From Contingent to Tenure Track and Back Again
This spring, I achieved what I had long convinced myself was not in the cards for me: I landed a tenure-track job. But instead of celebration, the job offer resulted in one of the most painful and difficult periods of my life—one that didn’t end in my joining the ranks of tenure-line faculty who have “made it.”
As a graduate student, I was aware that the looming realities of the academic job market meant two things: that the chances of getting the coveted tenure-track position were slim, and that candidates have to be ready, willing, and able to move to where the jobs are. But like many in academia, while I was reading stacks of books, teaching recitations, and writing a dissertation, my partner and I were also building a life. In nearly a decade I spent from first year MA to PhD, plus six years of contingent work, we had four children. And while I was preparing for my career as a historian, my husband graduated from law school and actually began his career, advancing from clerk to junior associate to partner in a thriving, growing firm.
Maybe I couldn’t have the real job, but I had a job that I both enjoyed and was good at.
Unlike in the academy, where moving to take a new job is often a sign of a flourishing career, moving to a new state isn’t exactly a smart career move for a partner in a law firm. So between the grim truth of the history jobs reports and my partner’s career, I resigned myself to working hard to find local jobs after I graduated. For two years, I drove all around the county adjuncting, picked up online gigs where I could, and ran adult reading and discussion groups for local historical societies. Eventually, I supplemented my salary (and got health insurance!) when I was hired by my PhD-granting department as a part-time administrative assistant. It wasn’t exactly the dream, but it was something. Finally, in 2018, they hired me as a non-tenure-track assistant teaching professor and things seemed to fall in place. Maybe I couldn’t have the real job, but I had a job that I both enjoyed and was good at.
But during this time, I was also working to establish myself as a historian. I published an article, several book chapters, and then my first book; became executive editor of a leading digital history publication; and co-founded and co-produced a successful history podcast. In the spring of 2021, I won a major fellowship and a book prize in the span of about one week. With those successes buoying me from the funk of parenting and teaching through a pandemic, I thought maybe it was time to push against the walls I could feel solidifying around my professional life. I started applying for tenure-track jobs again, and though I knew those jobs often came down to luck more than anything else, I imagined myself stepping more fully into a life of scholarship, service, and teaching. An attempt at a line conversion from contingent to tenure track at my current university failed, meaning the only way to get on the tenure track was to leave. Then, I got the job offer: an assistant professorship in my exact area of specialty in a small, friendly department at a vibrant regional university. It was too good to pass up—so I didn’t. We’d make it work, I reasoned. We had to.
It wasn’t long before I was forced to face the reality that no matter how impressive I made my CV, it wouldn’t change the fact that my family had settled and put down a complex root system. Over the next several months, absolutely nothing fell into place. I had watched my historian friends pack up their families, leave the towns where they’d earned their PhDs, and move to take jobs, but it became slowly and devastatingly clear my situation was different. My husband looked into working remotely, but while that option is more common for many jobs since 2020, it made no sense for an attorney doing state-specific work with a financial stake in a business to live in a different state. We talked about driving back and forth, splitting our time between two cities 450 miles apart, each with a regional airport that made commuter flights an impossibility. It seemed to come down to his career or mine; that realization strained our relationship almost to a breaking point. After months of agonizing discussion, my husband made a final offer: I could keep the job, but the family would not be joining me. He would keep things going at home so I could live in a different state, one long semester at a time.
I could keep this dream job, or I could have a life with my family.
I had tried everything I could think of, considered every suggested solution, but none of them could solve the problem. I now faced it again, stripped down to its most basic parts: I could keep this dream job, or I could have a life with my family. The decision was incredibly painful, but clear. I backed out of the job. And so here I am, contingent again.
I was incredibly fortunate to resume my contingent teaching job, giving me stability that so many others don’t have. And I enjoy my job, like the town I live in, have hobbies that will keep me going, and our NFL team doesn’t suck anymore. But I’m not sure what my career looks like now. I know I’ll put enormous amounts of energy into my teaching—which I believe is a vital aspect of our discipline—but what about the research and service that goes into being an academic historian? As we were recently reminded, many academics believe that PhDs “expire”—that a scholar who hasn’t landed a tenure-track job starts to look less enticing to hiring committees the further they are from finishing their degree. Even if I could convince a committee that I hadn’t passed my expiration date, I wouldn’t be able to take a job outside commuting distance of my home. Research and writing aren’t factored into my contract, but without new publications, my relevance in my field will start to fade too. Service isn’t required either, so I’m not sure I see the point in reviewing books or serving on committees.
Trained in a system that conflates scholarly merit with title and rank despite the realities of the job market, we tend to place the job above all else, deeming it worthy of any sacrifice. As agonizing as this experience was, it did crystallize for me that the dream job wasn’t worth a life separated from my children and husband. I won’t pretend that I’m not devastated, but I am also at peace with the decision. What comes next? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll take up writing historical romance novels to fill the time between teaching and taking my kids to their dance and piano classes. It will be different. But at least we’ll be together.
Sarah Handley-Cousins is an assistant teaching professor at the University at Buffalo. She tweets @sarahbelle721.
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