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bad news all around

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More bleak news on the academic job front, via the NY Times.

Fulltime faculty jobs have not been easy to come by in recent decades, but this year the new crop of Ph.D. candidates is finding the prospects worse than ever. Public universities are bracing for severe cuts as state legislatures grapple with yawning deficits. At the same time, even the wealthiest private colleges have seen their endowments sink and donations slacken since the financial crisis. So a chill has set in at many higher education institutions, where partial or full-fledge hiring freezes have been imposed.

A survey by the American Historical Association, for example, found that the number of history departments recruiting new professors this year is down 15 percent, while the American Mathematical Association’s largest list of job postings has dropped more than 25 percent from last year.

“This is a year of no jobs,” said Catherine Stimpson, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University. Ph.D.s are stacked up, she said, “like planes hovering over La Guardia.”

The anticipated wave of retirements by faculty members who are 60-something is likely to slow as retirement savings accounts and pensions wither, administrators and professors say. That means that some students who have finished postdoctoral fellowships and who expected to leave for faculty positions are staying put for another year, which in turn closes off an option for other graduate students coming up the ladder.

Glad to see that the Times has gotten one of the secret and small issues at play here – secret and small but bound to make this problem worse moving forward. In the USA, where there’s no manditory retirement (as there is here in the UK, and probably as there should be everywhere, but only if there are proper state pensions in place of course, which is not at all a given….) lots of the long tenured types who were headed toward retirement have had their stupid TIAA-CREF accounts shredded by the stock market dive. Their answer, of course, will be to defer retirement even longer than academics usually defer retirement, which is a long, long time.

At my last job, I had a choice between a state pension and a managed retirement account with TIAA-CREF. I really wanted to choose the former, really did for so many reasons, but with things the way they are in terms of mobility / precarity, it seemed (in the five minutes I was given to make the choice after some infotainment at the HR building) like a very bad bet to start a habit of accruing tiny little pension pots all over the USA… and as it turns out, not just the USA. So I took the non-pension. And wow, has it ever bled cash over the past year.

Well, at least if the academic job-market tanks everyone could just become freelance writers instead of boring academics. Erm… Francis Wilkinson, executive editor of The Week, suggests that writing may well be becoming – or already – exclusively the province of the rich:

It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve. Meantime, freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years. And the chances of getting a job at a quality newspaper or a serious magazine are fast approaching zero.

There are exceptions, I know. There always are. But on the whole, the writing game seems likely to become even more a province of the upper middle class and flat-out wealthy than it is already. The offspring of the affluent, branded college degrees in hand, can afford to give it a go. But anyone hailing from more hardscrabble environs may find it too difficult to get traction before succumbing to the dismal economics of it all. (In contrast with another industry under siege—music—in which rising from the hood or the farm still seems plausible, even stereotypical.)

The Internet has brought the newspaper business to its knees. Some serious magazines are undergoing stress tests of their own. Maybe a certain kind of writing about the world, informed by underdog experience and lower-class perspective, will also prove to be a relic of the dead-tree era. Such writing wasn’t in great supply before. But movie stars, business executives, even accomplished authors all write for free these days. Why should some kid nobody’s ever heard of get paid?

It is a bit hard to understand, and the older I get (and the better circles that I move in) it only gets harder. A little while ago I was out for drinks with a relatively famous writer in multiple genres who had just spent an hour, among other things, baiting his academic audience with their failure to publish relevant work, to publish in the newspapers and the like. Despite the fact that he is, as I said, relatively famous, I doubt we’re talking about boatloads of money from the books and the increasingly rare journalism, and certainly not enough to support a lifestyle that at least resembles, if not betters, those of the academics that he was drinking with afterwards. I wanted to ask the unaskable question – the question about how this all worked, how with the family and the kids, the tennis games on Saturday mornings and the house in a decent part of the city – he kept it all together without tethering himself to a department and lectures and seminars, essays to mark and students to meet and sub-committees to sign on for. But of course, I did not ask. Though there are a few options, one does not really need to ask.

