Monday, April 8, 2013

How Professional Historians and Professional Baseball Players Have Similar Career Prospects

There's a piece at Slate that's making the rounds among my academic friends imploring potential graduate students in the humanities to go running for the hills.  Of course, this is a long-standing genre, but this particular piece, written by a recent grad, speaks to the frustrations of those stuck in the trenches of adjunct labor.

Of all things, it got me thinking about baseball.  Some professions try to limit the number of apprentices they take in, but others, like history and baseball, will give just about anybody a shot.  Those who vie for tenure track positions and a spot in a major league lineup must compete against hundreds of others with the same goal.  Both grad students and minor leaguers are paid low wages but subsist on the dream that they may someday get to make a living out of what gives them the most joy.

The winnowing process in baseball as in academia is brutal.  Only a tiny fraction of amateur baseball players are signed to minor league contracts.  The vast majority of those players end up being career minor leaguers, and many never even make it past rookie ball.  Of those who do make it to the majors, many are gone after a couple of seasons.  In academia potential historians must get accepted to a doctoral program, make it through classes, pass comprehensive exams, research their dissertation and then write the damn thing.  When it's all said and done, most of the students in any particular graduate cohort don't make it to the end.  Those who do graduate must compete in a Thunderdome-esque job market and are most likely to toil in the academic minor leagues as adjunct or "visiting" professors.  Those who do manage to attain tenure-track jobs still must jump through the brutal tenure obstacle course.

Academics will do this at institutions they consider second-rate in towns where they'd rather not live.  Like baseball players, academic historians work where they are assigned by the school that drafts them. Like baseball players, they can jump to another school as a high-priced free agent, but only if they are star material.  If not, they're stuck.

Former minor leaguers and unemployed PhDs finish their failed stab at the dream having spent their young earning years developing skills that have little to no attraction to employers outside of their chosen fields.  No matter what the cheerleaders for the "alternate-academic" path say, there is very little demand for an expert in nineteenth century German social history outside of a university.

Look, we all can't be baseball players, rock stars, or CEOs of major corporations.  The problem is, we pretend that becoming a tenure-track professor at a desirable university isn't just as unlikely as getting to start in the major leagues.  If young people still want to take the chances I took, I'm fine with that, I just want them to know the real story when they make that fateful decision.


N8 said...

I tend to agree, aside from economic aspect: Ball players, even shitty ones, make millions; assistant history profs are lucky to crack 50K. At least ball players have a financial incentive to try to become a major leaguer. I don't know what incentivizes academics.

Brian I said...

The easy answer to the question of what incentivizes academics is living the life of the mind; that is something that motivates me, and I think it is something that the Slate article mentions. But we also need to talk about the fact that tenured academia is one of the few professions left where people have autonomy, prestige, control over their own time, and genuine job security. I think that's one of the reasons why universities are in the process of dismantling tenure: it is too valuable and it has become anachronistic. The problems of academic labor won't be solved unless we see it as part of the larger problem of the casualization of labor in our society.