Season of the Warrior

It’s fall, when the job lists come out and tenure reviews begin.  Everyone is watching the ads, assembling dossiers, writing letters, reading applications, or visiting classes taught by their younger colleagues.  In one way or another, everyone is watching everyone else, generally with a high degree of discomfort.  No one likes what is going on, but no one does anything about it.  It’s the way things are.  The question is, how to deal or, in a larger sense, how to survive.  For the job hunters and tenure seekers, this is the season of the warrior.

Consider the odds.  Of those holding “newly minted” Ph.D.s, no more than a third are likely to secure tenure-track jobs.  The rest will choose the best option they have at the time, perhaps taking contingent or temporary jobs as adjuncts or visiting assistant professors, or veering into one of the many collateral paths open to people with research credentials, such as work in administration, foundations, think tanks, government, or business.  The profession no longer follows the “standard model” of a single, deep-flowing river, but rather a braided stream of postmodern, globalized, nomadic, and even entrepreneurial endeavor.

For those who remain in academia, the game  – to shift metaphors – can often feel like musical chairs.  Imagine thirty players in a room with twenty seats.  On the first round, ten are eliminated; they are the ones squeezed out of teaching altogether.  On the second round, ten chairs are removed; ten more players exit the game, having failed to secure tenure-track jobs; they disappear from the historical record.  On the third round, there are only six chairs, because universities are reducing tenurable positions and also denying tenure to some candidates. In the end, only a fifth of those emerging from grad school in this cohort have achieved tenure; the rest have likewise vanished from view.  It is hardly surprising that, by this time, those still in the game may feel an unsettling mixture of gratification, entitlement, and survivor guilt.  No matter what happens, it’s a challenge.

Navigating these shifting, treacherous pathways requires the warrior skills of strength, flexibility, and centeredness.  In forthcoming posts we’ll look at the job search and the tenure review through the lenses of warrior stories told by survivors who can offer object lessons in staying alive no matter what happens.