Is a Tenure-Track Job a Futile Dream?

First, I realized I had to become a scholar if I was going to take seriously the vocation of an academic . . . Second, I learned that I needed to become a student. . . . Finally, I know that it is easy to say this and very hard to live this, but I found that it is important to remain rounded.

Hope for a graduate student?


Last week, I addressed the question of whether graduate school was a path to certain doom. In the comments of that post, John questioned my use of statistics to show that people with Ph.D.s had relatively good job prospects in this economy. He shared a personal experience with trying to find a tenure-track faculty position in the humanities. Now that is a completely different matter than simply getting a job, and the outlook isn’t nearly as bright.

James K.A. Smith has written a series of posts offering advice on going to graduate school. He puts it very well:

Do you want to be an academic superstar, teaching at Harvard or Yale or at least Notre Dame? Do you want to be at the very pinnacle of your discipline? The go-to guy or gal that NPR calls for comment? Do you want to become moderately wealthy?

Well, then let’s be clear: In some cases, you simply can’t get there from here. If you’re at a Bible college right now, or a little Christian college, or probably even just a local state university, I hate to break it to you, but that route’s pretty much blocked for you.

Smith goes on to address the question of simply being in academia, not at the elite level, and offers a bit more hope. Still, I would compare the dream of getting a tenure-track job (especially in the humanities) to the dream of becoming a professional basketball player. Many things have to break just right for a person to even have a chance, and the chances still aren’t great. I’m not sure what’s a more amazing stat: that 17% of 7-foot-tall American men play in the NBA, or that only 17% of them play in the NBA.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t get a PhD in the humanities? Not necessarily, but it does mean that you should count the costs very carefully. And keep an open mind about alternative paths that might make themselves available.

James Sire: Yes, Virginia, There Is Life After Traditional Academe!

After my post last week, James Sire sent me the story of his decidedly nontraditional career. With his permission, I’d like to share it with you below.

When I graduated from the University of Missouri in 1964 with a Ph.D., all those who graduated with me were offered and took jobs. I had 3 choices — Nebraska Wesleyan; a new branch of Miami University (OH) in Dayton, now a university on its own; and the University of Baghdad. I chose the one that offered a traditional liberal education (my core interest). Three years later I began looking and interviewing for a Ph.D.-granting institution. I wanted to advance my narrowing academic interests (literary criticism or Milton or 17th century English Lit) and teach doctoral students.

Before anything happened, I both co-authored a text book that bombed (Papers on Literature: Models and Methods [Holt, Rinehart and Winston]), and Jim Nyquist invited me to be the chief editor for InterVarsity Press, a publisher who, along with Eerdmans, kept me intellectually sane and spiritually growing. I thought God was calling me to IVP. Though I knew I might be leaving academe for good, I took the job. Jim let me teach on the side; so I taught 3 semesters at Northern Illinois (2/3 time). After the campus riots in the spring of 1970, the Illinois legislature chose to punish the students by cutting campus budgets across Illinois, and I Iost that non-tenure track job. I also decided not to apply for a Milton post (once, I would have grabbed it quickly) because again I thought the Lord would rather have me at IVP. I’d grown to like the job a lot, though editing as such was not my passion.

During my early years at IVP, I became involved as a speaker for the national movement (IVCF) and helped staff summer programs at Cedar Campus. From that came a book based on lectures given over a four year period. In 1976 The Universe Next Door was published, and to the amazement of colleagues at IVP and me too, it was immediately adopted as a text by Christian profs at secular universities and Christian colleges.

Behold, I was back on campus — in paper, yes, but also in spirit! Lecture invitations from IVCF groups and Christian Colleges multiplied till in 1984 I could move from full-time editing to part-time lecturing and part-time editing. When I retired in 1998, I was working for IVP only 10% of my time. Further writing and editing has taken me throughout Europe — East and West, and a bit of Asia. My books were mostly written because I was immersed in the subjects they covered either because of books I was editing or lectures I was giving. By the way, my books have sold more in Korea than in England. Go figure!

