what i will be sure to tell my grad students when i find that perfect fitting academic job
This guest post is written by Nicolette Manglos-Weber. She is a research assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame. Her work has appeared in Social Forces, Sociological Perspectives, and Sociology of Religion.
In many of the discussions I hear and read about preparing grad students for the brutal academic job market in sociology, one key point often gets missed or ignored: it’s a very different thing to be prepared in a specialty area with dozens of jobs being advertised each cycle (i.e. criminology, medical/health) than it is to be prepared when the advertisements in your area come in a trickle (i.e. religion, culture). Perhaps it seems so obvious that it doesn’t need to be said, but it’s incredibly important, and something I think more grad students should know about much, much earlier in their programs when they are choosing their thesis topics (or, even better, when they are applying to grad school in the first place).
As was typical, at least in my cohort, I chose my topic purely on the basis of what I found most fascinating and who among the faculty I seemed to be simpatico with. I was certainly informed that focusing on religion in sub-Saharan Africa might make it more difficult to publish, but then in my third year I published my M.A. thesis in a good specialty journal, landed a publication in a top ASA journal as first author, and had an R&R as sole author at a solid mid-tier generalist journal. At the time, I thought to myself, “Phew. So that’s taken care of!” I was doing what I was told to do, getting better and better at it each day, and enjoying myself. I had high hopes of avoiding the post-doc market completely and landing a TT job on my first year out, mainly because as an unpartnered young person I didn’t want to bounce around the country alone for several years.
Yet what I didn’t know then, and wish I had, is that the job market really is a delicate dance driven by the logic of fit. I was definitely in the door with my existing publication record. But once the dance got going, I was severely limited in my options of dance partners because of my area of specialization. My compatriots in criminology and health—more power to them—much more readily got jobs with similar qualifications. I made some short lists and landed some interviews, but never got the offer, and when I found out who did, it always made sense. Ah, I would think, sure. That person fits. It was even hard for me to be upset about losing out on some of these jobs because poorness of fit would also be bad for me as a scholar. As a mixed-methods culture and theory oriented person intending to write books I didn’t really want to end up in a quantitative-dominant R2 department. There are those for whom this is less relevant, who are at the very top and are competing for open-specialization jobs at Berkeley and Princeton; and again, more power to them, but they are not most of us. For most of us, fit of specialization matters a lot.
It’s a story of “follow the money.” Criminology and health are hot markets for real bread and butter reasons, and given the state of our prison and health care systems, I think this research should get all the government and private funding it can. The takeaway point, however, is that “follow the money” was never part of the professional wisdom passed on to me in my grad training. I now feel that graduate students should be informed VERY early on in the process that sociologists are in many ways—though thankfully not completely—subject to trends in both public and private funding priorities, and the decision about the topics to which they devote their time, energy, and considerable strengths should weigh pragmatic considerations alongside personal and intellectual ones. This is not a criticism of my particular department—I’ve seen lots of evidence that it is the norm for graduate students to know very little in their early years about what topics are hot and which are not, job-market wise. I have also never heard a fellow early-career person say that they chose to study health because there are more jobs in that area. But why not? Would it be shamefully gauche? We all work hard. Let’s work smart, too.
I’m still in the dance looking for the right fit. For some of us who have chosen highly specialized topics—though the question of whether religion should continue to be so peripheral to the discipline is another important question—the dance often takes several rounds. In the meantime, I have gotten second-round reviews from generalist journals essentially saying, “Yeah, but why should we care about religion and Africa again?” Both the waiting for the right fit and the unfamiliarity of my topic make my job harder—not impossible, but harder. I have been personally and professionally privileged enough to keep coming back to the dance for several years in a row looking for that right fit, so this isn’t a gripe-fest or a rant. I also now have much more perspective on exactly what’s going on and I’m less likely to internalize the process as an indication of my personal failures (i.e. Do I have an awful sense of humor? Does my star publication actually have some sort of fatal flaw that no one’s telling me about? Is my job letter the worst in the stack?). Having learned a lot, I now understand what my choices are: 1) get out of the TT market; 2) stay in, but get much less picky (though this has its own problems, since a strong publication record screams “stepping stone job” to R2s and lower-tier SLACs); 2) stay in, keep plugging away, and wait for the right fit.
Would I have chosen differently if I knew more about the market in years 1 and 2 of my program? Not sure. I was very interested in the failings of the prison system in my undergraduate years and it’s quite possible I could have been as passionate about that as I now am about religion, immigration, politics, and culture. I still greatly enjoy what I do and as for right now, I’m still getting paid to do it. But when I find that perfect fitting permanent job and start advising students, I do know this: I will push them to think intellectually but also pragmatically about their future, which will matter much more in their early 30s than they think it will in their mid-20s. Look at where the government and private sector research money is going. Go in with open eyes and a clear head. If you chose something more obscure out of love for the topic, then know that you will probably work harder—in a field where EVERYONE works very hard—and accept that.
I don’t think this means that the field will be “dumbed down” by people studying only what the government and private donors want to fund, for two reasons. Those selecting into sociology are a stubborn, independent, and ambitious lot, and many of them will likely take this advice and say, “Oh yeah? I’m going to show I’m especially brilliant by kicking ass on the market with a dissertation on how the case of funeral rites during the 1700s in Eastern Europe completely upends everything we think we know about the relationship between culture and agency!” The second reason is that we can, must, and I think will, continue to make a case for the importance of liberal arts education and the broadening of students’ minds by introducing them to things like historical funeral rites. In the meantime, let’s encourage grad students to temper their ambitions and intellectual whims with a bit of good old common sense about how to maximize their likelihood of stable employment.
PS. Less anyone accuse me of sour grapes, let me reiterate: compatriots in criminology, health, etc. and those in the top-tier open-specialization market, you have earned what good fortune you have enjoyed, and I know—the job market sucks for you too.