March 05, 2004


The academic job market has, of course, been very much on my mind lately. And this insightful posting by Michael Drout has inspired me to make this my topic today.

Having defended my dissertation in September 2003 and spending the 2003-2004 academic year as a part-time sessional instructor at U of T teaching Old English and English writing, this was the first year that I was really on the job market. Now realistically I know that one must often expect to be on the marked for a few years before landing that much-coveted tenure-track job, but it seems like a steeper climb than I had originally thought.

As Michael Drout pointed out in the aforementioned posting, graduates of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto have often been quite successful in getting jobs, but I’m not so sure that’s as true recently as it has been in the past. There were a number of Centre students on the market this year, myself included, who didn’t get jobs in this round of hiring. I think there are some more general reasons for this as well as some specific ones in my case.

I suspect English departments may have a general bias against medieval studies. Students from medieval studies programmes have a lot of specialist knowledge. The Centre for Medieval Studies places a lot of emphasis on languages and skills such as textual criticism, Latin, and palaeography. Many English department hiring committees, however, may be looking for candidates who will teach medieval literature in a way more in keeping with the ways other areas of English literature is taught.

Am I suggesting that a PhD from an English department is better than one from a medieval department? Not at all. In fact, I believe in many ways a medieval studies graduate is on the whole often better prepared to produce solid scholarship on medieval literature than a graduate from an English department, but the English department graduate still has an advantage when it comes to the job market.

I think it’s particularly difficult for Old English specialists. As a friend of mine pointed out to me today, medievalists often have to position themselves as early early modernists. And there often seems to be a (wrong-headed) belief that it’s better to hire a Middle English specialist who can teach Old English than it is to hire an Old English specialist who can teach Old English.

In my case specifically, I imagine I am somewhat disadvantaged by the fact that the focus of my research is philological. I know that many people would suggest that one’s thesis topic should be chosen with a hiring committee in mind, but I simply refuse to sell out just to get a job. A trendy topic may garner attention in the short term, but fifty years from now it’s the philology that will still be relevant. Besides, one has to enjoy what one is researching, otherwise it probably won’t get done.

I had initially thought that my teaching experience would be a big advantage. I had had a lot of TA positions and was applying as a current sessional instructor. But I now think publications are far more important. As Michael Drout pointed out, an article in the right journal can open a lot of doors. So now my priority is getting published, and hopefully for me that will make the difference in the next round of hiring.

Well, that’s enough ranting for today, I guess. Though I may sound a little bitter, I guess it’s just because I’m venting a little. I haven’t by any means lost hope, but it is a little discouraging.

Posted by Mark at March 5, 2004 04:16 PM