It’s almost exactly a year since I started my job as assistant professor of sociology at Durham University. When I was offered the job – in February 2020 – the academic job market had already been a tricky place, even for someone with no shortage of qualifications or experience, and a significant amount of privilege (more about that below). Soon after I accepted, it seemed like the precarious bridge I had just walked across had collapsed into an ever-widening crevasse: the pandemic hit, and the future of the entire higher education sector was suddenly at risk.
Of course, for some of us, the pandemic only exacerbated or rendered (more) visible multiple forms of unsustainability at the core of the current model of ‘global’ higher education. This includes high fees (predicated on piling private debt), increasing dependence on transfers from the ‘Tiger’ economies, and high investment into semi- or fully-privatized infrastructure, rather than the health, well-being, or the working conditions of those who deliver it. I have written about this elsewhere so am not going to delve into this argument, save to observe that the dominant approach to higher education policy over the past year has fully lived up to the model of ‘disaster capitalism’. Rather, I want to focus on what getting a permanent job right before the pandemic taught me about working in the academia.
Getting a job
The months between accepting and starting my current job were probably the most productive in my life. Some of this, obviously, was aided by the context. My research was on the pandemic – specifically, how the use of scientific knowledge and evidence reflected new configurations of political power – and ‘staying at home’ meant most of my other ‘regular’ work (supervisions, meetings, admin) disappeared or took substantially less time. I was lucky enough to have no caring duties in the immediate vicinity, and given that I was not able to travel, I was able to dedicate all this time to obsessively reading emerging research. Most importantly, however, I gained an enormous amount of time simply from not having to apply for jobs any longer.
Up until that point, the work of trying to get work was taking up more than half of my time. In case you think I was some naïve youngster unacquainted with the vagaries of the job market, new to academia and fresh out of a PhD, I’m going to have to ruin that: at the point at which I began looking for a full-time academic job in the UK, I was 38, and had held a number of academic positions, including two lectureships (one permanent) and two postdocs, one of which was tenure-track. I had left these positions because I felt they didn’t give me enough intellectual independence, and went on to do a second PhD at the University of Cambridge, which I completed in 2019. I had a book and more than a few publications. Yet, four postdoctoral research fellowship applications (one of which took months to write), one college research fellowship application, and two lectureship applications later, I wasn’t even getting shortlisted.
Of course, I knew the job market was terrible. Having worked in the academia across five countries, I didn’t think it was going to be easy. But after a few rejections, I started second-guessing: perhaps I really wasn’t good enough. Maybe my PhD was, after all, shit. Maybe I was, in fact, overqualified, and no-one wanted to hire me because they would have to pay me decent money (my current university avoided that trap by hiring me on pithy Grade 7). At the same time, people around me – with fewer (or no) publications, less experience, less of a profile, seemed to be getting hired straight (or even before) their PhDs. What were they doing that I wasn’t?
It’s easy, everyone can do it?
One of the things I would hear when I asked this question was the inevitable ‘oh-something-will-surely-show-up’. Versions of this included forwarding me a job at an American liberal arts institution (total number of non-American-university graduates working in it: 0), and encouraging me to apply a position left vacant by the death of a doyen of sociology (I didn’t think I would be eligible for that in another 20 years, though I guess it’s nice they did). In this sense, I realized people were assuming I would, basically, just waltz into a job.
This is the ‘dazzle’ that comes with institutional capital: people from places like Cambridge, Oxford, Yale or Princeton get hired straight out of grad school and no-one even pauses to think about it. Of course, the perception of success breeds standards of success. If we see people who, by the time they are out of grad school, have not only a permanent position but also several book contracts and published articles, it doesn’t only shape hiring committee expectations – something that has been extensively commented on before – but also our own.
The other thing I would hear was the infamous ‘I applied for 75 different positions before landing this one’. This particularly riled me, as I think it’s the source of many a misdirected idea of ‘oversupply’ of PhDs in social sciences and humanities, not to mention substantial difficulty for the work of shortlisting committees. So I started asking people what kind of jobs they had actually applied for. Sure enough, it turned out many were jobs they were wildly unqualified for: from those way above their level of seniority, to those clearly outside of their sphere of expertise. It also turned out that, of the jobs they were qualified for, most got hired at between second and fourth attempt.
