It's just a job. . . or is it?

BlogHer Original Post

After competing with hundreds of other newly minted Ph.D.s for a teeny tiny number of positions, if you land a job, you're supposed to feel relieved and grateful, as well as harbor a desire to keep that job for the indefinite future, right?

Maybe. The most recent interesting conversation about the academic job market began when junior faculty member Dr. Crazy reported she had been asked for further materials by an institution where she had applied for a job. Someone writing as "webmaster" left this considerably-more-than-snarky comment:

Well, we'll keep our fingers crossed, because there's nothing more exciting than having a junior faculty member on board who wasn't able to find her way out 2 consecutive years.

Imagine our delight in imagining you might deign to stay here in Pudknocker town another year or two!

We will certainly forget your casting around for a better gig when tenure and promotion loom.

Do you need any extra letterhead? There is some in the supply closet.

Dr. Crazy wrote her reply in the form of a long, and I think well-reasoned, post. In addition to elaborating her specific, personal reasons for looking for another position at this time in her career, Dr. Crazy points out that

the reality of this profession in the 21st century is that many people do not retire from their first tenure-track job. The reality of this profession is that salary, resources, and achievement can depend on putting oneself on the market, particularly when one is in one's probationary period.

When someone asked why anyone would leave such nasty comments as webmaster's, Dr. Crazy commented,

it's because the people who hold this view equate the self with the job. Being a professor, in their view, encompasses one's whole identity, and in particular, being a professor at a particular institution is one's identity. If one can drink that kool-aid, then apparently one would be "happy" even in the worst of circumstances, because one would be a martyr pursuing a vocation. Somebody like me threatens that particular subject position because I reveal that being a professor at a particular institution doesn't make a person a saint or even somebody special - it makes them a worker, who does a job for a paycheck. Sure, it's a job you might love. Sure, it's a great job in a lot of ways. And it's an important job. But if it's just a job, and you gave your life to it? Your WHOLE life? And if the actions of some sassy upstart shine a light on that? Well, the only thing to do is to attempt to crush the sassy upstart. It's the only way to remain mystified.

Definitely read the comments. They include lots of discussion about why women are targeted online by particular kinds of commenters.

The discussion spread far and wide.

Readers of Rate Your Students offered their opinions on whether an academic post is "just a job" and whether faculty who apply for other posts are being disloyal.

New Kid on the Hallway weighed in with a lengthy post. This year New Kid finally had the opportunity to move to the same city as her (now no longer) Long Distance Husband, and thus she's a prime example of a faculty member who is going to look for other jobs because, hey, her marriage was taking place in two different states--an unfortunately common problem. New Kid writes,

Apply away. It's your prerogative. This is your life, and you're the one living it - not your colleagues or your students or your institution. You did not sign a contract saying you would never look at other jobs. Hell, you didn't MARRY your institution. And the sooner this profession stops using the metaphors of marriage, family (hello, I HAVE a family, and they don't sign my paychecks), and religious calling (I don't recall any vows) to describe itself, the better off we will all be.

Sisyphus wonders why so many junior faculty are assailed for wanting both bread and roses:

And this trend is just another sign of the crappy job market and larger structural patterns at work. The structure of the market itself is pressing junior faculty --- who don't have much "choice" in their jobs or locations before this stage of development --- to wait until they have jobs before considering their own desires and needs. If the "front end" of the system is structured to grant all the flexibility to the employers and none to the applicants, then it is not surprising that once applicants have jobs and some element of power they start seeking flexibility. It's like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, transposed to the employment world --- someone who is starving and unemployed (ahem! hello!) can't be picky about location or security or job quality, but as those lower needs are cared for, the job holder can move on to the more intangible needs and desires.

Dr. Curmudgeon also joined the conversation; her contributions might be summed up with this sentence: "Structurally, the university system is made up in such a way that faculty would be crazy not to leave." In another post, she elaborated on her frustration. This one post garnered the most giggles from me of any in the larger conversation because of this passage about senior faculty who are complaining about junior faculty who put themselves on the job market:

Because they can't quite imagine that people don't love everything the same way they do, they seem to take someone doing typical job things - trying to find positions that fit better, pay better, etc. - as some sort of personal affront. It's great that you love your town, your university, your country, your 7 pm bedtime after "Matlock" is over, but honestly, hegemon, that doesn't mean everyone has to.

In the same post, Dr. Curmudgeon also offers this solution:

for all of you more curmudgeonly-than-thous who think junior faculty shouldn't leave one job to go to another, put that in your ads. If you really think that badly of someone trying to find a situtation that is good for them and good for the school and their students, own it. You write the job ads. Because I can tell you, if that's your attitude, I don't want to work with you anyway, you narrowminded, judgemental, sanctimonious windbags.

In an entry titled "I Thought Professors Were Intelligent People," Dance at Prone to Laughter remarks,

The true larger puzzle that we are all part of is not a single university, but all of academia. Mobility among professors is a crucial part of the workings of the academy. New junior professors bring new ideas and institutional practices. People make contacts as professors come and go, expand their network, in ways that often lead to new research projects. I’ve learned to see a departed colleague as someone who opens up new opportunities for me.

The truth is, an academic position tends to become more than "just a job," specifically for the reasons stated by Dance--and because it's very easy to work 60 hours a week as a tenure-track faculty member, especially one who hasn't yet achieved tenure. But this romantic notion of academic life also needs to be quashed. Sure, there are some small liberal arts colleges, or maybe some departments at research universities, where one can still take the equivalent of intellectual vows--that is, to cherish, protect, and serve the ideals of the vocation--and feel content for a couple of decades.

But for many academics, for the reasons detailed in the blog posts and comments in this conversation, much of their work has stopped being meaningful or enjoyable. These folks seek a healthier balance of personal life and employment. Kudos and best of luck to them--and a big thanks to them for making those decisions transparent to the rest of us, as we can learn from their travails.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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