Advice for the year of the plague

Sorry. I am truly very, very sorry. You are hitting the job market or beginning your academic career during one of the most uncertain times for higher education. Around you, talks of freezes, furloughs, closures, and cuts mount, magnifying the anxieties of what would ‘normally’ be a grueling process. You rightfully feel precarious, along with the millions of workers who face the loss of their livelihoods and hopes as the systemic inequalities that preceded the pandemic expand at light speed. You try to make sense of the situation, compare what is happening to the most recent crisis you have in memory, but soon lose faith in the prospect of regaining a steady ground: these are turbulent, uncharted waters for which we lack a map or stars in the firmament to guide us. I am just so sorry.

I would like to be able to recall a similar situation from which you could derive some wisdom, but I have little to offer. When the last crisis hit, I was relatively protected: I was but two years into a fully-funded PhD at the University of Edinburgh, had supportive parents, and the fortune of working in the sociology finance at a time when financial markets were in everyone’s mind. I finished my PhD in 2010 and my first experience was not in the American job market but in Britain, where I was exceedingly lucky. After a few months of organizing books in libraries, teaching classes as a lecturer (in the US sense, not the UK sense), and grading papers by the pound, I landed my first job in September 2010 at the London School of Economics after about two years of rejection after rejection. Many in my cohort—amazing scholars with absolutely admirable work in gender and technology, the history of medicine, philosophy, and sociology of technology—were not so fortunate and found lives outside of academia. Funding in the sector was scarce (as always) and the competition was certainly fierce. If anything, the market faced an embarrassment of riches where, as one scholar that I remember mentioned, decisions were made by nit-picking and coin-tossing among otherwise terrific, comparable candidates. But the fact of the matter is, 2020 is not 2008, so whatever lessons and experiences I have are a poor approximation to what you are facing now.

There are, however, a few things to bear in mind as you hit the market and which you must already know but should always remember.

First, be reflexive and sociological. Remember that, like any labor process, the job market in our discipline is structured and shaped by all sorts of quirky little things. We know this through the anecdotal experiences of our peers, but also through the hills (perhaps not mountains) of research that abound about careers in the social sciences. We know that individual efforts matter: recent work supports the importance of publications and productivity, stressing the need to communicate with your peers, professors, and committees about projects, strategies, and papers in the pipeline. But we also know that prestige and other institutional signals play a role. In addition to some old-ish work on matching between departments (which may admittedly exaggerate the role of status in matching), recent research shows that prestige accounts for increased productivity and different career outcomes for essentially comparable cases. Remember: academia isn’t altogether a level playing field but, as many other social institutions, is one that reinforces the process of accumulative advantage.

Second, forget the myths. A frequent question I have been asked by grad students is about the importance of things that will not happen this year (conferences, workshops, and other ‘networking’ opportunities). In addition to having (just maybe) small marginal effects on job market outcomes, you have absolutely no control over what happens with these meetings. Keep building communities with peers (it’s physical, not social distance that we are after), but don’t stress over what you can’t control and what is, in all likelihood, an infinitesimal factor in hiring.

Third, be confident as much as you can about your work. You have been trained to be where you are. You’ve discussed your research interests with other graduate students and faculty. You’ve presented your research in seminars, workshops, and conferences. You know why it is relevant and how it contributes to knowledge. Be focused and, when possible between adapting to online teaching and coping with the anxieties of the pandemic and the economic situation, keep working on your projects and on making them public. In every crisis, there is a temptation to ‘take advantage of the situation’ by pivoting your research to make it more relevant to contemporary readers. Think twice about this strategy and discuss it with mentors and peers when relevant. Rest assured that the social problems you were studying before the pandemic will remain relevant after all this is over (Guess what? DuBois was as relevant in 2007 as he will be in 2021). Don’t try to force or shift your research on the basis of its immediate relevance and impact if the opportunity simply isn’t there. Most of what we think of as ‘relevant research’ is really the product of developing skills and expertise over long periods and just being there at the right time.

Fourth, and needless to say, be realistic, flexible, and infinitely kind to yourself. When jobs are announced, apply if you are a reasonable candidate but remember that the odds are against you. One of the lasting memories I have from my PhD is something my advisor told me: “If you don’t buy the ticket, you can’t win the lottery”. Work hard to buy the ticket and make it as strong as you can, but be prepared for disappointment. Even before the crisis, tenure-track jobs were outnumbered 2-1 by news PhDs and thing are not likely to get better in the future. Have a plan B, C and D, and think of the skills and competencies you gained throughout your training—as a speaker, an analyst, a researcher, a manager, a teacher—and how these might translate into jobs that will give you a gratifying and stable life, within and outside of academia. Most academics of our type are terrible at mentoring those who are not going into research-intensive positions (I include myself in this bag) so build and join established support networks that will give you a sense of other possible careers and try to get support from your institution in doing so (it is, after all, in their interest).

Fifth, this is a profession where every critique and career outcome are taken as statements of a person’s worth. Avoid this fallacy. You are not the sum of your successes nor the combination of your failures and rejections. What Weber wrote long ago still stands, and careers that seem meticulously planned and carefully orchestrated are as much the products of individual and collective efforts as of sheer serendipity (think of politics of recognition in academia as Twitter-lite: you can spend a good couple of hours writing a critical piece that gets 20, maybe 30 hits while others trend in the thousands for a fortunate three word commentary on a current event; a little bit of content, quite a bit of luck).

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to have a job or find one in these unprecedented times, remember that with this luxury of relative security comes great responsibility. Build the workplace that you ethically aspire to—as a teacher, mentor, researcher, administrator, reviewer, colleague. Think of how with every project, every vote, every meeting, every file read, every paper reviewed, and every email sent, you contribute to a specific project of the contemporary university. Now is not the time to be conservative and retreat to ideals of higher education that, as many have studied and written about, resulted in highly unequal institutions within a highly stratified sector. On the contrary, now is as good a time as any to work to reshape the institutions we and our students inhabit for a better collective future. Let’s work, together, so that whatever comes out from this crisis is a closer reflection of the fairer professions, organizations, and sectors that many deserve to have.

And so I close these thoughts. I can only repeat my apology: I am terribly sorry for the losses had today and those to come.