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Archive for October 12th, 2014

The history of the sociology job market contains some interesting peculiarities. For example, George Herbert Mead received an M.A. in philosophy from Harvard and then went to Germany to work on his Ph.D. Before his dissertation was completed, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Michigan where he taught philosophy and psychology before later following John Dewey to the University of Chicago. He never completed his Ph.D. (Imagine the field day that a certain job site would have with his hiring today!) It was, I suppose, a different time. (A certain job site does have a field day with discussions of full professors whom it is argued couldn’t get a tenure-track position in today’s market with their current records.) The cases of Howie Becker and Erving Goffman show that not all of the big names in sociology had such an easy time on the job market while reinforcing how different things were back then.

At ASA in San Francisco this year, Howie Becker was the discussant on one of the “Young Ethnographer” panels (the one without Alice Goffman). About the papers, he said something along the lines of “How am I supposed to talk about such different papers at the same time” and then moved on to a discussion of his belief that the best ethnographic work (he actually stated that he prefers the term “field work”) is typically conducted by young people in graduate school who have the benefit of time.* Early in his career, he and his fellow University of Chicago graduate Erving Goffman (if this had been the session with Alice Goffman he could have brought things full-circle…) were unable to find work. So they conducted research.

According to Wikipedia (which has incorrect information about Mead’s education and, thus, may or may not be a reliable source of information on the biographies of sociologists), after completing his Ph.D. Becker conducted research at the Institute for Juvenile Research, in a postdoc at the University of Illinois, and as a research associate at Stanford before starting as a faculty member at Northwestern. Although things might not have seemed too dire because he received his Ph.D. when he was only 23, it was over ten years before Becker started what today would probably be considered his official career. Goffman, meanwhile, worked as a research associate at the University of Chicago and then for the National Institute for Mental Health before beginning as a faculty member at Berkeley.

Becker’s point in discussing the job market woes that he and Goffman experienced at ASA this year was that they both relished the opportunity to focus on research during those years, even as their friends took pity on them. My point in discussing them is to highlight the evolution of job market pathways in the intervening years. While a candidate today might be able to get a postdoc, the increasing reliance on adjunct labor means that the prospects for somebody without a tenure-track job who wants to stay in academia are much more likely to include cobbling together a poverty-level salary from various adjunct positions than earning a comfortable living conducting research. The outcomes of these pathways are also clear, since adjunct teaching leaves little time for building a publication record that will result in an eventual tenure-track job.

Despite what might have been perceived by their friends as early-career stumbles, Becker and Goffman went on to have illustrious careers in sociology and made large contributions to the discipline. How many similar contributions does the current opportunity structure within academia deprive us of?

*Later in his career, he claimed that he found time for field work by being a bad departmental citizen. It is best that we don’t mention the advice that he solicited on this topic from a few esteemed audience members.

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