Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Fear, Anxiety, and the Faculty Career

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It’s no surprise lately that, in my work as a career adviser for academic-job candidates, I’m getting a lot of anxious queries: “Will there be any jobs?” and if so, “What can I do to boost my candidacy?”

Graduate students, untenured faculty members, and even some tenured ones are worried about what the economic fallout of Covid-19 will mean for their careers in higher education. Reports and rumors are flying — about budget cuts, program eliminations, and faculty layoffs — at both private and public institutions, even as they grapple with the prospect of “reopening” in the fall, with no vaccine in sight.

In a way, this column is a continuation of one I wrote in April — “Stranded on the Academic Job Market This Year?”— on what the pandemic might mean for new Ph.D.s applying for faculty jobs and assistant professors going up for tenure. What follows are more of the collective anxieties I’m hearing lately and my advice for current and would-be academics.

“What is the job market going to look like in 2020-21?” I’m not going out on a limb when I say, “not good.” I would expect spring’s hiring freezes to persist through the next fiscal year, which runs from summer to summer at many institutions. Obviously that would essentially desiccate the hiring that would normally start to happen this fall.

So you can expect at least a notable contraction in the job market. Not every campus is going to do away with all hiring across the board, of course. The places that will be most affected will be state institutions, especially the “second-tier” systems that are underfunded in the best of times, and small colleges that are primarily dependent on undergraduate tuition to keep their doors open.

Across the board, I predict that tenure-track searches — even the positions already promised and allocated — will be suspended. But there may be a flurry of reactive hiring in response to whatever happens with enrollments in the months ahead. Undergraduates may choose to sit out a year, yet, historically, recessions bring an uptick in graduate enrollments as people opt to weather the economic storm by increasing their qualifications.

“If by some miracle I see a job opening that I’m a good fit for in my field, what can I do to be competitive?” Do anything you can to emphasize that (a) you are a good fit for this particular position, and (b) you also bring strengths to the table for this moment in time. What do I mean by the latter?

First, try to link your research agenda to issues related to Covid-19, epidemiology, or public health. That may sound opportunistic or cynical. But the reality is: Universities that can afford it are already offering internal “seed” grants to initiate projects related to the pandemic and its consequences on our society.

Research aimed at this crisis we are living through, and all of its biological, political, and cultural aspects, will be a high priority for whatever grant money is available. Colleges and universities want to be “relevant,” and pandemic-related expertise is going to be the coin of the realm for the foreseeable future. Obviously not every scholar can do that, and I am not suggesting you lie or create a completely contrived link between Covid-19 and your study on baby turtles’ perceptions of the color blue, or your work on the aesthetics of Cenobitic monks.

That said, if your intellectual interests intersect with our increasingly dystopian reality, cynical or not, you should market your work that way in the coming job cycle or two or three. And if your research or writing has something to say about how this coronavirus has disproportionately affected communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx people, it is your duty as an academic and a public intellectual to use your expertise to illuminate that disparity and advocate for solutions.

Second, academe needs all the online-savvy instructors it can get. So make sure your application materials tell the story of your expertise with online and hybrid learning — whether it’s well-established or newly acquired. Think about how your specific courses can be adapted to, and even benefit from, online or hybrid formats. Maybe you are an anthropologist (like me) and could teach students how to do online ethnographies. Have a rationale for the added value of that approach compared with a bread-and-butter “Ethnographic Methods” class.

This fall, we are in for a model of education (and, well, life) in which we alternate between relaxing social distancing to a degree and enforcing some level of lockdowns, as we surf the pandemic curve until there is a vaccine. On campus, courses may cycle on and off line during the semester, either intentionally or as needed. With so many institutions navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of retaining students who want a “campus experience” and hewing closely to public-health guidance, they will need instructors who are adept at remote teaching. If hiring institutions think you can help them sell its benefits to students (literally!), that could give your application an advantage.

(For advice on the basic logistics of the academic-job market, check out my previous Chronicle columns, including those on cover letters and CVs, on big-picture mistakes candidates often make, on first-round and campus interviews, and on why you should negotiate every offer.)

“What if my campus reopens and I don’t want to teach in person?” I’ve written before (“It’s Hard to Be Ill in Academe”) about the difficulties of being sick in an academic workplace that does not “do” sick days akin to the 9-to-5 world. My advice then and now: Do not sacrifice yourself on the altar of academe.

We hear a lot of chipper discourse on how college-age students aren’t particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. What gets ignored is the fact that many faculty and staff members are in the high-risk age groups. In addition, you or your colleagues may have underlying health conditions, or live in households with people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus. This is a terrible situation to be in. The few thoughts I have at the moment are:

  • Use whatever institutional format is available to you to pressure your campus administration into allowing faculty members to opt out of in-person teaching this fall. If you have a union, chances are, its leadership is already on this. If you are not on a campus with organized labor, the faculty senate or faculty council can be a route for pressuring the administration. Make the case that a safe and consistent online format will have better pedagogical outcomes amid Covid-19, than a precarious and likely-to-be-disrupted in-person classroom environment.
  • Get very familiar with the HR provisions for health allowances, and be prepared to insist on every one of them.

“Is it time to leave academe for another career?” Only you can make that call. It depends on your field, your local economy, your department, and your position within it.

But it’s definitely a good time to consider what it would be like to apply your skill set outside of a college campus. Sure, jobs will be sparse in some industries, but not in all of them. Even if you are part of the privileged academic sector, with job security and a decent salary and benefits (at least up to now), and thus have never needed to consider the alt-ac route, allow yourself to explore that as a real possibility.

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In, which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search and on all aspects of the academic and postacademic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of Kelsky's previous advice columns here.

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