Why I Quit Academe for a Coding Boot CampRoundup
tags: labor, academic job market, adjunctification
Zeb Larson is a software-development engineer in testing at Hagerty Insurance. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University in 2019. You can find him on Twitter @Robert_Z_Larson.
Every essay about the academic job market for the past eight or nine years has made the same point: It’s bad and getting worse. This year’s market, however, is likely to make faculty-job candidates pine for how good it was in 2013.
Thanks to the pandemic, public and private colleges are forecasting millions of dollars in lost revenue, and many states are planning to cut appropriations for higher education. It might take a year or two for the damage to be fully felt, but broadly, everyone seems to agree on two things: Some institutions are going to close their doors, and some of those that survive will gut programs to stay solvent.
All the usual solutions for a stalled tenure-track market will be touted: a moratorium on graduate admissions, permanent cuts in the number of doctoral cohorts, and job-market tips to help candidates get the attention of search committees. Optimists will suggest the market will bounce back from this new worst-case scenario. And of course, lots and lots of people will urge graduate students to develop their “Plan B” and start looking into alt-ac careers. In the humanities, they’ll point to historical societies, university presses, museums, and private schools, and for STEM-degree holders, they’ll talk about industry.
It’s that last advice I want to discuss here, as someone who earned a doctorate in history in 2019 and had been pursuing my Plan B. In a literal sense, there is no alt-ac job market. Rather, there’s an array of nonacademic career tracks that graduate students and recent Ph.D.s are encouraged to consider by their departments, advisers, career coaches, and even scholarly societies.
Whether you see the heightened focus on career diversity for Ph.D.s as good or bad is a whole other discussion. Some think it represents a surrender to adjunctification, while others see it as a realistic attempt to help a generation of academics who are not going to find tenure-track jobs. The idealist in me even likes the image of Ph.D.s going out into the world and reminding everybody just how much we’re worth.
Unfortunately, the alt-ac ecosystem is broken, too. Assumptions that surround it are rooted in bad ideas — misconceptions about the qualifications that a doctoral degree confers and the relative health of other industries, many of which are as dysfunctional (and in many of the same ways) as the tenure-track market.
In short, Ph.D.s who leave the faculty career path hoping for an easy Plan B are likely to be very disappointed.
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