Dreams of Academe? First, a Course in Reality

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post
Sunday, January 20, 2008; K01

Loren Blinde has known since she was an undergraduate that she wanted to be an English professor.

She has fulfilled her dream -- sort of -- by landing a job as a visiting assistant professor of English at Randolph-Macon College. "However, since my position is 'visiting' rather than tenure-track, I am on the academic job market again this year," said Blinde, who commutes to Ashland, Va., from Falls Church.

Like other aspiring academics, Blinde has stepped into a job market that has changed dramatically in the past few decades. U.S. universities may be bursting at the seams with students, but budget-conscious administrations are filling out their payrolls with often poorly paid adjuncts and instructors -- not the relatively well-paid, tenured jobs that once characterized the profession and to which many intellectuals aspire.

"Going to graduate school to become a college professor is much more of a crapshoot," said Blinde, 31, who earned a doctorate in English in 2006 from the University of California at Los Angeles. She applied for 50 jobs and went through 10 interviews before landing the Randolph-Macon position, which was her only offer.

Those still determined to pursue an academic career must work to make themselves stand out while they're still in school, keep a close eye on their finances and come up with a backup plan in case they don't make the cut.

A successful career in academia starts while you're still in school, and it's not just a matter of making good grades.

"You must think of yourself as a budding professional," said Deandra Little, co-administrator of the Tomorrow's Professor Today program at the University of Virginia, which assists grad students there in their job searches.

Blinde concurred. "You must professionalize to the degree that you can," she said. Acquire teaching experience and publish an article, she advised. "Of course, you want to make sure it's a good article!"

The idea is to understand what the workload of a professor is like at the institutions where you hope to get hired, and what they want from their new employees. "It's not all curling up on the couch reading your favorite book," Blinde said.

That's assuming you can afford books.

Chris Bartel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, said he wishes he had thought about money "much, much sooner" and had researched pay scales in different parts of the country more thoroughly.

The salary wasn't as high as he expected -- he didn't break $50,000 -- and he owes $80,000 in student loan debt. "I expect that I'm going to have to struggle for a few years."

But he loves his tenure-track job -- which he got after applying for more than 50 positions and interviewing for two. "Luckily I got one of them. It could have gone much, much worse," said Bartel, 33.

Indeed, he could be like many other college teachers out there, who earn a living by picking up classes at multiple schools.

That's the position Sophia Evans, 44, is in. The Bryans Road resident teaches undergrad business classes at the College of Southern Maryland as an adjunct professor and has been on a waiting list for three years for a full-time job.

The pay per class: $1,500 for the College of Southern Maryland. Strayer University, a private school that caters to working adults, pays $2,300 per class for similar classes, she said.

Evans, who also owns a human resources consulting company, said the corporate development classes she teaches pay better -- about $2,000 for a much shorter term. But she would prefer to work for a school. "It's very frustrating."

For many, that frustration ultimately proves too much. After several unsuccessful job cycles, it's time to start looking for other ways to put those letters after your name to work.

The good news: Those options are frequently quite lucrative, even if they lack the tweed-jacket cachet of a professorship. People with higher degrees in math, science and engineering will find the consolation prizes particularly generous.

Little, of the Tomorrow's Professor Today program, is herself a good example of such alternate career paths. She earned a PhD in American literature in 2001 from Vanderbilt, where she also became involved in that school's Center for Teaching. Her current work is satisfying, she said. "I get to hear about all kinds of interesting research."

So before you graduate, investigate all your options, she said. Ask yourself, "will other things make you happy?"

If Harvard has $34.9 billion or Yale $22.5 billion, fewer than 400 of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States had even $100 million in endowments in the fiscal year that ended in June. Most had less than $10 million.