Posts Tagged ‘academic blues’

I’ve been kind of down on academia the past couple of months. In large measure this is a function of having absolutely zero success on the job markket — I’ve failed to generate any response from a single search committee other than the standard form letters and rejection notices, much less a measly interview. It’s easy to get down on academia when it feels like academia is down on you.

At the same time, I think I’ve finally started to believe my own words of wisdom to myself about how my non-success to date in landing a job is largely a reflection of the changed reality of the humanities job market, in which a severe overpopulation of soon-to-be and newly minted Ph.D.’s is coupled with across-the-board budget cuts. This combination of too much supply and too little demand translates to a shortage of advertised job vacancies, but also to scenarios where upwards of two hundred people are applying for a single job with a teaching load from hell at Directional State University in the state of Miserable Place to Live. It must be a grand old time to be one of the departments with the wherewithal to make a new hire. But it’s not exactly a recipe for professional success if, like me, you’re looking for a job.

Anyway, even though I’ve known for a while that this is the current reality of the academic job market, I found it difficult until recently not to interpret my complete lack of success as a reflection of some failing on my part. It’s just hard not to take it personally.

Striking out repeatedly on the job market and feeling down about my prospects in my chosen field led me to check out mentally from academia. As I began to doubt whether I’d ever find a job, I found it harder and harder to put any effort into anything academic. Grading, teaching, applying for jobs, even revising my dissertation — my performance across the board probably suffered, since I just didn’t believe in it with the same conviction that I had just a few short months ago.

I feel like my attitude has softened, and perhaps even improved these past few days. Part of it may be a function of not interpreting my disappointment with the job market as an indictment of my own abilities. Part of it may even be a case of me making my peace with the increasingly likely prospect of never landing that coveted tenure-track job at a good university.

But I think a lot of it is attributable to a kind of happenstance, almost an accident.

A few months ago, I applied to teach a class for my department this summer. I figured I could use the summer income regardless of what happens with the job market, and I got assigned to teach the same one-month European survey I taught last summer. That was a real blessing, in my eyes, since it meant minimal preparation would be required on my part, and, needless to say, I’ve found it hard to summon a lot of motivation and enthusiasm these days for teaching.

But then a few weeks ago, I got an e-mail asking if I’d be willing to teach a second course, a junior seminar, to round out the department’s summer offerings. I mulled it over for a couple of weeks, since it’d be sticking around an extra month this summer, though it would also double my income. Plus, being a seminar, I’d only have to teach one day a week, and I wouldn’t need to write lectures. Ultimately, I decided that whatever happened with the job market, it was probably a minimal gamble, and it certainly stood to be a relatively lucrative one on my end.

So, I accepted the offer last week, then pitched a few topics. I mostly stuck to familiar topics, things I had already taught or that were firmly grounded in my field (unlike survey courses, which require me to stretch my knowledge). After some consultation, I settled on a topic — the fall of the Iron Curtain — and after wrapping up the revisions to my dissertation last week, I set to work this past weekend on putting together my syllabus.

The funny thing was, what began as largely a chore of designing a new course from scratch turned out to be pretty enjoyable. This seminar is, arguably, the first class I’ve taught that’s entirely within my expertise (my history of communism class from last year largely tread on familiar ground, but I’m still far from an expert on Asian or Latin American communism). Instead of hunting around online and in the library catalog, trying to find syllabi from similar classes to poach, I already had a few books in mind and mostly pulled a bunch of them off my bookshelf.

As I flipped through my books, it was likely visiting with a familiar old friend. I remembered how much I love my topic, how passionate I am about the history of East-Central Europe, and it reminded me why, so many years ago, I thought I wanted to make this my career.

To make a long story short, I chose my topic well, since I’m not wanting for motivation or enthusiasm. It’s going to be an easy class for me to teach, not only in terms of not having to teach myself a lot of new material before I teach my students, but also in the sense that it doesn’t feel like a chore in the way prepping for classes out of my sweet spot often does.

And, even more surprising, my revived interest in academia got me sufficiently motivated to complete three job applications yesterday. One of them was even a tenure-track position at a school that, while not necessarily prestigious, is at least located in a good climate. Even though this particular job advertised for a military historian, my adviser was in contact with the chair of the search committee, who said they’d be interested in someone like me, provided I could teach a class on military history. And as I thought about it, I came up with what I felt was a pretty good argument for why I “do” military history — or at least for why there’s considerable content on military history in my dissertation. I think I wrote a pretty good cover letter, and I actually felt sufficiently reinvigorated by things that I rattled off applications I had put off for weeks for a couple of one-year positions.

