Why are academic jobs seen as the holy grail or only grail in fields with the worst job markets?

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re going to be doing a series of posts on academic job market dysfunction and the market for PhDs outside of academia.

In this comment, Miriam writes:

I think it is shameful that many Anthropology programs (including mine) don’t encourage and support non-academic careers. There are both public sector applications and, for those of us who got burned out on low wages in grad school, highly paid corporate anthropology work. User experience research is cultural anthropology. When I compare my experience to my Computer Science husband’s, it’s ridiculous. In my department, I almost had a professor withdraw from my committee when I let slip that I was considering a public-sector Anthropology career instead of an academic one. In my husband’s, the department used the amount of graduates placed with companies like Google as a selling point. More than that, the department actively built corporate links to help with placement.

Given the job market in Anthropology, it is cruel to pressure candidates to value and look for academic careers. Yes, one person from a grad cohort occasionally ended up in a tenure-track job. The overwhelming majority ended up with post-docs or one-year lectureships leading to more lectureships or adjunct positions. I will never understand why professors would expect intelligent people to look at the amount of tenure-track jobs available and not figure out that the odds are heavily against us. I also don’t really understand the bias against public-sector or corporate research. Yes, the research is more constrained, but it’s also more practical. Perhaps one sign that I was always a bad fit for my particular program is that I valued the idea of doing ethnographic research in service of a specific application more than doing it to publish an article or book that would probably only be read by other academic anthropologists.

I’ve noticed this as well.  Humanities PhDs seem to be less encouraging of outside careers than are STEM PhDs.

I do wonder if it’s that there are more obvious career options outside of academia for engineers (for example, my DH is working on something very similar to his PhD work for a start-up, large scale work he couldn’t do as a TT professor because he didn’t have the funding) and economists (government, consulting etc.) and all those other disciplines that have pretty decent academic markets.  It’s true that in my grad program, our advisers were disappointed when top students chose government positions over great R1s, but for the rest of us they were happy to write non-academic job letters for government and consulting work and they provided panels of graduates to talk about what life is like in those kinds of careers.  At my current university, academic jobs (in the US) for our graduates are rare and we funnel most of our students into private-sector jobs.

But Miriam notes that there really are positions for anthropologists outside of the academic sector.  Her professors just wouldn’t hear of them.

This musing is coming on the tail end of checking out the tweets that sent people to our deliberately controversial post on the topic.  Apparently we’re neo-cons because neo-cons are the only people who ever use the word, “entitled.”  (Note:  that means a good portion of professors who teach undergrads must be neo-cons!) We’re fairly sure those folks just looked at the title of the post and didn’t actually read the post itself, since the post itself doesn’t actually say much or take a position of any kind, and the comments decry the defunding of academia.  (Duh!)

But the truth is, even if we fully funded academia, there still wouldn’t be enough jobs for a lot of humanities folks because the more attractive we make those jobs, the more people will want humanities PhDs, because the humanities PhD is essentially a fun thing to do.  We know this because even now there are people willing to starve themselves for the chance of someday becoming humanities professors.  If you make it more attractive to be a humanities prof, all that you’re going to do is drive up supply.

Underlying these complaints, we think, is that many of these people who complain about the fact that we don’t just make tenure-track jobs for everyone with a PhD is that these folks think that PhDs can’t possibly work outside academia like the rest of the hoi poloi.  They shouldn’t have to, what with their lily white hands and all.  That’s where the entitlement actually comes in.  There’s this belief that there’s something wrong, something dreadfully wrong, with leaving the ivory tower.  That’s what Miriam, above, is tapping into.

And yes, that’s easy for us to say, being tenured at all… but…

But… maybe tenure isn’t all that.

Maybe, sometimes, it’s worth grabbing that golden ring and throwing it away.

One of us lives with someone who made the jump (though before tenure), and he’s so much happier.

Academia is still just a job, and a lot of time there are better ones out there.  Nobody should have to put up with crap because of a job, especially people with enough education to escape.

So yeah, it would be lovely if, as a society, we took money from Exxon (and you know they’d take it from children’s mouths before they cut corporate welfare) and funded education again, but that won’t solve the problem of the humanities labor market, because the more attractive you make those positions, the more people will want to have them.  There will be more jobs, but there will be even more applicants for those same jobs.  Heck, even if we cut off all production of new PhDs, folks with humanities PhDs who had given up would return to academia if there were a demand for their services.

