NOTE: I'm not sure if this is a draft (a Draft draft!) of something to maybe be sent to the publication formerly known as the SAA Bulletin...or just a rant (a daft Draft??)
We all know, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, that the academic job market is not really all that merit-based. Oh, it certainly helps to have lots of good publications, a good teaching record, grant money, an on-going research project, et cetera ad nauseam. But there are no guarantees.
You could be two years out of a top graduate program, with a top post-doc and a year as a Visiting Assistant Professor under your belt, a sole-authored star-treatmented (positively, no less!) Current Anthropology article, a handful of articles in American Antiquity, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, and regional journals, a book contract, a $200,000 grant, and glowing letters of recommendation from respected members of the field...and still not get a job.
You might not even get an interview for a job that looked like it was written for you; a job that you later learn went to an ABD with one article in press and no teaching experience.
Am I describing a real situation that I (or an acquaintance) have been through? No, but the story remains all too plausible, simply because there is a huge element of randomness involved in the job market. That job that looked like it was written for you? Maybe they said North America, but they really meant U.S. Southeast. Maybe they really wanted someone with a local project that could serve as a fieldschool right away, but your work is three states over. Maybe they don't think lab types are "real archaeologists." Maybe they're a hoity-toity liberal arts college and, however impressed they are with your grad school, can't imagine hiring someone who went to Southwestern Central State U as an undergrad. Maybe they took one look at your C.V. and said, "She's too good; we'd never be able to keep her." Maybe their department hasn't hired a woman in the thirty years they've been in existence, and A) isn't about to start now, or B) is starting to get embarassed about it--either way, you could be screwed. Maybe one of the search committee members was rejected when they applied for graduate admission to your grad program many years ago and has nursed a grudge ever since. Maybe no one in the department has been on the job market in thirty years and figures there must be something wrong with you since you haven't gotten a job already. Maybe it was Harvard and your record is so good they knew they couldn't get away with not tenuring you when the time came. The possibilities are endless.
The worst thing about the job market in archaeology (I'm sure it's like this in some other fields, too), in my not so humble opinion, is the uncertainty. The uncertainty on the part of the applicant: "Why didn't they consider me? Am I pathetic, or just not a good fit?" and the uncertainty on the part of the search committee: "How strong a candidate do we really have a shot at getting and keeping?" I'm convinced the latter happens a lot, particularly at smaller schools. There have been too many cases where I've had friends with great research, publication, and teaching records (and myself, too, though I don't fit that description) apply for a job at some little crappy school (well, and sometimes a not-so-little, not-so-crappy school)—and for none of us to get so much as a request for letters or a phone interview...and then for the school to end up hiring someone with no record to speak of—presumably because that's what's normal there. It never occurs to the search committee that jobs are so hard to come by that even extremely strong candidates would be thrilled to take the job.
So, what's the solution? I don't think there is one, but I'd like to put forward an only slightly tongue-in-cheek proposal: the SAA Draft. Like the NFL draft, or the NBA draft--but probably not like the MLB draft, since we don't have a farm system in academia.
So, the proposal:
Each year, early in the fall semester, those archaeologists who want a job for the following academic year enter their names in the draft by submitting generic research and teaching statements, CVs, and letters of recommendation. Slightly later, say by the end of October (to allow schools about to lose someone—see below—to replace them), colleges and universities submit job packages to the draft-running organization, presumably the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). The job package would include salary and benefits, start-up costs, ongoing research support, teaching load, and so forth. A committee empanelled by SAA (perhaps elected by the membership, perhaps appointed by the SAA President) would convene over winter break, and rank the job packages. They would be able to take into account not only the information presented by the school, but also the school's and department's reputations, location (in terms of cost-of-living, etc.), prestige, and so forth. The resulting rankings would determine the draft order.
The time between the release of the draft order and the SAA Annual Meeting would give schools an opportunity to conduct any interviews they thought were worth their time and money to help them figure out who they want to draft, much the same way NBA and NFL teams bring in prospective draftees for private workouts. The prospective draftees, themselves, could also work to bring themselves to the notice of their preferred destinations, though they would have to accept the risk of coming off badly.
At the SAA meetings, there could be some time on Thursday and Friday for last-minute interviews and such, but then, on Saturday, the President of the SAA would step to a microphone and intone, "With the first pick in the 2012 SAA draft, the University of _________ selects __________ from the University of ____________. _________ College has ten minutes to make their selection."
Put in the top job package, and you are 100% guaranteed to get the person you want the most. Put in a weaker package, and you might have to settle for someone you were ambivalent about. But if you're sitting there with the last pick, you don't have to wonder, "How good a researcher/teacher can we get?" You can get anyone you want who still hasn't been selected.
From the job-seeker's perspective, merit becomes a little more obviously relevant. The public nature of the system means that you can look at the previous several years' results and see what kind of record is important to the kind of school you want a job at. Each school is still going to have their own particular needs and wants, but they'll have to weigh those in relation to who's out there. Do you pick the best paleoethnobotanist because that's what you feel your department needs, or do you pick the geoarchaeologist who is blowing everyone away? That's going to depend on a lot of school-specific factors, of course. But on the other hand, the geoarchaeologist who's blowing everyone away is going to get a job, even if none of the schools that put together job packages back in October were thinking at the time that they wanted a geoarch person. Some schools will pick on need, some on 'best-available', but they result is likely to be that merit starts to matter more than random craziness.
(Among other things, everyone knows that Stupid University passed up on Rising Star Zooarchaeologist to pick Iffy Lithics Analyst, with the result that Lucky College got R.S. Zooarchaeologist in the biggest draft-day steal since eventual two-time MVP Steve Nash went fifteenth in the 1996 NBA draft. Never underestimate the power of derision.)
Of course, there would have to be some significant rules to keep the system from being abused. There would be a big problem if Pretty Good University got what they thought was a steal with the 14th pick in 2012, but said pick decided his new grant would let him move up and entered the 2013 draft. Worse, suppose the person Pretty Good University drafted didn't take the job? They're left in the lurch, as their second choice may have gotten drafted by Middling College with the 19th pick. The answer, I think, is set length contracts which the draftee is obligated to sign.
(I'd like to think that anyone entering the draft two or more times in rapid succession would be seen as too big a risk, and that the system would thus be self-correcting, but I'm too cynical. I could be wrong, though, so I’m far from dogmatic on this point.)
I think four-year contracts would be about right. The decision whether to go back in the draft or to stay and try to get tenure at the current institution would be made after the most common time for pre-tenure review (most schools do a halfway-to-tenure review, which sometimes includes a possibility of termination). The school gets a guaranteed four years of work out of the draftee, and the job seeker doesn't have to compete for an entry-level job with too many people who are already assistant professors. The draftee gets to decide whether or not to go back into the draft after a major pre-tenure review and at the time when she would be negotiating her new contract.
The school that drafted you and for whom you have worked 80-hour weeks for three years doesn't want to give you a good raise to get you to stay? Reenter the draft. They're incapable of understanding the value of your research? Reenter the draft. Your colleagues have driven you nuts for three years? Reenter the draft.
"Welcome to the 2013 SAA draft, live from Honolulu, Hawaii. Hot Shit University is on the clock!"
DISCLAIMER: SAA doesn't have and isn't going to get an anti-trust exemption from congress, so the whole thing would have to be voluntary. Both schools and applicants would be free to continue using the current system, though I'd like to think the draft would tend to relegate such hiring to post-tenure jobs.
NOTE: I like the idea of a reverse draft even better, where the committee ranks the job seekers, who then pick their jobs in order...but I'm already asking for too much.