My first doctoral student defended his dissertation this week. It was a milestone for him and for me. Colleagues – those who participated in the defense and those present when we emerged from our conclave – congratulated us both. One said, only somewhat jokingly, “Congratulations, mom.” I knew exactly what she meant.
This defense, out of sync with the usual spate of May and August completions, overlapped with admissions season and the tail end of next fall’s hiring. I’ve been immersed in applications from potential MA and PhD students. And just this week I’ve fielded emails and calls from three former students (other programs, other primary advisors) now interviewing, more and less successfully, for faculty jobs.
I’ve had many chances to repeat to them and others the wisdom a mentor shared with me a decade ago when I was in their shoes: hiring is a fickle process. (I’ve said the same to students about doctoral admissions.) Skill of course plays a part, as does having good advice and support. But it’s helpful to keep in mind the role of random luck: who serves on any given search committee, what order they read files in, whether they know (and either respect or can’t stand) the recommenders who wrote on one’s behalf, who is on leave when the department votes to make a job offer, who else is on the market that year, and so on.
But it’s not just chance.
Hiring patterns are not simply a matter of too few tenure-track jobs for too many good applicants. Prejudice matters. Academia remains deeply, through unevenly, patriarchal, heterosexist, and racist, just like the society we live in. Advantages compound. Graduating from a prestigious undergraduate college makes getting into a top graduate program easier. Having a doctorate from a big name makes getting a tenure-track job more likely. Racial and class privilege smooth the way. On the flip side, doing scholarship that challenges the status-quo – politically, disciplinarily – makes things tougher.
For all these reasons, getting a doctorate in the humanities is not necessarily a good career strategy. I think about this when vetting doctoral applications. I think about it when undergraduates ask me about academic life. I think about it when increasingly panicky emails arrive: I’ve been on three campus interviews but no offers. What now? What indeed.
My student – now former student – starts a tenure-track job in September. His work, on a marginalized group and dealing seriously with gender and embodiment, is first rate. I’m proud of him – I meant every superlative in my recommendation letters – and pleased for him. At the same time, I’m concerned about others, both those who’ve finished and are getting nowhere and those whose admissions dossiers my colleagues and I will deliberate over soon.
What to do? Worry. Give candid advice when asked. And – this week at least – celebrate.
Kecia Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She lives in the Boston area with her family.