Finish It Tuesday, Oct 18 2011 

An interesting article addresses the problem of l-o-n-g Ph.D. programs as a pathology supported by the job market.

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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.

VIII. Wait, Wait, Wait Saturday, Jun 4 2011 

Things to do while waiting to hear back about job apps:

1) Freak out — this will happen, of course. So I’m putting it first. Feel free to do so, because in some way freaking relieves stress.

2) Chill out — this is harder to do, but more important. #1 must be counterbalanced, lest your become insufferable, paranoid, self-righteous, depressive, and generally awful to be around. Try to remind yourself that you’ve done everything you could. You’ve put your best self out there, and no amount of freaking will change what’s already in motion. So chill.

3) Something else — do things non-academic, that provide pleasure. Be nice to yourself.

4) Check the wiki — as I detailed in a previous post, this can be all consuming, but still helpful. Usually, you’ll find confirmation from other waiters that waiting is all that’s happening. And when someone posts something that shows an inability to follow #2, you can feel better that you’re not that kind of pre-academic.

5) Trust in yourself and, sort of, in the process — I know the process sucks. I know the process needs to somehow be reinvented. But it still kind of somehow sort of works. And the waiting, at the very least, is a good sample of the kind of non-speed that academia employs. It might help to think of the wait as a learning opportunity. But you probably won’t (I didn’t), and you’ll probably just decide (as I did) that the process is &^#(*! up. Rely on yourself, then, in faith in your worth, your work, your life, your humanity, your friends, your significant others, your pets, your video game addiction, but mostly on yourself. As other, wiser bloggers have said, you’ve earned a Ph.D. Not many people ever do that and, despite what many people seem to think, most people couldn’t ever do it. The degree is a huge accomplishment in its own right, a valuable if intangible reward for hard grad school work. Revel in that. Really.

6) Understand the academic timeline — I put it this way…search committees are guaranteed to get back to you one day after you can’t possibly bear to wait another day.

Now, a few notes on waiting:

1) Often, if you’re waiting a really, really long time…well…you’re probably right to think that means what you think it means.

2) But often is not always. Timelines vary. Some schools are crazy slow (like the one I just left). On a recent hire there, the search committee called candidates for interviews two days before MLA. Then nothing happened. Campus invitations finally came out in late February, stretched out for a month (with Spring Break in the middle). Then nothing. An offer was made; the candidate strung them along; the candidate said no. A second offer was made; the second candidate strung then along; the candidate said no. A third offer was made in early May. May for goodness sakes.Two months after the campus visits. Four months after MLA. Six months after applications. Third candidate took the job.

3) And sometimes, the wait…oh the wait. For my own (ultimately failed) application at this same school: I applied for the job by an initial mid-March deadline, for a job that was listed as beginning the following Fall. Silence. I learn from inside sources that the committee forgot to advertise the job nationally. So they advertised and extended the deadline to April. Silence. Nothing. The committee did not meet at all. I received a letter in June announcing that the committee was suspending review for the summer, but would get back to things in the fall. Long summer of silence. Then more silence in the fall. I received a letter from the Dean, promoting me and giving me a handy raise after finishing my Ph.D. (though I remained on a contingent contract). Silence from the search committee. More silence. Did I mention that I saw members of the search committee on a daily basis? More silence. One day in October, I saw signs up around the department office asking for silence while the search committee conducted phone interviews. To me, more silence. In November, the faculty listserv announced the presences of candidates on campus to interview for the job. To me, more silence. At some point in December — without public announcement to the department — the committee hired someone for the job. Around March of the next year, I finally received a generic, short, thanks-for-applying-but-we-hired-someone-else letter. And that was the full extent of what I heard from my day-to-day colleagues about a job for which the department chair had told me I was a shoo-in. Time from initial deadline to hire = nine months. Time from initial deadline to my notification = one year.

4) Do not spend mental energy worrying about the waiting. You just can’t figure out what long periods of silence mean. In #2, the long wait led someone to a nice academic appointment. In #3, the long wait translated to a dysfunctional search committee in a dysfunctional department running an unprofessional search (disclaimer: I’m bitter about that application experience, of course. But I believe I am objectively classifying this search process as unprofessional — perhaps one day I’ll write more about the whole sordid thing).

