Stop telling me I’ll get a permanent job eventually. I know I probably won’t

Telling precariously employed literature scholars to just hang in there doesn’t cut it in a job market as bad as today’s, says Chris Townsend

三月 15, 2023
Lady watches waves crashing during stormy weather on Brighton  Under cliff walk to illustrate Don’t tell me I’ll get a permanent job eventually. I probably won’t
Source: Getty (edited)

Six years out of a PhD in English literature, I’m in the third and final year of a teaching contract at a prestigious UK university. The contract, I’m assured, won’t be extended, but at any rate I’m running out of willpower to go on in academia.

I currently manage my family life around a weekly 400-mile round trip in my car. The goal was always to find work closer to home, but that work never materialised. Since starting my current job, I’ve only seen three permanent posts in my field advertised; I applied for all three but was shortlisted for none. Some of these positions, I later discovered, attracted well over 100 applicants. I’ve only made it to three interviews in total since finishing my PhD, including the one for my current role.

The job market in English literature has been miserable for as long as most can remember, but it seems to be hitting rock bottom as a result of a drop in overseas students and other knock-on effects of Brexit and the pandemic, as well as frozen tuition fees and a declining uptake of GCSE and A-level literature courses. In addition, subjects like English are increasingly frowned upon by a government waging war on “low-earning” degrees, and whole departments are currently threatened with closure or are quietly renewing pandemic-era freezes on hiring.

Academia doesn’t owe anyone a living, but I do feel short-changed. When I began my doctorate, I was told that I’d need at least two articles published if I wanted to land a job. By the time I submitted, that had been revised to needing to have made moves towards publishing my thesis as a book. But the repeated insistences that this would boost my luck in the job hunt have not been borne out. When you apply for an “entry level” job, you are increasingly up against mid-career ship-jumpers; in that scenario, there’s no conceivable number of publications, hours of teaching or anything else that will definitively boost your fortunes. You might well move up the queue, but you’re still two-thirds of the way back.

Senior colleagues recall their own “wilderness years”, bouncing between teaching posts and institutions to make ends meet, with something approaching fondness. Such tales are told to reassure us newbies that established academics know only too well what it was like waiting for that permanent post, but that our time, too, will come if we only persevere a little longer. I’m sure that no one wishes us anything but kindness when they give us such advice, but those with secure contracts really don’t seem to realise how bad things have become unless they’ve recently been on hiring committees themselves.

I’m not suggesting that senior colleagues should be telling us all to look for work outside academia, but it would certainly help if that idea weren’t treated as dishonourable, if not downright unthinkable. When I tell colleagues I’m thinking about quitting, responses tend to suggest I’m being melodramatic, running along the lines of “come on now, it’s not that bad”. At the more extreme end, you’re looked at as if you’ve just said something deeply offensive or you were dying.

An insecurely employed colleague of mine recently told her mentor she was considering non-university employment. He grinned at her and told her to keep at the job hunt for now – after all, he said, all his previous mentees had landed academic jobs. The mentor meant well, but such advice is plain toxic. It tells the candidate that if they don’t land a job, they’re an abnormality and a failure.

This widespread reluctance to think outside the profession is a symptom not so much of academics’ supposed lack of transferable skills as of how academics narrate their trade to themselves and to one another. We learn to treat academia as a calling rather than a job, and we justify our chosen paths by denigrating roads not taken. But while no early-career academic would make the concessions we do if we didn’t think academia were a great career, we should not regard work outside academia as worth less than work within it.

No one at the level of teaching staff and researchers is in a position, individually, to change the state of employment overnight. But everyone must realise that, these days, even a term’s worth of teaching can’t readily be found (and won’t be properly paid). It is simply unrealistic to tell everyone in the job market today that it’s all just a matter of time and tenacity. The kindest thing, now, would be for the advice to catch up with that reality.

Chris Townsend is a fellow in English at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge.



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Reader's comments (5)

Been there! Took 8.5 years to get a permanent post and had to change disciplines a couple of times to achieve that. It is very difficult and has implications for many different aspects in life. I used to say that I suffered from the three 'Ps' - persistence, patience, perseverance - similar to what Chris indicated he is being told. I cannot provide any advice to those in this situation, I was fortunate during the 8.5 years to be consistently employed on short-term contracts or casual. Everyone's circumstances are different and people need to make the best decision for them. I do feel for my PhD completed students who are seeking more meaningful work, but there is little I can do except highlight aspects that they can do to make themselves more employable and keep their CV up to date. Best wishes to all those who are seeking an academic position. I am so grateful that it worked out for me.
I am surprised and disappointed that established scholars in English are giving this advice and are looking down on non-academic careers. As a professor of Classics, I always tell new and potential graduate students that it is important to realise how low are the chances of a permanent job. To those who nonetheless go ahead with a PhD, I encourage them to value alternatives, including both school teaching and other careers where the content of their PhD may not be directly relevant, but the skills certainly will. As far as I am aware, this is the policy and practice throughout my discipline, and it is certainly widely shared in other humanities disciplines in my (Russell group) University.
Hi Chris, I very much empathise with the situation you are in. In my own case, following my PhD in medieval history I hung on in the system, increasingly precariously, for about eight years. During this time, I published a number of articles, a monograph of my thesis, had two children, had periods when I was only working a few hours a week and so couldn't plan any family holidays and for three years had to live about 100 miles from home during the week in another university city as it was the only place I'd been able to get work. On one occasion, out for a drink with a couple of colleagues in a similar predicament, two of us broke down in tears. Wind the clock forward 25 years and I'm at the end of a satisfying end of career decade in student support, having previously worked for a number of years as a freelance. Not once have I ever regretted doing my PhD because the transferable skills are always with you, giving you other possibilities, many of which come out of the blue. It took me longer to get over the 'failure' of my academic career but it's been ages since I've felt any regret and I look at my academic colleagues with little reason for envy. More recently, my son got his PhD and had a promising potential academic career in science dangled before him. But two years ago he took the brave step, in similar circumstances as you, of stepping back and saying "What's the point of all this uncertainty, all the moving about, all the strain on your mental health when you could actually be enjoying life?" H now has a very fulfilling quite senior job in the non-profit sector, has bought a house with his partner and, like me, will almost certainly never look back with regret. Chris, don't give in to those who would depict leaving academia as failure - your PhD will provide you with lots of other opportunities and one day - perhaps quite soon - you will hopefully look back with fondness on your academic years but forward with optimism to a precarity-free future. Good luck!
I always tell my students that can get a job outside of academia. Only yesterday we were looking at professional services and other jobs that a PhD holder could do, self employment, etc, with a student. They felt so relieved that I did not bang the drum about having to work in academia.
You know there's no such thing as a truly permanent contract in HE these days? Even if you have one on paper you'll be threatened with redundancy at regular intervals. At least fixed term contracts manage your expectations, and you still have all the same legal rights and protections as someone with a "permanent" contract. Permanence is a myth.