The Academic Job Search: Worst Marathon EVER

One year ago, I was a mess. The academic job search process brought out uncharacteristic feelings of inadequacy. From September through early January, I focused--to the detriment of my health and relationships--on writing letters and sending materials. Every letter felt like a plea: "I know I don't have a stellar publication record, but I am invested. I am a good teacher. I believe in first-year composition. I will advocate. Please." I'm not insecure about my contributions to my field of study or my department. I know I'm an asset. But the atmosphere of the job market forces this kind of fatalism. The fears were made real when, during two separate interviews, committee members told me that it was a buyer's market. They had interviewed many talented candidates, who they could attract with bargain-basement salaries. (Followed by a har-har-har, I struggled to keep my "You didn't just say that?!?" face intact.)

The job search is an endurance race, not a sprint. I was still sending out letters well into January, long after I had lost both interest and energy. I wrote letters on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's. Like an endurance race, I pushed beyond physical, psychological, and emotional walls. At least in a real endurance race, you have some indication of how much more distance you have to cover before you can collapse. The academic job search spools on indefinitely.

Those anxieties have started to surface again as I read through friends' status updates on FaceBook. MLA looms large, and I am reminded of my own fears this time last year. In the world of hiring, the academic job market has to be the most neurotic, most illogical, and most prohibitive process. I saved for two years to afford the clothes, the materials-delivery fees, the accouterments, and the trip.

In the spirit of empathy and reflection, here are my tips to academic job seekers. They're based solely on my experiences, and I've spent some time considering what I would have changed. I'll focus this post on the psychological and emotional aspects. The next post will be more practically focused.

1. I'll start with the big one: Schools are lucky to have you, not the other way around. Candidates risk sounding desperate when they lavish praise on committees and departments and downgrade their own contributions. Yes, the market is down. But you have something unique to offer them, and by remembering your worth, you control your relationship to the committee. (This advice seems to be most useful for graduate students entering the market for the first time.)

2. Don't make academics your world. My panic (at the potential of not getting a job) was greatly reduced by sketching out a solid Plan B. If you're considering leaving academics (and I seriously did), visit http://versatilephd.com/ for ideas on what to do with your degree. You'll feel pressure to provide for your family or make your education "worth something." While it's important to quest after life goals, it's also a relief to know that there's a whole other sphere in which to contribute. If nothing else, having an alternate plan may allow you to sleep at night.

3. Don't visit the Academic Job Wiki. Or, if you do, use it only as a timeline. Negativity breeds negativity, and that site is a black hole of anxiety. Commiseration can only get you so far before you begin to feel that the situation's hopeless.

4. Maintain your routines. Get outside. Eat healthy food. Take every Saturday off. Whatever your routines are, don't sacrifice all of them to write letters and create materials. Try to approximate a "normal life." I can't recommend exercise and clean eating enough. Besides offering productive procrastination, exercise boosted my mood, made up for my exhaustion, and kept off the stress-eating weight.Whole foods kept me awake and responsive.

5. In the same line: When you are able to fit in a day, or even a few hours, of downtime, do so unapologetically. I wasted so much time worrying about not working when I had scheduled in downtime. I would have been more rested and relaxed had I given myself permission to not think about work.

6. You might panic over the money you're spending. I did. The academic job search cost me around $2,000, and on a grad student salary, I had to save for awhile. Nothing's more sickening than thinking that your money will be wasted. (The story of flying to some expensive locale for one interview is too common.) I have no real comfort to offer here, other than I'm happy to see some schools getting away from in-person MLA interviews and using video and phone interviews instead.This is the aspect of the academic job search that angers me the most, the pay-to-play prohibitive nature.

7. Find a "search buddy." Though we interviewed for a few of the same positions, my "search buddy" (who was also my "diss buddy") and I would chat about the process, give heads-up about interview questions, and we roomed together at MLA. It was nice to have someone who understood exactly what I was going through, even though we were--in at least three instances--direct competition. Since our backgrounds and foci are so different, Diss-and-Search Buddy and I knew that we'd offer our respective departments unique skills. (Also, if your adviser is as amazing as mine, seek that person out for guidance and care. I relied on his expertise and calm nature in the worst times.)

8. Finally, avoid the comparison trap. Committees don't share rubrics. The job call and the needs of the department are often very different. It's my experience--having served on a committee and also being a candidate--that candidates are ranked more holistically than not. My first few interviews felt very much like performances. I parroted their code words (via the job call and department sites) and praised the members' published work. I gave up on this approach when I interviewed (via phone) for a job that was very much not me. It was obvious to everyone, and in retrospect, it was embarrassing. Just do you.

This list is, of course, both idealistic and reductive. I didn't have children to consider. I'm married, and so it was easier for me to save the funds for MLA. My generous department helped me pay for some of the expenses. My dissertation adviser went above and beyond to support me. There were more job opportunities for me because of my focus. And even with these advantages, I experienced emotional and psychological struggle. The longer I stayed "on the market," the more I allowed myself to be convinced that I was unemployable.

The market is an antiquated construction that persists because there are enough people who believe in its validity (and maybe because of tradition?). We're seeing tiny changes (video interviews!) which may signal a move to a more humane process, but until those changes happen, we're stuck working within a system that routinely disadvantages the very population it claims to serve.

1 comment:

mikewarren said...

This is great advice, Casie. I'm not in the market yet but with the way the DOD budget is breaking, I might be there soon.