I just came back from an on-campus interview (for a job I won’t get, because they clearly have an inside candidate), and I think I pretty much nailed it. That’s mostly because I wasn’t trying too hard; after all, the search is cooked, so I just relaxed and talked about my work. But I couldn’t help myself from making it damned clear that I would really, really, really love the job. I was as effusive in my professions of love as a middle-schooler in heat. Much of it came in response to the question I was asked a billion times: “So, how do you like it here?” “Like it? I love it!” But of course I love it, because I want the job. And the search committee knows that. What they don’t know is whether they love me, and that’s the point of the on-campus: for the committee to decide which of three people they want to spend the rest of their academic lives with. I’m not sure there’s much that I could have done to make the search committee love me — in this, a job hunt isn’t all that different from the pursuit of human affection. I suppose I probably should have been more coy, maybe played hard-to-get. But not too much, though; the trick is to make them want you, but not think that you’re so far out of their league that they might as well not even try. This takes a particular kind of personality, a certain sort of self-assured-ness that I don’t possess. After all, I’m still astonished that I’ve gotten this far; the thought that I might actually be a desirable candidate is hard to fathom. Again, this is as in life — I certainly don’t deserve my partner, and I’m constantly amazed by my great good fortune in that area. On the whole, I think this is a good thing: my humility has kept me working hard as an academic and as a partner/friend. But a little more confidence might not be a bad thing on the job market.
I had a pretty lucky day the other week. The ACLS awarded me one of their “New Faculty Fellow” post-docs, and I was invited to interview on campus for a tenure-track job I’d really, really like. I was flying high and feeling pretty damned good about myself. In fact, I started to believe that I deserved these things; that I had earned the postdoc and the interview, that I was uniquely qualified. Congratulatory emails from friends and colleagues served to reinforce this delusion: “Well deserved,” said many, and one went so far as to laud my “talents.” And for a short while, I even started to believe that the system was working. I’ve got two articles, five years of teaching experience, a book contract — so of course I got the postdoc and the interview! The system isn’t broken! The meritocracy is in good shape!
First of all, this is a classic case of using anecdotal evidence (my string of good luck) as response to a structural problem (too many PhDs, not enough jobs). Second, there are people who have accomplished much, much more than me who did not get the ACLS — in fact, one of those unlucky souls is a very good friend of mine who deserves a postdoc as much or more than me, if we were in a truly fair world. My lucky day was just that: luck. As a reminder of that fact, the very next day I learned that I did not make the second round for another job that really interested me. And just to reinforce the universe’s crapshoot-iness, I have also learned that the job for which I’m interviewing almost certainly has an inside candidate.
So, yes, work hard and do good work, and it will help. But the final deciding factor is almost certainly luck. And don’t forget it.
I just returned from the AHA in New Orleans, where I was asked by a very nice, considerate, and genuinely curious historian: “So, what can we do to make this more fun?” I grumbled something about eliminating the job interviews, but quickly took it back, not wanting to seem to ungrateful for the single interview I had lined up (and believe me, I am grateful!). I’ve been thinking about her question, and I offer here three ideas:
- Eliminate job interviews. It adds too much stress, too many distractions, and too much name-badge reading and ass-kissing. Yeah, the conference would lose money. But I can’t be arsed with that. I see no real reason not to convert to telephone interviews for the first round. Or, if you really want to judge a person by his/her looks, I suppose webcam interviews will work. But enough already with this antiquated interview-in-person bullshit.
- Help graduate students and non-TT faculty network. I have a hell of a time meeting and getting to know new people. I’m the person standing in the corner at the Oxford University Press reception, clinging to my tiny plate of food and pretending that I’m interested in the ceiling tiles. I know that I should go out and introduce myself and shake hands, but everyone else seems to already be in the middle of a conversation, and it’s incredibly awkward. Senior faculty and advisers can help by acting as wing-people and leading with introductions, but far too few do this. I wonder if there could be some program that would make this easier. Maybe something like speed dating, where the senior faculty sit at tables and the grad students get five minutes of time with each person. I dunno.
- STOP READING YOUR PAPERS. Seriously, this has to stop. Do more roundtables centered around common questions, or show us your evidence and talk about your preliminary conclusions, or use notecards to prompt you through your prepared talk. But for shit’s sake, enough with the junior high-level presentations.
