Just a quick post provoked by being irritated by this well-meaning article. This piece, published a few days ago by the British left-leaning newspaper The Guardian, essentially argued that early career academics (normally considered to be people up to around five years post-PhD, but it’s a bit of a nebulous term and can also mean anyone with a PhD who’s still looking for that permanent/tenure-track job) are too picky, and instead of holding out for a job at a prestigious university should embrace the possibilities offered by a newer institution.

Will academics always be drawn to working in somewhere “prestigious”? Possibly. The nature of the work and of the calibre of people that academia attracts perhaps means that striving for success and being the “best” is part of the culture. As long as higher education is ranked in various ways and means, then this attitude will undoubtedly prevail. ,

But there is a lot to be said for having a very strong sense of support as an early career researcher, of being nurtured rather than having to fight to survive, and of being valued as an individual rather than a resource.

Those are useful points. Academic culture is such that often, producing the best possible research is the optimum outcome besides which all other achievements pale. The effect of target-driven academia on academics’ mental health has been discussed a good deal recently, and it is vital that institutions think more seriously about work-life balance for their staff. However, all of these are moot points if you can’t get a job.

This might be a good time to revisit my blog post from last July, which, despite my sudden boost in stats from being featured on Freshly Pressed, is still the blog post of mine which has received the most hits in a single day. My discussion of the problems facing junior academics, based on my personal experience of being on the job market, clearly struck a nerve and promoted a lot of interesting (if sometimes depressing!) discussion.

This Slate post has been doing the rounds on Facebook lately, often with dry commentary from my friends about variations on the “Why don’t you just send them your résumé?” comments they’ve received from well-meaning friends and family. But at least those questions usually come from people outside academia. Hearing fellow academics talk about the job market as if it’s just a matter of persistence or, in the case of the Guardian article, lowering inflated personal standards, is rather depressing.

I am one of the lucky ones. After my PhD, I had only one year of uncertainty and earning a mere £800/month from two part-time teaching jobs and a part-time admin job before I got a postdoc (in Paris, no less!) and then got a three year job at Oxford as a lecturer, covering the teaching of a senior academic on research leave. This year I was fortunate enough to win a three-year Leverhulme fellowship, meaning I get paid to research for another three years. I have work secured into my mid-thirties.

But. If I hadn’t got the Leverhulme, I would be unemployed now, as none of the other jobs I applied for this year even invited me for interview, despite me writing meticulous applications and having a pedigree that sounds pretty snazzy (York-Sorbonne-Oxford). I applied to world-class institutions and I applied to little local universities and got nowhere. In previous years, similar application materials got me interviews at leading universities, so I don’t think I was sending out crappy applications. It’s just that there are so many of us applying for so few jobs.

This isn’t meant to be a despairing post. Many of my PhD cohort now have academic jobs, even if it took a few years to get them. Those who decided to leave academia (usually after much soul-searching) often now have excellent careers in other fields. But it is a very tough market, and pretty much all the junior academics I know have accepted that if they want to make it in this business, they may have to move anywhere, to work at any institution, potentially uprooting their family, leaving friends behind. And that if tenured/permanent jobs aren’t forthcoming, they may be repeating this every 1-3 years for up to a decade. Many of us do this willingly: but let’s not insult early career academics by pretending that if we’d just tried a little harder, been a little more flexible and open-minded, we’d have a cosy permanent job somewhere nice. That’s not how this market works.