Job Security and Tenure


Now that I am out as leaving academia, I have had a lot of people weigh in on what they think about that fact. One person said to me, “If you leave academia, how will you ever have any job security?”

This lead me to question, what IS job security and how do you know if you have it?

What I think people are referring to with job security is a few things. First, there is this component of not “being able to be fired.” When you have tenure, you have a job for life. Quietly hidden in this idea is the fact that any amount of bad behavior can and will be tolerated, obviously short of murdering someone, but we have certainly seen other felonies like sexual assault and sexual harrassment covered up by the academy, such as in the cases of Jerry Sandusky and Geoff Marcy.

Most (all?) of the people who have had this type of conversation with me are, I am sure, NOT criminals. So this can’t just be it. But certainly not being able to be fired or let go has huge appeal for them. But why should they worry? They are smart people, they do good research, teach well enough, mentor students through PhDs, etc. What are they afraid of? In general, people outside of academia do not get randomly fired for doing their jobs unless their employer is downsizing. These smart professors know that, right???

Actually, I am pretty sure they don’t. Academia thrives on people following a traditional path. You start out as a graduate student and get a PhD. During that time, you are indoctrinated into the academic culture. (If you left academia before graduate school, your experience was likely very different and you were probably not exposed to the academic culture I am referring to here.) You learn the pubish-or-perish mantra, that being a workaholic is a glorified trait, that the noblest of all things you can do is become a professor, and that the accolades afforded to those who pursue that noblest of professions are profound. (After all, what is life without a little pomp and circumstance?) After graduate school, you go straight into a postdoc or two which furthers this indoctrination with added emphasis on publishing. You then land the coveted tenure-track position where your entire existence (at least at an R1 institution) is dedicated to proving you understand this culture and can work and survive in it. From there, if all goes well you get tenure in a few years and then promoted to full professor at some point. Life is good. You made it. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

If you have read my bio on this blog, you will see that I did not follow this traditional path. I worked outside of academia for a while in the national labs and federal government. What this means is that I know from experience that people don’t just get fired for doing their jobs. They can get fired if they do a BAD job, but most academica are so focused on their work that doing a bad job seems unlikely.

My conclusion: if you follow the traditional academic path, you are not exposed to the concept that people do not just get randomly fired. Short of downsizing (which I will discuss below), the security of having a job that is not taken from you is a false concern.

So yeah, people can be laid off or let go in downsizing. This happened to my husband while I was in graduate school. He was in HR and was the last one out the door, having had to terminate himself just prior to turning out the lights. It has happened to many friends of mine too. It sucks. I get it.

The thing is that if you have a PhD, you have employable skills. You may not realize it. Part of the academic indoctrination is the cherishing of expertise. Most academics are a mile deep on a very narrow subject and they think that means that they are not valuable anywhere outside of that very narrow discipline. But the fact of the matter is that the training you receive to get a PhD does more than teach you this very narrow subject – it teaches you how to think and solve problems. And the thing is, academia really knows that is true. Why would they ask you to teach some random class that is not in your very narrow field? (And that happens to a lot of us.) It is because they know that you can synthesize new information quickly and efficiently get to the root of what is important and not.

So let’s say you get let go. OK…that sucks. But you still have the seriously-employable skill of being able to problem solve. If you are willing to open the aperture a bit from that super narrow field, you can land any number of jobs out there.

But from what I can tell, academia doesn’t want you to know that.

Written on July 20, 2017