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Migrant Labor in the Ivory Tower:

The Crossroads and Crapshoots of a New Professor

By Paul Leighton

For Stuart Henry and William Hinkle, eds. Careers in Criminal Justice: The Inside Story, 2nd ed. Salem (WI): Sheffield, 2000. This essay © 1999 Paul Leighton.

I’m sitting on a back porch in the early evening pecking at the keys of the department’s laptop computer; the iced coffee has been replaced with cold beer. Sounds nice, but a few years ago it was my own clunker of a laptop in the bed of a pickup truck outside of a storage locker where my research and worldly goods were. I’m now in a tenure track Assistant Professor position (and greatly enjoying the summer months with no faculty meetings) rather than being part of the migrant labor pool chasing after a secure position. My hope is that this position is my first tenure track job rather than my only one. But that’s the end of the story - and before I start it I’ll highlight four main rules of survival.

  • Rule 1. Getting a Ph.D. is more a matter of endurance and self discipline than intelligence.

  • Rule 1a. Less than 1% of the population has a Ph.D. If you get one you are an extreme outlyer in the bell curve of formal education, so don’t worry about having it finished by age 30 – or 35 or 40, etc.

  • Rule 2. When you job hunt – or apply for grants – get over fear of rejection quickly and get into a ‘mass production’ mode with applications; if you don’t apply, the chance of getting it is zero.

  • Rule 3. The key question is not whether you can get an academic job, but whether you can get a desirable one. The question is not how many job advertisements there are, but how many interest you and how many other people also apply.

  • Rule 3a. It’s not unusual for the institution that grants you the degree to be better than the one that gives you a first job – and this might come as a surprise because faculty at most institutions complain about the quality of students.

  • Rule 3b. A surprisingly wide variety of positions offer the potential for you to carve out a meaningful and satisfying professional life, but some institutions will make it difficult.

  • Rule 4. Be careful about applying for jobs you don’t want, because you might just get them.

My undergraduate major was criminal justice with law school as the next step, based on the naïve assumption that it related to studying justice. During a moment of frustration, I remarked to a professor that I really wanted a school of justice, not law. He remarked that American University had one. It never occurred to me there might be more than one, but I got information, drove down (without a map or appointment), walked into the associate dean’s office by accident, talked to her for two hours, toured campus, and a year later moved there to start graduate school. This approach worked out exceptionally well, but I would recommend putting more research and deliberation into your decision, as it might have easily been so different.

After two years of making pizza and partying while figuring out what to do when I grew up, graduate school was intimidating. I threw myself into the work and overcompensated, at least for the first year. Work for the Master’s degree went quickly, but at the start of my sixth year many self- imposed deadlines had come and gone (see Rule 1). Most of the people I knew took longer than me, but the important point is that they finished (see Rule 1a) because it is all too easy to stall out at ABD, which stands for ‘all but dissertation’ or All But Done. The course work, comprehensive exams and actual writing involved in getting a Ph.D. extend over years (4-10 years is the range), so there are many disruptions and potentials for derailment – marriage, divorce, births, deaths, sickness and accidents. (When a good friend died from AIDS, a theology degree temporarily sounded preferable to continuing work on a dissertation about genocide.) A dissertation support group occasionally helped by making me announce goals, report progress and talk about problems. Still, I was turning 30 (see Rule 1a), trying to treat the dissertation as a full time job and realizing that assembling 35 job packets was a part time job in itself (see Rule 2).

The University of San Francisco called to request the first interview, which confirmed my excitement about the job hunt. I had served on a search committee and been to several panels about first jobs at the American Society of Criminology meetings.

I knew enough to do some research on the department, including some searches to see what the faculty wrote and I tried to be astute about looking for signs of deep political divisions. I would later learn to make a visit to the bookstore to see what is being taught and what level of material professors see as appropriate for the students – and to try to run a few searches at the library. The interview itself was a grueling two days during which I met with faculty, the Dean, taught a class, and gave a research presentation. I was the first of three candidates, so I would not hear anything for several weeks.

I returned home and tried to refocus on the dissertation but then received another job call, this time from an historically black institution. I assumed my work on whether blacks in the US were experiencing genocide prompted the call, but what caught their eye was my interest in old Volkswagen vans (I sometimes include it in a ‘Hobbies’ section to humanize the professional credentials). They figured if I was the type of person into VW vans, then I just might be interested in teaching minorities who had been to poor inner-city high schools. The teaching load was high and I would be sharing a computer with five other faculty members, which summarized the institution’s resources. We agreed to talk again if I didn’t get the job at San Francisco: "We’d worry about your sanity if you’d turn them down to come here," said the faculty interviewer.