Yes. Go figure! That’s the ironic moral of my story. There is actually no figuring with God. There is only following, hopefully humble following.

Redemptive Influence

Here at ESN, our vision is for:

the next generation of Christian scholars to have a redeeming influence within higher education as they:

  • Love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength as they follow God’s call in discipleship and spiritual formation;
  • Exhibit excellence in research, teaching, and service;
  • Influence the university, the church, and the world by practicing their disciplines from a profoundly Christian viewpoint;
  • Embody the gender, ethnic, and social diversity of the church within the academy.

Nowhere does that vision explicitly mention tenure, even though we often assume that redemptive influence with the academy requires it. Some ESN members will be blessed to receive tenure, while many others will not. Ultimately, receiving tenure is out of our control, and it can be derailed by people who seek to do us harm.

I will go even further and suggest that, in some cases, receiving tenure might even prevent us from fulfilling our calling. Could Jim Sire have written The University Next Door as a tenured professor at a secular university? Maybe, though he would not have had the encouragement he received from IVP. Though it’s always hazardous to argue from hypotheticals, I’d suggest that Jim had far more redemptive influence in the academy as senior editor at IVP than he ever could have while holding a Milton chair.

Finding the Right Motivation

The latest edition of the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement reader includes an essay by Tim Keller entitled “Cities and Salt: Counter-Cultures for the Common Good,” in which Keller describes a vision for Christians and the church to engage and renew the culture of the world’s cities. Keller emphasizes the role that the church can play in strengthening Christians in the world:

One of the main ways the institutional church equips Christians to function as salt out in the world is by discipling them to integrate their faith with their work.

Keller offers four ways in which the church does this, but I want to focus on the first:

First, our faith changes our motivation for work. For professionals, who are prone to over-work and anxiety, the gospel prevents us from finding our significance and identity in money and success. For working-class people, who are prone to what is sometimes translated as “eyeservice” and drudgery, it directs us to work as “for the Lord” (Col. 3:22–23). (emphasis in original)

Keller doesn’t address academics specifically, but both examples he offers have relevance. There’s a great deal of anxiety among academics regarding work, as well as a great temptation to identify oneself with one’s position in the academy. There’s also plenty of drudgery, especially in the years of graduate school.

Our faith also sustains us through the struggles and failures of our career. Lately, I’ve been reading a great deal of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and it’s remarkable how much frustration they express. Perhaps it shouldn’t be remarkable, but we evangelicals have so long misinterpreted and misapplied Romans 8:28 that it’s refreshing to be reminded that “the good” Paul has in mind there is not “everything in our life going smoothly” but “being conformed to the likness of His Son” (Romans 8:29).

Think Backwards

James K.A. Smith ends the blog post quoted above with some very good advice for anyone thinking about graduate school:

But right now you just need to take a few days, even a few weeks, and think backwards: what sort of life can you envision yourself living? In what sort of context can you imagine yourself being happy? If you can do some discernment about that, then we can work backwards to determine where you should go.

I would additionally encourage you to undertake this exercise with the help of good friends who know you well or with the assistance of a good career counselor. I’ve often found that others have better insight about myself than I do.

Next week, I’ll introduce the core curriculum for the Getting Ready for Graduate School, with some suggestions for how it can help you think backwards.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Joel commented on April 23, 2013 Reply

    I graduated from a Christian college (Biola) and I have tenure at a secular (not top tier) university. I think part of it is what field you’re in. History, English, Philosophy, etc. do not have good prospects. But if you pick Public Health, Psychology, Engineering, Business, or Nursing, there is a chance. The fields with a shortage of professors or at least a fighting chance (e.g., pediatric psychology would be a safer bet than social psychology) make it possible. Of course all of this is only relevant in the context of Mike’s advice to consider carefully your motivation, where your identity comes from, and where you want to end up (e.g., think backwards). Tenure is not the real issue–being a redemptive influence and building God’s kingdom. wherever you are planted, are.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on April 24, 2013 Reply

      Great comments about discipline areas, Joel. In the grad school series from James K.A. Smith that I linked to, he spends a bit of time discussing the importance of choosing a discipline, though he focuses on the ones he knows best (theology and philosophy). Your comments also highlight the importance of getting the counsel of someone who is already in the field (or a similar one) to the one you’re interested in.