Maybe it’s just that I feel a sense of liberation, since I’m not really expecting anything to come of these applications. At least, I’m not investing a lot emotionally in the outcome. I assume it’s more likely than not that I won’t get any of them, but perhaps I can get someone to show at least a little interest, and at this point that tiny bit of affirmation would make me feel good.

Mostly, though, I think it’s a function of being reminded, after having lost sight for some months, why I thought this was a good path to follow in my life.

I suppose if these are, in fact, my final months in academia (or at least before I become a glorified hanger-on without any formal standing), I might as well enjoy them.

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Long ago, around the time I was starting graduate school, or maybe even when I was still just considering it, I recall someone telling me something to the effect that you finish graduate school once you reach a point where you hate your dissertation. Or being a graduate student. Something like that. The upshot was that it’s once you’ve had your fill of being a grad student and writing a dissertation that you hunker down and finish.

Well, I think I’m about at that point.

Essentially, I took a whole year off from working on my dissertation. I finished the first full draft at the end of January 2009, and while I read through it a couple of months later to do some proofreading, it was only in early February 2010 that I sat down to start making revisions.

I was fortunate that the comments I had from my readers were extremely positive and indicated that there weren’t major problems. There were some things that I needed to fix, a few points that needed more explanation or development, but it was all relatively minor.

Anyway, earlier this month, after I finished writing lectures for the quarter, I finally got around to starting the revisions. I looked through the comments I received on my drafts, made a list of corrections, pulled out the relevant books, and got cracking. It took a little more than a week to get through the initial pass. The worst of it was the beginning, since the biggest revision was rejiggering the introduction and first chapter, mostly to shift sections around, but it also required me to reshape Chapter 1 slightly.

I submitted the revised Introduction and Chapter 1 to my writing group as my quarterly contribution and got some helpful feedback. Today I finally got down to making those changes, though I probably didn’t do justice to all the feedback my colleagues offered.

I’m just finding it hard to summon the motivation to make substantial changes. A large part of it, I suspect, is that I’ve known I could more or less coast on the initial draft I finished writing last year. And I’ve certainly improved upon that, based on the comments from my committee and my writing group. But I also feel like I’m at a point of diminishing marginal returns, where it would take an obscene expenditure of time and effort to generate minor improvements in quality.

On some level, I’m telling myself I can get away with what I have because it leaves something to revise if and when I publish my dissertation as an honest-to-goodness book in the next few years. But I’ve also been writing my dissertation like a book manuscript to minimize the amount of work I’d have to do down the road. And my committee members have commented that they’re impressed that my dissertation reads more like a book than a dissertation.

Anyway, I just feel more and more like I’m ready to throw in the towel and run out the clock. The sooner I decide I’m finished with revisions, the sooner I can give it to my committee and schedule my defense. And the sooner I defend, the sooner I can advance to goofing off until graduation.

It’s just odd, because in a lot of ways I feel like I have senioritis, even though I’m a (theoretically) responsible adult and on the cusp of receiving my doctorate. It’s also odd because I don’t think I really suffered from senioritis in high school or college.

Of course, I still have the important task of deciding whether to change the title of my dissertation. I’ve been using the same boring descriptive title I’ve been using ever since I had to list a working title on grant applications several years ago. But more recently I’ve been toying with the idea of changing to something quirkier or cleverer, or at least resurrecting the informal title I devised long ago: “Springtime for Dubček and Slovakia.” I haven’t decided.

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Applying myself

The past two days I finally hunkered down and assembled applications for a whole slew of tenure-track positions with upcoming deadlines, and today I finished sending in the remaining eight.

Counting the earlier deadlines for two jobs, I’ve now applied for a total of ten positions, all of which are tenure-track jobs.

Looking through my files, I see I applied for a total of thirteen tenure-track jobs last year, plus three one-year/post-doc positions. In terms of aggregate numbers, it would seem that the job market isn’t lagging too far behind last year’s. But those raw numbers obscure the reality that there are, in fact, fewer jobs this year.

Case in point: last year I was pretty selective about where I applied, especially in the fall. I passed on schools in places that seemed too remote (North Dakota) or too bitterly cold (Buffalo) to live, and mostly aimed for jobs in places that seemed like they’d be nice to live, or at institutions where I thought I’d want to be.

