Last September, I took a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon. Even though the position was only for nine months, and required me relocating across the continent to the US, I decided it was worth it. For those of you in a PhD or postdoc, you probably understand this decision–we are all taught that academic jobs are scarce and that we should jump at the chance to take whatever we get. Private sector professionals in urban planning often balance local and international contracts–the larger firms regularly bid on jobs in the US, South America, Europe, and Asia. For those of you working in the public sector, one of the last bastions of job stability, my decision may make less sense.
Contract, temporary, and precarious work has hit virtually every sector and industry. You would be hard pressed to find an office environment, trade, or career option that does not begin with unpaid internships, years of job insecurity, and/or lack of employee benefits. I know people in fields as diverse as nursing, education, and accounting who have had difficulty securing permanent or even long-term employment in their fields. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not uncommon for a seasoned professional with over twenty years’ experience in their field to go out on their own as a consultant. Academic job scarcity has been intensified during the era of “adjunctification”, which began back in the late 1980s and has reached epic proportions in the US and Canada. For every three retirements, a planning department may be able to hire one new assistant professor. Limited-term teaching-only contracts are now all the rage.
I worked short-term contracts in landscape architecture and public sector research before returning to graduate school, then kept at it during the six years it took to get my Masters and Ph.D. I decided to apply to the Ph.D. because I wanted to do research–not necessarily academic research, but I wanted to apply the methods I had learned in graduate school to help solve real world problems. With that end in sight, I tried to maintain my connection to the practice of planning by attending events hosted by the Planning Institute of British Columbia and met local planners at events hosted by the School of Community and Regional Planning. I also published three peer-reviewed publications, a book review, a couple of freelance articles, and hundreds of blog posts here.
During the final year of my Ph.D. I began looking for research contract work–it was 2010 and the US recession was in full swing. I knew that it could be some time before I found an academic position and in the meantime I wanted to keep doing research. I soon found a contract with a local non-profit working on a housing program evaluation, then another similar evaluation, and then a contract for a study on social enterprises in affordable housing. By this time I had finished my Ph.D. and was on the job market for the second time.
In the spring of 2012 I had a number of job interviews and that May I received three job offers within two weeks. The best of these was a two-year research position at the University of Amsterdam studying transit-oriented development. After careful consideration (it involved an international move, visas, and putting my possessions into storage while I was away), I decided to take the position.
During the two years in Amsterdam I taught a metropolitan transportation planning course and the masters research colloquium, conducted research on the iTOD project, met regularly with the project team from two other Dutch universities, organized a monthly meeting of transportation researchers in the department, and helped plan an international housing conference. I signed a contract with Oxford University Press for my first book, published three articles, an encyclopedia entry, a book review, and two freelance articles. I had five interviews with universities for tenure-track positions.
But despite all this, I found myself without a position at the end of my postdoc in the summer of 2014. I decided to regroup and focus my energies into planning practice–by then I had spent four years on the academic job search and I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. I returned to Toronto, where I’d lived during my undergraduate degree, and started a contract position at the provincial government. I had finished my required years of experience to become a professional planner, so I took the next step towards becoming a full member of the Canadian Institute of Planners. Planning faculty and friends (especially those who were now postdocs) kept encouraging me to apply to tenure-track positions, so I did. I had an interview in the spring of 2015, and after it was unsuccessful I got reckless. I applied to a couple of one-year positions. I was tired of interviewing–bone tired. I was tired of trying to downplay my academic expertise in public-sector interviews, and tired of downplaying my consulting expertise in academic interviews. I felt a surge of anger when anyone asked “But what do you want to do–be a professor or be a consultant?”, as if I had a choice in the matter.
Finally, the University of Oregon bit. The contract was in a planning program with a stellar reputation for experiential learning–the students work on real world projects, so my consulting experience was as valuable as my academic training. Spending nine months teaching, including designing a course where students worked with a municipality on their affordable housing plan, was valuable in so many ways. Not only did I hone my teaching skills with some of the best instructors I’ve ever met, but working at an American school somehow made me viable on the academic market.