      And amen about the importance of redemptive influence and building God’s kingdom!

  • Kenneth Litwak commented on May 13, 2013 Reply

    I know I’m not very timely with a reply but I want to offer one anyway. I don’t have a tenure-track position. I don’t even have a full-time faculty position. I’ve done all the stuff you’re supposed to do to get such a position and then some bu don’t have one. My field is New Testament studies. While that is probably not a growth area, I know that for every job I haven’t gotten, someone else did. I’ve applied for lots of positions (never Harvard, however, as that is not what I thought my calling was), in lots of places, including many that I’d consider geographically undesirable, because I just wanted to teach. Yet in each case, someone else got the position. That tells me that there are indeed positions out there. There might be a lot of competition but it’s typically less than for many corporate jobs these days. At least for the people who were hired instead of me, clearly a tenure-track position is possible.

    That said, I can think of two things that would have made a difference for me. First, I needed someone with real wisdom to help me evaluate whether I had indeed sensed God calling me to teach the Bible. I went to one of the pastors in my church to talk to him about the “call” I thought I had received. I got truly bad advice from this person. I didn’t really know who else I should talk to but now with lots of people online and lots of information out there on the Internet, one has no reason to not find someone competent and qualified to help you work through the theological question of calling. I don’t know if God calls people to be professors. That isn’t what I initially thought that God was pointed me towards. You also need someone who can give you really good, substantive advice on the many issues that should influence your, even before you leave high school IMHO.

    That would include knowing the current hiring statistics in your field, knowing the schools that professors at schools you could see yourself teaching at one day attended. Figure out if you can get the 4.0 GPA and get into the 750’s on every GRE category. I’ve come to think personally, though I could be wrong, that you must have a Ph.D. from a power school or shouldn’t bother trying this path. You need someone who can advise you how to get into the right school and let you know up front what you will have to do in addition to the right school to get one of those much-desired tenure-track positions. Except for some dismal statistics, I didn’t know any of this stuff. I wish I had because I would not have gone that direction.

    The second thing that I think is important as you contemplate going to grad school in hopes of a tenure-track position is to assess your theology. Can your understanding of God revealed in Jesus Christ withstand possible failure in academia? Mine was not. I suggest that you find someone who can help you in working through theologically what it would mean for you as a believer to not get hired for a full-time, let alone a tenure-track position. Can your understanding of God withstand thinking you’ve been called to teach full-time but failing to obtain that and do you have someone who understands the situation in academia and is well-grounded enough biblically and theologically to help you through the pain, depression, etc., that comes with academic failure? I did not. I think I had both academic and theological naivete’ about the whole matter and simply did not know anyone to whom I should have gone for advice. I would suggest that those thinking about grad school not make the same naive mistakes that I made.

    God did not ever promise me a tenure-track job, a role as a teaching pastor or anything like that. So I’m not disappointed that I didn’t get something that was promised to me. I am disappointed that I thought that I was “called” at all. That is to say, I would recommend that anyone who is thinking about a Ph.D. followed by a teaching job either know, really know, that God has called you to that or be ready to accept that you will probably never get that F/T teaching job. I wish I’d been equipped mentally and theologically this way. That would have made for an easier path than continually looking back and wondering what it all meant.

    Somewhere around 75-100 people went to grad school and got positions I didn’t get, so I’m sure there are positions out there in my field. I might have gotten one if I’d known what to do starting back in high school and been much more savvy and politically wise at the start of my college career.


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