In America, it is hard to think of anyone remotely near my age who writes who is not an academic of one stripe or another. In the UK, it is slightly easier, I suppose because of the low cost of education and the free health care, and the fact that the pay scale seems to be slightly more humane than the one decscribed by Wilkinson above. But only slightly easier. Back home, I do or did know a few who went the intern to editorial assistant to subeditor to managing editor route, while writing on the side – a route fraught with perils of more than one stripe, but every once in awhile it works out. And of course there are a few exceptional cases where it can happen the way it should happen, occasionally even very deserving cases like this one. Or then again, some try other lines of work, but this usually comes to no good, I suppose because too much of your mind is elsewhere for to much of the time. At least when, say, a literary academic isn’t writing because his or her job is too demanding, she or he is still working through the operative questions and issues at least part of the time. Working as a bank teller or a store clerk or a lawyer or, dunno, an intinerant apple picker might well be a good source of material, but I can imagine (and remember) how intellectually depleting such work can be.

One feels a reflexive need to say at this point in this sort of post that it is important to remember that academics are only academics, writers are only writers, and that everyone else in the world has it worse. I am sure that is very true. But on the other hand, and without being a blinders-on technocrat about things, it does seem a bit worrying to thing about a world in which almost all would-be academics have to find something else to do, or else teach themselves crazy until writing is off the table, and where absolutely the only writing that gets done is done by the children of the idle rich. Of course, we’re already there and getting more there everyday.

I’d like to find a way to write about this. It’s interesting – given the choice between blurring the distinction between what we do and what everyone else does via “the modern office is the victorian factory” move and some sort of elderly-sounding defense of art and thought as the eyes and mind of the polity stance, my instincts are on the side of the latter. I am not a factory worker; I’m not really treated like one. It doesn’t take a very deep look into Victorian factory life to realise that this is true. On the other hand, it may be harder to produce and disseminate decent work now than it used to be. There’s some other way at this than the ways people are generally thinking about it, but I’ve been warned not to be so promisory in my posts, so no promises.

(I’ll come back to it later, soon…)

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March 8, 2009 at 10:13 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Yes. Just yes. And the second link brings me back to some half-written, only-half researched posts I started a long long time ago — now this means I must connect all my dots, finish them up, and post them!


    March 8, 2009 at 11:07 pm

  2. Mmmm. Glad you liked it Sisyphus. There was some nastiness originially at the end that I’ve clipped out, and I’m glad I did, or else this woulda likely just been another Sunday post that I put up and then delete minutes or hours later.

    Finish your half posts! Maybe maybe we should have a groupmassblogthing on this topic! Any takers?


    March 8, 2009 at 11:32 pm

  3. Long time lurker, first time commenter. Just to say: I relished this post. But no, I don’t think the UK is much different. The only writers I know there who aren’t acacemics were either independently wealthy (and regrettably totally lovely, so I can’t quite hate them) or are somewhere between the 3rd and 4th steps of ‘the intern to editorial assistant to subeditor to managing editor route’… and have made a greater-than-average number of sacrifices in the process.


    March 8, 2009 at 11:40 pm

  4. I think the problem, RobDP, is that I know Owen Hatherley… A person 1) who is fantastically talented 2) who comes not to the scene with family money 3) and who would have a hard time for a variety of reasons doing what he is doing in NYC or the USA. (See, for instance, this where he talks about one quite material part of what I am talking about: Knowing Owen skews the pitch, as I think they say here. 99 percent of the time, here as there, I’m sure you’re right.


    March 8, 2009 at 11:46 pm

  5. And my eyes are opened.

    As someone about a year off finishing his PhD I’m pretty much in a permanent state of anxiety right now — in the moments where I’m not in denial — so I found Owen’s post oddly reassuring. At least I’ll have my health-care!

    What I’d really like to see — mostly for personal reasons I suppose — is some good journalism on the UK academic job market. It strikes me it’s invulnerable to certain of the pressures which afflict the US. There’s the retirement age which you point out, but also, in the short term at least, a more stable budgetary situation. Friends in California state unis tell me they’ve had everything frozen, and it seems to me that can’t happen in the UK system (though needless to say quite a lot of what got frozen there was never available to UK faculty anyway).

    It also needn’t be the case that, as Benton argues in his rather obnoxious piece about the US, UK universities overproduce new doctorates out of step with job availability. The research councils could to some extent manage the number of doctoral students to keep numbers in line with job availability. Though I suppose then you risk making doctorates the privilege of the independently wealthy, and the whole principle of less funding for graduates just doesn’t sit well with me. More jobs! is much better.

    This world is a mess.


