I wrote the following on my old blog four years ago, and it's as relevant now as ever. With May here all kinds of academic departments will be hiring, just not in public.
It's been awhile since I've talked about the academic job crisis in these pages, but recent things I've observed and heard about merit comment. I've been reminded this week that the month of May is an intense one in the academic job world, but one you won't discover in the jobs section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Oh yes, many jobs are being offered and taken right now, but very few of them have been advertized.
Here's the deal: at the end of the school year, department chairs have to scramble to fill all the slots in their introductory level classes in the Fall. Because of hiring freezes, this year the gap between class sessions that need to be taught and the number of faculty on hand will be quite severe. However, department chairs can safely rely upon the large reserve army of unemployed academics to take low paying adjunct work at the last minute. They never have to look far. Just as a contractor knows the corners where the day laborers wait and can be hired for low wages, department heads have a steady supply of newhomegrown MAs and PhDs who need work and are willing to teach classes for peanuts and without benefits.
The key to the informal job market is to be at the right place at the right time. Most department chairs want to put as little work as possible into finding the warm bodies necessary to fill in the classroom gaps. In the past I have witnessed patently incompetent people get jobs simply because of desperation on the part of department chairs. These incompetents (who are a minority of adjuncts, btw) then managed to retain their jobs because it was just too much bother to replace them with someone who knew what they were doing. The quality of education received by the students very rarely factors into the equation. Even worse, the naked exploitation of a captive labor force making poverty-line wages never, ever seems to make those doing the hiring lose any sleep.
As the formal job market gets worse with each passing year, the informal market will only get bigger. The math is pretty simple, actually: tenure track positions keep getting scarcer, but enrollments are still growing. Until we shine a light on the informal market and force the same "accountability" on university administrators that's being forced on faculty by them, in no time at all the "formal" market will be a thing of the past.