Friday, August 29, 2014

What Vitae’s Job Tracker Needs to Do

Reading their introduction, it sounds like the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae Job Tracker project is asking most of the right questions. What they are proposing to do in a pilot project for eleven academic disciplines is similar to what I’ve been doing for German for several years, mostly for my own interest and more recently for your edification and amusement. Looking at what they propose and at my experience, these are my recommendation for Brock Read and Maren Wood, or for anyone else thinking about undertaking a project like this.
  1. You have to know the field. If 10% of Ph.D.s go on to academic careers from a history program, that’s a disaster. If the same percentage go on to academic careers from a physics program, that’s normal. If most physics Ph.D.s are still in postdocs three or four years after completing a doctorate, that’s normal. If most of the historians are postdocs, that’s a problem. (And are those historians in prestigious research-intensive postdocs, or stuck teaching 4-4 in a “postdoc” that’s really a VAP position with shiny training wheels?) You have to know the trees that make up the forest.
  2. You have to track the people who earn Ph.D.s. The Survey of Earned Doctorates doesn’t provide enough information for what you want to do. You can’t know how well or badly a graduate program is doing if you don’t know how many Ph.D.s it produces. A small program whose single doctoral graduate usually lands a TT job is much preferable to an enormous program that boasts four or five TT hires each year (while churning out twenty new Ph.D.s). Also, it’s important to look for a source outside the graduate department itself to confirm the number of doctorates granted, such as ProQuest’s records of dissertations and theses. Some programs are inconsistent in reporting who leaves their program with a Ph.D. In addition, it’s tricky but usually possible to assign dissertations to a recognizable disciplinary subfield. It’s much more difficult and often not possible to assign job ads to a subfield, simply because many job ads will mention multiple criteria that may not match up with any recognizable subfield. What subfield is “anything before 1890” or “able to teach women’s literature, post-Wende literature, or digital humanities”? Tracking the specialties of the people who get hired is the only way to see what’s going in with disciplinary subfields.
  3. You have to track advertised tenure-track jobs. It sounds like Vitae is making the correct decision to focus on TT hiring. Too much of NTT hiring happens outside of public view for it to be tracked easily. Following TT hiring is much easier now that we have job wikis to collate jobs advertised both in central disciplinary job lists and in other places. It’s important to maintain focus on particular fields: No one gets a degree in “MLA,” and the job markets in the various humanities disciplines don’t move at the same pace (the 90s were horrid in English, but mostly pretty good in German). It may take several years of collecting data or some historical research in order to develop a sense of the history of the job market in a particular field, and what volatility from year to year means.
  4. You have to match Ph.D.s to advertised jobs. It’s not enough to find out where Ph.D.s go. Most Ph.D.s will manage to find something interesting and productive to do of their own accord. It’s not even enough to find out who ends up in a tenure-track job, as there are routes onto the tenure track that don’t tell us much about the applicant except they married a future dean, or a departing provost decided to stuff some long-term lecturers into some favored programs. It’s also important to figure out when advertised jobs have gone unfilled. So: don’t just track job ads, or Ph.D.s, or graduates who land TT jobs. Instead, match Ph.D.s to job ad outcomes. This is the most reliable way to see which graduate programs have good or poor records of placing graduates into jobs on this continent, or determining where the number of Ph.D.s have gotten out of alignment with the job market.
  5. You have to find out who got hired from the hiring institution. Identifying newly hired TT faculty is usually easy. Most colleges and universities make the names of their faculty public. Picking out the new hire can sometimes be tricky, however, especially when there’s a delay (for assuming a prestigious postdoc, for example) before the new hire assumes the post. It can also be challenging to figure out which three faces in a large department are the new ones. If you’ve got the CHE backing you, you can call up the department in September and ask about the hiring outcome, if it isn’t customary to identify the hired candidate on the job wiki. What you can’t do is ask graduate departments where their graduates have ended up, because their incentives diverge strongly from giving the unvarnished truth. Adjunct and one-semester VAP jobs can too easily turn into “academic placements.”
  6. You have to describe the hiring programs. The easiest way to do this is to use the Carnegie classifications, which will let you automatically assign schools to states, regions, and useful categories. You’ll need some additional data, however, such as the type of degree granted. Many programs at RU/VH schools only grant a bachelor’s degree, for example.
  7. You have to watch for inputs from outside the system. Academic hiring is not quite a closed ecology. Some fields frequently hire faculty with degrees from other fields, or with PhDs from programs outside North America. Sometimes the new hire has already been in a tenure-track job, and sometimes the new hire is still ABD. It’s a good idea to keep track of this information, as it’s an important element of the job market. In some fields (English, for example), only a few jobs each year go to people with degrees in allied fields like American Studies, while in other fields (American Studies, for example), most jobs go to people with degrees in allied fields like English or history rather than in American Studies.
  8. You have to do this every year. A one-year snapshot isn’t enough, and it’s almost impossible to figure out what the outcome was of one year’s academic hiring after the next year has passed. The tables of Ph.D.s granted, job searches, and graduate programs need periodic maintenance. Eventually, you have to figure out when those formerly ABD hires turned into Ph.D.s. It’s a lot of work. But it’s important work, and no one else is going to do it. If you really want to know how the job market works in your field or any field, this is what you have to do.

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