Let’s begin with a letter. A friend of mine got this a couple of weeks ago. You might have seen similar ones before. I rephrased it somewhat, for the sake of my friend’s anonymity, but it more or less read like this:
“We thank you for your interest in our department. We received nearly 500 applications, all of which were of a very high standard. We regret to inform you that we have by now chosen another candidate for the advertised position.”
Importantly, I have not changed the number of applications received. Here, we see one part of the jobs crisis that young sociologists currently face. The reserve army of highly qualified academic labour is so large that distinguishing oneself enough to land a job is immensely difficult. The position my friend had applied for, by the way, was a non-tenured, short-term postdoc.
If you look at the average advertisement for long-term positions at British sociology departments nowadays, you might notice the second part of the problem. Lots of these ads ask that you be a sociologist of international renown, have major publications in leading journals, be the holder of large research grants, and so forth. And that’s just for the entry-level positions. Through the REF and other forms of auditing and performance measurement, departments are pushed to continually justify their legitimacy. The humanities and social sciences are under particular pressure, as their relevance to the ‘real world’ is frequently questioned and they are forced to justify themselves in terms of standards that used to apply much more narrowly to the natural sciences (as in the quest for the Holy Grant). Departments pass this pressure on to junior academics by way of increasingly outlandish entry requirements. (For instance, I recently saw a job advertisement that required one to list not only one’s publications, but all the places where one’s publications had been cited.) Of course, there are positions which do not require you to be Max Weber reincarnate, but they are just too rare. This means that there is no clear and structured pathway from the end of a PhD – a point when you are unlikely to have met the requirements for most lectureships – into a stable academic career. It is thus that the joy of passing your viva may soon make way for dreadful awareness of your ejection from the ivory tower, into the reserve army of academic labour.
What to do when this happens to you? As with any major personal crisis, major self-doubt is not unlikely to ensue when you just cannot get hold of that lectureship you had always wanted or, for that matter, of any more or less stable academic job. Major self-doubt, in turn, requires an effective response. Contemporary academia does not provide stable career pathways, but it does teach you how such pathways, in spite of their non-existence, ought to be imagined. The idea of the sociologist as entrepreneur is central here. As today’s sociologists are encouraged to view themselves as entrepreneurs solely responsible for their choices, risks, failures and achievements, it is hard to imagine that the precariousness of their careers as a collective problems. Contemporary academia has been quite successful in obscuring the insight that the personal troubles of the academic milieu might also be significant public issues. Any remedy to precariousness and joblessness therefore needs to be an individual remedy; the sociologist’s biography has been untied from the social structures that shape academic life. Sociologists must turn to CV clinics, workshops on how to write a job letter, and self-help books on grant writing.
The curriculum vitae, in particular, is a key figure in the self-presentation of the sociological entrepreneur. A CV, in the most basic sense, is simply a listing of the, in some sense, most significant things one has done with regard to one’s profession. More importantly, however, it has become a key tool in building an image of accomplishment and success, image being, of course, a key resource for an entrepreneur looking to sell his services in a competitive marketplace. In order to construct a positive image, a CV presents one’s professional life in a linear format, highlighting the most advantageous features of one’s work and de-emphasising anything that might not work in one’s favour, step by step. In its linearity – one job succeeding another, one publication following the next – CVs are rooted in the assumption of a gradually evolving career that proceeds according to rational standards. You do your PhD, you get your first job, you work your way up into a lectureship, you keep teaching and publishing, and then, finally, your achievements culminate in a professorship. All the while, what you do actually matters – it is because of your achievements, or lack thereof, that you manage (or not) to find a job and establish yourself as an academic. Your CV is testament to these achievements, which can be disclosed and rationally assessed, perhaps leading to an appointment. From this perspective, it is eminently important to devote much attention to your CV, take part in workshops, read CV-writing books, and so on.
However, appointments for academic positions are not really that rational. First of all, the disparity between available jobs and the number of job seekers makes it unlikely that the fine points of how you present your work in your CV are going to make a big difference in getting you a job. What matters are those achievements that truly set you apart from others – a huge grant, an impressive record of publications in elite journals, etc. You either have these, or you do not. In any case, as I suggested in my last post, your ability to distinguish yourself in a decisive way may depend on factors beyond your control – privilege is important, as is, sometimes, simple luck. In addition, the process of academic recruitment is never quite transparent. Job ads do describe the likely profile of the successful candidate, but a wide range of unstated ancillary considerations always come into play.
CVs thus convey an illusion of order and merit-based achievement in an academic world that is fundamentally opaque and unpredictable. Such an illusion can be helpful, as a clear CV may at least give oneself a clear sense of one’s achievements, in an environment where support and encouragement may be hard to come by. It is by all means important to have a firm idea of what an academic CV should look like. The CVs of well-established scholars are easily available online, and it might be useful to take a look at them. However, rather than poring over self-help books on CV-writing and attending workshops, it might be important for young sociologists to devote more time to a collective response to the current jobs crisis. If, along with scores of other young academics, you are struggling to find a job and receiving one rejection letter after the other, chances are that this is not a problem of your own making and not a problem you can rectify on your own.
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