I was recently re-watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory, where the unfortunate passing of a colleague opened up a tenured position in the department that Sheldon, Raj, and Leonard were all vying for. While most people would find their various tactics to shmooze the tenure committee funny, the part that I found most hilarious was a tenure line being maintained instead of turned into cheaper, temporary adjunct positions. In reality, tenure is a dying position in academia, and it’s severely impacting the job market. This discrepancy between the number of tenure-track faculty positions available relative to doctoral degree graduates is so severe that current graduate students are warning undergraduates to stay away from graduate school, because there will be no jobs in academia for them by the time they graduate.
Scientists working in many sectors are motivated by a love of research, whether or not they hold PhDs or are tenured at research universities. However, many people seek doctoral degrees as a prerequisite for the typical academic career trajectory, which often culminates in a tenured full professorship with ample resources for both research and teaching. While this academic career trajectory has existed for decades, more and more higher education faculty positions switch from tenure-track to adjunct as each year passes. This trend can be dated back to the 1970s and can largely be linked to a combination of: 1) the significant increase in undergraduate students after the GI Bill was passed — more students = more classes and larger classes needing to be taught, 2) university business models focusing on bringing in as much money as possible (yay for capitalism…), and 3) economic recessions. When a recession hits, universities put tenure-track positions on hiring freezes and instead opt for filling the cheaper, temporary adjunct positions. Now, over 70% of higher education faculty are adjunct instructors, and tenure-track positions are becoming a rare find.
While this pattern has been going on for decades, the pandemic has made it far worse. Early career researchers have been hit the hardest because they are in the most expendable positions. This depleting job market has gotten so out of hand that academics are openly advising potential graduate students to pick a different career track because there isn’t going to be an academic job available for them when they reach the end of their degree. Many graduate students and early career researchers are reconsidering their career trajectories; adjunct and job contracts are one of the top reasons for leaving academia, not to mention the generally toxic environment that academia can harbor, but that’s a story for a different time. For those who do stay in academia, the competition for those few tenure-track positions is fierce, with as many as hundreds of applicants for each position. The state of the academic job market has become almost comical in the realm of social media, where many early career researchers are providing parody advice on how to get those tenured positions, because the only thing that seems to have been successful lately is sheer luck.
As an undergraduate student applying to graduate school, I was not aware of the state of the job market. As I’ve navigated through graduate school, I’ve literally watched it crumble around me. Post-docs I’ve worked with (and others I follow on Twitter) who have won prestigious awards and grants and are constantly publishing ground-breaking research have struggled for years to secure tenure-track positions. The poor job market doesn’t just affect the workers, but it also impacts the students and research. Short-term contracts mean that faculty are focused on ensuring that they have a paycheck next year, rather than focusing on teaching and working with students. In addition, faculty are moving around constantly to universities with open adjunct positions, which means less time to collect and analyze data and write up those publications.
Staying in higher education has never been entirely appealing to me, so the concept of pivoting towards a career outside of academia is incredibly enticing. In fact, I have already started making moves so that I can pursue an alternative career trajectory outside of academia after I graduate (I’m currently a dual PhD student in the Cognitive Science Program and Department of Anthropology); I have completed the coursework for my Animal-Computer Interaction PhD minor in Informatics, I’m a writer, editor, and the Social Media Chair for this blog, and I have a background in Museum Studies from my undergraduate studies. These small additions to my degrees make me competitive for jobs in enrichment and exhibit design, as well as public education and outreach positions at zoos, animal sanctuaries, and museums. Also, let’s be real: animals are awesome co-workers.
American Association of University Professors (2018). “Data Snapshot: Contingent Faculty in US Higher Ed.” American Association of University Professors.
American Astronomical Society Education Policy Board and Graduate Advisory Board. “The American Astronomical Society’s Examination of Graduate Education in Astronomy.”
American Physical Society (2021). “Physics Education and Employment Statistics.” American Physical Society.
Flaherty, Colleen (2018). “A Non-Tenure-Track Profession?” Inside Higher Ed.