    March 9, 2009 at 12:09 am

  6. I am working on getting those who could do good journalism on British academia (um, like her) to do good journalism.

    And yes, whatever is happening hasn’t hit the UK unis the way it’s hit the US ones. Not yet. Let’s hope it doesn’t. I spent the day painting a room today with BBC News on my computer in the background, listening to the Lib-Dems guy’s speech, and starting thinking, in the midst of it, that if Cameron does get in, and things turn Thatcherite, that, oh man, will things ever change for all of us in the business… And maybe I’ll be back in Brooklyn despite my druthers. Hmmmm…. I decided, in turn, that if I had a vote, I’d vote Labour, even if it breaks several rules that I hold very deeply and dearly (in re Iraq).

    The pressures about PhDs at my place seem to be mostly about accepting foreign self-funding students. So we take a ton of Koreans and Chinese who, well, we wouldn’t take if they were applying without money behind them. Literally, I get the apps in my pigeon hole with a note attached that says “I know, I know, but we have to take all of these…. Could you work with this one?”

    It’s a very strange situation, all things considered.


    March 9, 2009 at 12:30 am

  7. Ooh very interesting. A few points:

    – as I’m being invoked as an example here (flattered, as ever): the main reason why I managed to do what apparently you can’t do anymore despite lack of inherited wealth (sign on for unemployment benefit and blog for years, eventually becoming able to pay rent and bills through freelancing – although how long that will last I have absolutely no idea) is through a combination of state largesse which does not exist to the same extent in the US (though there are huge differences in how this is administered – South London jobcentres are surprisingly sleepy places, but in Southampton they were ferocious about getting you into work) and personal largesse (in the main from a proper academic who works more hours in a week than I do in a month, leaving enduring feeling of guilt). So it is all very contingent.

    There is however a weird and mysterious reluctance on the part of many to utilise the fact that the UK still – just – has an unemployment benefit. Both myself and my (parentally cushioned, but nevertheless) flatmate, who earns a living as a musician, spent large amounts of time signing on without ever being threatened with having our dole cut off. Jobcentre staff are, with a couple of major exceptions, in my experience rather sensitive people who actually aren’t intent on shoving you into any job going. Which is why the ‘motivational courses’ get contracted out.

    – differences between academia and journalism in terms of class are pretty huge, in my admittedly brief experience. Journalism, particularly of the tabloid variety, likes to present itself as classless and populist (‘irreverent’) while academia is constantly presented as rarefied and patrician. While both are obviously majority middle class pursuits, I have met far more people from working class and lower-middle class backgrounds who are teaching, lecturing or in postgrad study than in publishing, and you’re far more likely to encounter people from a class different to your own in such a milieu, especially if teaching 6th form or lower-rung universities. I’m always a bit surprised at my own surprise when every other person I meet who works in journalism has an Oxbridge accent. (there’s some very good points on this in Jon Savage and Simon Frith’s fantastic hatchet job on John Carey in the NLR around 15 years ago).

    – Cameron and ‘real’ Thatcherism – well, I really can’t see what he can possibly do that hasn’t already been done, or that the likes of James Purnell or Mandelson wouldn’t want to do. No government in the UK can propose to fully privatise the NHS and win an election – instead there’ll be more incremental PFI I suspect, but no mass sell-off. The only possible good upshot of the next election would be a horde of Blairites losing their seats and Labour’s subsequent reformation into a saner centrist party led by John Cruddas, or, it pains me to say it, Harriet Harman. I’m not holding my breath for that, which would besides only bring British capitalism into line with Germany or France. Comes under the ‘Keynesianism as Katechon’ category, this one…


    March 9, 2009 at 2:30 am

  8. Owen,

    – that “state largesse” that doesn’t exist at all in the US. It’s not a matter of degree. There are shortterm unemployment benefits, but even those have to be earned in advance. There is no “dole,” none, of the sort there is here.

    – I’m sure you’re probably right about the differences between academia and journalism. I was saying the other day to someone that I still believe to a very very relative degree in the fairness and meritocracy of academia compared to journalism. You pretty much need to have a hook up somewhere along the line with the latter (actually here is where I should bring my wife’s story into the picture, who to her immense credit has never to my memory gotten a single useful bit of hookup anywhere a long the line… What she’s gotten she’s gotten by sheer force of good pitching, bravery, and then precedent….) whereas it is possible to, say, get an academic job without having strings pulled on your behalf. (Obviously, it helps to have gone to the right places… Not discounting that for a second, please understand).

