Help Wanted

Touching down in Chicago for several hours after two weeks in the Russian hinterlands, my wife and I were finally able to access reliable internet and check our voice messages. Among my voicemails was a ten-day-old invitation to a phone interview for an international student advisor position at one of the bigger local HEIs. To have missed such a call while restoring my soul in Lake Baikal was a first. Otherwise, the whole thing was pure déjà vécu, from the position itself (for which I have applied countless times at other HEIs) to the institution (which has turned me down countless times for similar positions); even the caller was no stranger (we had interviewed before for a different position). I returned the call, certain it was hopeless.

It was hopeless. If you want miracles in higher education, find a divinity school.

The ever-thinning archipelago of the university job market, always vaguely mirage-like but still there for those who overcome its deadly shoals, appears more and more like a marine sanctuary, accessible by permit only. Not a day passes on Inside Higher Ed without tips on keeping your spirits up despite endless job rejections, like the one that appeared the morning after my experience at O’Hare. I’m not knocking such articles: the advice Elizabeth Franks offers ranges from the pragmatic to the philosophical.

I thought about putting together a how-to-survive-the-job-search post of my own. It could consist of standard bullet points, only from the perspective of someone more than one standard deviation in one direction or another of the average candidate in terms of age, background, and isomorphic detail. I could recommend that you get to know the people who currently occupy the kinds of positions you are angling for; you may be surprised to find how many of them have been polishing their resumes almost since the day they arrived. I could suggest that you get together with a couple of friends who don’t know anything about international education and have them brainstorm a series of random questions that might come up in a job interview, since they could hardly do worse than some of the what-color-are-my-boxers whoppers I’ve been asked. More constructive than either of these would be to talk to your students, whether they are on F-1 visas or not, and learn everything you can about what motivates and inspires, discourages or confuses, them about higher education in the U.S.—information that will give you a real edge when you finally score the advising and/or administrative job in ISSS you’ve been seeking.


As is typical of me, I have sought some job-search therapy by browsing what literature I can find about the sociology of university hiring and promotion. You might have thought the subject a staple crop in the higher ed field, in which economics, critical social theory, and data set wizardry generated paper after paper suggesting why some people get hired to work at Huxley College and others don’t. Yet I could find surprisingly little, and what I did find was very outdated.

Still, it is clear that from the 1970s and into the 1980s, scholars thought they saw something worth looking into. Socolow’s wonderfully titled “How Administrators Get Their Jobs,” published in Change (1978) during an era of declining enrollments, appears to have been the first time empirical evidence was mustered to articulate statistically what many had long suspected, that when universities hire, most of the time they do so from within. (Socolow, too, resorted to bullet points for the disheartened. Among my favorites: “Candidates should try to find individuals to nominate them for positions, preferably within the hiring institution” and “Candidates who have few contacts and little influence should be prepared to respond to a great number of job notices”—this was before pre-populated digital forms.)

Dingerson, et al. (1980) replicated Socolow’s method of scouring the Chronicle for job notices, followed by questionnaires mailed some months later to the new officeholders. But unlike Socolow, Dingerson and his colleagues reminded readers that postsecondary employment practices were not simply of academic interest: the Higher Education Guidelines, issued by the federal government in 1972, were specifically designed to increase university employment opportunities for women and minorities, candidates “not often in the word of mouth channels of recruitment”—or as Socolow had put it, those “exclude[d] by old-boy strategies.” Turning the issue into an equal-opportunity (or as was increasingly the case, gendered) concern proved fruitful for a while. Konrad and Pfeffer (1991), spurred by studies suggesting that the demographic composition (i.e., faculty, administrators) of higher education institutions have direct effects on student outcomes, described the way that when a job category becomes occupied by members of an underrepresented group, a “demographic group power” results; in effect, “[j]ob vacancies in labor markets that are comprised of a high proportion of women and minorities are most likely to be filled by women and minorities.” Johnsrud and Heck (1994), focusing on the impact of gender on administrative promotion in the postsecondary sector, identified “functional placement” among university jobs occupied by women; in other words, demographic group power can become a trap. There, the scholarly trail ends until Metcalfe and Slaughter’s (2008)—as it were—post-apocalyptic analysis of the university as an organization very different from that described by Socolow and others, one transformed by an academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime and remade managerial, entrepreneurial, and male. In the academic capitalist university, Metcalfe and Slaughter observe, men and women have achieved near-parity in administrative positions, but in the long run it does not matter: the real action happens in those interstitial units in science and engineering which “allow men to recapture some of the historic privilege they derived from higher education” while relegating the majority-female management of research administration, grants, and contracts to “handmaiden” status.

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