Yeah, Screw You Too, Academia

I recently received a long-awaited verdict on an official complaint I had filed: there was in fact nothing formally wrong with the decision by the Dept of Historical Studies in Gothenburg to hire Zeppo Begonia. Since the verdict didn't go my way, as planned I am now turning my back on academic archaeology. The reason is that qualifications don't count in Scandyland.

Being friends with people inside, and preferably being a local product, is what gets you academic jobs here. I need to cut my losses and move on. I would call this post a burning of bridges if there were any to burn, but there are none. Fourteen years on this joke of a job “market” have demonstrated that it doesn't matter whom I piss off now: there won't be a steady job for me either way.

I've been applying for academic jobs all over Scandinavia since 2003. The longest employment I've been able to secure was a 6-month temp lectureship at 55% of full time – during one of three happy years when I headed freshman archaeology in remote Umeå. But time and time again, I've seen jobs given to dramatically less qualified colleagues.

Norwegian university recruitment is particularly ugly. There, rules stipulate that the “external” hiring committee has to be chaired by a senior faculty member from the hiring department itself – with predictable results. The most egregious case I've seen was not long ago at the University of Oslo's archaeological museum, where a [uniquely young] recent [University of Oslo] PhD with hardly any publications at all got a steady research lectureship. She had been working closely with a professor at the museum. Who chaired the hiring committee. And who was once, prior to this, super angry with me when I complained about the Norwegian system on Facebook, haha! I've seen the same thing at the Oslo uni department and at NTNU in Trondheim recently. Local people with poor qualifications who could never compete anywhere else get permanent positions.

Denmark's system is completely non-transparent. You don't get a list of who applied and you don't get to read their evaluations, like you do in Sweden and Norway. What tends to happen in my experience is that you get a glowingly enthusiastic evaluation, which feels super nice, and then they hire some Dane. The country has only two archaeology departments that produce these strangely employable Danes.

Finland's university humanities used to be poorly funded. To boot they have recently been radically de-funded from that prior low level. The Finns understandably never advertise any jobs at all.

Sweden is no better than its neighbours. Our hiring committees for steady jobs are fully external, so that's good. But you get steady jobs on the strength of your temping experience. And temp teachers are hired with no external involvement at all, like in the recent case of Zeppo Begonia in Gothenburg. This was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. The Faculty of Humanities at this university, let me remind you, was severely censured by the Swedish Higher Education Authority back in May for many years of gross misconduct in their hiring practices. Local favouritism is the deal here.

There are quite a few people in Scandy academic archaeology whom I'd like to see driving a bus for a living. Zeppo Begonia is not one of them. He is a solid empiricist prehistorian of Central European origin whose work I respect and admire. If you ask me who should get research funding, I will reply “Zeppo Begonia”. I would like to see many more Zeppoes in my discipline. I think we should import them to replace some of our own shoddy products. But look at our respective qualifications for this measly one-year temp lectureship at 60%.

  • The ad specified that you needed solid knowledge of Scandy archaeology to do the job. I'm 45 and I've worked full time in Scandy archaeology for 25 years. Zeppo is 39 and started working and publishing here four years ago.
  • I have published five academic books. Zeppo has published one.
  • I have published 45 journal papers and book chapters in a wide range of respected outlets. Zeppo has published 23.
  • Zeppo and I have both been temp teachers for some percentage of four academic years.
  • I have published 29 pieces of pop-sci, including one book, plus eleven years of this blog. Zeppo has published no pop-sci.
  • Out of Zeppo's research output, little deals with Scandy archaeology, but several of these pieces are co-authored with senior figures in archaeology at the University of Gothenburg. Hint, hint.

This, as you can see, is just ridiculous. And there is no legal recourse unless you are discriminated against on grounds of race, gender etc. The appeals board has proved to ignore qualification issues. Believe me, I've tried.

To finish off, a few words for my colleagues at Scandinavian archaeology departments. Have you published five academic books and 45 journal papers? Are you extremely popular with the students? Have you worked in Scandinavian archaeology for at least 25 years? Have you got other heavy qualifications, like an 18-year stint as managing editor of a major journal and 11 years of keeping one of the world's biggest archaeology blogs? If your answer to any of these questions is no, then I would have your job if Scandy academic archaeology were a meritocracy.

