Keisha Blain attended a top program in her field, collaborated with renowned scholars and wrote an award-winning dissertation — all of which she was sure would lead to an immediate and secure academic appointment.
But upon graduating from Princeton University with a PhD in History in 2014, she discovered that she had vastly underestimated the number of scholars seeking tenure-track positions. Blain was not only competing against her direct peers, but against talented scholars who had not been able to find steady work in the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession and had become even more competitive applicants in the intervening years.
“That’s when I realized all along that I had felt some undue sense of security,” Blain, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in African American history, said. “There’s still this rosy colored picture that we sell to graduate students that yes, things are tough, but hard work and excellent scholarship will open doors.”
When a position at a university fell through because of a hiring freeze, Blain decided to complete a postdoctoral fellowship — a temporary position that varies in length during which entry-level academics continue their research at various institutions — after which she held a few other positions before being promoted to her current tenured role last year.
It worked out for Blain, but for every academic success story like hers, there are hundreds more that involve equally qualified academics who, as The Atlantic’s Adam Harris writes, are “trapped in academia’s permanent underclass.” And the coronavirus may only make the situation for these educators, who are effectively gig workers cobbling together several positions to survive and who are most often women and people of color, worse.
As budgets are stricken and mass layoffs become routine, scholars of all levels are fighting back to make sure diversity in academia won’t become collateral damage in the pandemic.