Cloud and Miriam were right when they said that learning how to do independent research is a valuable skill, even outside of academia.  Maybe we should stop pretending that there’s something dirty about using these skills outside of the ivory tower.  Maybe we should try to find value in producing things, like Miriam said, that are read by more than just other academic anthropologists.

And who cares what your out-of-touch adviser thinks.

Where do your PhD’d friends who escape academia go?

Mike left an interesting comment re: his history phd friends

Some of my History PhD friends took jobs with corporations, e.g., HCA and Lockheed Martin. These were pretty highly compensated jobs. At least a couple took positions teaching at elite private secondary schools.

Here are some PhDs that we know of, and where they ended up:


80% of them are on the West Coast working for tech start-ups.  15% are on the East Coast working for tech start-ups.  One guy is a trailing spouse in a foreign country working as a “quant.”  One guy is an international “bum” in that he’s spent the last 10 years or so back-packing and couch surfing across the world and not doing much else (according to his brother who keeps in touch).  One taught high-school math and is now a software engineer.


Many government positions in DC and at Feds around the country (also Canada’s version).  Several at think-tanks.  Some in consulting making large sums of money.  A couple on Wall Street whose salaries are measured in the millions instead of the hundreds of thousands.  One SAHP.  Freelance editor.

Political Science:

Running a local non-profit.  Consulting.  Business.  Volunteer for political campaigns.  Government in DC.  Government overseas.  Unemployed.


Working for the government in DC.  Working for granting agencies.  SAHP.


Grant foundation.  Private practice.  The VA.  Start-up.  Freelance writer.  Data manager/statistician.  Research director for a hospital.




Private school then SAHP.


Investment banking.  High school teaching.


Full-time research associate for an economist.  Think tank doing economics work.  Wall-street.  (Granted, I mainly only run into Physics PhDs when they’re doing economics.)


Actuary.  Federal Government.  Public school.  Private school.  Minister.

Let’s not forget that Mayim Bialik, actress, has a PhD in neuroscience, and Brian May, famous rock musician, has a PhD in astrophysics.

Where have your friends with PhDs ended up if they didn’t go into academia?

Are PhDs entitled to tenured jobs? A deliberately controversial post.

We have argued before that academia is just a job.

We have marveled at how willingness to do math opens up a world of opportunities.  (Though not necessarily with a math PhD… but if you’re willing to do the same math as say, an engineer, you’re in better shape.  And hey, you can always take actuarial exams or maybe work for the NSA with that math degree.)

So… does the fact that you’ve suffered for 5-7 (or more!) years in a PhD program and gotten your hood and your diploma mean that you are entitled a tenure-track job?  What about your debt?  Your lost opportunity costs?  Are you entitled to compensation for that?

The fact is, there’s an excess supply of PhDs compared to the demand for tenure-track professors in most fields.  In fields where industry can absorb those extra PhDs at salaries higher than their t-t counterparts, that’s not so bad.  You can cry about your industry job all the way to the bank, so to speak.  In fields where the PhD doesn’t provide many additional earnings opportunities, that leads to a lot of unemployed and underemployed people with doctorates.  We end up with a lot of people being exploited as adjuncts in the hope that if they put their time in they can get one of those elusive tenure-track jobs.  People are willing through their actions to accept very little pay and bad working conditions simply because they hope it will lead to better employment later, and there’s enough of these people that it drives the cost of adjuncts down.

Sometimes you work hard and you take risks and those risks don’t pan out.  It would be nice if there were exactly the number of jobs available for the people qualified for them who wanted them and they matched up perfectly and paid well.   But not only are there differing demands for different skill sets, but some sets at the same skill level seem to be more likable than others.  People like studying the humanities.  There’s not enough demand for PhD level humanities skills to ensure all humanities PhDs a living wage using those skills.

So… are PhDs entitled to tenured jobs?  Is anyone entitled to anything besides life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

How do you deal with student complaints about colleagues?

Not like harassment complaints or anything (which I haven’t gotten but would personally take seriously and bump up an administrative level), just teaching kinds of complaints (which meansomething considers a litmus test).

Often my students complain about their other professors to me.  These kind of complaints tend to come in two flavors:  Ones where it’s obvious that the student doesn’t realize that the teacher is doing something for hir own good, and ones where I kind of agree with the student.

For the former, it’s easy, you just explain what the professor is getting at.  R^2 is important when you’re trying to predict Y, but it isn’t important when you’re trying to figure out what the effect of X on Y is.  Group work is unpleasant, but learning to deal with groups of people is important in many professions.  Presentation skills are important and student presentations don’t mean the professor isn’t teaching the material.  That sort of thing.  Sometimes I’ll mention to my colleague of students aren’t getting something that they need to know and then the colleague gets bonus points from the students for going over it again in class.