5) In all things, waiting is the worst. The unknown and unseen lets our minds turn on ourselves. If possible, we should therefore treat waiting as merely nothing. It is time passing. It means little. Worry affects nothing.

6) Waiting makes it clear that our best friends in the job process are ourselves. We must act always at our best. We must feel we’ve presented ourselves as authentically, honestly, and fully as possible. And we must truly accept that as the reward. Consider a well-crafted application its own reward. Sure, that wins no job, but it is both all we do and what we must do. For ourselves. Maybe the Boy Scout Promise is a good model for the academic process:

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to (academia) and my country
and to obey the (Search Committee guidelines);
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and (intellectually) straight.

VII. Conference Time Wednesday, May 18 2011 

I’m not sure who came up with the conference interview idea, but certainly that person (or committee…an idea like that had to come from a committee) harbored a great love for absurdity or torture. No doubt, most graduate students pondering the market have heard the usual conference tidbits:

* Interviews in small hotel rooms, where some committee members sit on the bed.

* Candidates meeting each other awkwardly in the hallway…

Okay. I’m stopping that kind of rehash/urban legend/horror story now. If you want ’em, google ’em. They’re easy enough to find.

On my successful job year, I garnered three conference interviews out of 55 or so applications. A five percent success ratio that, in the skewed statistics of English Studies, denotes terrific success. (Actually, I had 3.1 — more on that in a moment). Two of my interviews were at MLA, one at AWP.

MLA

Both of my interviews happened to be in the same hotel, so I booked my room for that same hotel. I figured it would prevent a difficult cross-town jaunt, which proved wise. This was the LA MLA, a spread out, not-great-to-walk location. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to appear stalkerish, so I agreed to usual protocols for meet-ups: this particular hotel had suites in a key-secured area, prohibiting direct candidate access to the rooms. The first interviewing school said they’d meet me in the lobby. So I got ready, rode the elevator to the lobby, and waited with several other applicants waiting for their own meet-ups.

We all tried to look nonchalant in our dashing interview get-ups, and we all whipped out our cell phones at exactly the same moment to call up and notify our escorts of arrival. In that moment, I overheard someone nearby calling the chair of the interviewing committee that I knew I’d be meeting in the afternoon. Competition now known.

My contact person came down, we made idle chit chat in the elevator, then arrived at a nice enough suite. Chairs in a little alcove, where I met with two members of the department I sought to woo. The conversation was amicable. I remember little.

In the afternoon, I followed more or less the same routine, although I met the committee on an agreed-upon public access floor instead of the lobby. There, I happened to run into a few committee members lolling around between sessions, and I successful greeted one by mispronouncing his last name and applying an unsolicited diminutive of his first name. I mention this because (spoiler alert) I got the job — so insignificant detail obsession has been proven to be worthless paranoia.

This brings me to what I’ll consider the theme of this job market posting: humanity.

It’s easy to forget that we apply not to committees and institutions, but to real people who happen to work in academic departments. Thus the kind of minor gaffes that populate the anxiety-ridden mind really aren’t that big of a deal. You know what I’m talking about — people who claim to have lost jobs because their shoes were the wrong brand, or because they slightly mis-spoke, or perhaps accidentally let it be known that they have actually applied to more than one school, or present themselves as human beings with interests that extend at all beyond their cv.

In my experience, the members of search committees are looking to hire future colleagues, not cvs. So they’re likely to overlook minor human foibles (unless they happen to be total @$$holes, and really, even in a bad market, you don’t want that job). More, I really think they’re looking to see candidates as people. They want to get a feel for them, who they are as whole beings. This isn’t to say that the entire interview should focus on, say, gardening, but I will say that in all of my interviews “gardening” came up, sometimes at length. True, “gardening” has a bit to do with my academic work, too, but I think the human angle mattered more. Both of these MLA committees seemed pleased to have an at-ease conversation, one that covered the necessary academic issues but also helped them understand who I am and helped me understand who they are.

