Job market season is upon us, and though the number of tenure-track jobs isn't likely to be much greater this year than last--and thus everyone going out for the first time knows that a "good job" is, basically, one with a salary and benefits--I thought I'd take a post to talk about the real differences among academic jobs in the hopes that this might be useful to the grad students and job candidates out there.
They way we talk about jobs at different kinds of institutions is a peeve of mine, and it tends to be worse in graduate programs. This is true not because (or not only because) faculty at top graduate programs have drunk the Kool-Aid of believing that the only "good" jobs are jobs just like theirs, but simply because faculty know what they know. How many faculty at top programs have been on the tenure-track at more than one previous institution? Not many. And even if a significant minority did their undergraduate work at other kinds of institutions--liberal arts colleges, less selective state schools--they haven't taught there and their sense of the lives of their undergraduate professors is probably not particularly well-informed.
My own grad program did a good job of encouraging us to apply for all kinds of jobs, and the faculty clearly tried to emphasize the satisfactions that might come from teaching at a non-top-tier or non-research institution, but they equally clearly didn't know what they were talking about. They talked about how "rewarding" some recent PhDs found doing more teaching, to less culturally-privileged populations, to be--and how they'd come to realize that their real passion was teaching, not research. Or they said things like, "there's some really exciting pedagogical research coming out of community colleges these days"; the implication being that, in order to keep doing research at a less-prestigious, more teaching-heavy institution, you'd have to make teaching the subject of your research.
Now, I'm not knocking the joys of teaching or the worth of pedagogical scholarship; I believe strongly in both. But my grad school professors presented them as consolation prizes: the things you might wind up with--and eventually be rather happy with!--when you were foiled in your attempts to pursue a serious research agenda in the field you trained in.
So lemme tell ya: your grad school professors (if they're anything like mine were) are wrong. And the way that we, as a profession, tend to talk about academic jobs is wrong.
We typically divide jobs into categories based on the amount and nature of the teaching they require. Sometimes we pretend there are just two kinds of jobs, at "research" or "teaching" institutions, but more often we break those categories down a bit more finely by talking about teaching load: 2-2 or 2-3, 3-3, 4-4, or higher. Those are useful distinctions, to be sure, but they have limits. How many preps? How big are the classes? How much repetition is there, year-to-year? And if you're at a research institution, how many dissertations, dissertation committees, orals committees, or independent studies will you be responsible for--and how much "teaching time" does that amount to beyond your official teaching load?
I had no clue, prior to starting a tenure-track gig and seeing my friends wind up in various tenure-track gigs, that you could have a 2-2 teaching load and still be responsible for grading 100 students a semester (because you teach a lecture class, but don't have a TA). I had no clue how much work serving on M.A. or doctoral thesis committees could be--and how often it might be on a topic about which you knew precious little and had less interest.
But more importantly, I hadn't thought about the ways that teaching--or at least, teaching anything outside of my immediate specialty, and to advanced students--could enrich my scholarly life. Now, I was never one of those people who wanted to go straight from grad school to teaching graduate students myself, and nothing sounded less fun than designing an esoteric grad class or senior seminar around my own pet specialty. But although I was looking forward to teaching Shakespeare and Chaucer and the occasional twentieth century novel, I thought of that as a perk of the job rather than something related to my scholarship.
In fact, however, teaching a Shakespeare survey for ten consecutive semesters means I'm now as much an expert on his plays (though less so on Shakespearean scholarship, of course) as many a person who wrote a dissertation on Shakespeare. This affects the way I read Milton and other seventeenth century writers profoundly--and as of this fall, I'm actually starting a small project on Merchant of Venice.
Now, if I'd been hired as a Miltonist, in a big department with lots of other Renaissance scholars, that would certainly have had its benefits. But I likely would never have been asked to teach a Shakespeare survey, and I wouldn't have been let near non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama (especially not when I hadn't previously read almost half of the plays I put on the syllabus). My teaching has been hugely important to my scholarly life.
There's also the argument that teaching a certain number of repeat classes, semester after semester, frees up more time and mental energy for research than continually devising funky new ones. Personally, I get bored and depressed if I don't have one new or newish class a semester that requires me to stretch intellectually--but I don't think I typically spend any more time on my teaching, with my 3-3 load, than most people with a 2-2 load. (And in my first two years, I probably spent less time on teaching than those friends who were scrambling to devise cool new graduate or senior seminars every semester.) I know plenty of people with serious research agendas who teach at schools with 4-4 loads or higher.
And that, of course, is just about the teaching: what's the expected service load? And is it real, useful service--or endless bullshit committee meetings? What's the culture of the place like, and your colleagues? How might the location of the institution affect your personal, family, and even intellectual life? (Are there other colleges and universities in the area? Major libraries? A good arts scene? And don't discount the importance of an airport: when I was on the market, I used to say that I didn't care what region of the country I wound up in, as long as I could live in either a decent-sized city or a funky college town, within 30 minutes of a good airport.)
The trouble is, you often don't know until you start a job what its real strengths and virtues are. But that's the good thing, too: the rise of contingent labor notwithstanding, there are a lot of good jobs out there--and most of them don't look anything like what we were told we should want.