Tag Archives: job market

Why English and Rhet/Comp Graduate Students Should Consider Career Choices Abroad

Kremlin
If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be able to walk here from my apartment, I’d have…done…something.

November starts tomorrow, which means that job hunting season for new and expectant PhDs is about to really get going, and I am having bad acid flashbacks of weekends spend queuing up Interfolio dossiers and hoping I remembered to change the receiver’s address on each cover letter. I am hoping to stay put in my current job for a good while, and not only because I’m hoping to avoid crying in restaurants for a few years, but because I can honestly say that I am enjoying my job. Really, really enjoying it. And even though it wasn’t Plan A and even though I wound up here through a bizarre series of coincidences and chance encounters, I couldn’t be more grateful that I ended up here rather than at one of the other places that offered me interviews (but didn’t offer me jobs). Now, I certainly can’t say that my experience is typical, but it’s enough for me to recommend that English and Rhet/Comp students (and all fields, really)–facing increasingly dire prospects on the US market–look at an international career as a viable option. Some reasons:

Travel, duh.

Some of my current satisfaction has to do with location and the thrill of travel. I made a pact with my spouse when I began my job search that–and this is the exact wording–we would not die in Waco. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but you can guess some of them. Cut to three years later, and I am at interviewing for a position for a university in Waco. And I interviewed for two more jobs that were in places very much like Waco but with different weather. For many, no doubt, Waco is a brighter prospect than Moscow, where the sun currently comes up around 8:45 am, but a couple of weeks ago, we walked from our 600 square foot apartment to Red Square on a chilly day in the rain, and I was overwhelmed with disbelief that this is my actual life. Different isn’t always better, but when you’ve felt yourself grow stale in a place, going somewhere completely different feels like a rebirth. You aren’t better, but just by virtue of changing your life so radically, you lose a lot of bad habits and pick up a few new ones. You find yourself challenged and engaged in ways that are completely unexpected. And you learn a little bit about surrender.

Working Conditions

Speaking in more practical terms, the set of conditions under which I’m working are quite a bit better than what I could have expected in the US. Though this isn’t a tenure track position, it’s a renewable contract with an institution that was willing to make a pretty considerable investment in getting me over here. I am getting paid at near the top end of what Assistant Profs make in my field in the US. I have a research budget. I got to design and teach my own literature elective my first semester here. I teach a 1/1 load alongside my Writing Center admin responsibilities. My students are Ivy-League caliber and turn their assignments in on time and have forever ruined me for teaching in the US. I have health insurance. I could go on.

Building Something New

I teach at an institution that is only two decades old in an English department that is only a few years old. For some, I think this would in and of itself be anxiety producing. And there are drawbacks. The building I work in is decrepit, though that’s largely because the school invested in world-class faculty on the front end rather than facilities. The former Rector had to, you know, flee the country under the threat of political persecution, but we have a new Rector who seems extremely qualified and energized about where the institution will go next. In short, the people who work here seem to think that they are involved in doing something extremely important and urgent for their students, their research field, and their country, and despite the specialization of the school, the English department is part of that. And that, to me at least, is so much more exciting than slotting into a long-established literature or writing program at a centuries-old universities where the possibility of making a genuine difference means working against entrenched interests and traditions.

This Writing Center is only two years old and is the first of its kind in Russia. The US model Writing Center is rapidly becoming a very attractive import for many European, Asian, and Middle Eastern universities. Not only does this mean that there are jobs out there but that international, multi-lingual writing centers and writing programs are becoming a new frontier for research.

International Colleagues

Which brings me, of course, to the fact that the American academic universe is pretty much hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. And particularly in the areas of rhetoric and composition studies, there is a LOT of interesting work that could be done if there were more exchange of ideas internationally. There’s always some noise about the need to do so, but very little of it actually happens in practice.

And then, of course, there is just the stimulation of having colleagues from all over the world just down the hall. I work with people from Belarus, Palestine, Turkey, and Italy as well as Americans who have made their entire careers abroad. And I’m interacting with these people in a place where “Americanness” isn’t neither the default nor the goal, where we are all foreigners.

