New Job: On Sunday, Aug 28 2011 

A brief bullet list of the opening of this new academic chapter:

  • New health insurance cards arrived in the mail yesterday.
  • Today, I became officially employed — the last week of meetings have been, I guess, pro bono work for the college.
  • This afternoon, the college celebrated matriculation with full regalia and, alas, two very boring speeches to doe-eyed freshpeople.
  • But then we split the new class into Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw based on a magical mortarboard’s suggestions, and had a feast complete with floating serving ware.
  • … or should have.
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X. The Offer Friday, Aug 26 2011 

Just in time for a new job season, the last installment of my job search retrospective: the MLA Joblist goes live on September 15th.

As I come to the end of this little series of posts, I find myself with a heavy sense of anti-climax. I think most of us understand our likely response when a job is offered — such a moment includes falling to our knees, exhaling deeply, weeping, staring blankly into the middle-distance, sprinting naked around the neighborhood in a fit of rapture…the usual.

What you’re supposed to do:

* Listen to the offer with sobriety and professional detachment.

* Ask a few clarifying questions.

* Promise to get back to the school within the (typically) allotted two weeks.

* Call back and negotiate for more money, perks, etc.

* Come to an agreement with the school.

What I did:

* See second paragraph of post, then multiply by four.

* Immediately accept the offer, with no negotiation.

* Remain extraordinarily happy about that.

*****

In my defense, about not negotiating: I’m sure I could have. In fact, on the day I received the call from my dean offering the position, I was just a few days away from a campus visit for another job. That’s what they call leverage, I suppose. I chose (consciously, really, despite the thrill of the offer) to not exercise the leverage, even told the dean that I would immediately accept the position and forgo a planned visit elsewhere.

Why do that? Why miss out on what many advisers will tell you is your only chance to make a meaningful financial change to your situation? Why miss out on the compounding effect of a relatively minor initial salary bump? Why not ask for tenure credit for my four previous years of full-time professorhood?

1) I really thought the offer was a fair one. It constituted a raise from my previous position, at a place where salaries are pretty strong in the first place. Further, I thought the offer represented a fair market value for both the school making the offer and for the region where the school was located. Yes, I could pinch for more, but to me that seemed like economic tunnel vision. There was so much good in the package as presented, I felt that it would be petty to hold out for more. Isn’t that what we sports fans hate about professional athletes, that they get a great offer and refuse to accept it, that they hold out for more just because they can?

2) Budgets are tight. Money matters for an institution’s long-term health. Yeah, an extra grand or two wouldn’t break the school, but from a philosophical position of shared responsibility, I felt that demanding more cash would trend toward the greed line. Again, the offer was good. Just because I could make it “better” doesn’t mean I should. Because even, say, a thousand dollars more to me would be a thousand fewer available for student scholarships, for facilities upgrade, for all of the day-to-day stuff that makes a college a place where you want to be.

3) My leverage was, as leverage often goes, an illusion. Based on my initial interview with School B, and based on the vibe of conversations with reps from said school (and I’m pretty good with these vibes), it’s quite likely I would have had a second offer to dangle as evidence of negotiatory imperative. But I didn’t really like School B very much.

Certainly, in comparison to School A, there was no real race. School A has stronger students, a much stronger reputation, is a much better philosophical fit with my educational mindset, is better located, pays quite a bit more, has a lighter teaching load, offers a course rotation of far greater interest. No sane person would choose School B over School A (apologies to School B, but I think the faculty there would probably agree). I would have taken a job at School B under typical circustances, but not with a chance to go to School A. Even for less money, I would have taken School A.

Thus the lack of real leverage is clear.

How could I, in good faith, use School B as a means to rake more money from School A, when there just really wasn’t any competition? It would have been dishonest to do so. Money won would be dirty money.

4) From the day the job ads came out, School A was where I wanted to be.

*****

Call me naive.

No, really. Go ahead.

