The Invisible Labor of the Academic Job Market

From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum

Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

David Platzer and Anne Allison’s essay on academic precarity in American anthropology is both sobering and coldly reassuring. In the five years since earning my PhD, I have held a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship and taught as a contingent academic while interviewing for numerous tenure-track positions. As a media anthropologist whose primary field site is in Europe, there are few positions for which I am a fit. And with family commitments, my geographic mobility has only decreased over time. In the past year, I have directed more energy into nonacademic writing as I struggle to find a career that is satisfying and socially engaged. The issues Platzer and Allison raise are all too familiar for those of us languishing on the job market, often in revolving term and adjunct positions, as we try to maintain some sense of academic legitimacy. Rarely does the discipline confront the difficulties—and distress—of the job market in such a public forum. In my response to the essay, I want to draw attention to some unseen costs of laboring with little hope of finding secure academic employment, drawing out in particular the gendered and affective dimensions of “the market” that contingent anthropologists often confess only to one another.

If the cratering number of tenure-track positions since 2008 is dismaying, Platzer and Allison’s findings also offer a strange sense of relief. Too often, job seekers internalize their struggles as individual rather than structural failings—an ironic habit of thought for scholars who regularly argue against neoliberal selfhood and accountability. As Platzer and Allison describe, graduate programs train students for jobs that mostly no longer exist. This predilection fosters unrealistic expectations, exacerbating deeply personal feelings of failure. Students often infer that if they secure prestigious funding, publish in top journals, and produce exceptional work, they will prevail. Consultants like Karen Kelsky extend this logic (perhaps fairly) to job dossiers; if candidates better understand the expectations of search committees, the story goes, they have a shot at beating the odds. As one of Platzer and Allison’s participants reported, her advisors offered little sympathy for her plight as an adjunct instructor with a family: “Instead, they reassured her that her scholarship was excellent and that it was simply a matter of persistence.” With many fewer positions than new PhDs each year (and stiff competition from those already on the market), such reassurances are warped and warping. A distorted view of the market keeps contingent academics from finding other ways to work as anthropologists.

As Platzer and Allison acknowledge, their findings offer little solace for current students and recent PhDs seeking economic stability, even as instability carries consequences for the sensibilities of anthropological research. Platzer and Allison touch briefly on the gendered and racial inequalities that plague academic employment, but I would add that it's no coincidence that most of my friends and colleagues lingering on the margins are women, most with young children. Numerous studies show that women, especially mothers, are less likely than male colleagues to achieve tenure and more likely to hold adjunct and contingent positions (Monroe et al. 2008; Finkelstein, Martin Conley, and Schuster 2016)—what Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfringer, and Marc Goulden (2013, 66) call the “baby gap.” Unsurprisingly, these struggles intersect with race, class, and other categories of difference (Gutierrez y Muhs et al. 2012). In the sciences, women with children are 35 percent less likely than their male peers to accept a tenure-track position and 27 percent less likely to achieve tenure. The same study found that women without young children take such positions at a similar rate as married fathers and are slightly more likely to achieve tenure than married mothers. Married men with children face no such obstacles. The very conditions that favor flexible, contingent positions also advantage white male academics.

For women on the tenure track, especially women of color, service expectations remain a further barrier to promotion (including diversity initiatives that fall disproportionately to women of color). Service work, and what many call invisible labor, comprises an insidious forms of structural disadvantage for women and contingent academics. Although many articles have addressed the emotional and care work women shoulder, few consider the unpaid work of remaining in academia. Publishing, for example, involves months of writing and revising that takes years to see in print. This protracted timeline hampers contingent faculty trying to compete for tenure-track jobs and also pursue alternative careers. As a postdoc, I was glad to accept service and review opportunities as signs of my scholarly legitimacy. But as a precarious academic, I now turn down most such requests as a matter of principle.

For contingent academics, such requests entail unremunerated work that, after a point, confer little benefit. Perhaps this assessment on my part sounds transactional, but contingency comes with a cost to one’s sense of belonging and identity as a scholar. With no formal appointment, cobbling together teaching gigs, many in the precariat experience a loss of selfhood along with deep shame at our perceived failures—despite laundry lists of achievements like book contracts and top-tier articles. Graduate school does not prepare students for the dissonance of being recognized as an expert in one’s specialization yet floundering on the market.

This unseen labor makes it difficult to compete for tenure-track jobs, and it consumes time that could be spent adapting scholarly skills for alt-academic careers and building new professional networks. Leaving academia, then, means relinquishing the visible and invisible labor of the academic job market. For me, seriously pursuing another career involves disentangling myself from scholarly commitments. This reality binds those who hold out for a tenure-track job, while taking an emotional toll that precarious anthropologists rarely discuss publicly.

Platzer and Allison’s essay counters many myths that precarious academics—and their mentors—have absorbed, reinforcing the necessity of reforming graduate training. I arrived at my doctoral program envisioning a career in nonprofit research, yet have found few such opportunities for scholars without legal or journalistic training. Anthropologists are poorly represented in policy and related fields, something doctoral programs could work to remedy. Graduate programs could, for instance, prepare students early on to produce op-eds and white papers as well as ethnographies. Senior scholars could build connections to researchers and policymakers outside of academia. In my prior career at a liberal policy magazine, scholars in sociology, political science, and economics regularly contributed. Anthropologists can cultivate similar spaces for their distinctive approaches and perspectives—while simultaneously challenging the corporatization of the university. Although ethnographic methods have spread to fields like marketing and user experience, many anthropologists pursue graduate work because of commitments to social change and critical analysis. We can take inspiration from social-science disciplines that are better integrated into media and policy worlds to carve out opportunities that incorporate our interpretive perspectives and political commitments.

Finally, graduate programs must grapple with the ethical considerations that Platzer and Allison raise. This includes collecting and sharing placement information with prospective students. Faculty mentors must rethink how they advise and professionalize their students—beyond strategizing about publishing and grants—by engaging with new possibilities for anthropology and recognizing the toll precarity takes. For contingent academics, the affective and gendered dimensions of the job market shape our daily lives—and selves—in ways that require critical engagement.


Finkelstein, Martin, Martin Conley, Valerie, and Jack H. Schuster. 2016. “Taking the Measure of Faculty Diversity.” Advancing Higher Education report, TIAA Institute.

Gutiérrez y Muhs, Gabriella, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris, eds. 2012. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Mason, Mary Ann, Wolfinger, Nicholas H. and Marc Goulden. 2013. Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Monroe, Kristen, Saba Ozyurt, Ted Wrigley, and Amy Alexander. 2008. “Gender Equality in Academia: Bad News from the Trenches and Some Possible Solutions.” Perspectives on Politics 6, no. 2: 215-33.