Marketability

For the reasons discussed earlier, Americans with English and Rhet/Comp degrees are extremely marketable on the international market, especially if they can bring some ESL/EFL experience together with expertise in a content field. the TESOL jobs site and the International Writing Centers Association website are good places to look for openings. Be aware, however, that in addition to talking about your research and teaching, you will need to be able to articulate–both in your cover letter and in your interview–why you want to work abroad and why you want to work in that country specifically. The turnover rate among expat employees is high because people get homesick or have a change in family circumstances or whatever, and schools who pay for moving costs invest a considerable amount in their faculty up front. So you need to be able to argue for why you are a good investment.

I was warned before taking this job that working abroad could hurt my marketability if I want to return to the US. I have heard anecdotal reports that this is true, but the person I replaced had two job offers in the US, so take that for what it’s worth.

Caveats

Working abroad is not for you if:

  • You are seeking the traditional middle-class American experience with children, extended family in easy reach, and steady, reliable employment. Granted, for many of us, this simply isn’t an option we can count on. But the truth is that going abroad means being uprooted, many times, potentially. And it means going long periods without seeing your parents or siblings or old friends. If you go abroad, you need to wrap your head around the fact that this isn’t study abroad. This is going to be your life, and if you have doubts, it’s best to grapple with them early on.
  • You shun hassles. I mean, I don’t know anyone who likes being inconvenienced, but moving internationally is a giant effing hassle in every possible way. I have had to deal with more paperwork than it took to sell our house (and most of it in a language I don’t read well). Shipping a few boxes of personal items and research materials has been an undertaking so grueling and expensive that I question whether it was worth it (probably not). And airports, man. Airports.

The takeaway here is that it’s not going to be a glorious experience for everyone or 100% of the time, but it’s a career path that is very seriously worth considering as an alternative to stringing together adjunct work, taking a 9-5 office job, teaching a 4/4 lectureship with no opportunities for research or career advancement, or even *gasp* a tenure track job in quite a few cases.

What does “failure” mean to you?

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If you have been trained to pursue an academic career–or trained for any highly specific career path, honestly–then it’s easy to feel like a failure if that doesn’t pan out. But there are many reasons why people wind up choosing Plan B (or C or D or M), and oftentimes it has little to do with incompetence. I have a sibling and an uncle who each studied piano performance. One is a VP at a major tech corporation you have definitely heard of and one is an SEO specialist at a Madison Avenue firm and lives in Central Park West. Neither of them are playing at Carnegie Hall right now, but both of them are winning at life by every measurable standard.

By going international, I’m stepping a bit to the left of the traditional career path for someone in my field and have been told by one colleague that it could make things additionally difficult if and when I try to get an academic job in the U.S. However, in many respects, I am pretty much living the dream. I am get to teach literature and will have time to do research. But it certainly looks different than the dream I had in mind 8 or 5 or even 1 year ago.

So as trite as it is, I think it’s important to remember that success and failure are contingent categories, though often our training teaches us to adopt a very narrow understanding of what success actually constitutes, implying that anything that deviates from that is failure. But failure, I think, really depends on what you want to get out of life. So here’s what it would constitute for me:

  • Failure is being in a job I hate even if it provides security.
  • Failure is staying in Texas (no offense to Texas, but I’ve lived here 26 of 30 years, and I’m ready for weather that sucks in at least a novel way).
  • Failure is not growing as a human being.
  • Failure is continuing to beat myself up over shit that doesn’t matter.
  • Failure is never getting relief from depression.

It would have been possible (and seemed, actually, very likely if I had gotten this one job I interviewed for) to have gotten the golden ticket–the tenure track offer–and still “failed” myself on all four counts. This is getting awfully self-helpy, so I’m going to cut it short, but with all the job market and post-job market angst, it helps to remember that the whole point of job searching is to create a life for yourself that you enjoy living and that allows you to contribute something to the world. And it’s possible to do that without the title “Professor.”

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.

