Jacob's Golden Ladder Gets Slippery at the Top...

Stepping late here into the churning waters of the job market debate in history. Marc Bosquet has effectively critiqued the AHA’s data (and their “supply side” economic focus). One of the comments on Historiann’s blog added a pertinent point which is often overlooked in this long-running debate. Kathleen Lowrey said

“If you were 24 years old and choosing between a few years reading and writing and thinking on a self-chosen schedule vs. a 40 hour week yea until death as a cubicle critter, you might take the gamble of grad school, too. Cake now vs. no cake ever (cake being leisure time, self-direction, feeling one’s existence is meaningful, being surrounded by interesting like-minded people) — I’d probably make the same choice.”

The “cake now” vs “cake never” attraction of graduate school is, I believe, a strong factor. I certainly met PhD students who said that they only enrolled “because I got funding” and three years of salary (in the UK) was too good to turn down. Not to overgeneralise, but these were also people who seemed ambivalent (or flat out uninterested) in their academic research, and in a number of cases never finished anyway. So in a sense they got a free 3 year holiday: and when it’s offered like that (there is no punishment for not completing, for simply walking off at the end of the three years having taken the money and produced nothing), it’s hardly surprising people take it up. I also met people who – faced with (realistically) spending up to a year after their undergraduate degree looking for a job – decided to enrol for a Masters degree at the same time, so their “jobseeking” year also accrued them an additional qualification. Of course, if they were performing well in the Masters course they would be encouraged to apply for PhD places, and this is one track by which people end up in humanities PhD programs. It wasn’t their original plan, but when a funded opportunity appears, weighing that against scouring the want ads while living back with one’s parents makes a PhD sound like a pretty good option. In fact, at that post-BA stage, a funded PhD place can be the “bird in the hand” over the unknown outcomes of the general job market.

But the other element raised, that fresh graduates of 22 see their options as “wage slave” vs the intellectual world of academia, is a key one. The undercurrent in graduate school (at least as I experienced in the humanities) is that it is a noble vocation, an “independent” way of life (in the same sense of “indie” films versus blockbusters, and you can well imagine the kind of cultural snobbery that goes with it). People who left academia to pursue another job were described as “selling out”. So there is a strange contradiction, between an attitude that regards academia (in the humanities) as some kind of free, creative realm, but then turns around at the end to complain that the time spent in grad school did not provide a professional qualification that would lead directly to a job.

...and heaven’s walls too high to hear the trouble down below

Is some of the problem that (some) senior people don’t understand what the job market is like now? It seems hard to believe anyone could be unaware, but some of the advice circulating while I was a PhD student suggests that this really is the case. I knew people who simply applied for 12 hypercompetitive postdocs and were surprised not to get one, and senior profs who talked about Junior Research Fellowships and British Academy Postdocs as a natural progression, as if they were easy to come by.
I’ve also heard from people serving on search committees who were SURPRISED to get 100+ applicants for a position. How long ago was your last interaction with the job market if that’s a surprise?