Plus, I didn’t apply for everything under the sun that said “European history” with the field and/or specialization open, reasoning that there were some places liable to attract hundreds of applications, thus making them real shots in the dark. Moreover, there were at least three tenure-track jobs, plus a one-year position, in my field. What minimal traction I did get with job applications last year was almost entirely with jobs in my field, where I had my only AHA interview, plus a phone interview for a one-year position. (I did get a request for more work from one of the open-specialization European history jobs last year, but so did about eighty other applicants, and I got tossed out clearing that preliminary bar.)

Contrast that to this year, where I’ve seen exactly one job that might be described fairly as being in my field, and where virtually everything else for which I’d even be theoretically qualified is casting a very wide net. I’m applying for everything and anything. So far I think I’ve only passed on a couple of jobs at religious universities (meaning they want people who reflect those religious values in the classroom), plus North Dakota (again). I’m not being picky, even though it’s the case with at least some of these jobs that I think the $10-plus it cost me to assemble and mail the application would’ve been better spent on scratch-off lottery tickets (which I generally regard as a form of taxation that targets people who can’t do math). One of this year’s jobs is actually a reopened position for which I applied last year; the search was canceled due to budget cuts a year ago, and this year’s search remains “pending budgetary approval.”

Undoubtedly there will be more jobs announced in the coming months, and it’ll probably be a couple of months yet before a bunch of the post-docs, adjunct and interim positions get announced. But it’s still frustrating to know there are only so few options, and probably so many people striving for the scant crumbs that do exist.

It’s probably more frustrating to know that, as the chair of one search committee that had me in the running for a job said to one of my advisers, I’d likely have little trouble getting a job in a “normal” year, yet it’ll probably be a year, or more, before the academic job market in European history gets back to “normal,” if it ever even recovers in full.

At least things aren’t so bleak on all fronts. I did finally get feedback on my dissertation from my primary adviser, and he was generally pleased and had few comments that would require substantive changes (mostly it’s just checking on something here, explaining something there, clarifying my phrasing elsewhere), and no problems with my argument or the key points. It’s a major hurdle to have cleared, and I feel like I’m in good shape in terms of making final revisions. It’ll take a few weeks to make the edits needed to address his comments, but it’s mostly just because there are a lot of little things to address, a lot of facts or numbers to look up, rather than needing lots of time to revamp the organization or rewrite large sections. I’m still awaiting comments from the other two members of my committee, and they may have other questions for me to address, but ultimately it’s the chair of my committee whose opinion matters most, so I feel pleased about that.

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Word came early last week in the form of a fairly impersonal letter that I didn’t get a nice, one-year visiting assistant professor position at a highly regarded liberal arts school. I had a phone interview a couple of weeks earlier, and the chairman of the search committee had informed me when he first called to arrange the phone interview that they were talking to a half-dozen candidates.

Needless to say, the news came as a disappointment, since it would’ve allowed me to finish up in the next couple of months, graduate, and start a job that, while not a final destination unto itself, would’ve been a terrific stepping stone on my search for a tenure-track position in another year or two. Granted, it would’ve required a 3,000-mile, cross-country move for a job that might only last one year, but as far as temporary and adjunct jobs go, it would’ve been great experience and the name of the school would’ve looked quite good on my CV.

Of course, it was also disappointing to receive the news in a snail-mail letter, if only because it didn’t afford any chance to maybe get some specifics about what swayed the committee, however vague or cryptic the bearer of bad news may have been. Sure, the rejection letter had the boilerplate about the committee deciding on the candidate that best fit the department’s needs. But that sort of language is so non-specific as to be useless to me in trying to get a gauge on what might have worked against me, or what might be something I can address applying to subsequent jobs. For all I knew, the “department’s needs” could’ve meant someone already in the general neighborhood geographically. Or someone with the ability to teach classes on British history. Or someone short enough not to hit her/his head on the low ceilings in the dungeon-like basement office set aside for the position. Instead, I got the academic equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

An aside: At least this search committee saw fit to notify me that they had rejected me, unlike the small liberal arts college that asked me to interview at the national convention but never had the professional (or common) courtesy to send me a terse letter notifying me of the committee’s decision. Then again, the department chair told me at the interview that while the department would be meeting the next week to vote on which candidates it wanted to invite, it would take “a while” to get the necessary approvals from the college bureaucracy before it could even extend invitations. Only, as it turned out, according to the academic job search wiki, the committee invited at least one candidate that same week. So, either the chair’s idea of “a while” is “within a day,” or the chair was being dishonest with me and I bought a pricey ticket to NYC right after New Year’s to fulfill some sort of quota. Not that I’m bitter.