The head of department, Helène Whittaker, has declined to comment on the case of Zeppo Begonia. I use this pseudonym for him to emphasise that he has done nothing wrong. He just applied for a job.

More like this

The Swedish Higher Education Authority (Universitetskanslersämbetet) has evaluated our basic university programmes in a long series of subjects. The results for archaeology were published yesterday, based on the status 2012. There were 21 BA (3 yrs), Mag.Phil. (4 yrs) and MA (5 yrs) programmes at…
Oslo colleagues have asked me to give a fuller account of the spring 2017 hiring that I called the most egregious case I’ve seen. This is not because they're trying to make the University of Oslo's Museum of Cultural History look good, but because they feel that I unfairly singled out a single hire…
Habilitation, docentur, is a symbolic upgrade to your PhD found in Scandinavia and other countries with a strong element of German academic traditions. You can think of it as a boy-scout badge. It confers no salary, but it opens certain doors including that of supervising doctoral candidates.…
My professional goal since undergraduate days 20 years ago has been to divide my working hours between indoor research, fieldwork and teaching. And so I applied for my first academic job in June of 2003, shortly before my thesis defence. When I saw the list of applicants (this stuff is public in…

If it helps, I've found life outside academia to be very agreeable. Less stress, greater security, and, actually, more freedom to plan and implement my job than when I was staff scientist.

Desperately unjust and disheartening. I am no stranger to such unjust treatment, towards the latter part of my previous career. A lot of people sympathised and expressed to me their sympathy and sense that I had been treated unfairly - I was grateful for their sentiments, but they actually did nothing to help. The bitterness it engendered in me hurt no one but myself. Carried too long, the bitterness can translate into real serious physical illness.

In financial circles there is a thing called the 'sunk cost fallacy':

The term also applies in military conflicts.

The rational actor accepts that the 'sunk cost' has turned out to be a bad investment, despite showing early promise, and determines not to throw any more resources in after it, but instead pursues a different and more promising direction. The sooner that the rational actor comes to this decision, the better off he will be.

Cutting your losses and moving on without a backward glance, and if possible without harbouring feelings of bitterness (difficult, I know) is the very best thing you can do for yourself, and will cause you the least harm.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Sep 2017 #permalink

I'm so sorry that things didn't work out, Martin. So... you've got qualifications, you're a good communicator and you have an internet audience. What's your next step in life?
PS, if it's sex work, please don't post videos...

By Jim Sweeney (not verified) on 29 Sep 2017 #permalink

Not to downgrade "Scandy" problems, but here at the University of Washington in Seattle WA USA the Regents violate the Washington State Open Meetings Act; they carved out a special, phony, high-paying job for a Seattle mayoral candidate who recently had to resign as Mayor of Seattle in the face of numerous allegations of past criminal behavior; and they have partnered with the student-murdering government of China to open up a "Global Innovation Exchange" near Microsoft. My alma mater University of Washington has become a corrupt, money-chasing elite club of country-club types and corporate whores who care not one whit about student lives or student welfare. Remember the Tiananmen Massacre!

By Mentifex (Arth… (not verified) on 29 Sep 2017 #permalink

PhDs are grossly overproduced so that very fine academics, such as yourself, have little hope of getting tenure-track positions. All of us employed outside or inside academia should be sympathetic.

Here in the U.S., collegiality, attitude, "fit", and predicted future productivity are all taken into account in hiring. It is not enough to say "X has more publications than Y, therefore X must be hired" (or, if Y is already employed there, that Y's job should be given to X). After all, that doesn't even take into account the quality of publications; it's only a bean count.

As for pop-sci and blogging, some departments may love that, but if too much time is spent on that, others will view it as a distraction from "real" scholarship. You have shown that you can be productive in both areas at once, but departments may still see the former as a time-waster. Maybe not fair, but the reality of academia.

I'm sorry to hear about your situation as well. I'm not an academic, but I'm having similar issues as an older lawyer without what we call "portable business" in the US. What do you plan to do next?

By Catherine Raymond (not verified) on 29 Sep 2017 #permalink

Martin, why was Scandinavia the only option? In the fields I know better, its pretty much expected that you will apply for jobs around the world if you are serious about a teaching career (even though that weighs the scales against those with spouses, dependents, or health problems). Canada has a larger population than the five Scandy countries put together, but that is still not a large academic job market.

The Assyriologists in Finland seem to have a bit of money this decade, but I think I am going to google that "radically de-funded" bit.

