Life as a captive of the job market



The academic job market is an exercise in captivity, and I am still its prisoner.

To some extent I’ve ensured my place in this life by acceding to the terms of academe. I’ve defended my dissertation, and so I’ve unofficially transformed myself from Eunice Williams, Ph.D. candidate, to Dr. Williams. Even if I’m befuddled by the job market, I’ve still agreed to abide by the rules of the game.

The problem, I think, is that I’m still not sure that I’ve learned all of the rules. I had a campus interview in December that seemed to go well, but, alas, I got no offer out of it. It felt good to practice my job talk, to see what it was like to meet with potential colleagues, and to learn the etiquette of breaking bread with search-committee members.

I thought I comported myself fairly well. I made it to the campus with no flight delays and no traffic issues. I spilled no food on myself, and presciently prevented blisters on my feet by pre-emptively wrapping my toes with Band-Aids. I tried to engage faculty members with discussions about their own work, to share my syllabi for future courses when it seemed appropriate, and to ask noncritical yet specific and thoughtful questions.

Some things couldn’t be helped. The dean had already left the campus for winter break, so we didn’t get to sit down and chat. No graduate students were available to meet with me, so I couldn’t ask where they’d like to see their program headed. On the way across the campus, a group of middle-school students on a scavenger hunt needed a photograph of a professor, and assumed that I was one because I was wearing a suit—all the while ignoring the professor who was actually giving me the tour. I tried to save the situation by diplomatically asking them to take a picture of both of us, but still, it was awkward.

So I came back to the Northeast and participated in a few more telephone and Skype interviews. Now I know that I’m still learning some of the rules, but it seems as though search-committee members should know them already and could do with a few reminders.

• If a committee member must absent himself from the interview, under no circumstances should you have him Skype in, set a laptop with his face on it directly across from the computer displaying the job candidate’s face, and expect the exchange to proceed normally. That method created the sense that I was taking part in a Skype duel. Unless I get the opportunity to win a tenure-track job if my Skype connection stays live longer than my opponent’s, I want no part in such shenanigans.

• Candidates expect to be asked a broad question about balancing teaching, research, and service. It seems a bit unfair, however, to ask which of your school’s service committees—specifically!—the candidate would like to join. Female candidates, especially, seem vulnerable to taking on too much service, and I didn’t want to convey the impression that I was willing to volunteer for everything.

• When you ask a candidate if she has any questions for you, you are signaling the approach of the interview’s conclusion, and, thus, her impending freedom. That’s the common expectation for how the process works. So it throws the candidate if—once she’s been offered the chance to ask her questions and you’ve answered them—you then say you would like to ask more questions about her research. Doing so conveyed the sense that the interview was a marathon, and that I could expect the equivalent of an Ironman competition were I to obtain a campus interview.

Speaking of events that require stamina, the American Historical Association’s meeting in New Orleans felt just like a long, exhausting march through unfamiliar territory. Not that I’ve ever been much of an endurance racer. I’m also pretty sure that marathons don’t end by drinking neon pink watermelon beverages on Bourbon Street, but new journeys require the ingestion of unfamiliar food and drink.

In a way, getting rejected from a job after my first campus visit was OK. I tried to focus on the experience I’d garnered from that trip—my ability to talk cogently about my research, to articulate concrete plans for teaching, and to act like a future colleague—rather than the fact that I’d lost out to another candidate. Somehow, I managed to walk into the AHA meeting with confidence. It helped that I had a respectable number of conference interviews, so I could bask in the feeling that, at least for the first round, people wanted to talk to me.

My interviews at the AHA all proceeded fairly normally, which was a relief. I did run the gantlet of one crazy interview: I sat at the head of a table facing a committee of more than half a dozen people arranged on either side of me. But I’d been warned ahead of time about that. The conference job center was not as terrifying as I thought it would be, although I quickly learned not to spend more time than necessary in the holding pen that served as the pre-interview waiting room.

The oddest moments actually occurred before my interviews, which were in private suites. Not because of what happened inside the rooms—all of the interviewers I met seemed very professional—but because of the waiting time leading up to each interview.

As it happens, I tend to arrive at my destinations compulsively early. Because I didn’t want to bump into any candidates who were scheduled before me, I frequently found myself skulking furtively by the elevators or ’round corners, waiting for the two-minute window before my interview when I deemed it appropriate to knock on the door. Despite the discomfort of feeling stalkerish, I still think that it was better to get there on the early side than to find myself wandering around frantically on the brink of tardiness.

I do know that if the job market keeps me captive beyond the end of the semester, I will do things a bit differently next time around.

• I will try my hardest not to schedule interviews on the day when I present on a panel. You might ask why, given the stress of conference interviews, I decided to present a paper at the meeting at all.

For one thing, I had no way of knowing that I’d land any interviews at the AHA. For another, my department, until very recently, would not pay for graduate students to attend conferences unless we presented a paper. Knowing that I might otherwise have found myself forced at the last minute to buy an overpriced plane ticket to New Orleans, I made plans to speak at the meeting.

I think I would have managed to do a good job presenting my paper if I hadn’t had three interviews the day before, and if my panel chair hadn’t suggested that all panelists meet early in the morning before the panel commenced. As it was, my presentation was only OK, and it sapped my energy. I had to return to my room afterward to lie on the bed and look at the ceiling for a long time. Twenty minutes before my next interview found me in the exact same spot on the bed, somehow unable and unwilling to put my nice shoes back on—prebandaged and nonblistered feet notwithstanding.

• I will remind myself that the conference is mostly about willpower—the will to get off the bed and out of your hotel room even when you’re exhausted, to motivate yourself to be “on” for each of your interviews, to repeat your research points and teaching philosophy using concrete examples, and to juggle the names of departmental research colloquiums and faculty members just long enough to get through the interview, and then forget it all in time to make space in your tired brain for the next pieces of information. Perhaps the metaphor of a mental marathon works here.

• As in athletic events, a series of conference interviews requires you to provide yourself with proper sustenance. That task was more challenging than I expected in New Orleans. It’s not that there was no food; there was tons of it. But I wish I’d done more planning beforehand to find out what was close, cheap, and energizing rather than close, expensive, and fried. On my last day of interviews I had a Rice Krispies treat and two shots of espresso for lunch as I admitted defeat in the face of too little time between interviews. Thank goodness my sugar crash occurred after my final meeting.

• I will remember to reward myself for making it through the day. Conference interviews are frustrating because you spend your waking hours doing things that have no immediate payoff. It became important to acknowledge that the work I did in those interviews counted (I hope) toward some future goal, and to celebrate my ability to cross each one off of my schedule. So on my first day in New Orleans, I made sure that I ate oysters in all of their delightful raw, fried, and cheesy iterations; I sampled the beignets (alas, not before donning my suit—a powdered-sugar-inflected mistake). And when I was done with all my interviews, I indulged in the world’s best nap.

And then I came back to the Northeast, bought approximately all of the vegetables at my local grocery store, ate about half of them, and received the news of two impending campus visits. I am still a captive of the academic market, but I feel lucky at the chance of a way out.

Author Bio: Eunice Williams is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in history at a Southern university. She is working as a writing fellow while she searches for her first tenure-track job or a postdoctoral appointment.


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