Preparing for the Academic Job Market in an Economic Recession

Students hoping to join the academy must mediate expectations.

By Kimberly Hoang

Just five weeks ago, the world was a different place. The unprecedented changes—which are ongoing—affect our physical and mental health and, for many, create a deep sense of precariousness and insecurity as the unemployment count climbs past 26 million and counting. For many Ph.D. students, new questions are emerging about how to cope with a world in crisis. In particular, students are concerned with how to prepare for a uniquely tight job market amid public announcements of hiring freezes.

I found myself in a similar situation in 2008, the start of the 2008 global financial crisis, as a third-year Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. I saw extremely talented graduate students a few years ahead of me enter an incredibly tight job market. Not unlike today, universities had announced hiring freezes and furloughs. The luckiest among my senior colleagues had a campus visit and an affirmative department vote, only to have the position be taken off the market at the administrative level due to budget cuts. For three years between 2008 and 2011, nearly every person on the market in sociology moved into postdoctoral fellowships, took low-paying jobs carrying high teaching loads, or, in the worst cases, were unable to secure any position within the academy. Then, in 2011, as the market began to open up, the newest Ph.D. students on the market suddenly found themselves competing with postdoctoral fellows who had book contracts or under-placed assistant professors whose publication records would have granted them tenure just three years prior. And today, the job market in the humanities is even more competitive. Looking back to 2007–08 there were 1,826 jobs in English; by 2017–18 that number had dropped by 55 percent to 828. And the state of university finances is poised to be far worse after this pandemic as compared to 2008, with estimated shortfalls between $100 and $500 million.

As we enter into this new recession, it is clear that we have not hit the bottom yet.

Despite the forthcoming challenges, here are a few things today’s Ph.D. students can do to prepare for the academic job market.

First, take stock and recalibrate your priorities. It is important that you take a hard look at what matters most to you personally. Undoubtedly, some of us will have to attend to family members who are sick or working on the front lines as essential care workers in hospitals, grocery stores, and a variety of other occupations. This might mean that you have to shift your priorities in order to juggle the competing demands on your time.

Second, we are in a crisis. Understand that this is an unprecedented time where society as a whole will need to share in the sacrifices made. As scientists and social scientists, we need to play our part in helping to solve this problem—even if that means shifting research agendas or getting involved in collaborative projects led by faculty nationwide. The world needs not only data, but a deep and thorough analysis of that research, in order to inform emerging questions as they relate to: the lack of data and the problems with numbers, existing inequalities tied to race and class that are exacerbated in this crisis, access to testing and healthcare, emergent forms of racism against Asians and Asian Americans, and more. Start by asking yourself how your research can be shifted to focus on what’s needed now.

Third, for those who come from a working-class background, graduate school can offer security, but you need to understand that rejection rates—despite your qualifications—are increasing, so get comfortable with rejection and brace yourself for an academic job market where tenure-track jobs will be hard to come by for at least two to three years. What I’m saying is this: Enter the market with open eyes. Cast your nets wide as you apply to jobs and be prepared to accept your lower-tier choices.

Fourth, recognize that it is an extraordinary privilege to be at an institution that provides $31,000, pays your full health insurance premiums ($4,566), and covers tuition ($60,300), for at least five years—and now longer for newer students. Know that $31,000 is almost the median income in Illinois: $34,196.This funding is also significantly more than what Ph.D. students in the same city at UIC are awarded ($19,300). This guaranteed funding is something that so many talented others, who have joined the ranks of unemployment, would be grateful to have. You are one of the lucky ones. Don’t undervalue that privilege.

As a mentor once said to me in 2008, “This is a time to buck up, buckle down, and get to work on producing an outstanding dissertation because your competition at other institutions are definitely doing this.” If you feel that this is too much of a challenge, or is otherwise detrimental to your mental health, this is the time to think about alternative careers that are suitable to your personal and professional goals.

In sum: Be well, stay safe, and grab your extraordinary privilege by its horns to get solid data, publish, and produce the best possible dissertation you can because this is literally your job right now.

Kimberly Hoang, P.h.D. is the Director of Global Studies and an Associate Professor of Sociology.