Monday, August 9, 2010

Your career

There's a lot of pondering in the academy about how the faculty identity can swallow up your personal identity (and whether this is a good thing or not). One thing that is clear is that, at least during your graduate education the pre-tenure years, work is not a 40-hour-a-week proposition. Part of the fair exchange for this is that, having earned tenure, one has job security.

But tenure-track jobs are disappearing, our present economy exacerbating the trend. Someone told me there were only six tenure-track positions advertised in philosophy last year. Six! Better prepare for an alternate career, I think. But there's something a wee bit discouraging about learning your last five or ten years of preparation for a career were a waster.

"A waste?" I can read the op-eds now. I have read them. "A PhD opens plenty of other doors. Students just aren't aware of them."

Maybe in other times and places. But the idea that there all these alternatives out there, now, in this economy, is balderdash. Education is a field that has always had a plethora of alternatives to faculty jobs, such as working as an analyst for a state or research firm, or working for a national organization. Now the economy has taken its hit there, too, and there are a lot fewer of those openings than in the past. Available graduates are beginning to stack up like cordwood at the PhD level, just like they are at the baccalaureate level.* Imagine what it's like for the philosophers.

If I don't find a faculty-or-reasonably-equivalent position, there are jobs I could get - jobs that ignore my five years of PhD study or my seven total years of graduate study. If I take one of them, I displace someone else who has the minimum qualifications. It's a game of dominos.

But why give up? There are some jobs out there. I just have to be the one to get one of them. And to do that, all I have to do is let my academic identity swallow up my personal identity. No guarantees, of course - I could end up in adjunct-land, working 80 hours a week and being eligible for food stamps. Does this strike anyone else as a risky gamble?

In today's world, no one's job is secure. I'm watching my dad's company decimate its employee ranks (after turning a profit in the last fiscal year, a near-miracle for a luxury-goods retailer in 2009), and even if the laid-off can find another job, it won't be in the same geographical area, and the mass firings have made it impossible to sell a house - so how do you move? "The American Dream" of home ownership is an albatross for those people.

Sooner or later, most of us will lose our jobs or have to substantially retool our skills, whether we want to or not. And we're being told that, the "competitive" candidate will be the one who devotes 110% to his or her work identity, and not just in academia. This is the economy that Generation Y, which has been announcing for years that it won't accept anything less than work-life balance, is graduating into. This is the economy that Baby Boomers, after a lifetime of work, are being laid-off into. This is the economy that Generation X, never idealistic to begin with, has been struggling to make a secure living in. We are all scrambling to prove we deserve our piece of the ever-shrinking pie. (Grapes of Wrath, anyone?) Or we retreat into the fantasy of self-employment via Etsy, the under-40 woman's equivalent of hoping to make it in the NBA.

There are days I'm tempted to end the all-or-nothing gamble, skip straight over the game of dominos, and go straight to the nearly inevitable end game - and take their jobs. Hell, if I do it early enough, maybe I can at least get a book deal out of it.

* This is one reason that saying everyone needs to go to college for economic reasons is so horribly flawed. The jobs that require that education just aren't there.

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