Outside of the interview rooms, what struck me most about MLA this year (more so than in previous years I’ve attended…and unsuccessfully interviewed) was a palpable ether of desperation. Perhaps it was the layout, with the main entrance to the conference going straight through a bar to a multi-level escalator. But job seekers were on clear display: brand new suits and outfits generally accented with either a) fashionably retro shoes or b) hipster eyewear. To me, they all looked so young and so shell-shocked. And this even before I witnessed the pit of despair where mass interviews happen — more later when I write about interview 3.1.

The aftermath: 1 campus visit and 1 you’re-on-the-waitlist-if-one-of-our-top-three-don’t-work.

AWP

Same deal, different conference. More hipster outfits, but a generally cooler and more relaxed vibe.

This time, the interview was lower budget, in a small hotel room where one of the committee members had to sit on the bed. A little odd, perhaps, but not that big a deal really.

This time, I felt pretty darn prepared for the interview, having already weathered two at MLA and having already had a successful campus visit earlier in the week for the job that, y’know, I ended up getting. So relaxed would be the way to describe it. You want me, fine. If not, no biggee.

The important part of this interview is the often overlooked portion — the committee and the school are being interviewed too. I think candidates sometimes forget this, but even by the point of a conference interview, you’ve earned a bit of leverage. They want to convince you of their merits, even while you’re trying to win a visit. Now, I’m not saying one should be huffy and superior at an early interview, but you can notice things. And at AWP I did. The questions and conversation revealed that the school had quite a different profile than the others I’d interviewed with. Not bad, just different — a bit more cash lean, so a bit more like my non-TT institution. Even the room revealed something — schools that don’t spring for suites at conference time probably don’t spring for the good cheese at dean’s meetings. Again, this isn’t a criticism of the school (which I liked very much, more so when they invited me to campus), just a recognition that the subtexts of an interview can and should be read by a candidate.

Which leads me to:

Interview 3.1

One nameless school sent notice to applicants that they’d have a table in the Dante’s Inferno interview ballroom at MLA. Feel free to make an appointment for an informational meeting, not to be confused with an interview. “Our students are not illiterate” the interviewer told me, and that was all I needed to know about the school. Better put, that’s all I needed to know about the department and the faculty, that a person with that kind of disdain for students would be the official representative at MLA speaks volumes for the negative community there.

Wrap Up, or, Specific Details

* Research the schools with whom you’ll be interviewing. This is obvious, and I’d think everyone would do it, but I guess they don’t. It pays to have a sense of the culture at a given school.

* Prepare specific syllabi for each school. I don’t mean sample syllabi of courses you’ve taught. I mean syllabi for the courses you would be teaching at X State. Put the school’s unique course title on there (English 91, Rhetoric of the Garden), and write the syllabus as if it were really for that course at that place. Show that you can do this job, not a similar job.

* Just like a first date or the first day of kindergarten, be yourself. You don’t want to misrepresent either your personality or your academic credentials. Stand up proudly with what you have. If it’s a good fit, that’s all you can offer. If it’s not a good fit, you really won’t be able to fool anyone for very long.

* Expect to sweat through at least one layer of undershirt, so dress appropriately.

* Always remember that you’re talking to people, not committees.

VI. The Wiki Saturday, Apr 30 2011 

Today, I write surrounded by caution tape: paranoia fueled addiction lies ahead.

Perhaps the worst part of being on the market (and I’m loathe to identify a hierarchy of worsts, since so much stinks about being on the market) is the knowledge vacuum. Even that which seems explicit is upholstered in cushy vagueness. Take, for example, a job listing. Even within self-conscious specificity lies wiggle room and interpretation. For an applicant, however, the real mental wiggles begin after an application has been submitted: how many people applied? should I have received an “application received” notice? have they asked for more materials? have they made MLA invites? have they made campus invites? had they made a job offer?

Enter, The Wiki.

In this digital space, fellow applicants post material pertaining to jobs in more-or-less all academic fields. With some level of correctness, those on the market can find on The Wiki answers to assuage fuel applicant anxiety. If you’ve never been there before, click through a bit and you’ll see all the glory and pain in full flush. There’s lots of information about jobs and the process, and there’s lots of bubbling anxiety, bitterness, and anger.

Use with caution.

My spouse had to put restrictions on me, relative to the wiki. When I’d mope around the house, looking despondent and hopeless, I’d hear a common refrain: “you didn’t go to the wiki again, did you?”