As the AHA conference gets closer, it becomes less likely that I’ll receive invitations to interview for the job applications still floating out there. This isn’t too surprising, but it sure does depress the hell out of me. It probably shouldn’t. I think of my neighbor, who returned to school to get a degree in engineering and has been unemployed since graduating…four years ago. He’s sent out countless applications, and he’s basically gotten used to rejection. Me: not so much. And I’d wager the same is true for other ABDs and newly-minted PhDs, most of whom don’t get the real taste of rejection until they go on the market. Graduate school, in my experience, was a series of affirmations — not always enthusiastic and often loaded with qualifications, but affirmations the same. Seminars, graduate student conferences, department research grants: success didn’t necessarily come easy, but it usually did arrive. And certainly at higher percentages than getting interviews on the job market (I’m batting a measly .125 right now!). And so I wonder if graduate programs ought to give their students more opportunities to fail. And I mean really fail: getting an “A-” instead of an “A” in seminar is a rebuke, but it’s not devastating. Graduate students need to find themselves in the situation where they must question whether this is the right path for them. “Am I really cut out for this?” — by which I mean, do you really have the stomach for a life of rejection and failure? I wonder if this approach would (a) help prepare PhDs for the frustrations of the job market and (b) help reduce the ridiculous over-supply of PhDs.
It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, and that’s mostly because I’ve been in over my head with teaching three classes and applying for jobs — over thirty positions this year, plus a handful of postdocs. With the semester (but not grading!) done and my applications long since released into the wild, I thought I’d come up for air and offer some unsolicited reflections:
- I’m trying something novel this year: being myself. Rather than dumping a lot of time into carefully individualizing my letter, CV, and teaching/philosophy statements for every single job, I’m presenting myself for what I am and what I do, and then letting the schools decide if they are interesting in me and my work. This decision came partly from lack of time — who can afford eight hours each on thirty applications? — but mostly out of a realization that I can’t bend myself and my work into all that many different shapes. I study a particular time and a particular place in a particular way, and no amount of contortion is going to change that or fool anyone otherwise. So I change the addresses and add a few lines here and there about “thrilled to teach at a liberal arts/R-1/hell-hole school,” but that’s pretty much it.
- That said, I dumped a crapload of time into two particular jobs that I really, really, really want — and which, I should note, I have a fair chance of getting, as long as there’s not an inside candidate. And I’ve been torturing myself over those jobs, even though I won’t even know if I made the first cut until January.
- To the schools that inform candidates promptly about receipt of applications: Hooray! To the schools that inform candidates promptly that they will not be interviewed: Hip-hip, hooray! To the schools that do neither: fuck you, too.
- The AHA interview system is busted-ass broken. Half the schools are doing phone or Skype interviews, and I think it’s a great thing. End the AHA cattle-call job system. Given the opportunity, I sure as hell will.
- Employers, you really all ought to stick to the same schedule and timeline. Early and late application due dates and hiring decisions are just plain mean: making candidates decide on their future — long term future — without knowing about other options is so transparently manipulative that it calls into question the integrity of your department.
- Allow me to suggest a timeline. Applications due November 1st. First-round decisions December 1st. Phone/internet interviews December 15th. Second-round decisions December 20th. Campus interviews late-January. Offers beginning of February. Is this really all that hard?
- It’s a continual struggle to believe that I’m good enough and smart enough for any of these jobs. I’ve had three interviews so far, and each time, I am painfully aware of the limits of my expertise and talents. I tried a long walk before an interview, doing some Jack Handy-style self-affirmation, but it didn’t really help. It’s a Catch-22: I need to convey confidence in order to get a job, but I need to get a job to build my confidence.