Surrender

When I tell people I’m moving to Russia in August for a minimum of three years, I find I often have to spend the remainder of the conversation taking care of them. I’m not talking about my family. For the most part, they have been like, “That sounds like something you would do.” I’m primarily talking about strangers, like the guy who notarized a copy of my diploma for apostille purposes, who looked at me as if I had a fever. “Do you speak Russian? Have you ever been there before?” people like this usually ask, assuming, I suppose, that this person they have known for 30 seconds can’t possibly have thought this through long enough. The truth is, the answer to both of these questions is, “No,” which makes it sound like they are probably right.

Some of this is, of course, brought on by the word “Russia,” which I think most Americans learn about from action movies. “I just rewatched Air Force One,” one of my sisters said the other day. “I think you should reconsider this whole thing.” (She was kidding, but I there are people out there who agree with her). Moscow is about as exotic as you can get while still telling people you live in Europe, but it is still almost at the exact opposite end of the world from where I live now.

It’s hard listing off the reasons why this whole journey seemed so appealing to me in the time it usually takes to wrap up a conversation with a retail associate (“I’m moving to Russia” is now my go-to excuse for why I can’t sign up for loyalty programs and store credit cards. “I’m currently homeless” is another one.) I can tell people that my husband and I have always wanted to live abroad and travel together and that the job opportunity (with a school I have worked for before, albeit briefly) is excellent. I can talk about my romantic ideas about cold, snowy weather, that I think another August/September in Texas might literally kill me. I can tell them that in academia you go where the job is, but I don’t usually like to give off the impression that this is something I defaulted into out of desperation. Even though it’s sort of true (the job market: it is as bad as you’ve heard), it was also a conscious choice. None of my advisors or colleagues would have faulted me for turning the offer down. But I sent the application in the first place–never dreaming that this was the one would pan out–for a reason even though it’s difficult to nail down.

The truth is that even though I live in a city that–like Portland and Denver and Brooklyn–most people consider a final destination, I can feel myself rotting here. Based on anecdote, I’ve come to understand that this is common among people who are finishing up grad school. Even though it’s been the center of your life for the better part of a decade, it’s difficult to feel sentimental about a place that has been the scene of what I can only describe as so much trauma. Don’t get me wrong, I would do it all over again, but as with any mountain climb, I’m glad it’s over and I’m ready to get the caked mud out of my socks.

But if I had to summarize why this all appeals to me in one word, it would be “surrender.” Relocating to a new country is an enormous undertaking that involves navigating the bureaucracies of two immense nations, unloading of most of your worldly possessions, re-homing your pets, and flinging yourself into a culture that is almost completely alien and where you do not speak the language. In other words, it involves reversing what is usually thought of as the prescribed trajectory of adult life, which typically involves the accumulation of competencies and things. Everything I own now fits in a 7 foot POD, which means that we are leaving Austin with less than we brought (and will be leaving the US with even less as most of it is family keepsake stuff that will be left in my parents’ attic). My list of big adult responsibilities, like maintaining auto insurance and buying pet food, is diminishing. And having made my proficiency with the English language my bread and butter, I will now be headed for a place where that means precisely dick when it comes to buying groceries and finding a mobile service provider. I will become a hapless foreigner. Having trained to become a professor, I will find myself in the position of learner once again.  And yet this is a role in which I find myself most comfortable.

And I know many people wind up seeking or stumbling upon the transformative possibilities of helplessness at many points in life. Some find it in having children. Some find it in moving from the suburbs to the city or changing careers or going to graduate school. In many ways, it probably was this same impulse to be awed in the face of what you don’t yet know that drove me and many others to graduate school, though grad school has a weird way of both cultivating and crushing that out of you. The realities of academic labor are such that words like “marketability” and “job security” occasionally crowd out words like “discovery,” and while I’m now hating myself a little bit for saying that so cheesily, at bottom I’m trying get at the fact that in the face of the academic career trajectory and its immense challenges, it becomes difficult to sustain the kind of curiosity and even risk-taking that got you there in the first place. A PhD does not promise a secure middle class existence, but I’m starting to think that while we should be fighting for better working conditions for grad students and adjuncts, there are some appealing alternatives out there to tenure, though they demand a kind of faith that is often difficult to muster.

