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MFA Thesis, Job Search

Some books and noted speakers make the case that academia is one of the better career paths for autistic adults capable of completing the required education. I'm unconvinced this is good advice for anyone, much less autistic individuals.

Let me begin with the academic job market. Even within STEM fields, which have lower unemployment and better prospects in general, the academic job market is lousy. Data show too many post-doctoral workers and too many professors in these fields, while demand is high in private industry. Because industry now engages in research, especially in fields with perceived imminent returns such as automation, it might be wise to pursue private industry positions.

Cuts to science funding at the state and federal levels also make the sciences a difficult market within academia. University posts exist only when research funding is secure and plentiful. When there are too few funding sources, universities and colleges quickly shift the teaching of undergraduate courses to the over-supply of graduate students. Research professors find teaching loads increased. That's the reality of current funding.

The social sciences and humanities face intense pressure, especially at public universities, to demonstrate employment potential. From the arts to journalism to social work and beyond, the return on investments are not there for many career paths. Parents (and students) decide the investment in an English or history degree isn't justified by the returns, so enrollments remain flat or decline. Again, professors are replaced with graduate students, lecturers, and adjunct faculty. The tenure track withers.

More classes are taught nationwide by non-tenured faculty than the traditional research professor. These contingent jobs are not viable career paths. Each year, you might or might not be renewed. The pay is low. The hours are long. The social and emotional demands of these posts are not ideal for many autistic individuals.

This is the ugly reality:

Today, more than 50 percent of all faculty appointments are part-time.

  • This includes positions that may be classified by the institution as adjuncts, part-time lecturers, or graduate assistantships.
  • Many faculty in so-called "part-time" positions actually teach the equivalent of a full-time course load.
  • Over one-fifth of part-time appointments are held by graduate student employees, whose chances of obtaining tenure-track positions in the future are increasingly uncertain.
  • To support themselves, part-time faculty often commute between institutions and prepare courses on a grueling timetable, making enormous sacrifices to maintain interaction with their students.

Autistics tend to like predictable routines, low-stress, and less social environments. Most are not natural networkers. The idea of "pitching yourself" year after year, like a new and improved product, is unappealing.

I've taught at seven institutions of higher learning. Seven. I do not have a tenure-track full-time job. I completed my doctorate in 2010 and am completing my master of fine arts this summer. My speaking, publishing, and teaching evaluations do nothing to guarantee any employment. Instead, I spend my springs wondering if I'll be working in the fall.

How can I suggest this is a good path for someone else, especially an autistic adult? I cannot. I tell my students, including those with dreams of becoming professors, that a second and third plan would be wise. Put industry at the top of the list, ahead of academia. You need to pay off loans and you need some job security.

I've written before: it makes sense to follow a career in the STEM fields, in private industry, because work products are valued. In academia, your social skills determine your path towards tenure. Promotion is as much about popularity within your field as it is your work. It's simply not easy for me to be as social as is necessary for success in academia.

Consider the service requirement most institutions have for promotion. You need serve on the committees, boards, and in leadership offices of national scholarly organizations. Do I want to run for office of any group? Not really. Do I want to attend crowded, noisy, conferences? Absolutely not. Yet, those are activities that help determine your national standing as a professor.

Academic publishing is also about networking, beyond the quality of idea. With so many people needing to publish, editors naturally favor people they consider easy and pleasant collaborators. They recall people from conferences. They, like business people, hire and publish the other professors they know best and with whom they largely agree. It's not a lack of professionalism or integrity: it is human nature.

And then you have student evaluations, which are a questionable bit of process embraced by universities because students are "customers" and you want them to be happy customers. The weight of evaluations leads adjuncts and other contingent professors to avoid conflicts. Some universities even have minimum evaluation average scores for part-time workers. Students don't know what they need to learn (nobody does). I would never tell my lawyer or my doctor what to do, but students are empowered to tell professors how to teach. It is insanity, and studies show evaluations are sexist, racist, and classist. Students rank women lower than men. They rank ethnic groups (outside their own) based on cultural biases. Online professors score lower than in-person professors. And so on.

Autistic adults might not be able to "charm" colleagues and students. That lack of charm, unfortunately, matters a lot I've learned.

So, as I look for the next job, which might or might not exist, I realize that the academic career path is not one I recommend to other people. If I do not secure a tenure-track, full-time post for 2017-18, I'll move on to other work. At some point, you have to stop pursuing what might be an unrealistic path ahead.

I have student loans, family responsibilities, and things I would like to do. Earning a living is not optional, even if I love teaching.

Please, autism experts, don't promote unrealistic career paths. That includes the academic path.


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