Dec 13


What I love about the above picture is that I didn't randomly discover it while surfing the Internet.  No, I actually typed in the words "Academic Job Search Convention Picture" into Google Image Search and this popped up, from no less a source than Johns Hopkins University (I don't screw around with no Podunk State Tech Community College, dog).  What is the hidden message behind the image?  Is this the view prospective job candidates wish to see, looking through the window to a larger world (complete with guard towers, I guess)?  Or is it what they are forced to see, locked as they are inside their squalid cells, hunched over their laptop screens with their rapidly cooling chais from Starbucks nearby as they pound out their definitive responses to the subjective unconscious, on the attack against the slings and arrows of that dinosaur Harold Bloom, excitedly reporting that there are in fact five diary entries from Charlotte Bronte's maid (a sadly underrepresented writer) and not, as was previously argued in the PMLA, four?

One can only ponder the picture's deeper meanings.  Either way, the fact that this is the impression about the academic job search with which JHU wants to leave you, or at least their graduate students, is I think pretty telling.  Why is all this on my mind?  Because I just got done reading another of the Chronicle of Higher Education's first person columns jucily entitled "The Job-Market Horror Story."  Of course I wanted to read it; I've been on the job market before, and who doesn't love a horror story (when it doesn't refer specifically to you)?  It starts promisingly enough; Otis Nixon (it's apparently a pseudonym, but I hope also a subtle reference to one of the weirder looking baseball players ever) is a newly minted Ph.D. in history searching for his first tenure track job at the American Historical Association's annual convention (much the same, I imagine, as the Modern Language Association's convention with which I'm more familiar).  He arrives at the interview room, goes up tentatively to the undergraduate-run check-in desk, sees the Interviewer (yes, he capitalizes the term) dressed in a hideous green sweater with another candidate, waits much longer than he needs to (the anticipation is building!), finally goes back to check on the Green Man only to discover (ahh, the guy with the axe is right behind that water fountain, you fool, turn around, I can't look!)…that he's left.  He finds him, though, and it turns out the Interviewer messed up the date, and they have their interview anyway, even though the guy doesn't get to an on-campus follow-up.  And that's pretty much it.


Well, that's not all of it; he also says this "experience has changed the way I view the hiring process," and that job seekers aren't allowed "to assert their individuality," and that he hopes to find out what the truth of the job search process is and what it isn't.  And that's it.  Really.  No discussions of how he went to the Interviewer's room only to find that the Interviewer was actually his father and in bed with his current girlfriend, also a candidate for a history job at the same school, or that the Interviewer turned out to be a informant for the mob who gave poor Otis a package just before the hit was in, or…well, anything really horrible.  Nope.  Just a guy wearing a really terrible neon green sweater with lousy appointment organizational skills.  That's the horror.

Jeez, where's the freaking serial killer in the cabin on the lake when you need him?

The truth is that Otis's story–not the substance of it, but the fact that he thought it was a story at all–is symptomatic of a much larger problem in higher education: what advanced graduate students are told, and not told, to expect from their job searches.  What they're told, as even Otis points out, is that interviews are cold, impersonal, and mean-spirited affairs (forget about getting a chai from these people!), that the job market is a hideous mess, that the process is absolutely arbitrary and whimsical, and that there are thousands, tens of thousands of people just like them whose sheer numbers will overwhelm and forever cover the unique characteristics of the lovable Otises of the world.  In other words, be afraid; be very, very afraid.  But there are two huge problems with this approach:

1.  What they have been told is mostly a lie.  Academic interviews are not necessarily cold and impersonal, or at least no more so than any other kind of interview.  Sometimes, in fact, they can be good experiences.  But if they aren't good experiences, and if your referring to how terrible a sweater your Interviewer is wearing isn't the reason they aren't good, that in itself is a valuable source of information: stay away from the place.  You're interviewing them as much as the reverse, and if they're not coming across well, that's a red flag to keep in mind.  And the oft-repeated claims that there are "too many Ph.D.s for the jobs available" are bald-faced, scurrilous, and just flat-out hideous lies.  Graduate programs are not producing too many Ph.D.s; the problem is that college administrations have realized that going for adjuncts over the full-time, tenure track positions is a "smart" financial investment, since you don't have to give adjuncts offices, benefits, money, or really any attention at all (so much more could be said about this, but I'll save it for another day).  This distinction matters because it means you, the advanced graduate student, are part of an unusual breed; there aren't many of "you" running around relative to the general population.  Your having gotten an advanced degree of any kind (hell, getting a degree period) is a significant accomplishment, and you have something significant to contribute.  Understanding that fact, and walking into an interview understanding it, makes it much more likely that you'll come across as confident and positive rather than desperate and bitter.  In other words, don't let the bastards get you down.  

2.  What they have not been told is that institutions are looking not just for impressive academic resumes, but impressive academic people.  People on hiring committees want someone they can imagine themselves sitting across the table from, even eating lunch with, five years from now.  I was hired by my institution because I had the right set of credentials and the right kind of research interests and teaching talent, sure…but almost everyone else in the pile of applicants from which I was chosen had the same or better characteristics.  But unlike them, my chairman told me, I seemed "real"; I played in a rock band, I read and wrote fiction, I actually liked (and could talk) sports.  I was, in other words, a real person.  What Otis decries as a lack of "individuality" in the job process is precisely the opposite of what I encountered, where I had to express who I was to let them know the person they were hiring. 

Now this "being yourself" mantra has limits; if you have terrible teaching skills, or would rather be caught dead than found in a library doing research, no amount of talking Astros-Red Sox trades is going to help you (well, maybe, if the Astros had someone real to trade…but I digress).  But then why would you be looking for a job in this field in the first place?  I'm in the process of transitioning to a full-time writer, but while getting there I love the job I'm in too.  I also love my family, and my friends, and relaxing and having a good time.  In other words I am, like all of you, real.  That reality is something which needs to come across in the job search, both for your sake and for others.

"Keeping it real" isn't always going to mesh with your given Interviewer, which is why it's a good thing that there are actually a decent number of jobs out there, and a number of alternatives to the academic profession in the meantime.  In the long run, though, what graduate programs have to do a much better job of is showing Otis and everyone else that fear and desperation are not the only watchwords in getting a job, and that they too have valuable things to offer.  They need to give them safety nets (postdocs, even for humanities graduate students; good words put in at other departments; legitimate alternative options if the academic ones don't pan out).  Most of all, they need to stop throwing Otis into the equivalent of a stone cell and teasing him/her with visions of the city on the hill outside the window.  It's time to stop spreading the horror stories and start spreading the truth.

And perhaps the truth will set Otis free to watch real horror stories.

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