I guess this is my long-winded way of saying that I am simultaneously terrified and thrilled about what I am preparing to do. It is like cresting the first hill of a roller coaster and waiting, breathless, for the drop.

Meditations on a Mock Interview, Part 2

You guys are awesome.  The comments on and responses to this post were fantastic, and I wanted to follow up by letting everyone know that the crisis of confidence did come to an end.  In some ways, just writing about it and coming to the realization that this is a pretty common experience helped resolve those questions about my qualifications and temperamental suitability to academic work.  There are two Very Important Lessons that I took away from the experience (aside ways to perform better in an interview), and I thought I would share them here.

1.  My constant need for reassurance and approval from others probably stems from my unwillingness to perform that service for myself.  Yeah, that’s sort of Therapy 101, stuff that I covered in the first year of counseling, but it’s a surprisingly difficult idea to apply to one’s life.  But the simple truth is that I am an intelligent person with more than an average share of common sense.  I understand what the qualifications for doing this sort of job and living this sort of life are.  I am capable of weighing my strengths and weaknesses, and I am capable of saying, “Sure, some aspects of this path I’ve chosen are really challenging for me, but I do actually belong here.”

Jiminy Cricket from Pinnochio
Kind of like this but a lot less adorable

Why don’t I do this for myself?  Some it probably comes from growing up female in an environment where being uppity or over-confident was a liability.  Some of it just comes from being a former teenager and fearing the social repercussions of thinking too well of myself.  In therapy, I was introduced to the concept of the Inner Critic, which is that voice that basically tells you you suck.  In many people with depression, the Inner Critic can be pretty abusive, but in a healthy person it actually performs an adaptive person.  Your Inner Critic is there to tell you when you’re being an asshole, when you need to work harder, when you’ve crossed a line or done something that isn’t in your best interest.  I guess it’s sort of like that concept of Conscience.  It’s there, ultimately, to protect you.  There have been certain situations in my life where I counted on my talent and the quality of my work to get me something (into my first choice college, for example), and I was blindsided when it didn’t work out.  So, my Critic is sort of trying to make sure I’m never surprised like that again and consistently reminds me of my slim chances for success in anything.  Basically, I have an abusive boyfriend living in my head.

I find it interesting that no only do I require explicit affirmation from other people but that in the absence of any other information, I tend to infer disapproval.  It’s a sucky way of entering the world and trying to interact with others, but ultimately it’s also a way of externalizing my Critic, of taking all of the shit I say to myself and putting it in mouths and minds of others.  Then I can sort of blame them for the fact that I feel terrible about myself.  It’s my sister’s fault that I hate my body.  It’s this professor’s fault if I hurt myself later on today.  It’s my parents’ fault if I’m too scared to interact with people.  Etc.  Perversely, it sort of makes me feel a little better, like my depression is totally the fault of everyone I’ve ever come into contact with, but that’s a huge burden to displace on another person.  My sweet partner tells me I do this thing where I fight with him in my head before he even enters the room.  Usually, it’s because I’m feeling insecure about something–the cleanliness of the house, my lack of productivity that day, whatever–and I decide that he’s upset with me about it, and proceed to chew him out for being a demanding jerk.

2)  Sometimes a little external validation helps.  My Inner Critic knows that I require affirmation, and he thinks that makes me a weakling and constantly polices my behavior for anything that smells of “fishing for compliments.”  That makes a pretty logical and simple task like taking my advisor aside to talk about a shitty mock interview more complicated, especially when I’m afraid that I might cry.  At some points, my Critic sounds a lot like Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, saying “there’s no crying in academia!”

