Posts Tagged ‘job market’

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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Another story to remind me how bleak the future is likely to be in my chosen profession.

Part of me wonders if I would’ve gone to graduate school had I known going in how challenging it would be to get the career out of it I wanted. Probably I would’ve done it anyway, yielding to a belief in my own exceptionalism, as well as the knowledge that I doubted I’d enjoy anything else nearly as much.

It’s a pointless, and maddening, hypothetical scenario to ponder, especially since there was no good way to foresee the economy would be approaching Great Depression lows by the time I was ready to finish and hit the job market.

Sure, there’s always the hope that I really am one of the exceptional ones who finds a job. It seems unlikely to happen this year, and maybe it’s just a matter of being persistent and patient, impatient as I am.

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Hmm, I should probably try to get started on Chapter 8 this weekend. I did a good job of tending to lots of tasks big and small this week, like reading ahead for my class and doing some application stuff.

Sure, I still need to type some notes and tend to a couple of other small things. But by and large, I’ve freed my calendar until at least Tuesday to work on the dissertation.

It’s tricky, because I really would like to get Chapter 8 and the Epilogue drafted by the end of this quarter, which is certainly doable. But at the same time, I made an agreement with my adviser this week not to give him any new chapters (which means anything since Chapter 3) until after this quarter, since he’s overloaded with teaching and lecturing commitments, unless I end up with a position somewhere and need to get the ball rolling on defending pretty quickly.

Plus, the faculty member I had been hedging on having as the third person on my committee told me this week he doesn’t think he should do it, since it’s not his field and he feels like there are other faculty who would be better qualified to judge my area. That may be true, though the reality is that I have the two faculty who know the most about my area of the world on my committee already, and unless I go outside the department or university for the third member, I’m probably not going to find anyone with extensive knowledge of my subject regardless. Mainly I wanted someone who had seen some of my work from a research seminar where I wrote the paper that turned into my first article and much of Chapter 7, who would also be an excellent set of eyes for checking grammar and style to make sure my prose is really polished.

So, I still need to find a third member of my committee. I’m not out of options, and there’s at least one logical candidate, but I continue to play the waiting game. My original choice for the third member was going to be contingent on when I got a job and planned to defend due to sabbatical conflicts, and it’s not like I’ve gotten beyond the discussion phase with a third committee member.

Of course, there’s always the thorny issue of agonizing a bit over finding a job. Should I have already heard back from the school that interviewed me two weeks ago? The chair was quite vague about the length of time. And it’s impossible not to wonder obsessively whether the lack of subsequent contact means the process of approval for campus visits is still working its way through the institutional morass, or if it means they’ve decided to invite other people and are basically wait-listing me and thus keeping me in an extended period of limbo. With all the gloom and doom of the current economic climate, the generally low level of morale among my peers about career prospects is basically disintegrating into gallows humor at best, which probably isn’t helpful.

It all brings me back to the eternal question: to work on the dissertation, or not to work on the dissertation?

If I wind up getting hired at one of the maybe two places where I might still have any shot, then I need to get it finished and defend in the next, oh, five or six months. That’s doable, except that it really means I need to have everything pretty much written and close to final form by about March, since I’ll need to start lecturing at the end of that month and won’t get much time to write or do more than revise before my defense.

If my remaining prospects fizzle out completely and I’m faced with another year of combing the job market, then there’s really no rush to draft the remaining two pieces, and I could conceivably put that off till after I finish teaching my summer course in July, which would still leave me lots of time to write and revise before a defense in the spring of 2010. That option isn’t really attractive for a variety of reasons, both because knowing my own work ethic, I probably won’t allow myself to leave that little unfinished for so long, but also because I just want to be done. This week I toyed briefly with the thought of finishing in July and trying to find a non-academic job for next year so I could have the Ph.D. in hand and earn a better income. But that presumes I have some obvious non-academic career in mind and that I could actually find a position in this job market, neither of which seems likely.

So, I probably talk myself into doing some work this weekend and trying to wrap things up with the complete first draft over the next month or so. If nothing else, I figure having the dissertation pretty close to finished and sticking around another year might allow me to spend more time enjoying life instead of trying to maintain a grueling schedule of writing. And it would be nice to get a chance to do such things before beginning my career and having all sorts of other responsibilities and obligations that won’t afford me much time for fun.

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Since it’s probably a good way for me to decompress and debrief, but it also might be of interest or use for others out there who’ll go through the same process in subsequent years, here’s as close to a blow-by-blow account of my AHA interview as my memory and notes allow me to reconstruct.

After arriving at the Hilton and making my way up to the forty-fourth floor, I knocked on the door at 8:27 a.m. for my 8:30 interview. The department chair answered the door, took my coat and showed me to the coffee table around which we did the interview. He introduced me to the other two members of the search committee and everyone sat down.

