From 76% to 24% — sometimes it DOES happen

by Chris Brooks

I earned my PhD in history in 2010. During graduate school my cohort maintained a sense of gallows humor about our job prospects; the already abysmal statistics about tenure track (TT) placements grew even worse as the financial crisis took hold, and the fact that we at an excellent university that was nevertheless considered “second tier” in our field didn’t bode well for any of us. The reality turned out to be even worse; I played “academic roulette,” applying to TT jobs during a hiring year in which there were a grand total of seven positions available in my field in the entire United States. Despairing of my chances, and without even part-time positions available where I was, I moved back to Portland (where I had lived before leaving for grad school.)

I was fortunate enough to have a backup skillset: I had spent several years in IT working for software companies and call centers. Even as I applied to the part-time job pools at PCC, Mt. Hood, Clark, and PSU, I was also submitting resumes to return to the generally thankless life as a systems admin. Thanks to the influence of a former co-worker from several years earlier, I landed a position in tech (albeit as a “1099” temp – no benefits, security, or tax withholdings included.) Simultaneously, I secured a part time teaching position at PCC teaching one class per term. I told myself at the time that I would work at both until one of them offered me a full-time job, not knowing if either ever would.
My time on PCC’s campus was limited to prep time before classes, since I had to be at my other job as often as possible for the sake of providing for my family. I was met at PCC with a congenial, helpful, and friendly group of colleagues but next to no practical guidance; I wasn’t even aware that fall term was eleven weeks long until week eight. I had no idea what a “SAC” was.

After teaching for two terms, and being unable to secure a spot teaching in the summer, I was offered a full-time job at the software company at which I worked. Despite having spent six years in grad school, living in Paris to do my dissertation research, presenting at conferences, and innumerable hours teaching, I made good on my promise to myself and accepted the job in tech. I anticipated that the last term I would ever teach would be fall of 2011 (I was already committed to teaching one class), even as I concentrated on mastering and managing a very challenging technical infrastructure of servers and networks.
Miraculously, a full time position opened in my department at PCC the very term I thought would be my last. As the interview process wore on – four stages! Essays! Presentations, chats, interviews! A process that stretches on for half of a year! – I called in sick to work to come to campus for interviews, stayed up late writing essays, and did my best to make sure the network didn’t implode at my “real” job simultaneously. In the end, somehow, I got the job at PCC. I’ve never lost the sense of bewilderment I felt when getting the call from my dean.

My take-away from the last several years of my life is that getting a FT position in academia is much more like aspiring to make a living as an artist, a musician, or an athlete than as pursuing a conventional career path in which training and experience result in a job. There is nothing just, normal, or acceptable about that fact, and from my perspective one of the best ways institutions might start to address it might be to create pathways leading from PT to FT status.
One other note: I remain in awe of my PT colleagues who contribute so much not just to teaching, but to college service, usually without any compensation. When I was PT I took it for granted that I had no incentive to participate outside of the classroom, and as it happened I couldn’t have participated even if I’d wanted to (i.e. when I wasn’t here I was in a server room.) The spirit of dedication that motivates them speaks volumes to the need for improved conditions and prospects aimed at PT faculty.

2 thoughts on “From 76% to 24% — sometimes it DOES happen”

  1. My father was a history professor at Georgia State University for decades. I think he felt a bit bad that he encouraged his daughter to pursue a career in academia. The system was so much different for him when he was applying for jobs years and years ago. He told me once that his department probably wouldn’t hire back half their full-time faculty if they were tossed into the current job pool.

  2. This is a great piece, and for me this is the most brilliant chunk out of a lot of great writing: “My take-away from the last several years of my life is that getting a FT position in academia is much more like aspiring to make a living as an artist, a musician, or an athlete than as pursuing a conventional career path in which training and experience result in a job. There is nothing just, normal, or acceptable about that fact…”

    Thanks for this from the farm leagues. And Kris, I think my dad also feels a little bad about encouraging me to pursue a career in academia as he did in the 60s.. It is a very different system now.

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