Saturday, December 16, 2006

My Job Search Explained

Because blogs are a time-organized form, it is so tempting to write only about today's madness in some kind of breathless eternal present. But I want this blog to be useful -- not only to amuse myself and others as I try to beat and slash my own path through Wonderland back to financial solvency (graduate school as rabbit hole -- discuss), but also maybe to help others who find themselves in similar straits.

I'm thinking specifically of a friend a couple years behind me in graduate school who recently joked (granted, because she was overwhelmed by the avalanche of my anxiety) that maybe she should just quit now. No, I want to say. Because you only do one thing at a time and because you have the stories of others to help you along the way. Which is just what you'd expect a lifelong English major to say. (Though just quitting does have its appeal.) So for you, dear reader, and for me, I'm going back to the beginning.

(blurry screen, blurry screen)

It all started at the beginning of fall semester in my fifth year of being impoverished. Which is, I must say, the first problem. Dear reader, when you go on the market, it's a really good idea if you spend some of that summer revamping your CV, putting your evals in some kind of order for a teaching portfolio, thinking about your interests and values as a scholar and teacher. For many reasons, some good, some not, I didn't do this. Partly I found it difficult to develop the drive to work on these things without a prospect in my sights. My advisor told me that I'd develop the drive once I had the motivation of a real job that looked good. She was right.

So I didn't work on the "template letter" that many people talk about until later. In some ways, I never did. I developed template paragraphs from which I pick and choose for each letter. The idea of the cover letter template is a good one -- one I have used for years with my CV -- in which you develop a letter that describes you and your work, your core commitments, your accomplishments. Then you tailor the letter to each job ad. But when you have very different ways you can position yourself, this system doesn't work as well. The first job I applied for was interdisciplinary -- and the ways I talked about myself there were very different from the ways I described myself within the discipline. My advisor even wrote two different letters. One size does not fit all.

I looked on the MLA job list, Chronicle of Higher Ed, and on a regular basis starting September 15. A job I thought I had an inside scoop on never posted on the MLA job list, perhaps indicating that they do not want the kind of research agenda-driven scholars who usually go to MLA. If you can go by folklore and Chronicle of Higher Ed columns, liberal arts colleges have been burned often by getting excited by job candidates who end up turning them down in favor of Research 1 jobs late in the process. A well-informed colleague who has been on two search committees says that his department got hundreds of relatively useless applications from MLA job list ads for their state college position in Podunk, Midwest. If you want a job at a liberal arts college (like me), check other places besides the ubiquitous MLA Job List.

My dissertation is not yet finished, so I'm doing a "toe in the water" search. A professor in another department told me early on: "Of course, you'll apply to good jobs in good places. But also apply to good jobs in bad places and bad jobs in good places." His logic was that a bad place is mitigated by a good job and summers away, and a bad job is mitigated by being in a place you like and do things in. Generally, I followed this suggestion, though there were a few places, like my urban home town, that I couldn't figure out whether I thought they were good places or bad.

One thing no one tells you, but my friend/colleague in my cohort and I agree on, is how much you learn about your dissertation from writing about it in the job letter. She says that describing her work in a job letter made her dissertation chapters easier to write. In fact, you pretty much figure out who you are and what your commitments are as a teacher and scholar in the application process. For example, as an interdisciplinary scholar, I have some choices about how to frame myself. When I started the job search, I noted a mess of jobs that focus on an aspect of my work that I still do, but have put on the back burner while I work on my dissertation in another field. I listed all the jobs I found, in my current field and my backburner field, on a spreadsheet by application due date. As due dates for jobs in my backburner field neared and passed, I found I couldn't get the excitement together to craft those letters, knowing I had to explain away, somehow, the last four years of my intellectual work. I just couldn't do it. But nothing could stop me from crafting those other letters -- the ones for jobs that would value the work I'm doing now.

I learned from that process who I am as a scholar, as an academic, which is not at all the same as who I am as a writer. I have not left behind that other work at all; I've brought it with me, exploring it with new lenses. Being an academic, I've learned, is about what kinds of classes you want to teach, what contemporary conversations you want to listen to and speak in. Though my primary identity as a writer is bound up in certain kinds of work, it is that very kind of work that I hate most to teach. I hate arguing for its value. I hate having to swim against the current of my students' understanding and needs in order to advocate for what I think is important in a field I love. I'm not a salmon. It's ridiculous to think that just because you like to think through complex scientific problems that you'd like to teach basic science to others. And the idea that you might be good at teaching it to others is a stalwart belief in the power of infectious enthusiasm. In contrast to primary and secondary schooling, where training is all-important, post-secondary teacher training assumes anyone can teach a subject they love. Maybe my enthusiasm just isn't infectious enough.

In any case, despite the twenty-odd jobs I had listed on my spreadsheet, I found myself crafting letters (not tweaking from templates, but crafting carefully around a couple template paragraphs) for six jobs. So far. The year is young. And jobs do come open later in the year. So far, I'm lucky enough to have two interviews at MLA. One is a tenure-track job at a liberal arts college that is not a perfect fit, but it's in a good place and seems to be interesting. The other is the kind of lectureship that reminds me that I once wanted to give all this up to go adventuring in conflict-ridden places, doing human rights journalism.

It's unlikely I'll have more interviews, at least at MLA. One job ad said they'd ask for more materials later. (I didn't hear anything. Did my cell phone get turned off?) Another was an interdisciplinary job at a Humanities Institute at a Research 1 that doesn't seem to value my sub-field of English. (Would they even be at MLA?) I turned in the application for the not-fabulous-but-too-interesting-to-pass-up position at my undergraduate alma mater too late to get "priority consideration." (Years ago, I remember they hired someone who crapped out at the last minute. Luckily for me, the person who replaced him became a mentor and friend.) The job-I-keep-thinking-I-want is extending their application deadline, because, I have to guess, they didn't get enough viable candidates for their "maybe" pile. (Did they put my materials in the recycle bin? Do I write them and ask them why they put out their ad again when the perfect candidate is right here?)

Other candidates do the process in other ways. A friend with her strengths in my secondary field sent out fifty template-tweaked letters. She has one interview so far. Another friend in the same subfield as I am sent out fifteen or so letters. She also has one interview. But it's only the 16th, and people get requests for interviews as late as the 22nd and 23rd. (But not on weekends, making normal people's days off into wastelands of interminable waiting.)

If or when I'm on the market next year, I'll definitely apply to more places. It wasn't that there were only six jobs that appealed to me, but that I've been working on my dissertation as well. When places ask for statements of teaching philosophy or other materials, I weigh how much I want the job with how long it would take me to create those materials for them. Next year, I will have those materials all ready to go for the fall job push unless. . .unless. . .


Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Send me an email at scotterickaufman (at) gmail (dot) com if you're going to be in Philly. (It's hard to separate the distress from the despair in this post, so I can't tell whether or not you'll be there.) If not, hell, send me an email anyway. No need not to be acquainted, no?

Janelle said...

Well, I still feel like quitting, perhaps even more so now. How bizarre is a career field in which the “finding a job” process is so physically and psychologically detrimental? Too many gophers seeking too few holes. I admire your perseverance!