But I think as academics we need to be mindful of these things. When a salary offer is sufficient, in fact quite good by national averages and standards, there’s no shame in saying yes. Some job advice out there suggests negotiating as a default response. And from an administrative perspective, they’re probably right. I’m sure the dean had some money in reserve that could have gone my way. In fact, I’m sure the dean was probably surprised that I didn’t try to negotiate for more. During the offer conversation, the dean had already said that a) the school hoped I could give them a decision within the typical two week timeframe (read: we know you’ll probably negotiate); b) they would try to counter any other offer I had (read: we figure you have other offers, and we have money to beat them).

So, call me naive again. Even stupid.

But, truly, I think there’s no shame, even merit, in “settling” for an opening offer. To me, the opening presentation represented a fair and responsible gesture on the part of the school. Coupled with how much I enjoyed my campus visit, my interaction with faculty and students, how well the college fit my academic, professional, and personal profile, it seemed ludicrous to quibble. The bottom line was that the offer was plenty, and I wanted to be there.

Moral to this story?

A few, I suppose:

Don’t be an idiot and leave money on the table like this dude.

Don’t be afraid to like a place enough to make a decision irrespective of finance.

******

A final wrap up bit: as I mention above, the school where I now teach was the position I most coveted on the joblist that year. In fact, had I been able to (realistically) choose from any school in the country, this would have been at the very least a college in the top five and, frankly, probably number one.

But when I read the job ad, I figured it was worthless to apply. The school was a reach for me, I thought. My credentials, though strong, were not particularly brand sensitive. My Ph.D., for example, comes from a place I think is wonderful, but that doesn’t really have a tremendous national presence. I think people that know it know that strong people are there and often come from there. But people who don’t know the program would probably be more likely to assume that it’s pretty nondescript, even weak. Further, my credentials seemed light for the preferences listed in the ad. Even though the job was for a beginning assistant professor, the expressed publication desire was more-in-line with an advanced (frankly, quite accomplished) scholar.

I applied anyway.

In the end, my credentials were enough to get an interview. And once the dust had cleared, I was the candidate who best fit the position.

So you never know.

Happy hunting this job season!

IX. Big Candidate On Campus Sunday, Aug 21 2011 

Maybe the greatest thing about a campus visit is the invitation itself: you know this is an exclusive party, limited usually to just three guests. And you’re on the list. You get to duck under the velvet ropes and hang with the in-crowd.

Kind of like getting an invite to google+.

Yet, while the campus invite is obviously the objective of every job candidate out there (this odd article at the Chronicle notwithstanding), it is also (obviously) high stakes. This is where you win the job. Or as my brother informed me, this is where all but one person loses the job. Really, that latter philosophy is probably less pessimistic than it sounds. And probably a bit too close to the truth for comfort.

Let’s put it this way — academics aren’t uniformly lauded for their impeccable social skills, and an on-campus interview is, above all else, dependent on the constant deployment of social skills. On the visit, you are with your desired colleagues all day long. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Social settings and formal settings. They guide you to the bathroom. They’re with you when you’re up, and they’re there when you’re tired and want to just unload. The candidate needs to be “on” in every moment when she or he is not sequestered in her lovely B&B (the job I got) or crappy budget motel next to a junkyard (the chosen boarding locale for the department I recently left).

“On,” however, is a word that needs clear definition. And that’s where I think I’ll make my focus.

First, the platitudes you’ve likely already heard, but bear repetition:

1) If you’re on a campus visit, the search committee has already decided that your credentials are more than good enough to warrant the hire.

1a) In fact, in nearly all cases, credentials are beside the point now. An easy way to appear grad-student-y would be to continually push ones credentials on the department being visited.

1b) That said, people will ask you constantly about your diss, your research, your plans. Good candidates answer these questions quickly, clearly, and with an aura of established professionalism instead of unsure, recently defense-battered doctoral student.