The latter, when I kind of agree, is a little more difficult.  I will sometimes sympathize and say something like, “I probably wouldn’t do well in that class either, but X is very good for other learning styles,” or “X does that so that you learn to learn on your own,” or even “Because X is an under-represented minority and a woman, she gets a lot more criticism for her teaching and has to keep tighter control of her class– Dr. Fullwhitemale can get away with things that she can’t, and he can get away with more than I can and I can get away with more than she can.  People automatically give him respect, and I don’t have to work as hard for respect as she does.”  Generally I try not to ever trash one of my colleagues even if I disagree with their styles.

Of course, my colleagues do take their jobs seriously.  There are valid reasons for allowing or not allowing students to do homework in groups.  There are valid reasons for different types of lecture/classwork modalities.  I don’t hear about my colleagues failing to show up for class or never getting back homework (except in rare cases in which I can say that my colleague has been having a family emergency, which is totally understandable).  I think in those cases I would probably just frown and not say anything.  Because if one can’t say anything nice, one doesn’t say anything at all.

Meeting pet peeves

Here’s some things that annoy us in meetings and workshops.  You know, since it’s that time of year again.
1. People who cannot come to the point.  Don’t say in three paragraphs what you can say in 3 sentences or less.

2. Lack of agenda.  We should not be having meetings for the sake of having meetings.

3. Arguing about the same excrement over and over again without doing anything about it.  Either we do something about it or we don’t waste our time griping.
4. Lack of action items.  It doesn’t matter how many good suggestions people make unless someone actually implements them.
5. People who talk over my female and minority colleagues.  Gentlemen, you suck.
6. People who are making good points but just shut up when they’re talked over. (But I get why they do that and I always break in and say, “What is it you were saying…” etc.  Still, I wish they would break in so I don’t have to.  Also if they did that it would seem more normal when I refuse to let myself talked over by the same senior white guys who try to steamroll everybody.)
7.  “Let’s defer that to another committee.”
8.  “Let’s put you on that other committee.”
9.  People who make a bunch of suggestions about work for other people to do and then leave the meeting early so they can’t be assigned any of said work.  (Bonus points if they email later with more work for people “assigned to the committee [I suggested]” to do after.  Note that they have actually done no work themselves and conveniently ducked out right after suggesting a committee but before being able to be assigned to a committee.  No committee was created after they left, btw.)
10.  Anything longer than an hour and 30 min.  Or more frequent than once a month.  (Exceptions:  research meetings– those can/should be more frequent.)
What makes you want to claw your eyes/ears out at meetings?

What would make you quit a TT job mid-semester?

Just curious.

Do you know anybody who has quit a tenured or tenure-track job mid-semester.  Do you know why?  How did that work out?

Ask the grumpies: What to do with signing bonus?

A New Hire asks:

As part of my start-up package, I get a lump sum of ~$60k cash.  The default option is for this to be paid monthly over 5 years, but you can choose other schemes, including all at once.  However, if you leave before 5 years is up, you have to pay it back (I’m assuming pro-rated).  I’m not sure how taxes would be handled.  We assume we’d have to pay back money you already paid taxes on, but maybe it could be written off as a loss.


  • Our (combined income) – (tax sheltered retirement contributions) will be $186 – $228k the first year (bonus is a large component of my spouse’s compensation package).  The expected value (with an “average” bonus) is $206k
  • We only will move away if there are extenuating circumstances
  • We hope to buy a house in approximately 2 years, maybe slightly sooner.  We can probably accomplish this without the lump sum help, but obviously we’d borrow more
  • We expect the home to cost in the neighborhood of $700k, perhaps more
  • If taken as a lump sum, we’ll likely put into a CD until we use it for a home downpayment.
  • We have access to a special loan program requiring 10% down with no PMI, and no real considerations of “jumbo” vs regular mortgage.  The drawback is that while rates are quite attractive (3% today with no points), it is variable and pegged to short term investment returns with a floor at 3%

What is the most optimal way for us to take this money?

I’m advocating for lump sum ASAP or splitting between two years.  I think the 2 years split would be optimal.  Spouse is not sure what to do, but thinks the 5 year monthly trickle makes sense.  I assume that if we choose a 2 year period, it may have to be monthly – but I can check if we can get 2 lump sum payments if determined that is most optimal.
(A separate analysis would ask if the mortgage program is a good deal, given that we could lock in low rates in the private market.  But we aren’t ready to buy yet, so we can’t compare that yet.)