The chair started the interview by describing the position and what it would entail, namely that the focus is on teaching obviously (it’s a small liberal arts college), with a 3-4 load, meaning I’d teach three courses one semester and four the other in a given year.

Next, the chair mentioned that while teaching is most important, and we’d come back to that, scholarship is also expected, and he asked me to discuss my research and why my dissertation is important.

I gave my spiel, which probably ran longer than the couple of minutes, but I did a good job of making eye contact with the committee, and at least the other two members seemed to do a lot of nodding and gave other indications they were paying me attention. It helped, no doubt, that one of the committee members had a teaching Fulbright to Bratislava some years ago, and so even though she’s not in my field, what I was saying squared with her impressions of what Slovaks had told her. It helped make it more of a conversation than simply question and answer, which made me feel better about how things were going.

The chair was a bit harder for me to read. He seemed a bit less engaged, but he had also repeatedly stated in our earlier phone call and at the beginning of the interview that this was an “ungodly hour,” so it might have simply been that he’s not a morning person. Or that I talked too long. But he did perk up with new questions and what not, so I’m inclined to think it was more that he was tired, or is perhaps reserved by nature. Or, at least that’s my hope.

After having that discussion of my research for a few minutes, the questions turned to teaching. The second member of the committee told me a little about the class sizes — around twenty students in upper-division courses and twenty-five to thirty in lower-division classes — and explained what courses I’d be expected to teach, including the third part of a Western Culture class everyone has to take, basically an interdisciplinary, team-taught course with a list of required readings (in the third part, it includes Marx, Darwin, Freud, Woolf and MLK).

From there, the second committee member mentioned that another course they’d like me to teach is their twentieth-century Europe course, and wondered if I had any thoughts about how I might construct such a course.

This was a great question for me since it was right in my wheelhouse. I TA’d exactly such a course a few years ago and had thought ever since that I’d like to teach my own version. Plus, in preparing for the interview, I had noticed such a course listed in the course catalog, so I made sure I thought about some of the readings I’d assign and the concepts I’d emphasize (admittedly, I largely drew on the syllabus for the course I TA’d, but the readings and films were pretty good, so I didn’t see any need to try to reinvent the wheel). I gave a lengthy answer, basically walking through the readings I’d assign and what I hoped to convey by them. I mentioned Ernst Jünger’s Storm and Steel as a good memoir for the First World War, and the second committee member remarked how he loved that book, and when I mentioned Art Spiegelman’s Maus as a text to use to help teach the Holocaust, the third committee member mentioned how the second member also loved that and assigned it. And when I described Heda Kovály’s Under a Cruel Star as a powerful memoir for understanding the Communist takeovers and how arresting it is as a life story, the third member said it sounded great and wondered if I could remember the name of the publisher in case she could find a copy at the convention downstairs. So, these were all good signs, and I felt like there was a decent rapport, at least with those two members.

Finally, the third committee member asked what other courses I might like to teach. I mentioned that I’d obviously want to do a survey of East-Central Europe, and could do it in one or two parts, then briefly outlined the crux of each part. I confessed that it would be a more Habsburg-centric course that gave shorter shrift to the Ottoman Empire, and made some comment about this or asked a question to the chair, who does mostly medieval Middle Eastern history, and he smiled and seemed to perk up a little at that, which was encouraging. I also mentioned the courses I’m teaching this year on the history of communism and revolutions in twentieth-century Europe, and noted how I had brought copies of my syllabi for them.

The chair then moved to wrap up the interview by reiterating that this is a tenure-track post, and explained the three criteria on which tenure is based:

  1. Teaching — by far the most important component
  2. Scholarship — there’s an understanding that faculty have less opportunity for research with their teaching load and the small liberal arts library, so something like four to five articles published in peer-reviewed journals, or a book, would suffice
  3. Service — essentially, this means serving on committees as requested

Then the committee talked about the location of the college in its rural setting, the nearest town and city, and the different areas where they live in relation to the college.

It was helpful to have all this explained to me. I knew the focus would be on teaching, and I suspected the publication expectations for tenure might be lower from seeing the list of publications on some faculty members’ pages. But it was good that the chair outlined all this, since I wasn’t sure whether I should be asking about the tenure process at this stage, with at least a couple of rounds of cuts to survive before I’d actually have a job offer.

Finally, the chair asked if I had any questions. Fortunately, they had already gone over a lot of the main ones about teaching load, class sizes and tenure, so I followed up on those by asking them how many history majors there are (a lot, since history is the second most popular major) and what the students were like. He said they’re above average in intelligence and ability, but perhaps wanting in industry, like anywhere. I sympathized and noted a somewhat similar profile of students at my university, where they were of high caliber but a lot of them work part- or full-time to put themselves through school. They countered by noting they don’t have a lot of students who work, and the second member quipped that for the ones who did work it was more like “community service.”