I need a Rosie O’Donnell or Geena Davis type to remind my Critic that he’s an abusive has-been drunk.  Anyway, I happened to run into one of my co-directors yesterday afternoon, and he could tell that I sort of had something I wanted to talk about.  So, we went back to his office, and I explained what had happened (without tears!), and he was completely and totally sympathetic.   When he found out who had conducted the interview, he informed me that one of those people is notorious for giving blistering critiques in defense and writing groups and committee meetings department wide, that she is pretty thick-skinned herself and therefore didn’t have a great bedside manner with vulnerable grad students, though she is a brilliant scholar and a rising star in the field.  Furthermore, four other faculty members had approved of my job materials, which meant that the poor reaction of one of these interviewers was probably an anomaly.  Not everyone is going to respond to every item in a job letter the same way.   You can’t please everyone.  This makes perfect sense.

So I wound up getting my affirmation anyway, and I did not suddenly become lazy or arrogant or entitled after hearing that yes, I belong here.  Furthermore, it would be insulting to the faculty members who have supported me throughout the process to suggest that their good opinion doesn’t count, that their investment and confidence in me was misplaced, just because one other person–no matter how brilliant–had a problem with me.

I’m getting there guys, but it’s a process.  Thanks for reading.

Meditations on a Mock Interview

Three minutes into yesterday’s mock interview, I knew it wasn’t going well.  Admittedly, this was something of a surprise.  I had crafted and honed my job materials, showing them to three faculty members over the course of a month and diligently following their advice on rewrites.  I had created one-page handouts demonstrating the range of courses I had taught and could teach.  I had been talking about my dissertation with friends and family, preparing to explain my project to the interviewers.  In the car on the way to campus, I was rehearsing eloquent explanations of how my research enhanced my teaching.

So, it was shocking to sit down in the room with two faculty members I have known for years, open my mouth, and hear a stream of incoherent blather come out.  I started my explanation of my dissertation the way I had intended, but I tripped over the first few words, the witty remark I had planned for the beginning didn’t land right, and in an effort to get my audience where I wanted them, I beat a particular point to death, and after that, I was just lost.  I could feel myself flaming out spectacularly as it was happening, mortified and yet unable to get back on track.  It might have been better if I had simply asked to start over, but instead they just stopped me and asked to move on.  The rest of the interview was sort of a blur.  I know I said a few things I was proud of, but for some odd reason, I changed the subject when asked to talk about an aspect of my teaching experience that I was actually very proud of, and clung to a particular idea so tightly that I sounded one-dimensional.

We wound up stopping the interview early just to talk about what was going wrong.  Everything they said was reasonable–I need to get to the point, be more confident about my pedagogical philosophy instead of trying to please everyone, offer very general summary statements instead of inundating them with the minutiae of my research project–but I was still emotionally wrung out with a gigantic lump in my throat by the time the whole thing was over.  But before it was over, they eviscerated my finely wrought job letter and c.v., documents that two other professors had declared “very strong.”  Granted, the task of writing job materials isn’t an exact science, and there is a great deal of disagreement on what should be emphasized and what shouldn’t be addressed at all.  My advisor had insisted that I spend a full page in my job letter talking about my dissertation, and these two wanted that cut to one short paragraph.  Even in that meeting, the two faculty members conducting the interview quibbled over how I should present my participation in various outreach programs, with one insisting that those were special credentials and the other arguing that it made me look like “a grad student who just signs up for stuff instead of being a leader.”  That sorta stung, especially when she read a few sentences of my letter out loud to in a “what was she thinking?” sort of voice in order to make her point.  That stung.

I did my best to plaster a look of openness and eagerness in the face of their criticism.  I kept making eye contact and did not let my voice break.  I thanked them graciously, got 50 feet from the building, and promptly burst into tears.  And I was ashamed of my tears.  It’s horribly embarrassing, but I cry easily, not because I’m weak or because I manipulate people with tears.  It’s simply a physical response to being overwhelmed, to having nowhere else to go with emotions.  When I was a teenager, I used to get angry and yell at people.  Now I tend to turn all of that inward and vent it in private.