1.  Find out how taxes are going to be handled!  If there’s any chance that you can get that 60K to count for taxes on a lower income year (moving from piddly grad student salary to full year salary) and pay lower marginal tax rates on the full amount, that would be ideal.  Similarly, if you’re moving from a low tax state to a high tax state, it would be nice to have half the year count for the low tax state.

Similarly, if you think your raises or bonuses will be going up over time or that tax rates will be going up over the next 5 years, that argues for front-loading.  If you think Obama is going to be replaced with a tea party member and tea party houses… then you probably make enough money as a family that they’d want to lower your tax rates and you might want to put that off.

The tax bracket you’re estimating is:

28% on taxable income over $148,850 to $226,850, plus… so you’d be paying 33% on anything you earn over 226,850.  So ~2000*.05 = $100 extra for the amount that gets into the 33% bracket instead the 28% bracket, if I did my math correctly.  I would probably not do anything fancy to save ~$100 at that income.

2.  Does your department have a history of kicking people out at the 3rd year review or only at tenure?  How likely are you to stick out a bad situation if there are “extenuating circumstances” (does the spouse’s job keep you in this area?  would you be willing to move to say, Kansas, if this job doesn’t work out?).  More importantly, if “extenuating circumstances” happen, are you easily going to be able to pay back the money from your spouse’s salary or from savings?  Does the university really make people pay it back in practice?  Does the university allow payment plans to be set up if they do?  Of course, if you keep it in a CD you should be able to pay it back with only minimal penalty if you have to break the CD.

3.  Is it really 50K all at once vs. 1/5 of that a year for 5 years?  Even with small inflationary expectations, there’s no good reason except for #1 and #2 that I can think of to let them earn interest on the money rather than you.  Even at a piddly 1% interest rate.

So I guess in general my recommendation is to take the lump sum and keep it somewhere safe.  Unless you feel more confident about #2 or are planning on doing a lot of additional saving so you can easily pay back 20 or 30K at the drop of a hat.  (Something you may want to be able to do before you buy a house, just in case!)

Re: the mortgage issue, ask us again when you’re closer to that decision and know what the rates are!  It does sound a bit sketchy and there may be additional strings depending on the school you’re at.  (The UCs, for example, use their mortgage program as a way to lock professors in, I have heard.)

Standard disclaimer:  we are not professional financial planners or accountants.  Always talk with a real professional before making these kinds of important decisions.

What have we missed, Grumpy Nation?

Ask the grumpies: First year on the tt

SP asks:

Any advice for my husband, who is starting his first TT job in January? He’s in a science field, if that matters. He’s read this article: How I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure-track faculty life if you have any opinion on it.

One area his struggles is with time management and deadlines. He meets his deadlines, but often will work on new research until he absolutely has to start preparing a paper, then is working until the very last minute. “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute!” He’s done fine in grad school and post-doc, but he is worried that his style won’t translate well to balancing teaching and advising with research.

My first advice is for your husband to ask for advice himself.  :-)  Specifically, he should ask his mentors and senior colleagues (respectfully) for advice when he gets on campus.

He’s right to be worried!  You can do everything last-minute on the TT, but it will destroy your health and your family life, and could be less-than-great for tenure.  One book he could read is On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching by James Lang.  This would be especially helpful if he hasn’t combined teaching and research before.

#2 points out that the excellent Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice is pretty convincing on the not binging and crashing research or teaching and also has great tips.  She has definitely found that starting early and doing a bit at the time really helps her subconscious to figure out tricky problems for her seemingly in her sleep, resulting in her spending less time on teaching and writing overall with higher quality results than when she last-minutes things.

It’s kind of ok to prep your teaching at the last minute, but there will be less sleep and probably more stress than necessary.  Doing a last-minute class prep is less likely to be successful when you have very little experience doing it and at figuring out how long it takes you, personally, to prep one class period from scratch.  Some of this may be inevitable in the first year, but after that it should be more measured.

#2 liked to spend her Sundays doing lecture prep that first year.  She also did a bunch of up-front prep work before school started getting the bones of the class down.  After each lecture she either changed her notes right then or she left herself post-it notes for what to change or keep– this helped her amazingly the next time she taught the course.