Of course I had. And of course I read some tea leaf that convinced me that I was out of the running for any hope of getting any job at any time. Usually information for specific jobs was accurate, but as a general indication of how the whole process was going…um…usually the information had little relationship to reality. One never knows the timeline of a specific search committee, so even though every other job has listed MLA invites, for example, some other might not have even opened the envelope.

The worst part of the wiki, however, is the way it breeds negativity and snarkiness. Simply, people get angry when they’re on the market. Angrier when they’re on the market a second time, and third, and ninth, and when they’re finding trouble even getting adjunct work, and when the general process feels so unfair, random, and stacked against them.

This, mild applicant, is the mindset that yields to wiki posts of astonishing detail and vitriol. Like the person who searched the websites of “every” (really, a self-selected list posited as representative) program in his/her field in the country, then posted the terminal degree university for recent hires. The point: to reveal that everyone comes from a small set of Ivies, thus there’s no hope for anyone outside of that circle of elite.

That’s the wiki downside.

And as someone whose degrees come from places never even invited to the parties thrown by the Ivies, I can tell you that plenty of people get jobs from outside that circle.

I’m convinced that the Wiki therefore must be dealt with as a text, in exactly the same manner that we literary professionals deal with other constructed texts. The Wiki offers a literal level of interpretation — the dates, the information, the basic and negative vitriol. But when read with careful scrutiny, that same vitriol begins to reveal subtextual detail that, I think, offers comfort.

A) I think it’s fairly safe to say that individuals who write scathing, sad sack, inflammatory, whining or otherwise unproductive notes on the Wiki likely reveal the same point of view in person. So if you find yourself writing such material, you know you need to change your attitude. And if you don’t write such stuff, then you can feel like you have a leg-up in the personality department.

B) There’s a direct relationship between angry posts and snooty academic thinking. Many of the worst posts include some bit about how, “even the regional MA school rejected me.” It doesn’t take a high level of interpretive genius to see the attitude in effect here. Such posters consider themselves far above the wretched regionals, or religiously affiliated, or small town, or midwestern (written as “flyover”) or rural, or Southern, or anything not located in an awesome cosmopolitan urban neato spot…where the teaching load maxes at 2-2. And, again, anyone who feels superior to the university receiving the application will certainly reveal that air of superiority in some way, on paper or in person. And not get the job.

C) This might seem obvious, but people do get the jobs listed on the Wiki. Real people. Sometimes not people actively posting to the site, but people nonetheless. Which is to say, it’s not impossible. It’s just tough. Tougher if you have a mentality revealed in A and B.

D) The process cannot be headgamed, so quit trying. Just be the best you possible. Prepare a cv. Apply authentically. And, as Gary McCord once said of putting in golf, let go of all philosophical relationship to result. The putt will drop or it won’t — you just made the best stroke possible. You’ll get the job or you won’t — you just made the best application possible.

Spring Fever, Student Evals, and the Short-timer Sunday, Apr 17 2011 

I. It’s been spring here for awhile, apparently, which was meant snow, rain, wind, gray skies, cold temperatures. But certain things are inevitable rites of the season: the semester is almost over. With the bad weather, students haven’t yet begun to stop showing up for classes to play in the sun. I guess this counts as one negative (the November-ish weather) and one positive (butts in seats), weighing out to a wash.

II. Student evaluation packets infested mailboxes a few weeks ago, begging to be infected upon our student population. I think ours are more annoying than others, since they have to be administered by another professor. And because the eval coordinators don’t actually coordinate who does whose. Thus a frenzy of emails circulates among the professors, each edition begging for a swap no one really wants to make.

III. As a sum of I and II, the product can be clearly interpreted as the near end of my run at my PA state school. Not a moment too soon, I’d say. This week, the university shut down applications because the incoming freshman class will already be the biggest in school history. This week, the state system announced the probability of faculty furloughs and retrenchments, since the 50% state funding cut will apparently have a negative affect on individual school’s ability to, um, keep the lights on. This week, the union filed a grievance against the system because the notification of potential furloughs and retrenchments didn’t follow the contract (which apparently means the notice should have announced specific furloughs and retrenchments instead of offering just a heads up). The union’s take: the system is just trying to strike fear in the hearts of professors since contract negotiations are currently underway. The union is afraid some professors might be swayed into retirement or job switches based on news like this.