And I asked as we were wrapping up what their timetable is for the search. The chair told me it’s pretty quick, but not that quick. Basically, on Wednesday the department will meet to decide who to invite to campus, but then they have to get approval from the dean and president to extend the invitations, so it could “be a while.” I’m figuring it could take a week or more for the bureaucracy to run its course, so I’m not expecting to hear anything for a couple of weeks. Certainly, if I hear from them in the next week it’s probably only going to be bad news, because a quick decision would only be a rejection.

And with that we wrapped up the interview. Everyone stood, we shook hands, I put on my coat and hat, collected my belongings and was out the door by 9:05. There was someone in the hall who appeared to be waiting to go in after me.

Parting reflections

I’m generally pleased with how I acquitted myself. I probably talked a bit too much, which I’m wont to do, but for the most part I think I was coherent in my answers, hit the high points and (hopefully) didn’t bore anyone to death.

I also feel like I did a good job of trying to make it more conversational and less adversarial, applying some of the tips I had read about in articles that said I should try to show an interest in the committee members and try to relate to them, to seem collegial, since, after all, they’re hiring someone who should be not only a good teacher and scholar, but also a colleague and co-worker. Again, I felt like I hit it off pretty well with at least a couple of the committee members. I had hoped going in that the fact that one of them had a Bratislava tie would give me an “in” and I think it might have. She mentioned at the end that she wished we had more time to talk about it because she loved Bratislava.

Of course, I realized when I was in the bathroom downstairs afterward that I had forgotten to leave the syllabi and other materials they had requested. But, at least I knew they weren’t leaving till the following afternoon, so I scribbled a note of apology/explanation, put in the folder and left it at the concierge. I’m taking the optimistic approach, telling myself that this is really not a monumental screw-up, and that I probably did well if I think this is the biggest mistake I committed. It’s not like I didn’t come with the materials, and I even had the table out on the coffee table with my notebook and mentioned that I brought syllabi for them.

That miscue aside, I’m pleased on the whole with my performance. I managed to keep calm, I think I was pretty coherent and articulate in my answers, and I think I did about as well as I could have. I’m feeling pretty at ease about the whole process. There only so much I can do, and I’ve done well (in my estimation) in my part, but now it’s out of my hands and there’s no point in agonizing over it or waiting by my phone for the next two weeks. Life goes on.

A final note: the night before I left for NYC — two nights before my interview — I started to get pretty nervous. I hadn’t spent days and days prepping my responses to likely interview questions, and C started asking me some questions late that evening, which I kept flubbing, or which turned incoherent. It made me worry I was going to start blabbering and droning on and on in the interview, and I’d make a terrible impression. Basically, I thought I hadn’t spent enough time practicing, especially practicing out loud and preferably to another human being.

My thought was that I could rectify a good bit of that on the train, since I’d have eleven hours without TV, video games and internet. But I also decided I should read A. J. P. Taylor’s book on the Habsburg Empire in case I got pressed for specifics (mostly to refresh my memory, since it’s been a couple of years since I’ve had to use that knowledge, and I needed to dust it off). So, I read the book, which occupied the lion’s share of the trip. I only had a couple of hours to do prep on the train, and I wound up focusing more on the two or three points to highlight for different questions, rather than crafting a response that would be well-constructed and coherent, but also canned.

And when I got to New York, some extended in-laws picked me up, we went to dinner, then chatted over coffee in the kitchen until it was time to go to bed, and we chatted more in the morning, then they pointed out some highlights of the city as we drove down the West Side and up the East Side in Manhattan en route to the hotel. Essentially, this meant I spent the night before and the morning of my interview not thinking at all about the minutiae of possible courses, research projects and the like, because my mind was occupied with visiting with these relatives I had only just met. It really helped to relax me. And even when I got to the hotel with about fifteen minutes to spare, I ran into someone from my department in the lobby and wound up chatting with him for a few minutes right before I got in the elevator, so I didn’t get a chance to work myself into a panic even in those final minutes.

Back when I did my oral exams, I had heard from those who had already survived the experience that I should go to a movie or do something like that the night before just to calm my nerves. Naturally, I didn’t heed the advice, since I thought I needed to cram details into my head until the last possible minute. But I think this experience shows the wisdom of that approach. Perhaps a movie isn’t the best thing for me, since it still gives my mind plenty of time to wander, but it’s good to have a mental break and distraction. Really, you either know your stuff or you don’t. And I think getting away from the prep allows you to clear your head. Did I forget to mention things? Sure. I couldn’t remember the title of Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, but I knew going in I was bound to forget the titles of books, and it wasn’t a major faux pas. A bigger, but by no means devastating blunder was neglecting to leave behind the copies of materials I made for the committee, but even that was easily rectified. And it wouldn’t have been worth the stress of cramming till the final moment to ensure that I recalled all that minutiae.

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