Bryn Mawr Classical Review 01.02.19

Commentary: Non Angli sed angeli? or The Job Market (1990): Candidates

By James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania

The APA Placement Book is the future, not only for the candidates but for all of us. For some years, I have read it attentively, trying to discern the future. I'm at least as good as the average classical oracle.

The October printing of the book (there is usually a supplement: why some people whose whole careers depend on getting the best foot into the job market don't make the October deadline is always a mystery to me, but I am likewise puzzled by those who put together unattractive or incomplete or confusing c.v.'s) contains this year 244 candidates in all. The rough world of hiring puts people in too few pigeonholes very quickly (read the job adverts and you will see that soon enough), so I am in the habit of trying out the pigeonholes to see how well stocked they are. The results for this year:

Greek literature: 86 candidates
Latin literature: 55
Greek and/or Roman history: 44
Art/Archaeology: 49
Other: 10 (Neo-Latin, Near Eastern history, linguistics, Latin palaeography, history of science, Greek and Celtic but no Latin, early Christianity).1

That is a Draconian categorization, most violent in forcing philosophical Hellenists into the "literature" category, nearly as violent in making some arbitrary decisions about Greek vs. Latin in cases where there is a real and laudable breadth of competence. The one disproportion is eternal: there are always more Greek candidates than Latin, and where job adverts specify a competence, there are always more Latin jobs than Greek. (And there are never anywhere near enough archaeology jobs; whatever the situation is for lit. and history people, archaeologists are always hungrier.)

One other piece of information can be extracted with difficulty from these pages: veterans vs. neophytes. The folk wisdom is that many people live from temporary job to temporary job for far too long. How true is that? Conversely, how many genuinely new candidates is the profession turning out? The former question can be answered cautiously but fairly accurately. Taking as a criterion Ph.D. finished by June 1990 or earlier and evidence of either academic employment not at the Ph.D. granting institution or a gap in academic employment, one finds 110 veterans, or almost half the pot. That number is surely a low estimate: first, some people continue to teach as bedoctored and underpaid TA's at their home institution (but it is hard to tell in those cases who continue because they made no real run at the market last year and who hold on faute de mieux); other people report themselves in ways that make it hard to tell when the dissertation was really finished. At a guess, as many as 130-140 of these people may be making their second, or third, or seventh stab at the market. Not all are driven to the market by absolute need: a fair number, perhaps 20-30, have what are apparently continuing positions, but ones they may find unattractive for a variety of reasons, and so they return to the market, hopeful but not quite as desperate as some others. And alas, even from the placement book it is easy to tell that some veterans will have no more success this time than before; and from one's experience of academic life, it is a bitter truth to have to say that in a few cases the apotropaic message the market is giving is one that ought to be heeded. Still in all, I think it striking that there are so many veterans in the market: the folk wisdom seems to be true, and we should be chastened by its contemplation.

Are the rest all neophytes? Yes, with a caution: some neophytes are more serious than others. Promising a dissertation that will be finished in December 1992 is not a strategy designed to elicit a tenure-track offer this year, and I think it fair to reserve attention and sympathy for the others. There are probably not more than 100 genuinely new and serious candidates ready to leave the nest next spring and take up real jobs with degree in hand. (That guess matches fairly well with published statistics about total number of Ph.D.'s awarded per year in recent years.)

How many jobs will there be? By the time the January list, the last one to have a substantial number of new jobs other than one-year fill-ins, appears, it is a fair guess that there will be 90-100 jobs listed for next year; with temporaries, fill-ins, unannounced goodies, and old-boy deals, it is possible that the total number may go as high as 150 in a given year, but it would at the same time be hard to claim that more than half of those are serious, continuing jobs. If there are 150, the last 20-30 are pretty squishy and not the sort of thing to salivate over.

A note on continuity: I've been making tabulations like this on and off for years. One whose records I retain goes back to the 1986-87 year: I find there that the number of candidates in my various categories was eerily similar. Greek lit. 88 (against 86 this year), Latin lit. 59 (against 55 this year), history 43 (44 this year), and archaeology 43 (against 49), for a total of 233 four years ago against 244 this year.

Is this better than it was in the ugly days fifteen years ago? Yes. Is it good enough? No. Will it get better? Awfully hard to say. (N.B. oracular quality of these remarks.) The exodus of the '90s is coming; but will old positions be filled one-for-one with new people? Hmmm.

One caution from outside. Economists who study labor markets have their own opinions about the right match of candidates to jobs for the healthy functioning of a system. Obviously you don't want to have more jobs than candidates or necessary work goes un-done; but the awkward truth is that you do (or they do) want to have more candidates than jobs, to assure a choice of qualified people and some competition. This prejudice is harsh, but takes into account the fact that not all candidates are equally hungry for jobs for various reasons, and that the market is dynamic over time, meaning that unsuccessful candidates this time out may do better the next time around (not always true in academic terms, if someone is perceived as used merchandise -- "if he was any good, somebody else would have hired him by now" is an easy and vile canard). At any rate, the labor economists regard a system as well-functioning if there are 1.4 candidates on average for every vacancy that opens. In that case, our system may not be far from their norm: 150 x 1.4 = 210. If we assume that the archaeological universe is separable, then in fact we are talking about 195 candidates for perhaps 120-140 jobs. Sort out candidates who are simply past their marketability and others who might be able to get a temporary job but wouldn't leave their present, howbeit unappealing, tenure-track job, and the ratio is at least not wildly out of balance.

But that doesn't make it any easier for any of us. The true comparison is to the other professions, and I think it fair to say that law, medicine, and nursing all have in common that their markets are able to absorb virtually everyone who possesses the license or the bar qualification needed to practice. And there is a further consideration: with a law degree or a license to practice medicine or nurse, you can virtually pick your location. If you want a small town in Montana, then surely there is one where you can practice; and if you want the Big Apple, you can be there too. You may not be at a big teaching hospital, but you will be doing the work you were trained for in a place where you are happy to live, and that is not a bad fate at all. In academic life, it is quite otherwise: if you want a job, then it may be either Montana or New York, quite without regard for your own wishes. A lot of the veterans in the book who have continuing jobs look to me like people who don't actually dislike either their job or their colleagues, but who do find themselves far from home, far from the kind of environment they prefer, and most pointedly far from their co-vivant of choice. That is hard, and in a world where couples are increasingly attempting to match career orbits, it makes things tougher. That circumstance is not going to change, and it exacerbates (perhaps more than almost any other circumstance) the unease we all feel on looking at the market.

So how are things? Not too bad. So how should we feel about that? Not too good.


1. Years ago a distinguished, now very distinguished, practitioner of our craft adverted waggishly to me that the easy way to triage the talent seeking a classics job was to begin by excluding all the people with dissertations on Propertius or Euripides. Fashions have shifted a little: Euripides still has his throng of votaries, but Propertius' day was the day of the New Critic, and neodule fashion requires a more ambiguous favorite, so Ovid has come to the head of the pack. It does seem excessive that there are six dissertations under way on Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica and none on Ennodius, but perhaps there I betray a prejudice.