Still, it seems weird that flaming out during a mock interview would have such devastating emotional consequences.  I have a history of depression and a history of inflicting minor self-harm, and this sort of thing is particularly triggering.  I knew it would be that way going in.  Granted, these people were not in the position to offer or deny me a job.  They aren’t in control of my future in that way, but pleasing people in positions of authority, appearing competent and credible, have always sort of been life or death matters for me.  I have a preternatural fear of giving offense to someone I respect and an intense need to be told that I am acceptable.  And no, I wasn’t unloved as a child.  If anything, I was probably over-praised, told too often how special and talented I was, until I believed that being anything less than extraordinary was tantamount to failure.  I don’t think I’m spoiled, just intensely fearful, terrified of breaking rules I don’t know exist and convinced that at some point, someone is going to discover that I am a fraud.  This is more than the usual graduate student “imposter syndrome.”  I’m not entirely convinced that my existence is much more than a sham, that someone isn’t going to come along one day at take away my job, evict me from my house, dissolve my marriage, revoke my “adult” card, and send me back to high school.  I have nightmares about having to return to high school, actually, and they usually involve math tests.

In the competitive world of graduate school, that feeling is heightened by the ridiculously competitive atmosphere.  If you aren’t in this world, it’s sort of hard to explain, but every interaction with a faculty member or even another graduate student can be an incredibly fraught experience, an opportunity to prove that you belong or to unintentionally give away the fact that you don’t.  For five years, I think I’ve been waiting for someone to either tell me conclusively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, “you can totally do this” or to conclusively tell me “you don’t have what it takes.”  Perhaps that’s what I was looking for during that mock interview, a definitive statement one way or another.  Even hearing that I should just quit now might have been reassuring, because FINALLY someone would confirm what I feel like everyone thinks but doesn’t say, air the horrible secret that everyone has been trying to protect me from.  Late last night, in the throes of insomnia, I fantasized about them talking about how unqualified I was after I left the room.  Of course that’s ridiculous.  There are no verdicts to be handed down one way or the other.  Academic labor is just very hard, and getting a job is very hard, and it is in my best interest to get feedback from every possible source and trial and fail in as many low stakes situations as I can.  Prior to this, the Graduate Advisor had told us that a student who finished last year gave a miserable mock interview and went on to land an excellent job, so to a certain degree, their expectations were probably much lower than mine.

Still, I’m becoming even more aware of how much my need to be validated, my paranoid suspicion that everyone–friends, family members, colleagues–thinks I suck but just won’t say it out loud, could limit me personally and professionally.  It does even now prevent me from pursuing certain relationships or being totally open in the ones I have.  And it makes me less inclined to seek feedback or ask for advice until I think a project is “perfect.”  And it makes experiences like these the sort of thing that will set me back for a few days, unable to really work until I assimilate the experience and regain a bit of confidence.  As someone who likes, needs, to be constantly productive, I really hate this particular weakness of mine, but as much as I strive to improve and heal, I’m recognizing that learning to work within those limitation may ultimately be more productive than trying to stifle them.  Because truthfully, my innate sensitivity makes me a better teacher, a more considerate colleague, and a more benevolent giver of feedback.  And my desire to please makes me a harder, more efficient worker.  But it also means that I’ve lived with chronic depression for fifteen years, and that depression has gotten life threatening at least once.

I am immensely thankful for the people on the feminist blogosphere who advocate treating depression like any other disability, something that requires accommodation.  Moving forward today, in the aftermath of that experience, I am figuring out how to do what I need to do while restoring a modicum of mental and emotional equilibrium.  I got up early and put on clothes that make me feel confident and professional (this just happens to work for me–not necessarily for everyone).  I’ve sent those faculty members a thank you note, indicating how much I appreciate their support in this process.  I’ll be sending them a revised letter of interest later, but not this morning.  This morning, I’ll sit here in Starbucks and sip tea and read Tim Gunn’s book for the pure gossipy joy of it.  This afternoon, I’ll be meeting with other grad students to discuss our writing projects and probably dish a little bit about the suckitude of our mock interviews.  And I’m going to acknowledge that, today at least, I need to limit my exposure to grumpy criticism more than usual.

