WASHINGTON – In my not-so-copious spare time, I occasionally get involved in Q&A exchanges on Quora and other sites. I try to offer advice in subject areas that include student problems involving the American academic establishment. One recent question involved a spirit-crushing dilemma I personally faced over 40 years ago. Exiting grad school with a freshly minted Ph.D. in English in hand, I was ready and eager for a tenure-track position teaching literature and writing to a risin generation of college students. What I found instead: near zero demand for English professors at all. Anywhere. And no idea what to do next. Except join the growing legion of depressed gypsy scholars: “adjunct professors” effectively working at sub-minimum wages with no hope of anything better.
Now, as we’re about to embark on the third decade of the 21st century, nothing much has changed. The current oversupply of new potential professors in currently unpopular or useless fields seems to get worse by the day. Gypsy scholars continue to proliferate with effectively zero percent chance of eventual career success.
The questioner I responded to had a similar tale of woe. But within his query was an entire additional layer of problems. He noted he received his Ph.D., apparently in a business or economics discipline, at the age of 33 – not uncommon, BTW. But, he lamented, he had yet, at the age of 37, to come up with a single faculty appointment. As a result, he had remained unemployed for 4 years. He asked for advice with a pair of sad but also astonishing queries.
“Am I a wasted person? What can I do.”
An edited and augmented version of my answer follows.
Your life IS a mess. But that can change
Well, I hate to say it. But at this point, your career path does look to be in fairly bad shape. Why? Because you keep trying for a faculty position and can’t find one. And statistically, you probably won’t find one. At the same time, you’re apparently not considering any other kind of position or career.
Frankly, the longer you do this, and the longer you remain (apparently) on the unemployment rolls, the worse your resume looks when it comes to finding any position in anything at all.
Seriously. There are literally tons of jobs out there in the current economy. I suppose most of them likely don’t appeal to you. But what the heck, why live in poverty for 4 years and counting? Why mourn a career that is increasingly likely never to happen. Remember: Never let the bastards wear you down, to borrow a phrase that’s long been a favorite with lawyers of my acquaintance?
Déjà vu all over again
Look, I’m sympathetic. The same damned thing happened to me. Decades ago, I earned a humanities Ph.D. But, after a brief, dead end teaching career during which I earned that degree (no tenure track work, of course), I applied to upwards of 200 American colleges and universities. Nada. Zilch. Save for one dead-end positive response, the rest were curt form letters, breezily advising me no to worry, my credentials were swell (which they were) and someone would hire me. Somewhere. Whenever.
Clearly, at the age of 28, I needed a plan B, something that didn’t involve college teaching. But, just like you, I didn’t have one. Even worse, I also had a small family to support, which I wasn’t doing very well, obviously. So, at various times, I waited tables, counted cars and logged license plates to catch Dulles Toll Road cheaters, etc. Whatever I could do to make ends meet in lean times which found my family and I stuck in the post-Vietnam recession of 1974-1977. With the Carter Recession and soaring interest rates soon to come.
In other words, reality forced me to give up, abruptly and without any preparation, on the academic dream I’d pursued with intensity from the time I was an undergraduate freshman. That moment was not an enjoyable one. A period of depression followed. What can you do when your plans go up in smoke and there’s apparently nothing you can do?
Variety can indeed be the spice of life
But, fast forward. On the flip side, I still ended having a pretty fun life and about 5 totally different, relatively unrelated careers in the process. In completely different areas, too. Ranging from:
- Computerizing art and layout at a big printing company,
- To working as a stockbroker,
- To working for an Executive Branch (US government) agency as an independent Federal contractor to write, edit, lay out and produce a major annual White House report for Congressional and public consumption.
I also wrote music celebrity interviews and reviewed classical music and opera for the Washington Times, and served as a paid church choir director for 10 years. For a few dollars more. I guess I was part of what’s now called the “gig economy” today. Who knew that at the time?
Was this the career path I wanted? The one I’d trained for? Absolutely not. I wanted to teach college level writing and English and American literature, forever. Period.
The useless path of gypsy scholars, adjuncts and everything else not tenure-track
But in those times (1970s and 1980s) as now, there were, effectively, no tenure track positions in my field. You either got a job as a floating assistant prof without tenure track. That meant you got laid off after 3 years, had to find another elusive temporary position, and had to move your family across the country again and again, all on slave wages. Rise, repeat.
Or, worse, you got piecework as as one of a nationwide legion of “adjunct professors.” on sub-slave wages before they eventually threw you out, likely because they could get a brand-new, super-naïve Ph.D. adjunct for less money than they were paying you. Those who continue to follow either the 3-year appointment, then out, or the adjunct paths have commonly been known, somewhat poetically, as “gypsy scholars.” Gypsy scholars is an insulting and condescending term if there ever was one.
