In all the debates about the academic labour market, it seems that an academic career is an academic career.
The academic labour market is a mess. Funding is squeezed. Tenure lines (or, in the UK, open-term positions) are not being replaced. There is a huge increase in insecure and poorly paid teaching and research jobs with contracts as short as one semester, no benefits, and no recognition of length or quality of experience (in compensation, choice of work, or anything else). And the number of students accepted into doctoral programs continues to increase (mainly due to the same funding squeeze).
This is happening in most of the countries I am familiar with: Canada, US, and UK. And yet, within all of those countries the nature of the secure academic jobs varies considerably by institution.
I find the statistics on numbers of tenure track jobs in the US fascinating (e.g. those periodically released by the MLA). And yet in a country with an official categorization of types of institution, I am surprised to find that these statistics are not provided on the basis of even the most basic distinctions between research intensive, small liberal arts colleges, and community colleges.
If you are considering an academic career, type of institution matters.
The type and amount of research you are expected to do will vary considerably by type of institution.
The resources available to support that research varies by institution.
The value placed on traditional or innovative types of scholarship/research varies by institution.
The value placed on teaching, especially thinking about pedagogy and designing better learning experiences, varies by type of institution.
The size and range of classes you teach varies by institution.
The resources available to support teaching, especially innovations and variations in styles, varies by type of institution.
The relationship with the local community varies by institution. (This can affect teaching, research, and a lot of other things.)
The academic career you want is only available at a subset of all institutions.
Regardless of the overall number of jobs in your field, you are never a good candidate for all of them. Nor do you want all of them. When you are considering an academic career, or feeling like you need to leave academia because it isn’t living up to your expectations, the first thing you need to do is figure out what you want.
What is it that draws you to an academic career?
- the desire to inspire a new generation of scholars through teaching?
- the desire to investigate further a series of burning questions that have arisen in your doctoral research?
- the desire to undertake research that might make a difference in the world (or a specific part of it)?
You may want all of these to figure in your career, but one of them is likely to dominate. That’s fine. And it doesn’t matter which one. Knowing what your primary motivation is can help you focus your job search, present yourself better in job applications, and perform better if hired.
Knowing your primary motivation can also help you decide between opportunities that arise while you are a student, or before you get that first “real” academic job. You can look for opportunities that will enhance your employability in the types of institutions that you really want to work in.
And knowing your primary motivation can help you explore other career possibilities that might be a good fit for your knowledge, skills, and values but are not traditional academic jobs.
What kind of academic career do you want?
Edited March 8, 2016.