The next call came from a large state university in a small town that my Northern prejudices associate with tumbleweeds. Before the first day of interview was over, I wanted to hitch-hike to the airport and fly home: dusty, boring, a 90 minute drive for a good restaurant and I had nothing in common with anyone. I asked about social life for single people since I would not be moving there with anyone, and was told there were a ‘handful’ of junior female faculty, but a thousand or so female graduate students. Although relationships between (male) faculty and (female) students seemed to be an open secret, I was still surprised that someone would say, ‘Sure, come here and date our female students.’ Maybe the faculty member was being realistic about what tends to happen, but I wondered if the answer would have been different if I was black.

Tumbleweed University called immediately to offer a job, and I still had a week before I would hear from San Francisco. The excitement of ‘I could soon be anywhere in the United States’ now had a dark side that made it even more difficult to focus on the dissertation. Ultimately, the University of San Francisco offered me the job – a one-year appointment, potentially renewable. Because of increasing enrollments in the department, the position was likely to renew and turn into a tenure track position – but no guarantees. There would be another national search for that position, but I would have a foot in the door. The Tumbleweed job was tenure track, with less teaching and they had a graduate program (which usually means more intellectual stimulation and is an advantage for moving to a better institution).

The choice forced me to ask: How important are geography and social climate, security, longer term potential? How do you value those in relation to a variety of institutional factors such as its size, religious affiliation (USF is Jesuit), graduate programs, teaching load, and type of students? With the colleagues in a department, how important are personal friendships, political compatibility, and intellectual stimulation? Although neither choice was a serious research institution, I also had to start thinking about what mix of teaching and writing I wanted to do, and under how much pressure.

If I had a family or child to consider in my decision, I might have chosen the safer option and gone with Tumbleweed. Ultimately, having another offer made USF increase their salary. They were not going to bargain about teaching load or benefits. They already provided money for moving expenses, were going to buy a data set for my research, provide conference travel money and a computer for the office. I might have been able to bargain more, but it was a good deal and I was so relieved I took it. (Another plus I later discovered was that they frequently had receptions with good free food, which is almost as important to junior faculty as it is to graduate students.)

I rebuilt the engine to my VW van immediately before leaving on what would be a 4500 mile trip across country [see photo above], during which I worked a few days as a mechanic to offset the cost of some additional work. I arrived in San Francisco days before Jerry Garcia died and thousands flocked to the city that had been home to the Grateful Dead. People on the street saw my van and asked for rides to folk festivals and Rainbow gatherings. I explained that I was there for a job; they asked if I had a shower they could use, and I had to tell them I didn’t have a place of my own yet. Meanwhile, at the University, in spite of grease under my fingernails and a ratty ponytail people called me ‘Doctor’ and ‘Sir.’ They showed me an office with my name on it, gave me business cards and letterhead to match. The secretary came in with a box of office supplies and apologized because the perfectly decent computer in my office was not the even newer one I had been promised. The media relations office emailed me inquiries from journalists who wanted to interview ‘experts’ on a wide range of issues.

Between feeling like an impostor, learning a new city and university, and teaching three new classes, I have never worked as hard in my life (with the possible exception of a few 70 hour workweeks at Pizzeria Uno). Part of what attracted me to academia was not having to be in an office 9 to 5, but I found myself working six days a week, sometimes seven. Being able to do some of the work at the beach, in the park or a coffee shop was small consolation. New faculty who had not finished their dissertations had it worse, as they put in even more hours under greater pressure. They also spent that year finishing up the dissertation rather than tackling other tasks expected of Assistant Professors. Because I had finished, I was able to publish a short article and win a small grant. I had a little more energy to put into teaching, and gave presentations at two national conferences in addition to becoming involved with a few university events.

The job became a tenure track position that year, and I thought I was in a good position: I won the job last time and that was before all the activities of the past year. But that sentiment combined wishful thinking with naïveté. As a result, I did not aggressively job hunt to cover myself as I should have. The tenure track job advertisement attracts people who already have tenure track jobs and/or better credentials than people who apply for one year jobs. I came in second to a minority female who had a book due out with a good press. She wanted the job and she was not just looking for an offer she could use to bargain with her current institution. It was time for me to call U-Haul. (I have met her at conferences since then and had a nice talk. Although I was upset at losing the job, it was not a personal matter between her and me.)

