthlessly tight job market rewards all of these fundamentally cruel impulses. When you have the luxury of having 100 or more applicants at a time for one job, you can afford to be as selective as you want to be. I’ve overheard faculty members complaining that they “wanted more Ivies” at the final interview stage.

To try and stand out at a job candidate, you need as many accomplishments as possible -- and not having them penalizes you. In the same vein, the overcrowded market for Ph.D.s encourages people to go after relatively new hires because candidates who have been on the market too long are seen as damaged in some way. Steering away from this if the job market remains unchanged, or our priorities remain static, seems impossible.

While other forms of discrimination may not descend from the academic job market directly, they’re also at play here and cannot be ignored. As an example, too many female candidates still feel like they have to hide the fact that they have a partner or children when giving a job talk. Those forms of discrimination are rarely discussed in essays on better behavior, but they absolutely need to be mentioned: bigotry is fundamentally cruel, and you can’t create meaningful kindness while not directly addressing sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and so on. Departments must be vigilant in self-policing against such discriminatory behavior. That challenge is much more difficult, however, than trying to send rejection letters promptly, and so there’s more hesitation to tackle it.

This article is not an intended to be a takedown of kindness. Search committees could easily behave with a bit more kindness toward job applicants. But it can only be the first step in a much more difficult process of trying to create positive outcomes for as many people as possible. Simply resting on creating a more collegial process would still leave us with a broken, dehumanizing system.

Bio

Zeb Larson is a recent graduate of Ohio State University with a Ph.D. in history. His research deals with the antiapartheid movement in the United States.

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