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Speculative Diction

“Keeping it real” on the academic job market: Harvard & Colorado State


Recently, Colorado State University and Harvard University each posted job advertisements that included specific time limits on when the candidate’s PhD had been earned. Colorado’s ad requested PhDs only from 2010 or later; and Harvard’s ad read: “Applicants must have received the PhD or equivalent degree in the past three years (2009 or later), or show clear evidence of planned receipt of the degree by the beginning of employment”.

Both Colorado State and Harvard ended up re-writing these descriptions, but not before the ads set off a good deal of discussion online. UK scholar Dr. Ernesto Priego has already pointed out the incredibly time-consuming and expensive process of applying for academic positions, and I’ve written in the past about the large amount of unpaid work that all candidates much put in to stand a chance at a long-term academic position. Jo VanEvery cast a new light on this by raising the issue of Harvard’s recruitment of younger tenure-track academics.

In her blog, Lee Bessette articulately described the frustrations of an academic now “out of the pool” as an “old PhD”. At Escape the Ivory Tower blog, Julie Clarenbach argued that perhaps this kind of restriction isn’t actually a bad thing, because it provides an explicit signal about when we should get out of the academic job market, move on, and do something else.

I’m not convinced by this latter argument, because while it’s practical in the moment–for those “caught in the middle” between being a “recent” PhD, and being an established superstar–I don’t think it helps us to address the real issue, which is that the job market operates implicitly in ways that are discriminatory, since right now it’s most definitely a buyer’s market.

I think this relates to something I wrote recently for University of Venus blog, wherein I took a brief look at the potential effects of increased competition on young and early-career academics, and on the culture of academe in general. The dynamics change when a larger group of people are “competing” for a smaller pool of resources. In the meantime, academic socialization often demands that we continue the search (even if in vain) lest we be considered traitorous to the profession. As we know, for many PhDs this has meant taking a low-paying postdoctoral position and/or teaching part-time and/or on contract for long periods while continuing the search for a tenure-track position. Those people will of course be written out of the equation officially if job advertisements can explicitly call for recent PhDs only.

As a bit of a side note, it’s interesting that one of the follow-up articles quotes my tweet about feeling like an over-ripe piece of fruit being cast into the cider bucket (of course in the tweet that followed it, I augmented my comment). I think the metaphor is an apt one: “over-ripe” for one, (narrow) purpose may mean “just right” for something else, ie for the making of some other, potentially very different “outcome”.

I think the really egregious thing here is the idea that after anywhere from 7 to 12 years of higher education in preparation for such a job, there is only a 3-year window in which you’re considered eligible to apply. The idea that this is “just what’s happening anyway”–even if not so much in Canadian universities–should make us all furious, considering the waste of time, talent and funding involved. So in a way, I’m disappointed that the job ads have been removed. Perhaps a solid, visible barrier, rather than nebulous claims about “meritocracy”, would finally provoke a real fight about what’s happening in the academic profession, given that the trends have already been so bad, for so long.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Sheri Oberman / September 21, 2012 at 16:51

    Thanks for this Melonie. I’m an older person who is completing an Ed. D., but I think I’ll use the knowledge I glean in my dissertation project (assessment in doctoral programs) to start a consulting business. We know that many tenured and untenured folk in the doctorate parlay the knowledge, skills, and know-how gained in their study toward a business.

    I wonder if post-secondary policy in Canada should consider an employment option in doctoral programs which equips graduates to start-up something…

    Should new doctoral programs embed courses in self-marketing opportunities, knowledge translation, consultancy opportunities….

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