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The Truth About the Academic Job Market

This should not come as a surprise to you if you are thinking of going on (or are currently on) the academic job market — it sucks! It is pretty much like The Hunger Games out there.

If you were not aware of this, or don’t know anything about the current state of higher ed/academia, let me break it down for you real quick. As more and more universities are being run “like a business,” they are making the majority of their decisions based on profit margin and not on student achievement/success or the pursuit of knowledge. Now, you might think, “doesn’t this mean higher salaries for professors and better fiscal management?” Nope. The only ones profiting from this are upper-level administrators. Students are paying more than ever and their professors are making less than ever.

The assault on higher ed is particularly frightening in the humanities. Simply put the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) bring tangible economic benefits to the university, unlike the humanities. So, these fields tend to be better funded, while disciplines like English, History, and Anthropology are continually underfunded. For example, to save money when a tenured history professor retires, the university simply hires a couple adjuncts to replace them. Rarely does the university hire another tenured track professor (for whom the university would have to fund research, travel, professional development, healthcare, and retirement).

This means that the jobs that should exist for graduating PhDs no longer exist. And, as their research funding continues to erode, they are forced to take temporary or adjunct teaching positions. When a standard tenure-track position does become available, hundreds of well-qualified PhDs are fighting for one job.

The sad reality is that most students are not even aware of the eroding of their education (especially in the humanities). They are being taught by exploited adjunct faculty who are teaching too many classes just to survive. Thus, they cannot care as much about individual students, course innovation, or competitive research.

You might be wondering, “what is wrong with hiring an adjunct?” I am not disparaging adjuncts. These are well-educated, and in many cases high-achieving, individuals in their field. My problem is with their exploitation. Someone with a PhD should not be earning part time pay with no healthcare because the university wants to save money. The average adjunct makes $2,987 per course. That means they would have to teach 20 classes a year to make 60k, and that is still without any benefits.* Nor should students, who are in many cases going into immense debt for their degree, have sub-par or overworked faculty.

Now you might be thinking, “well if you have to adjunct at first to get by, that’s ok if it leads to a full-time or tenured position.” This is a false promise, do not fall for it. The course load of an adjunct does not give them the necessary time to research, write, and publish, all of which are essential to landing a full-time position. Simply put, adjuncts are less competitive on the job market.

I am sharing this for two reasons. First, if you are a college student demand the faculty you deserve for the price you are paying. And second, becuase I think it is important that students who are thinking of a career in higher ed are fully aware of what is happening and the reality they will face — you will likely not get your dream professorship, and if you are lucky enough to get job, you will likely have to move across country and shoulder a heavy teaching load with few of the academic benefits you once envisioned.

Of course, I was mostly aware of all of this when I entered my PhD program. Do I regret pursuing a PhD in history? Absolutely not. It was the best thing I ever did for myself. It made me more thoughtful and analytical in every aspect of my life. That said, however, I went in with my eyes wide open. I knew the challenges I would face and tried to position myself strategically to ensure I would be able to build a sustainable career when I graduated. Thank goodness I was successful, and I am so grateful for my amazing advisors and the support I received along the way.


I know this is long and a pretty doom-and-gloom kind of post. But I think it is important that people are aware of what is going on. I also have a couple follow up posts in the works in which I plan to share tips on how to position yourself to more successfully in order to better navigate this hostile job market.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this and some of your experiences on the academic job market below!

PS – Don’t even get me started on how little we pay primary and secondary teachers. What is wrong with us? It is time to change and value education! Businesses invest in what is important… just saying.

*PPS – What kind of historian would I be if I did not give you sources for my data? I pulled my data from The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. You can read more on adjunct statistics and pay here and here.