The rest were people who never, strictly speaking, applied for jobs. Now, I know even Oxford and Cambridge nowadays have to advertise positions. But many positions just somehow morphed into permanent positions. Some of these were advertised only after the person had been in the position for a while. Some of these were advertised, but with an insanely short time window, and the shortlisting process was designed to ensure the preferred candidate would stand out clearly above the rest.
With a little help from my friends
What began to emerge from this picture was that of these people who just seemed naturally talented, were born tenured, or have slid into academic positions straight out of grad school, got more than a little help along the way. Usually from their supervisor/advisor, but often from other people too – committee members, friends, family. Of course they were going to land two book contracts with a top academic publisher before their PhD if the editor just happens to be the supervisor’s tennis buddy. Of course they were going to publish commentary in the top left-wing portal, if they just happen to have met the editor at their cousin’s birthday party. In this sense, what appears as success is an outcome of the combination of hard work, yes, talent, yes, and also loads of social and cultural capital.
This is why job trajectories that are so fraught for many can seem so smooth for others. Social and cultural capital are never only about your parents’ background, or whether you can play an instrument (and how well). They are about the doors that get subtly opened, discreet ‘nudges’ along the way, little opportunities that just happen.
So what was I going to do? My supervisor was clearly not going to do this for me, and a degree from Cambridge was not going to suffice. It was also clear that all my writing, articles, the book, talks, and even social media posts are not enough. So I reached out to my friends.
What do I mean by this? I had no influential friends. Certainly none were in a position to hire me, or even influence someone who might hire me (and if they were, I’d have avoided them like the plague for conflict of interest). What I did instead – when I finally got shortlisted for a job (which another friend encouraged me to apply to) – was ask for help.
This in itself was an enormous undertaking. I’ve always been proud of independence, of having achieved everything through my own effort (plus, obviously, the advantages of race, to some degree class, ability and education). For years, I never allowed anyone to read even my drafts – and even then I would worry endlessly about every typo or infelicity of phrase. Thus, being able to say openly ‘wait, maybe I haven’t got this’ or ‘wait, maybe I do need to ask for others’ opinion’ was challenging – but also immensely rewarding.
The response I got was incredibly kind. Some people agreed to act as a mock panel for my job talk. Another friend did a mock interview. Others kept cheering me on, including through the rejections of an article that I spent months working on and am to this day convinced is my finest piece of theoretical work. They dedicated their time, attention, and effort to give me feedback on what I was doing and how that came across. In the process, they reinstated my confidence that I wasn’t worthless as a scholar – and, much more importantly, as a human being. I can only hope to do the same for them.
Oh, and I got the job.
The moral of this story is keep your referees close, but your friends closer. ‘Networking’ in academia tends to be associated with crawling around conferences trying to capture the attention of the academic star du moment (some ‘academic stars’ are, admittedly, genuinely nice people). I always found people who do this obnoxious – in part because I do not like authority, and in part because instrumentalized socializing combines two things I particularly dislike: instrumentalism and socializing. It doesn’t need to be that way. Maybe we could really think about the kind of conversations we would want to have, if academia weren’t a status-meets-prestige rat race. Maybe we could hang out with these people instead. Because all the prestigious jobs, good salaries, and four-star publications do not count if you are the kind of person no-one would have a cup of coffee with at the end of the day.
This is my way to thank everyone who helped, but also to highlight a fantastic group of scholars and professionals: Carolina Alves, Federico Brandmayr, Mark Carrigan, Jo Dillabough, Sol Gamsu, Inanna Hamati-Ataya, Asiya Islam, Teodora Lekic, Philip Luther-Davies, Linsey McGoey, Hannah Moscovitz, Susan Robertson, Lucia Rubinelli, Rashmi Singh, Steve Watson (apologies to anyone I might’ve forgotten!)
Jana Bacevic is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Durham. Her work is in sociology of knowledge, epistemology and social theory, and political sociology. She tweets at @jana_bacevic