Note for Commenters: In that spirit, I’m going to ask that you refrain from dispensing advice, especially of the “you just need to X” or even the “you’re too hard on yourself” variety.  You are encouraged, however, to describe your own experience with interviews or any other aspect of job seeking or school or receiving criticism of any kind.  For the next few days at least, this is a space for venting, not for pontificating.

Why Do They Care About Grades So Much?

At the end of every semester, I hold what I cheekily call my “group therapy session” about grades.  For about 20-30 minutes on one of the last days of class, I go over how I calculate grades, appropriate ways for students to talk to me about grades, and what frame of mind they should bring to their grades as they view and think about them.  In order to combat the inevitable anxiety, I usually say a few words about how employers generally don’t care so much about grades earned in lower division courses, that the difference between a B and an A in a sophomore level lit class doesn’t mean a whole lot in the long run.  Then, one of my innately brightest students (who also struggled that semester for a variety of reasons) called me on what he pretty accurately judged was a bunch of happy horseshit.  “The difference between an A and a B,” he said, “is the difference between Flagship State University Law School and Regional College Law School.”  And you know what, he sort of has a point.

I’ve written before on this blog about grade grubbing, and given where we are in the semester, just a few weeks before midterms (how is it October already?), it’s no surprise that conversations about student laziness, excuses, “snowflakiness,” and sense of entitlement to unearned grades are starting to pop up on academic sites.  Though really, as someone who actually did get mono during exam week as an undergraduate, someone whose grandmother did pass away during the final week of classes just two years ago, and someone who had a student nearly die due to a chronic illness last term, I have this to say to the haters:  Don’t be a douchebag.  Treat claims of illness and family emergency as legitimate unless you know for sure that they aren’t.  Don’t treat these things as an occasion for a free pass, but help students work through the situation in a way that satisfies requirements for successful completion of the course without, you know, sending them into therapy, prompting them to quit school, or compromising their health.

But back to grade-grubbing:   I wonder if we, as instructors, spend so much time complaining about the way they expect awesome grades for merely average work and treat instructors like magical A-dispensers, that we’re missing a bigger point about the pressures that students face in a vastly more competitive and ever-shrinking labor market.  I wonder if we are too quick to explain this behavior away as selfishness, immaturity, and the result of a consumer-based education system that we miss the fact that such behavior may, in fact, be a rational response to the shrinking of opportunities for all but the most exalted (not to mention well-connected) individuals.

My extended family members are frequently astounded by my generation’s approach to education.  On both my mother’s and father’s side, their generation was the first to ascend to the middle class.  My father’s parents had no college education.  My mother’s father went to college–much later than the traditional student–after the Korean War, on the GI bill.  Both of my parents and all of their siblings, by contrast (there are 9 of them, total), have at least some college education.  Many of them have graduate degrees, and most of them own their own businesses or occupy senior management positions in national corporations.  But most of them will confess to having spent their teenage years in a state of total rebellion, not really giving a flying frack about grades.  Most of them scored about 1000 on their SATs (I know that scores are inflated now) and still got into the best two public universities in the state.  A few of them dropped out of college for various reasons and then returned to get their degrees.  I doubt that my grandparents were really thrilled about that, but they accepted it and seemed to manage the expense of those lost years without too much trouble.  My father put himself through medical school, which cost less than $1000 a year in the early 80’s. I say this all just to point out that the costs and outcomes of higher education are, by all measures, changing radically and rapidly.

The grandchildren–my generation–were all raised to care intensely about performance in school.  Part of that increased emphasis on getting good grades was, I think, a result of generational differences in parenting, but it also seems to have been an acknowledgment of the shift in college admissions standards and the fact that a college education is now compulsory for anyone hoping to make a middle class income in adulthood.  My sisters and I all scored 1300 and above and still sweated about getting in to the very same universities our parents sailed into without a worry with much lower grades and test scores.  College admissions have gotten ridiculously competitive, resulting in what is, effectively, the professionalization of the teenage years, when every class and every extracurricular experience is carefully selected based on how it will look on a transcript or a resume, when students are increasingly encouraged to begin thinking about college in middle school, when top high schools routinely engage in the practice of grade inflation in order to give their students an edge.