My take:

A) I have a new job. Thank goodness I don’t have to stick around and watch all this b.s. materialize.

B) Student evals. Hmmm. Passive resitance, methinks. I ain’t playing. No email tag. No grovelling. No pretending that the info in the evals actually means something to someone leaving. Or really, that much to people sticking around.

C) Two weeks. And outta there. Nice.

D) Better start packing up the office.

E) I think the system AND the union are playing dirty politics, going round and round, not focusing on the very real financial crisis in the state budget. Just posturing, clacking antlers, going through the motions of trying to intimidate the other party.

F) Record enrollments and reducing numbers of faculty. Fits nicely with the school marketing schlock: “Beyond expectations.”

Mount St. Helens: beyond expectations.

Charlie Sheen: beyond expectations.

Bernie Madoff: beyond expectations.

Pittsburgh Pirates: beyond expectations.

Two weeks…

V. Apply, Apply, Apply Sunday, Apr 10 2011 

Job season defies logic, at least in the humanities. And based on conversations with my brother, it’s the same in the sciences. The best platitude out there is simple in idea, even if hard to grasp: it’s not you.

Because, really, it isn’t necessarily. Sure, sometimes it is you that wows a committee or, um, doesn’t, but in the early stages of an application process, randomness reigns. When 100, 200, even 300 people are vying for the same position, the initial review of CVs centers on mysterious criteria. Many fine candidates don’t slip over the “bar” established as a means to plow through the pile. So it’s not about you.

This knowledge, coupled with a hallway conversation I had this week, reinforces the directive of post #5 here: send in the application, because you never know. Stretch. Reach. Apply for every job that seems to meet your qualifications at all. Apply for jobs you’re even a little unsure of, because geographical pickiness, for example, could lead to employment absence.

In my own successful run to employment, I applied to 55 departments during my final job season. 52 rejected me without an interview, while three wanted to see me in person. One didn’t quite like me enough, and two invited me to campus. At least one of those — the plum on that year’s market, as far as I was concerned — wanted me to join the faculty. The other might have, but I turned down their campus visit after I accepted the other position.

The ad for my job asked for someone specializing in my creative writing area, with secondary interest in stuff I could sort of make a case for. And they preferred a published book. And they happened to be a prestigious school of national reputation.

I happened to be a recent Ph.D. from a not-so-prestigious graduate program, with a strong portfolio of little magazine pubs and no book. I read this matchup of job listing and cv lines as a no-go, maybe a long shot. But I liked the school a lot, so I applied.

My hallway conversation centered on that lack of a book. I chatted before class with a similarly non-TT colleague, who congratulated me on the job, then asked about my book status. The “none” flashed in his eyes as shock and anger: he had one coming out, but he hadn’t experienced the job season success I had.

Apply, apply, apply.

If I hadn’t taken the reach, I never would have been considered for the job I have. I would have prevented myself from finding a great fit with a great school. I would have been trying to psyche out the market, which always defies analysis.

Case in point, post-hiring, I continued to receive rejection letters in droves. So, so many of them were impersonal “we hired someone else” form letters that marked the only contact I’d had with these departments since sending in applications. And so, so many of them were from regional institutions, low-prestige places, the kind of “safety” schools where I thought my credentials would sell best. I’m not trying to be superior in saying that most of these rejections came from places far less accomplished than the school that hired me. Yet I am saying it.

Apply, apply, apply.

What’s easily lost in job season is the human reality of the process. Everything feels so big, so distant, so chaotically random and machine-like. But real human beings are reading through the applications, which accounts for all of the chaos and weirdness. If a machine really were reviewing everything, applications would be a simple process of bean counting. Instead, conscientious individuals mull over a pile of diverse and impossible-to-compare CVs. Then they compare them, applying their own idiosyncratic criteria, and find order within chaos.

To me, this is the saving grace of the process. It is a human one. We apply not to schools, nor departments, nor to a Committee, but to people. Living, breathing, caring individuals whose minds we cannot know. And counting beans might sort applicants in a certain apparently rational ways, but it ignores the intangibles that actually make an individual a good hire, a good colleague, and a good professor. The intangibles can only be computed by human beings, and it is within this nebulous region that “fit” arrives.