Anyway, I ran into one of my advisers this week, who had e-mailed the committee earlier on advocating for me, and she said she happened to hear from the search committee chairman that the committee had just decided to go with the candidate with the most teaching experience (bummer), but that the committee had liked me and thought that I’d easily get a job in a “normal year.” My adviser thought it sounded like I was definitely one of their three finalists, and might even have been their second choice.

I’m not really sure what to make of that news. On the one hand, it was encouraging to get some feedback, any feedback, on why the search committee went the way it did. And it was definitely nice to hear that a search committee making decisions on actual jobs for which I applied had thought me employable. I suppose it’s even heartening to know that in a more bullish job market I’d probably have favorable job prospects. Then again, the next “normal year” for academic hiring is liable to be several years in the future, which doesn’t help me much in the interim.

I suppose I ought to put the best face on this news, since it means I’m employable, but I guess at the moment it just leaves me feeling more and more powerless as I realize once more just how dependent I am on circumstances I can’t possibly hope to control.


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Selling myself

Ugh. I’ve spent most of today trying to prepare for my job interview next weekend. It’s kind of grueling.

I’ve found a few web sites with tips and advice for how to prepare, questions to expect and the like. Mostly it’s stuff I’d expect based on my own experience on a search committee (albeit one that didn’t do interviews at the AHA):

  • Be prepared to talk about your research
  • Be prepared to talk about your teaching
  • Have some questions to ask the committee interviewing you

It’s not rocket science. There are even some questions and tips with more specificity that I should expect:

  • How would I characterize the state of my field? (Still breathing.)
  • Where do I think my field is going in the next few years? (Probably nowhere, otherwise it wouldn’t still be in East-Central Europe.)
  • What are some books that have influenced me? (The Brothers Karamazov made me tear up at the end; that was pretty influential.)

The bigger pain, perhaps is trying to have some fairly specific prospective classes I’d want to teach or would be willing to teach. I’m fortunate in that I have two syllabi for the classes I’m teaching the next two quarters, though they aren’t exactly what I’d be teaching primarily if I get this job. Of course, because I’d probably be teaching surveys of East-Central Europe most of the time, I should have a good sense of how I would construct those courses.

Now, it’s not as though I don’t have an idea of how I’d design a course in my own field. I’ve given some thought to it before. But I also think I should probably have at least three or four different course in my field I can teach, especially since I’ll probably have to teach a couple of different classes each semester, and I’ll probably also have to vary my offerings from semester to semester.

Really, the problem is, I’ve taken classes and done fieldwork before the twentieth century, but most of my work and all of my research concerns the twentieth century, especially the post-Second World War period. There just aren’t a lot of good books and sources on those earlier periods, which is part of the reason they aren’t quite so interesting to me.

Anyway, I’ve been trying hastily to construct the rough outlines of different courses, which mostly means I’ve tried to figure out books I might assign and themes I might emphasize. Part of me wants to say it matters little, since I won’t fill out the specifics of any course until I know for certain that I’m teaching it, since there are plenty of variables involved. But, of course, this is one of those areas where I’m supposed to wow my prospective employer with my brilliance. Or something.

It’s also challenging trying to construct answers that convey the groundbreaking nature of my dissertation but are succinct enough not to require more than a couple of minutes to spit out. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get it down to that approximate time limit (any longer and I’m likely to bore the committee), and whenever I get that to a satisfactory state, I’ll get to spend the rest of the week trying to commit it more or less to memory.

My natural inclination is to think about these things, review my notes a few times and trust I’m smart enough on my feet to say what I want to say. But there’s too much at stake for me to feel comfortable winging it the way I would ordinarily.

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I heard back from another institution today, with more good news:

After extended deliberation over the files of a large number of extraordinarily strong candidates, the History Department at [name withheld] has drawn up a short list of those who most closely fit the needs of the Department and the College.

You are among those whom we should like to consider further for our position.

What this means in practical terms is that I have to get myself to New York right after New Year’s to interview at the AHA convention, the annual meat market for historian job seekers.

This is good news, especially because this was actually a job for a historian of East-Central Europe. But it also makes me feel gratified that the suit, tie and dress shoes I packed in our meager baggage allowance for yesterday’s cross-country trek to the in-laws will not be for naught. I still have to book a ticket to NYC, but that’s easy enough thanks to Amtrak. And my in-laws here have already made arrangements for me to stay with in-laws I’ve not yet met in the Jersey burbs.

If nothing else, I can take the two pieces of encouraging news on the job front these past couple of weeks as a sign that I’m not completely a hopeless case as a job candidate, which is heartening considering I’m only about two-thirds of the way done with my dissertation (but would really, really like to finish this year).

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