This is a system in which it becomes very difficult to learn how to deal with struggles and failures, because you can’t afford to have them. In my junior year of high school, my grades began to slip, not because I was lazy or unmotivated but because I was mired in an undiagnosed and untreated depression, a slip that most certainly cost me my top choice college.  The teenage years are fraught with experimentation, crisis, and yes, failure, and those are all experiences that contribute to adult growth, but the consequences of that period is frequently so dire and unacceptable that it’s sort of no wonder that students begin looking for dishonorable but frequently effective ways mitigate those consequences.

Much of this thinking is catastrophizing.  Plenty of people make B’s in various classes and move on to gainful employment.  Plenty of people drop out of college and return.  Plenty of people do not get into their first choice college or law or medical school and have rewarding careers.  But students occupy a space that is part alternate reality and part actual reality, a space in which the stakes for being slightly less than extraordinary increasingly feel bleak.  Middle class wealth is shrinking, not growing.  The only group that continues to get richer is the superstars, the celebrities, the CEO’s, and many students still operate under the assumption that the U.S. economy is a meritocracy, that brilliant grades and admission to a top business or law school signify entitlement to all of the riches the world has to offer and that all they need to do is keep presenting the case that they are meritorious (even if they aren’t) and the rewards will follow.  My grandparents aspired to join the middle class back when it really was something to aspire to.  Now, increasingly, it isn’t.

So why do they care about grades so much?  Because they think they have to.  That’s not a call for instructors to indulge them in their quest for unearned rewards, but it is a call for empathy and a call for those of us who have the opportunity to intercept these kids at a particularly delicate time to help them successfully enter adulthood, to educate them about how to manage setbacks responsibly.

Basket Case Time

A button that reads "Don't Panic"Ya’ll, I have some good news, some bad news, and some news that may or may not induce bleeding from the eyeballs.  The good news is that I am over my temporary writing hump and have nearly finished another chapter.  I’m also about done with all of my job materials.  The bad news is that my brain is too wrung out for blogging, and if I have two good hours of writing in my system, I’m generally going to be spending it on more pressing matters.

The other news, though I realize that you can fit the people who really care about this into an averagely sized high school gymnasium, is that the JOB LIST IS OUT, YA’LL.  HOLY CHRIST ON A POPSICLE STICK.  This is my first time on the market.  I’ve been promised another year of funding, so I’m not desperate yet, but there is just no way that this won’t create drama in my life, because at bottom, I’m sort of a shy person and SCRUTINY.  IT BURNS.  The simple activity of begging professors to read my letters and writing sample and whatnot has aggravated my acute case of imposter syndrome already.  Mock interviews (starting next week) should be an absolute hoot.  I’ll try to blog about it when I’m not drinking myself into oblivion and/or sobbing into a pillow.

Photo Credit:  Jim Linwood

TR on Post-Grad School Job Prospects

The JIL gets published, like, next week.  Does this have anyone else feeling kinda shitty about the job market?  Tenured Radical is making that point I was trying to make a few weeks ago but with actual scholarly street cred and a gracious sense of humor.  Read it and be encouraged:

A great many graduate students are instructed that doing such work takes them off the fast-track, making them look unserious, unfocused and lacking in commitment to their scholarship. To this I say: Balls. Since when did the allegedly virtuous path of eking out a living on adjunct pay, moving around the country, and becoming increasingly bitter about what you have sacrificed prove to be a guarantee of tenure-track labor? Furthermore, while some narrow-minded person at Prestigious Ivy U. might look at your vita, overlook all your academic accomplishments and say, “Hmmm. Assistant to the Dean of the College? Yeccch!” someone at Zenith, or State U – Calabash might say happily, “Now here’s a person who won’t have to be taught how to walk, talk and find the chalk!” It is also true that you can send vitae to different schools that emphasize different things.