    But on the other hand, the “top end” of academia here is entirely stocked with Oxbridge grads, at least in my experience of it. With the exception of I think 1 who went to the place itself and 1 or 2 who went to scottish places, I am basically the only person at my current place who didn’t go to Oxbridge. The same of course is largely true at elite unis at home and the “ivies” and ivy equivalents – but it feels slightly less restrictive as you’re talking about twelve or so schools rather than 2.

    I think it seems very natural to them. Duh: when a job comes up you take the better of the two rising candidates out of Oxbridge. That’s just how it works.

    But I definitely believe you about journalism. To a certain extent, you know, I’ll bet you it’s a bit fairer on that front in the USA too. It doesn’t seem foremost on the minds of the editors at, say, the Nation whether you went to Harvard or not.

    – The Tories. I’m a bit out of my depth / new to all of this… but currently the choice seems to be between centre-right management / bumbling mismanagement and catastrophic creative destructioneering. When it comes to keeping my state funded job, I think I’ll still go with the former. It’s funny – it may be because Labour’s been so friendly to business for the past decade that the Tories don’t seem to have the same interests as the Republicans in the US, who now are chattering about nationalisation themselves, some of them anyway.

    I’ve seen tears come to an old guy’s eye, an emeritus guy, when he told me what it was like when Thatcher made the cuts in higher ed. Every third person gone, that sort of thing. I’d rather not find out.


    March 9, 2009 at 7:34 am

  9. It reminds me of that Guardian piece a few months (years?) ago where they looked at the prominence of Oxbridge grads in professions and public life. Asking Paxman why there were so many journalists, he responded something like, ‘well of course they’re the best places and companies want to take the best people.’

    From experience with my own friends and family, I feel Owen is very correct about the ‘weird and mysterious reluctance’ to use unemployment benefit. The same could be said of housing benefit, which can actually be extremely helpful, especially for Londoners, and is relatively easy to secure. I think there are at least two sources for this:
    1. Middle-class kids who grew up thinking or feeling that signing on is something ‘other people do’.
    2. The madness of working-class toryism. Much of one side of my family, for example, though in and out of secure employment, take a strange pride in never taking the dole. It’s as if subsisting for years on semi-legal and/or insecure work is somehow more honorable.

    As for university funding, my impression is that there is a shared consensus among the major parties about the centrality of the ‘knowledge economy’, and I’d be quite surprised if Cameron did a Thatcher. Higher graduation rates remain in the interests of business. What I expect we will see — whoever gets in — is an acceleration in HE managerialism and the emphasis on ‘making the graduates that business needs’. But like Owen says, this is New Labour’s policy already.


    March 9, 2009 at 12:08 pm

  10. Of course I was quoting Paxman disapprovingly, highlighting the complete head-in-the-clouds ignorance that surrounds the topic of the Oxbridge aristocracy, but I forgot to add the relevant ironic punctuation.


    March 9, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    • RobDP,

      Hopefully you’re right about Cameron. They do seem to be surfing on this austerity, belt-tightening approach to the crisis, and in doing so are simultaneously playing upon a weird sort of the working-class toryism that you mention and a set of policies further right than any viable political party anywhere in the world right now. So you’re probably right but, still, seems a bit scary to me what might come of it.

      The other issue – about willingness to actually take up benefits – is an interesting one, isn’t it. From the policy side I guess the smartest thing to do is focus on “universal” issues, thus detatching stigma, and let those changes work as advertisements for future ones. But this of course leaves certain things out. It is interesting though….


      March 9, 2009 at 7:55 pm

  11. Attacks on ‘dole scroungers’, usually whipped up by the press, are always depressingly popular among sections of the British working class, a legacy of the deserving/undeserving poor divide. My own family background is a combination of both plus a bit of middle class leftism, so I never really had those qualms (well, irrespective of my dad’s disapproval, heh). That might well change due to a combination of the bank hand-outs and ordinary hardworking grafting folk being laid off en masse – but unlike the NHS, dole has rarely been seriously defended in mainstream circles. Either the Cameron government or the unlikely Brown second term will do their best to eradicate unemployment (and even disablement) benefit as a serious proposition.

    But then education is even worse for this, cf David Blunkett’s argument for the tuition fees he brought in: ‘why should a cleaner pay with her taxes for a child of a middle class family to go to university’, automatically assuming that the cleaner’s children won’t go to university. Interestingly, I’m told that since fees were brought in, the percentage of students overall has increased at the same time that the percentage of working class students has declined…


    March 9, 2009 at 10:06 pm

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