Sometimes, it just all clicks between reader and applier. That click is the “fit,” the irrational but supremely important criteria that makes the difference between a successful applicant and a rejection, that makes a hire a good one and not a disaster.

No solace there, for sure, when 52 rejections wind up in the mailbox. But I offer the cliche: it only takes one. And you never know which one that might be.

IV. The Rhetoric of Job Letters Wednesday, Mar 30 2011 

What they all say you should do: tailor each and every letter specifically for each and every position. Basically, write a new letter for each job.

What works, even if it’s not quite that: write two or three template letters, which themselves borrow from a broader template. In your stockpile have:

1) A long teaching paragraph that includes a quick version of your teaching philosophy, as well as a specific example of your classroom practice.

2) A short teaching paragraph with the specific example but a minimized philosophical nudge.

3) A long research paragraph that offers detail on the diss and a future research project.

4) A short research paragraph that presents a brief overview of the diss and a future project.

5) A service paragraph, highlighting how you’ve been involved in departmental, institutional, and professional organizations (note: if you haven’t been involved, get involved immediately so you can write this paragraph the next time you apply).

6) A general closing graph, stating how you’ve sent x, y, and z with this application (which will change for every job) and look forward to hearing from them.

With that template in order, you can prepare an infinite number of letters (perhaps not infinite, but I’m in the humanities, so close enough). Most important is to have separate letters for research institutions and teaching institutions. For each letter, write a more-or-less unique opening, ideally culling the spirit or mission of the school from the official website so you can emphasize your philosophical fit. Thus a teaching letter might look like this:

Dear Professor X:

I am writing to offer my application for the position of Assistant Professor of Clairvoyance at the College for Gifted Collegians. I have long been a supporter of mutant rights and am therefore drawn to the mission of your school, where so many individuals of unique ability have been able to develop their inner superhero.

Paragraph 1

Paragraph 4

Paragraph 5

Paragraph 6

Sincerely,

Gigger

For a research position, you’d prepare a new opening, then have paragraphs 3, 2, 5, 6.

For each and every letter, search and replace is key: you don’t want your application to Harvard making reference to your desire to teach at Oxford. Oh, the embarrassment you’d later feel on the squash court.

And no matter what, don’t write the letter we all really want to write:

Dear Professor Already-Has-a-Job:

You know and I know this is random. So just throw this letter up in the air with all the other letters. Grab the closest fifteen, and invite those people for interviews.

Sincerely,

Humanities Ph.D.

Truly, the job letter is your best mechanism to combat the random nature of academic applications. Sure, there will still be a big pile, but so many letters read as if the applicant sent out a generic letter to every school…because so many applicants send out generic letters to every school. A little customization helps search committees see applicants as interested potential colleagues, and that’s what they’re looking for.

Combined with that, try to be an interested potential colleague. The reality of the market is that many people apply for positions they don’t really want, which is necessary and, I think, okay. But try to drum up interest in yourself even for those gigs. If a place really seems abhorrent (like, in my case, the school that told me in an informal meet-and-greet, “Well, our students aren’t illiterate”) don’t apply. (And, let me be clear that I crossed that school off not because of the implied deficiency of the students but because of the overt hostility and lack of generosity in this faculty member who was at a national conference representing the school for hiring. I’m sure the students at this state institution were, like every public college and university, normal college-age students who enter higher education with wildly divergent levels of preparation).

Ideally, your job letters should demonstrate an authentic enthusiasm for the school. Heck, we’re all in this profession because, on some level, we love it, since the external rewards of academia are, while certainly not bad, certainly not enough to attract people uninterested in students, teaching, and research. And even if a couple come in thinking only of “12 hour workweeks,” the labor of grad school will quickly disabuse that notion.

So it’s enthusiasm that we all really have to offer in these applications, and it’s enthusiasm, rendered tastefully, that we should demonstrate in application letters. Part of that comes through in the careful rhetoric of the letter — leading with a teaching paragraph for a teaching school shows interest, attention to detail, and enthusiasm for that kind of institution, for example. But part of that appears in a form that we often shy away from. A good letter, I think, should make it clear that an applicant wants this job, has something to offer this job, and is interested in this place.

