Timing is Everything

Anyone who’s pursued an academic job knows how hard it is to explain the process to friends and family.  Each fall, colleges across the US and Canada post tenure-track positions that will begin the next academic year (e.g. listings in October 2016 were for people to start in August 2017).  Applications for these jobs are accepted for a few months, but aren’t reviewed until after the deadline. That cut-off usually falls right before a major conference, which lets schools conduct their first-round interviews when the entire field is at least theoretically in one place.  In Classics this happens at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies, which is held during the first full weekend of January (though older scholars still like to complain about how it used to happen between Christmas and New Year!).  At that stage the schools narrow their list of applicants from roughly fifteen to about three, and the finalists are invited for an on-campus visit that happens in late January or early February.  Offers are usually made by the end of that month, though negotiations sometimes stretch into March.

A peculiar result of this cycle–what academics simply call “the market”–is that people can know as early as December that they have zero chance of starting a tenure-track job for at least twenty months.  And that’s of course assuming they have better luck the next time around. It’s entirely possible they’ll strike out again.  This is why so many academics looks sad, angry, or depressed around Christmas or Hannukah: they see that a permanent, meaningful job is at least another year and a half away.  The one thing remaining at that point is the market for temporary positions in the spring.  Those tend to move faster, but require additional time to be spent on cover letters and interviews, plus a few weeks and a few thousand dollars on relocation over the summer (moving expenses usually aren’t paid for).  Apart from being tedious, all of this cuts into the research you’re supposed to be doing to land a tenure-track job, effectively decreasing your odds the next time around.

There are lots of reasons people outside higher ed can’t put their head around this hiring process.  For one thing, it’s absolutely bonkers.  While it’s understandable that colleges want to move slowly and add the best people to their faculty, the process is now drawn out to the point of absurdity, and funding cuts have led to a ludicrous situation in which the financial burden of attending annual meetings often falls to applicants who are already pressed for cash.  Secondly, all of this differs in nearly every way from the hiring processes used in other sectors.  Most jobs I’ve seen are listed for a matter or weeks, and candidates are considered on a rolling basis until the spot gets filled.  A small consulting firm I recently applied to got back to me in five days, scheduled an interview for the next, and informed me of their decision that same day.  All told, I was on the hook for less than a week.  And while I didn’t get an offer for that specific job, they may have openings in the future that the founder assured me I’m welcome to apply for.  Even a position I’m pursuing in city government has moved faster than academia: they cleared my resume, seated me for a civil service exam, and made an initial phone call within two months.

I’ve begun today’s post with the hiring process because it’s an obvious and familiar place where the timing in academia is different from the timing in business.  But this isn’t the only way in which the two are different.  People who decide to leave higher ed face other timing-related obstacles, too, and and it’s important to understand them if you want to make the jump successfully.

First is knowing when hiring actually happens.  Academics are used to the cyclical market discussed above, but companies run on a different schedule.  Little shows up from Thanksgiving to Christmas since most people don’t leave their jobs while they’re running up bills during the holidays.  Pickings are also slim in the summer while people are on vacation and work slows down.  Being aware of this is crucial so you don’t panic if you begin looking around and don’t see any attractive listings.

Second is what this means for when you stage your exit.  Most likely, people with academic jobs will be looking for work at the end of an academic semester–December or May.  This is why we had Point 1: if you find yourself in this situation, you’re likely to be seeing job listings when they’re at their worst.  There are two ways you can deal with this: try to stay afloat financially for a few months after your contract ends, or start looking before you actually need a job.  If you’re able to pull off the first of these and are comfortable rolling the dice, by all means go ahead!  This should be feasible even for those who you don’t have a huge amount in savings: unemployment insurance exists for just this reason. The college you work for has been paying into that fund on your behalf, so you might as well use a benefit that exists to protect you when your employer lets you go through no fault of your own.  If you’d still rather play it safe, you’ll need to seek new work while you’re employed.  That may sound daunting, but it’s amazing how much time you have once you stop doing research and limit your on-campus tasks to teaching duties only.  I’ve quickly learned why non-academics assume being a professor is easy: when you’re just doing what’s written in your job description, it actually is.

Third is when you should leave.  Most academic contracts are built around the academic semester, and there’s an expectation that once you start a semester you’re going to see it through.  That makes sense for people who intend to stay in higher ed, and since that was how things worked for so long most people take it for granted.  But as I said above, this poses problems for anyone seeking a different career.  If you begin looking for work when businesses are hiring–January or August–you may find yourself getting interviews with companies that expect you to start in February or September.  They have an opening they need filled, and they’re expecting their new hire to start within a few weeks of an offer.  What do you do?

I’m fortunate not to have found myself in this situation, but I’ve thought about it a lot as I’ve been applying to non-academic jobs.  On the one hand, you can try to push back your start date.  This might work, but it risks compelling the company to retract the offer and extend it to somebody else.  Viewing things from their perspective, this makes good sense: they’re losing money while work isn’t getting done, and they need to protect their bottom line.  So you can by all means try to delay, but know that it might backfire.  On the other hand, it’s practically unheard of for teachers in a college setting to leave a position before the term ends.  Most are passionately dedicated to their students and view the thought of abandoning them as an unethical, unthinkable, or preposterous.  I admire this greatly, but also recognize that it carries personal risk.

While individual situations will vary, I think it’s important at least for contingent faculty to view giving two weeks notice as a real option.  I know this is a bold claim, so let me explain my reasoning.  First off, these jobs are not permanent careers.  Deans structure them as cheap, short-term solutions to teaching shortages that only arise because schools admit more students than their permanent faculty can usher through in four years’ time.  Yes, you benefit from knowing they won’t replace you mid-semester, but the college benefits more: they lock you in at an extremely low wage to teach a class or classes that will pay back tens or even hundreds of times what you earn.  The only reason this works at all is because jobs are scarce and people generally don’t have something else to walk away for.

Moreover, leaving may be bad for your students and college in the short term, but it’s good for academia in the long term.  For one thing, you’ll be doing your small part to shrink the number of people competing for jobs.  Just having fewer bodies in play will make it easier for others to land a good position, which we all know is desperately needed.  And you’ll be helping to raise salaries, too.  If colleges have to scramble to find help on short notice, they’ll hopefully think twice about paying a wage that opened them up to that risk in the first place.  At the very least, they’ll be eager to avoid repeating the PR nightmare of undergrads paying for a class they can’t complete because their teacher took another job (I suppose it would be possible for them to give a partial refund, but I don’t really see that happening!).

Lastly, and most importantly, there’s nothing wrong with looking out for the interests of yourself and your family.  If you have an offer on the table and you think it could lead to a good, dignified career, don’t let commitment to a dead-end job prevent you from seizing it.  Recognize the kairos and make sure it doesn’t pass you by.

Is any of this meant to encourage spiteful or damaging behavior on your way out the door?  Of course not.  Instead, I just want to emphasize how much the timing outside academia differs from the timing inside of it, and what that means in practical terms for someone who opts to leave higher ed.  Staging an exit is likely to lead to some hard decisions, and it’s best to know what those might be before you have to make them.  After all, timing is everything.


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