I wonder if his papers have been successful in getting published if he always does them at the last minute?  I would be concerned that they will get rejected rather than R&R because they are likely sloppy and do not show revisions or clear explanations, do not anticipate reviewer objections, etc.  Perhaps setting up a writing accountability program or group would help him be more productive in the long run  (click on our writing tag to see what we think about this).  Meeting deadlines is good, but having enough time to ask for feedback before the deadline may be more successful.

#2 notes that one of Boice’s big things is to “let others do the work for you”– that’s something you can’t do if you leave things to the last minute.  A grant is going to be more successful if someone proofreads it.  Reviewers will like your papers better if they make sense and are error-free.  He can always set himself earlier deadlines that will allow him to put down the completed paper or proposal while someone else looks at it so he can polish it at the last minute.

New research is shiny, I admit, and way more fun than revising the intro to the paper you just wrote about your previous results!  What’s his R&R success rate?  His grant funding rate?  Sometimes last-minute grant-writing will work, but it puts a big strain on the support staff and you might not be able to get it through the relevant campus offices as fast as you think.  At the very least, last-minute grant work will burn goodwill in the sponsored programs office on your campus, and you might need that later.  Again, it totally does happen sometimes, but if EVERY grant is last-second hair-on-fire sign-this-form-today, you may start to encounter resistance.

#2 notes that many faculty put grants off to the last minute.  If you get a reputation for *not* doing that, they will often love you and be more willing to go the extra mile for you.  I speak from experience.


How to write a good personal statement for grad school in our social science fields


1.  Tell a story about your research interests.  (Not a story about your personality.  Not a story about your feelings.)  A story that explains what research interests are driving you to graduate school and why this graduate school can help you fulfill your professional goals.
2.  What questions/fields are you specifically interested in?
3.  What is your research experience?
4.  (Advanced)  How would you go about answering the questions you’re interested in and how would graduate school help you answer them?
5.  Use specific examples.
6.  Get proofreading help!  Show it to your professors or employers (depending on where you are in your current career) or whoever it is that is writing recommendation letters for you.
Do not:
1.  Start a personal statement with, “Ever since I was…” or “I have always…”
2.  Talk about your personality.  This is not a college application, this is a graduate school application.
3.  Talk about your non-academic dreams.  Ditto on the college application difference.  Well-rounded for graduate school means an entering class interested in different sub-fields.
4.  Put this off to the last minute and do a shoddy job.
Academic grumpeteers, what recommendations would you have for writing an application statement for graduate school?

warm and fuzzy student things

One of the joys of my job is that I get to remove math phobia from students.  I teach a required math course for social science majors, many of whom come from backgrounds that are not math heavy.  Often this is the first math course they’ve taken since high school.  Many of them think they’re just not good at math.  I spend a lot of time filling in gaps of their knowledge, even doing silly things like going over every step of simplifying a fraction or solving for X, you know, just in case.  (I do this because my Calc 1 instructor SUCKED and I learned almost all of Calc 1 while taking Calc 2 from a different professor at the local university because he would go through every single step of what I’d missed whenever we needed to know it.)  I do extra tutoring in office hours.  I constantly push the growth mindset on students.

From about midterms to getting final grades, my students start to realize that hey, maybe they’re not so bad at math after all.  This week has been especially warm and fuzzy with students popping by during office hours to confide in me that they’re actually “getting” the class, something they thought impossible. (Last week they discovered and informed me that they’re several weeks ahead of the other section and have had much more difficult homework assignments– this has become a point of pride with them.)

Lots of students mentioned in office hours that it’s all coming together on this week’s homework.

One gentleman told me that his entire life he’s taken the easy way out, doing things that maximize how impressive they sound while minimizing actual need for thinking.  This semester he’s taken some (gen-ed fulfilling) classes from our department, including mine, and they’ve challenged him and he’s risen to the challenge and he’s realized he likes to be challenged.  He came by to tell me he’s changed his major to our department from communications.  He’s actually the second person to tell me this week that (s)he’s switched into our major because my class wasn’t anywhere near as frightening as (s)he had thought it would be, not because it’s easy, but because (s)he can do it.

Another woman stopped by to tell me that she’s always been terrified of math and never thought she’d ever be able to do anything with computers, but she feels really powerful whenever she uses her statistical software on the homework.  She can’t wait to take my (more difficult, semi-elective) class next semester.

A senior stopped me in the hall and told me how surprised she’d been to see that A on her transcript last semester, an A she’d earned in my harder semi-elective.  The stuff she learned has been helping her this semester too.

It’s been a warm and fuzzy week.

Do you have any warm and fuzzy student stories to share?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 178 other followers