Don’t Forget Your Towel: A Guide to Surviving the Job Search with Your Ego Mostly Intact

job_interviewNearly two years ago (ok, three, actually, but I don’t really count the first one), I started my search for full-time academic employment, and I am here to tell you that much of the hand-wringing warranted. It’s kind of a bloodbath, to be honest, and there’s no real way around that. I have, by my estimation, a healthy number of publications and a standout teaching record, and in two years, I interviewed for seven positions and received one offer. When you consider that almost all of those positions received upwards of 400 applications, that’s actually a pretty outstanding performance. Even though I’m not heading into a tenure track job (and I’m fine with that), the fact that I am now employed full-time and without a hard-and-fast termination date (my three year contract is renewable) means that this was a successful job search. If you did better than me, you’re a freaking star. And I say that as someone with a pathological case of self-doubt. But despite the good outcome, this was without question the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The odds are decent that I would have survived it without Lexapro, but let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t have to take that bet.

So yes, it’s as bad as you’ve heard. But the truth of the matter is that while MLA statistics and the sage council of placement committees can offer guidance, no one can tell you what your individual job search experience will be like or what things will matter most for your success. For me, having the degree in hand made a huge difference, but I know ABDs who got tenure track jobs their first time out. Publications do matter, but people without them do get hired. Teaching experience matters a lot, but some schools don’t necessarily care that you haven’t taught such-and-such course to first years. Some people seem to have gotten through their job search experience fairly smoothly (though maybe they’re lying), and for others (myself included) it has been a pitched battle with panic and self-loathing.

There is plenty of job search advice out there on the more practical aspects of entering the market: writing your cover letters, preparing your dossier, practicing for interviews, etc. And it’s possible that I’ll get into that in a future search. But surviving the job search emotionally is, while much more dependent on the strength of your self-image and your resilience under stress, also something I think you can prepare for. And mostly by telling you what I did that you probably should not do, I will try to provide a few pointers here based on my own experience.

1. It’s not you

Assuming you have done what you were supposed to do–taught your classes well, at least attempted to publish, made reasonable progress or (better) finished your dissertation, avoided vomiting on a search committee member during an interview–the subtle calculus of who gets hired over who doesn’t usually comes down to things you can’t necessarily control, and the sooner you realize that and embrace it, the easier this whole insane process is going to go for you. Very often, hiring decisions come down to that indefinable something called “fit,” and while there are things you can do to argue for why you are, in fact, a fit for this school, in many cases you simply are not or someone simply fits better. It’s not that you suck. It’s just that, like most relationships, this one just was never going to work out, and it likely has almost nothing to do with how awesome you are.

What this means is that while you should do what you can to put together the best job package possible, you can stop obsessing over whether or not to staple your cv or worrying about whether your ambitious research program is going to intimidate an older faculty member (you don’t want to work with him anyway). Focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Seek pharmaceutical relief if you need to.

2. People in your life are not going to get it

Everyone understands that job searching sucks, but few people outside of academia–and a lot within (senior faculty are mostly useless in this regard)–get how ridiculous a process this is, especially now. They will not understand that you are interviewing for jobs in January that do not start until September. They will not understand that certain fields see 600-700 applications per job. If they are your grandparents, they will not understand that there are at least that many newly minted PhDs who are at least as qualified as you are. And they will not understand the panic you feel as MLA gets ever closer and you are trying to resist refreshing the wiki one more time. (Protip: five of the seven schools I interviewed with did their interviewing outside of MLA, so it’s not over for you if you don’t have tons of invitations in December).

For that reason, I made the decision this year that I would not answer questions from family or friends until I had an interview. I forbade my relatives to ask me about it at holiday gatherings, an injunction they pretty much accepted. At some point in January, I decided I wouldn’t talk about it until I had a campus visit lined up or until I had already been rejected. It was just too hard to come back and tell them it didn’t work out. I am thankful that I was too lazy to take The Chronicle of Higher Education up on their offer to blog about my job search. I do have a masochistic streak, but blogging about my failures in real time–even under a pseudonym–would have been a bit much. (Plus, commenters at the Chronicle can be vicious.)

In other words, you need to establish limits with the people in your life about when and under what circumstances you want to talk about your job search. Or you can say, “Nothing to report,” when they ask and then change the subject. Avoid, if possible, the impulse to take care of everyone else’s feelings about your job search.

3. Figure out who does get it

This is not your fellow graduate students who are so mired in toxic shame and panic that you walk away from job market check-ins reeling from the ambient stress in the room. It isn’t your advisor. This is also not your partner or some other person who has a personal or financial stake in whether or not you are employed next year. This is the person who understands what you are going through but doesn’t give a shit about whether or not you get some particular job. In my case, this person was my therapist. The point is that you do need someone to talk to, and that person’s emotional investment in the job search (yours or their own) needs to be minimal. You may have to pay them. But trust me, it’s worth it.

4. Be ready to bail on this whole academic career thing and decide what will trigger you to do it

I decided last summer that while full-time non-TT work was fine with me (and does actually present some freedoms not available on the tenure track), I would rather jump off the academic career path than do long-term work as an adjunct. There are many reasons why universities have become so reliant on extremely low-paid contingent labor. And while the corporatization of higher education and apathy of senior faculty and weakness of unions are certainly part of the problem, one other important reason is that there are desperate aspiring academics out there who are willing to take these jobs (and I know a few who are quite happy to do so because it suits their life circumstances, but they appear to be a minority). You don’t have to. You really don’t. If your threshold for indignity will allow you to do this for a couple of years, that is fine. Mine wouldn’t. I had non-academic career plans B, C, and D more or less figured out if some version of Plan A didn’t present itself this year. A lot of academics pay lip service to this, but you really do have to be willing to pull the trigger and recognize that leaving academia isn’t failure. In most cases, it’s an indicator of self-respect.

You do not need a tenure track job or even to stay in academia in order to have a good life, and despite what you may have heard, graduate school does not make you fundamentally unfit for any other type of employment. Not only can having an escape hatch give you peace of mind, it can give you the confidence that makes you an inherently sexier candidate.

5. Remember that it isn’t hopeless

This is definitely in the “do as I say, not as I do” category. There certainly aren’t enough tenure-track jobs out there, but there are jobs. We all know people who get them. And provided you’ve made the most of graduate school and provided you are able to support yourself in some way or another, it’s worth spending a couple of years on the market to see what opportunities emerge. Those opportunities might not be what you expect, and the best ones may involve stepping off the prescribed path laid out for you by your field, your department, or your advisor. But rather than seeing it as an exercise in desperate self-promotion, consider this a time in which you are shopping for potential lives. You are considering an array of possibilities, academic and non. You have choices. You have agency. You can say no. But you can also say yes.

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