I still had several months of paychecks (sign up for the 12 month salary option!) and a summer project, but what next? Through a friend, I heard about a job at a poor, small rural state university. They had not filled a position that was, I learned, left vacant because of a fight. Political fights are an occupational hazard of academic life, but in this case it was fairly rare fistfight in a parking lot, which the professor lost to the husband of a female student. This information came up in the context of my being told that even though there was nothing in the way of institutional repercussions for dating students (even current students), men needed to use some common sense. The faculty member added that I would be quite popular with the women since I had lived in some interesting places and my idea of fun went beyond "tractor pulls and professional wrestling."

The job at Tractorpull U. had a high teaching load and there was little support for research or anything faculty wanted to do; it took more than six months to get one new faculty member an email account. One professor who had a success record with grants and an excellent publication record told me the administration put roadblocks in his way so he would not show up other faculty, most of whom occasionally published a paper in formats like conference proceedings that were not peer reviewed and thus held little prestige. When I inquired about buying my way out of a class or two in case I received a grant I was applying for, they found an extra class for me to teach. Then, the position was no longer tenure track, but a one year position with several thousand less in salary.

More hard questions: should I take it just because it was a full time job with benefits and an adequate salary for the area? The college was in a county where more than a third of the population was on some form of public assistance, so they argued that I could research social problems and get a grant to do some good work; the students could really benefit from having someone like me as an educator and I could really make a difference in their lives. Was that enough to counterbalance my desire to be in an urban area, work with graduate students, have time for some research and have more in common with everyone around me?

The other, and more desirable, option was to do part time work back at American University: live poor again (still?), devote time to job hunting (see Rule 2), and make progress on research projects. My fear of the Tractorpull U job was that it would be an alienating environment that required so much teaching and committee work that I would not have time for writing. Without publications, mobility is difficult and there is an increased chance of getting stuck somewhere. To be sure, ‘publish or perish’ is a reality at some institutions, including a few which take it to the extreme of only counting as publications articles that appear in selected journals or in the books of prestigious presses. Most faculty, however, have never published a book and are at institutions emphasizing teaching. Someone can make tenure at such schools with minimal publications, so long as they have a solid teaching record and/or committee service (sometimes, not even that much). But mobility to a better place basically requires publications. (People at Tumbleweed U. argued that it was so boring there, I’d be able to publish a great deal and move on!)

The time did allow me to make progress with an article about televising executions that would be rejected twice before a version was accepted, and then finally published in late 1999 – about two and a half years after I began serious work on it. The next round of job hunting involved another 30 or so applications, mostly for tenure track jobs, with a few temporary positions thrown in for good measure. After the experiences at Tumbleweed and Tractorpull U, I tried to be careful about only applying for jobs I actually wanted, but I also wanted to make sure I would get a job.

I ended up violating Rule 4 and getting the job. They did not pay moving expenses, so I had to pay my own way to a job I did not really want but where I’m starting my third year. Professionally, I have grown and learned an incredible amount, not least from supportive colleagues, but these last years have been the least interesting ones of my personal life. I have the American Sociological Association website bookmarked and check in every month to look at the Employment Bulletin. To my surprise and dismay, I find surprisingly few jobs that are better and for which I would be competitive. Further perspective came from a recent interview at an inner-city university where the faculty were as politically divided as six people could possibly be. I heard that in the recent past several professors made up a rumor that another professor had raped a student in order to drive him out of the department.

During my fifth year, my university will make a decision about granting me tenure, at which time the job market really shrinks dramatically. Most universities prefer to hire cheaper inexperienced Assistant Professors that they can evaluate for tenure, rather hire than someone higher in the salary scale who has tenure and could be around potentially for the rest of their professional lives. So, although I am likely to get tenure where I am, my desire is to be able to call U-Haul one more time. Perhaps there are still some expectations from graduate training or an excessive sense of entitlement from being a white male. I’ll be happy to write an update for the next edition of Inside Jobs and in the meantime, I’ll read Cary Nelson’s book about the academic labor market called, Will Work for Food. There’s a chapter addressing whether Ph.D. stands for "Poor, Hungry, and Desperate? or, Privileged, Histrionic, and Demanding?"


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