An opinion piece by Herb Childress in the Chronicle of Higher Education from March 27 really hit home for me. It’s about how academics without tenure track positions are, often implicitly, regarded as failures, despite the fact that the job market is so atrociously bad that finding a job has as more in common with winning the lottery or being struck by lightning than it does with any merit-based process. Simply put, grad school conditions us to define success and failure in extremely specific ways, and to place the cause for that failure solely with the candidate.
I certainly blame myself for my inability to find permanent work. It is true that I blame other people too, but primarily I blame myself for the decisions I made about what I chose to study. I was hellbent on being an archaeologist, but because I was interested in Iran fieldwork was not really an option for me. I have always been trained in classics departments, yet I set out to study the Persians rather than the Greeks or Romans. I could justify this decision to myself: the study of the Achaemenids has never belonged to a single academic field, the skills necessary to studying material culture are transferable, I was studying under the doyenne of Achaemenid art, etc. But in hindsight these justifications seem meaningless and empty; all I can think of are the decisions I should have made that would (surely!) have gotten me a job by now.
But, honestly, even if I had different decisions, nothing would have changed. Early in grad school my adviser suggested I write a dissertation on Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, where the University of Michigan carried out excavations in the 1930s. It would have been perfect; it’s both Greek (Hellenistic/Seleucid) and Iranian (Parthian), it involves a archaeological excavation without necessarily have to spend years in the field in a politically unstable environment, and the site is chock full of coins, one of my favorite types of things. In my youthful stubbornness I rejected the idea. During the darkest days of my job search I would lay awake at night, wondering what would have happened if I had gone that route. Frankly I don’t think anything would have changed. I’ve mostly lost jobs to people working on mainstream Roman archaeology, and one or two people working on archaic and classical Greek (and at least one Aegean prehistorian, but I don’t begrudge her that!), not to Hellenistic Near Eastern archaeologists. And I wouldn’t have done all of the weird and interesting work I ended up doing, and carved out the (admittedly unprofitable) niche for myself that I now have on the academic landscape.
I don’t know the particulars of Herb Childress’ career. It’s quite possible that he too made some bad choices along the way. I also don’t agree with his facile discussion of what led to the current paucity of permanent academic employment. But I completely agree with him that the apparent ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of a given academic is the result of grad school conditioning, not merit. My view is that it is crucial to lay the blame where it belongs — on other people.