2) A campus visit is mostly about seeing which candidate will be a good colleague (professionally and, to be honest, often socially) for many years. Like — and I saw this point elsewhere, at a location I forget so I can’t cite, but I want to give general credit to someone smarter than me — the people making the hire figure they’ll be stuck with/glad for this colleague until they retire.

3) You’re always being interviewed…in formal situations like a sit down with a dean…and informal situations like driving around town looking at the movie theater and wondering aloud why there’s a Saw I through CM retrospective at the local “arthouse” cinema.

***The first job I ever lost I lost this way: at lunch, I remarked to the search chair that I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue working on the novel that had earned me my degree, that I’d chuck it and start over. Insignificant comment? Naw. That search chair offered me advice, after hiring someone else, boiling down to: don’t tell the search chair that your only significant piece of scholarship is something you personally find worthless. One could argue that in nearly all cases, theses and dissertations ought to be chucked, ought to be considered significant only as culmination pieces of education and not as future pieces of professional scholarship. But one should not argue that with a search chair. Anyway, the job sucked and I was lucky not to get it.***

4) Relax.

And this leads me to the definition of “on.” Or at least to my definition of “on.”

I think the last thing an on-campus candidate needs to do is sell him- or herself. There are no widgets in this transaction. There is only a self, a professional and personal identity that may or may not be joining an already established community. And that established community is infinitely complex and inscrutable. The best “sell” a candidate can present is the “self.” By that I implore authenticity. At the end of the visit, I think authenticity makes or breaks a candidate. There’s a wide, wide range of personalities that can fit into a job. Too many candidates, I think, try to pretend to be something they think the hiring department “wants.” Often, by this point, the department doesn’t exactly know what specific thing it wants. I mean, by now the finalists probably bear little resemblance to the original job ad (and that’s a good thing). Instead, the department has found three or four intriguing academics who seem like they might add something to the mix. Trying to fit into the department would mean taking away from the self, which is the “add” part of the whole deal. Thus, being “on” in a semi-smarmy, vacuum cleaner sales kind of way (I have so much more suction than the other candidates!), is not only offputting and annoying, it eliminates the most important part of the equation.

You.

On campus, that’s who the department wants to see. The real you. The person who will have an office down the hall. Who will sit across the table at meetings. Who will be teaching the students who (one hopes) the hiring faculty care about.

On the visit for the job I’m now in, I met with most of the individuals in the department, the college dean, the college diversity head, and a dozen or more students formal settings. I met many more in casual, informal hallway moments. There really would have been no way to fabricate “on” personas for each of these without become a muddle of vagueness. Thus, I channeled Sinatra and did it my way, which is to say, was “on” as myself. Certainly I tried to stay enthusiastic and energetic, but I didn’t try to sell anything.

Really, I think that likely distinguished myself from the other candidates. Now, in so doing I could have easily revealed myself to be not what this department wanted. That’s the risk. But that’s an important risk. No doubt your mama told you one day, if they don’t like you for who you are, then they aren’t worth worrying about. Same deal for job visits. If a department doesn’t like you and your authentic self, then you probably won’t have a happy career there if you happen to “sell” a persona and “win” an offer.

Indeed, this is your life. This is more than a paycheck. This is who you will work with, probably for many years, perhaps for your career (job hopping ain’t so easy in the humanities). This is the school where you will forge a mature, academic identity. This is the town where you will grow roots and join a community. How awful to gain entry to that future with a version of yourself? Gain it with the fullest self.

Which leads me to one last platitude

5) Remember, you’re interviewing them, too. Which is true enough — the department will be trying to show itself off as a fine place to work. And all of what I’m saying about authenticity applies there, too. If a place trumpets itself as on the cutting edge of technology, and all the faculty have 386s in their office, well you’ve just learned something valuable about the likely day-to-day atmosphere of the institution and not just its tech specs.

5a) But, in the end, you’re the one looking for the job. So try not to imply that they’re on the hot seat. Because, even if your authentic self is an imperious ass, well…that’s a tough sell anywhere.