There’s no future in this nonsense. Once you choose to go down the gypsy scholar path, you’re pigeonholed forever as non-tenure-track material. Statistically speaking, once you become a gypsy scholar, you will never be taken seriously again.
Buffaloed by the System
I’m amazed that after all these years, nobody has yet bothered to do one damned thing about this horrendous and tragic situation. Legions of newly terminated gypsy scholars wander the fruited plain each summer, looking for new temporary domiciles while resembling a vast, wandering herd of aimless bison. But I guess nobody in academia cares. Least of all the tenured professors who encouraged you to stay in graduate school so they could teach tiny seminars and avoid teaching freshman comp. Sound familiar?
For the better part of the last 50 years or so, unless you have an advanced degree in a STEM discipline, you have little if any chance, ever, getting a shot at a tenure track position. And helpful commenters have written to me explaining that even in STEM areas, the situation is very nearly as hopeless.
Fortunately, I spotted the humanities situation pretty quickly in the late 1970s, and just got out of “the profession.” It turned out to be less a profession than a mirage. In the end, why “hope” when there is no hope? One probably can’t avoid being depressed a bit by it all. But if you’re going to move on with your life, you have to snap out of it, develop a positive attitude and move on. Regarding oneself as a hapless and hopeless “victim,” as seems customary today, won’t get you anywhere because, essentially, no one cares. Don’t help them out by self-identifying as a loser.
Some perfectly good career paths are the ones you never expected
Throughout my own weird career path and until I finally decided that 40 years of steady working was enough and retired, I was unemployed for a grand total of 3 weeks after graduating with that Ph.D. With the right attitude, it’s easy to find some kind of job for starters. Then you build from there.
Did I love everything I did once I decided to get out? Absolutely not. But hell, this is still America, and there are plenty of opportunities if you just light out for the territories and look for them. After a while, you can eventually make really decent money anyway no matter where you end up. Sure, that original dream is gone. But what good was it, based as it was on the encouragement of dishonest professors and college administrators?
Personal selling skills can overcome a “lack of qualifications” for many positions
BTW, on paper, I was entirely unqualified for every position I got after I made the mental break with the humanities and academia. Except maybe for that last position with the Federal government. That drew on every writing skill I’d ever learned, enabling me to write impressive, complex sentences that promised much but delivered nothing too specific.
You just need to find something close to what you’re good in and talk the interviewer into giving you a shot. The rest is up to you. You have to start somewhere. And, unfortunately, that often means you need to get your foot in the door, like a persistent salesman. For whatever you can get. For starters.
Get a few interviews. And if the interviewer starts giving you that “You’re probably overqualified for this position” speech to ease you out the door, bat it right back. Agree with the interviewer. “Yeah, I probably am overqualified. But I also need to earn a living, I need to start somewhere, and what you’re offering is interesting to me. I have no problem starting at the bottom to learn more about this business and make a significant contribution to this company.” Or something like that.
Never let the bastards wear you down.
Earning some money right away in practically anything is the best way to change employment odds
But above all, go out earn some money. Right now. You’ll never get a better opportunity than right now in an economy where a great many jobs remain open for months and where some employers are even willing to train newbies at their expense. That hasn’t happened in this country to any significant degree now for decades. And 2020 is way different than 2008-2010 when everything really WAS hopeless.
The problem with sitting around and collecting unemployment checks – if that’s what you’re doing right now – is that the bigger the hole in your resumé, the more problems you’re going to have getting back into the work force. Prospective employers are very suspicious of long unemployment gaps.
On the other hand, if you’re sitting on your hands because you’re depressed, well, you’re entitled. For a while. Like being a gypsy scholar, your current situation IS depressing. But it’s time to activate. Get some career counseling (which your graduate institution should offer). And /or if you’re seriously depressed, see if you can find a government-supported counselor or psychologist to help you work it out. Many urban counties offer such services either for free or for a nominal cost.
Positive Mental Attitude: A cliché that’s also a helpful truth
But more than anything else try to develop a positive mental attitude. That certainly helps in the interview room. It makes you potentially desirable as a new employee, even if you lack specific experience. If you get them to like you, they’ll hire you. And then you can GET that experience you currently lack.
I hope this helps. Your university and your professors likely lied to you about your prospects for getting a tenure-track position. They didn’t tell you that few if any of their grads marched out of the department and snagged great teaching jobs right away. They didn’t tell you that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow would be an endless chain of dead-end gypsy scholar slots.
Above all, don’t hold on to a dream based on a lie. Move on, develop a positive attitude, and go change your life and your prospects. The economy is great right now and there are a lot of opportunities in a lot of fields. Don’t wait until the next recession when many of those opportunities could go away again. Do it now.