Without allowing our terrified desperation to bleed through.

III. You Too are an Academic, Right Now Saturday, Mar 19 2011 

I didn’t always believe the general sense of this post. And parts of the philosophy I’m about to propose bother me, largely because I think there’s a tendency in academe to hasten “professionalization.” In that great ethereal, romantic, mind-world of pure AcademyLand, we could all spend eternity drinking fine coffee, mulling over ideas, and only bother to publish work that really makes a difference. But as anyone who has ever spent any time at all reading scholarship knows, lots of stuff is published that never makes a difference at all. Or even deserves to see the light of day.

Thus the uncomfortable pragmatic understrain of this post runs directly opposed to that fantasy. Those graduate students who will get jobs will publish. And bummerishly, not everything that’s published will be all that fancy, or snazzy, or awesome. But it will be out there, incrementing forward some body of scholarship.

Yet there is also an important conceptual strain at work here, and this is my main point. It’s too easy to think of oneself as just a student when one is, well, a student. Being a graduate student, however, is much more than being a student. That adjective matters a ton. Graduate student. Let it roll of the tongue. Linger over it. Understand and relish in the idea that this is a rare time of life when a person is largely without grand academic responsibility and has access to grand academic resources. This is a time of potential and unfettered enthusiasm, and if we approach it right, a time to take the academic risks we really, really want to take.

People wind up in graduate programs because they are smart, creative, inquisitive, and yearn to dig into a subject matter. They go for love, really. Because if we wanted jobs, we’d do something far more practical. But all too often, graduate students exercise intellectual deferment. They don’t follow their own path of interest, but instead allow themselves to be led by an advisor’s interests, perceived market trends, fashion, propriety, peer pressure.

Me: when it came time to decide on a dissertation topic, I had two in mind. One excited me tremendously, was something I’d never seen done before, and generated lots of buzz when I chatted informally about it with other academics at conferences. Of course, it was also difficult to pigeonhole as a particular timeframe, tradition, or theoretical approach. The second topic bored me, more or less. But it was traditional, looked like a dissertation topic, made sense within a narrow academic way, and would easy to explain to a search committee.

I met with a faculty member to discuss these topics, and he agreed that the first one was quite interesting. But he advised me away from it, citing that pesky pigeon hole problem. How would future hiring departments know what I was? It would be tough to market myself as X, Y, or Z with a topic like that. Do the traditional topic, and save the interesting one for later. I nodded, and decided to agree with him.

Until I got home and realized that I hated topic B. Loathed it. Would face years reading, researching, and writing it. And my credo upon returning to academia was all late Sinatra: my way, baby. I chose topic A, enjoyed the work, had lots of excited conversations with people at conventions about it. I wrote a dissertation I cared about, that drew attention, and that at least one search committee really loved.

That’s being an academic, right now. That’s trusting one’s own talent and interests, and staying true to the academic self. If we don’t do the work we care about, then there is very little reason to be in this line of work. All we have is our own enthusiasm. All we’re supposed to be (and everything we’re supposed to be) are experts who fixate on focused ideas that other people didn’t care about before. We’re the voices in the wilderness who say, yo, this little bit of the world matters. I looked at it, and I’m here to tell you we can learn something here.

Chasing fashion leads to cyncial burnout. Only doing what an advisor suggests leads to passive disengagement. Succumbing to the peer pressure of “proper” diss topics leads to stagnation. We owe it to ourselves and to the academic world to recognize intellectual individualism from the start.

Now, be sure that I’m not suggesting that graduate students need to be stubborn, disrespectful, me-firsters who never listen to the faculty. There’s way too much of that already, and that’s not being an academic. That’s just being a jerky boor (though a lot of established academics are boors, when you boil it all down). Certainly, we owe it to ourselves and to the field to listen carefully and respectfully to those who have worked hard to earn faculty positions. As with every moment of an academic career, we should be respectful and open to the suggestions of others, assume they know things (because they do!), and weigh ideas carefully. But I encourage even the greenest M.A. candidate to way his or her own ideas carefully as well. Because, often, there’s gold in what appears to be a bucket of mud and, usually, we’re the only ones who can see our own gold.

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