Thank you everyone for your kind words!

John, you are absolutely right, this is a time to remember the sunk cost fallacy.

Catherine, I have begun asking around for work in contract archaeology. This non-academic business offers the great majority of jobs in my field, and has to do with land development.

Sean, archaeology is strongly regional. My knowledge of archaeological finds and structures is useless in southern Europe, not to mention other continents. I've applied for numerous jobs in the UK on the strength of the Viking connection, with no result.

You got that right! All the best and good luck!

By Mads Møller Nielsen (not verified) on 30 Sep 2017 #permalink

Work to live, not live to work..but keep on chasing rainbows Martin.

By David Huggins (not verified) on 01 Oct 2017 #permalink

To my experience the ONLY thing counting in academia is publishing in high profile peer-review journals.

That is:
Books: "What is this?" - 0 points
Book chapters: "Oh, pleeze..." - 0 points
Articles in non peer-review journals (like FV): "Give me a break!" - 0 points
Popular science: "HAHAHAHA!"

So, how was the stand between you and Zeppo with this system in mind?

By Jens Heimdahl (not verified) on 03 Oct 2017 #permalink

I still beat him, but not by as large an amount.

Looking in from the outside, for a discipline like Archaeology, active involvement in field work seems like it should be an important component. Actually, essential, I would have thought.

For my own specialist discipline, Geotechnical Engineering, going to site is an essential component. There is no place for 'desk jockeys'. I have sacked Geotechnical Engineers who declined to engage in field work (or who pretended they were going to site when they weren't - spending whole days on site in rough terrain wearing a three piece woollen pin-striped suit and polished leather shoes? In the middle of a tropical Hong Kong summer? Not once, but frequently? Really? See that door over there? Walk through it and don't come back.)

By John Massey (not verified) on 03 Oct 2017 #permalink

The US academic market is worse in most respects than what you have been dealing with in Scandinavia. Hiring committees are always comprised of professors in the hiring department. Rumor mill sites exist (at least in physics), but you can never officially know who else is applying, other than the person who ultimately accepts the job. And it's not unusual to see applicant numbers in the triple digits for a single position, so the committee often must weed out qualified applicants even before the interview stage.

The US actually does have laws against discrimination on the basis of age (as long as you are between 18 and 70). I understand that is unusual, and that many countries are free to consider you "over the hill" because you have passed your 40th birthday.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 09 Oct 2017 #permalink

Eric, I believe US hiring committees rarely pick a locally educated applicant, though.

Martin, that depends strongly on the institution and department. In some fields, most especially chemistry, it is expected that faculty will have undergraduate degrees, Ph.D.s, and postdocs at three different institutions, none of which is the hiring institution. Physics, especially in large departments, is somewhat more forgiving: while such cases are rare, I do know of people who came to their institution as first-year students and never left. And while there is plenty of demand for both entry-level researchers and top level people, mobility for mid-career types like me is just about nil. Many physics departments will follow chemistry's example in insisting on hiring outsiders as faculty, but that is not always the case.

I have no direct knowledge of what the situation is in the humanities, other than that we, like everybody else, are overproducing Ph.D.s. But you would almost certainly be having difficulties in the US system, because the chances of getting a tenure-track position are vanishingly small for anybody whose degree is from one of the top-ranked (between 10 and 20) US universities. For example, a local construction contractor who has done some work on my house has a Ph.D. in history with a specialty in Colonial era music. In his case it was a hobby that he was serious enough about to pursue a Ph.D. When I first met him, he was a student, and he was doing construction work to pay the bills. He continues to do construction work because it pays far better than any job he could get with his Ph.D. Our history program has historically been one of our top-ranked Ph.D. programs, but it is definitely not in the top 20.

One scam that is routine in the US is the overly specific job advertisement (this is not limited to academia; you see it in the private sector as well). Sometimes the hiring department knows in advance exactly whom they want to hire, and write the job description such that the preferred candidate is the only one who qualifies. I don't waste my time applying for those jobs because I know they are looking for somebody else.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 09 Oct 2017 #permalink

I think there's a "not" missing from "the chances of getting a tenure-track position are vanishingly small for anybody whose degree is from one of the top-ranked (between 10 and 20) US universities".

The overly specific job ad is well known in Scandyland too. We call it the "shoe size ad".