Even as I decided, in the fall of 2015, to give it “one more go”, I knew that I’d likely be unsuccessful. In fact, a consultation with Kellee Weinhold from The Professor Is In reinforced that as a candidate who has been on the market for five years, my chances of getting a tenure-track job were next to nothing. She told me that schools prefer the linear career path: finish the PhD, get a tenure-track position where you will continue research on the same question(s). There is no tolerance for postdocs that diverge from the path or time spent working outside of academia, even though the market has basically eliminated the linear career trajectory. But despite her foreboding, I was offered six campus visit interviews across the US and Canada. I spent a total of 24 days travelling over three months, while teaching two courses. A few days after my last interview, I received the print copies of the book I’d begun working on back in 2012. A few weeks later, at the end of April 2016, I had two tenure-track job offers. I’m happy to announce that I will be starting at Dalhousie University in the School of Planning, Faculty of Architecture and Planning, on July 1st.
It’s the end of a five-year road that involved working in three countries, gambling on three short-term contracts, and buying/selling household goods innumerable times. Filing taxes in the US, Canada, and The Netherlands. Making lifelong friends who are now working in London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, Den Haag, Groningen, and Brisbane, and overjoyed to begin collaborating on research. It’s been a long road, and I certainly wouldn’t advise others to “keep applying” in perpetuity. People mean well, but there has to be a better solution than this. Not everyone can sacrifice this much–some of the best candidates out there may not be able to pick up and move to another country for a one- or two-year contract. At some point, most of us decide we want stable, well-paying jobs–we have to give up the endless annual cycle of applying and interviewing. We ask too much of our aspiring academics, and also our aspiring teachers, nurses, and accountants–much more than was ever demanded of the generations that came before. Eliminating the majority of long-term and permanent contracts, devaluing our skilled workforces, and discriminating against those whose career paths have been more erratic than linear (yet somehow stayed employed during one of the worst recessions in history) are not the answers to economic efficiency. We need to restore those long-term and permanent jobs that help guarantee more equitable workplaces, more productive employees, and more satisfied “clients”, whoever they may be. The University of Oregon, under new President Michael Schill, recently decided to hire 80 new tenure-track professors in the next five years to bring us up to a higher ratio of permanent to non-permanent faculty. I’d love to see other schools take similar approaches to fixing a problem that has strained the higher education system to the breaking point.
Congratulation, Ren. You’ve worked very hard to keep one foot in the academic door, and I’m overjoyed to learn that after all these years you’ve landed that TT job.
Academia is a particularly cruel place for aspiring young people to land in for several reasons. For starters, all responsibility, security and reward accrues to the tenure track faculty member. This is very different from a typical firm where you have junior managers, associates or other people who started from the bottom and are gradually working their way up a corporate ladder. Sometimes this necessitates a move, but there are gradients in terms of the responsibility and scope of the project you command, and the amount you are rewarded (financially or otherwise). In academia, if you’re one level below a TT faculty member, you’re either a starving adjunct, or a postdoc with no guarantees of upward mobility or job security. You have no more ultimate responsibility over a major research project than you would have if you were a student.
Secondly, the employment structure within an academic research lab is stacked – dare I say – a little like a pyramid. You have one principal investigator, maybe two or three postdocs, an assortment of PhD students and a crew of Masters students. The only way for this system to perpetuate itself, for graduating PhDs to assume faculty roles, is for the system to grow outward. The postdocs or PhD grads at an R1 institution find jobs at an R2; the R2s, hopefully, at primarily teaching-oriented R3s. We’re now getting to the point where this opportunity is being exhausted.
Applying downward pressure on this pyramid are cutbacks in funding to research. At the same time, it seems like half of all funding is immediately skimmed off to pay for an increasingly bloated university administration whose job, ironically, is to institute checks and balances to cut waste.
Finally, academia asks aspiring job candidates to put everything on hold and move around at precisely the time in their lives when they would just rather settle down. When you’re in your mid-20s you can pick up and move to the other side of the planet and expect that, within a year, you’ll have to do it again. When you’re in your 30s, and you want to have children and your biological clock is ticking…not so much.