Breaking the job search silence



The job application process is time and resource consuming for those of us trying to get off the contingent merry-go-round and on to the tenure-track. I have done this once already, just after finishing my Ph.D., with a brand-new tiny baby. My husband was still a Ph.D. student, and I was easing my way back into teaching after a whirlwind four months where I finished my dissertation, gave birth, defended my dissertation, then made the required edits in time for the submission deadline.

My daughter still napped a lot. We lived modestly, but between my part-time teaching (which was well-paid) and his scholarship and new part-time job, we were doing fine. I had time to devote to my job applications, often written with a napping baby in a sling. My husband could take her off my hands, too, if I needed to a solid block of time to get things done. We went to the MLA in Chicago as a family and I didn’t get any sleep the first night because the time change upset our daughter. I finished up an edited volume. I had a few on-campus interviews. I got a job.

Now, I am working full-time, teaching a 5/4 course load. My husband is on the tenure-track. I have two kids, 3 and 5. I have a book contract, four upcoming conferences, and a keynote presentation. These are all good problems to have, but it makes finding time to apply for jobs that much more difficult. And, in my mind, the stakes are so much higher. I have three people whom I love and who love me that need to be taken into consideration. Two sets of student loans that are now demanding to be repaid. My shelf-life is getting (apparently) shorter and shorter. But, most notably, I know what I want, and, more importantly, I know what I don’t want.

I have to make time to write and rewrite the job letters, personalizing them for every institution. I’ve already found a typo in one of the letters I’ve already sent out. I’ve written and rewritten my teaching philosophies, research statements, updated my teaching portfolio…The advice is to treat the job search like a full-time job, but when you already have one full-time job AND the second-shift (which includes my research since it’s not a part of my job and my blogging), it means something suffers in the process.

But then there is the mental toll of the search. The hurry-up-and-waiting game. The constant worries. There’s the pressure to be “on” in all aspects of life while on the job search, especially for someone who is as public as I am. What can I tweet? What can’t I blog about? One comment on my last post advised me to be “kind of bland” – I think that ship has already sailed electronically, but this advice is really difficult for me because of my personality. When I try to be bland, I come off as stand-offish or a cold fish. I’m already practicing in my head how I need to be in order to appeal to hiring committees. Be yourself, just not too much like yourself.

But, again, I am in a privileged position. If I don’t get a job, I have a secure position and thus a secure paycheck for the next academic year. I also have a wonderful support system, both in real life and virtually, so I am in some ways in a much better place than the last go at the market. So I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me, but instead have some sympathy for all of the applicants who aren’t as lucky as me, who are struggling to make ends meet as adjuncts and the job application process is their third or fourth job, and they are demoralized going through their third of fourth cycle with little luck.

This is work. Long, hard, stressful, and often fruitless work. Work that never even receives a form letter as a dismissal. Work that is sometimes met with hostility and derision. The satirical job descriptions shared by the MLA Jobs Tumblr reflect the frustration with the job search process. Examples like this do little to assuage our growing disillusionment. Prestigious post-docs are charging application fees. I saw a tweet in my timeline that darkly joked that eventually, job applicants would have to agree to pay back some of their salary as a condition of their hiring.

This both is and is not what I signed on for. So many can tell you the academic job market is cruel, but for many of us, until we experience the cruelty first-hand, we can’t understand it. And then we forget. Or, for the luckier ones, they never really experienced it to begin with. This is not your supervisor’s job market. This is not your hiring committees job market. This is our job market, not of our doing, but we bear the consequences of others’ choices.

I don’t know if knowing that makes the whole process harder or easier.