- At the end of the day, applying and interviewing for an academic job is just like applying and interviewing for a real job: it sucks. No one likes it. So I should quit my whining and get on with it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about motivation and drive. Why, exactly, do people do what they do — more specifically, why do people do crazy things? Things like climbing a mountain, running a marathon, or, I don’t know, spending twelve years in post-high school education in order to get a degree that might someday get a job that pays as well as an entry-level position at Costco? I’ve been thinking about this because a few people have said that getting a PhD is “quite an achievement.” My grandfather has been particularly keen on this observation, noting that I’m the first in the family to become a “doctor.” I usually respond to such kind words in typically tactless fashion, saying something like, “Well, it just kind of happened,” or “momentum basically carried me through.” My well-wishers receive such gracelessness with a warm chuckle, but there’s also a look of genuine bewilderment — is he really so poor at displays of modesty? But this isn’t false modesty; I’m telling the truth when I say that the PhD just kind of happened. Or, more accurately, I never set out to achieve the goal of getting a PhD. It was the next logical step in the path towards the kind of job that I want (which itself isn’t so much a goal as another step).
This, I think, differentiates two ways of approaching life. There’s my seemingly haphazard method — do one thing, then the next, and so on — and then there’s the “achievement” method, perhaps best illustrated through the unfortunate current popularity of the term “bucket list,” (as in, “I want to visit Paris so I can check that off my bucket list”).* A “sense of achievement,” drives some people to do what I would consider actually crazy things: finishing an Ironman race, running marathons, that sort of physical-endurance thing. More accurately, some people want to do these things once, so that they can say that they have done it. But I’ve never understood that, and I think it’s because I am not driven by a sense of achievement. I don’t do things to check them off a list or to prove to myself that I can do them, and so when people offer those reasons as explanations for doing things like climbing a 14,000-foot mountain, I warmly chuckle while wearing an expression of bewilderment.
Initially, I thought that my approach was better (of course I did!). Doing something for the sake of saying that I’ve done it seemed so superficial and meaningless, not to mention frustratingly temporary in its satisfaction (“Okay, that’s done. Now what?”). But then I considered how many people I know who do things out of a sense of achievement, and surely they are not superficial and meaningless people. Moreover, I began to ponder the virtues of being driven by a sense of achievement. It takes a certain kind of single-minded determination, it seems to me, to set out a goal and pursue it with such passion, and there’s something laudable about that. And then I started to wonder: well, why am I doing all of this stuff, anyway? What’s the reason? Are my reasons any less superficial? Perhaps even more so?
I don’t have an answer. But I think I might have a role-model: this guy. Lonnie Thompson is a climate scientist who has been chasing down the causes and effects of global warming for decades, despite challenges ranging from life-imperiling avalanches to flat-earth society reactionaries. And, unless I’m wrong, he didn’t do it for the awards or a sense of achievement. But he also didn’t do it just because it was the next step (although there seems to be a little bit of that, given what looks like a relatively haphazard transition from coal geology to ice core studies). Instead, Thompson seems driven by a sense of righteousness, for lack of a better word: a belief that what he is doing is real, important, and true. That righteousness has kept Thompson doing all sorts of crazy things, but it makes sense to me. I don’t know where that kind of drive comes from, but I applaud it, I understand it, and I’ll be thinking about whether I have, or can cultivate, something similar for my own career.
* Unfortunate because the movie was horrible from premise to execution.
I’ve just returned from commencement — the formal, public confirmation that I have, in fact, completed all of the necessary requirements for the title Doctor of Philosophy (although the diploma itself will not arrive, incredibly, for another three months or so). It was, as usual, a silly affair; I was on the stage for less than thirty seconds out of the three hour ceremony, which is fine with me, but my family and friends who (foolishly, it must be said) might have found it frustrating, especially since the speeches at the beginning were really very poor. But it’s done. And, curiously enough, I do and did feel a little different after getting hooded. It’s stupid, of course, since I technically finished the PhD a few weeks ago and since it changes absolutely nothing in my state of affairs (still working as a temp for next year!). But there is a slight change in my disposition. At first I thought it might be a feeling of confidence — that, yes, I am a historian, and yes, I do know what I’m talking about. Except that I don’t know what I’m talking about; I possess no more knowledge now than this time last week. A friend suggested that it was a feeling of competence, but that’s even further from the truth than confidence: I am neither competent nor confident (the lack of each quality reinforcing the lack of the other). I’ve decided instead that this is a slight feeling of freedom. Having walked the stage and received, in view of a lot people who don’t really care, a diploma placeholder, I officially have one less institution and one less set of rules and regulations to abide. No more of those particular hoops to jump through, no more of those particular administrators to please/beguile/deceive. I welcome that, although there will be others. There’s also a slight feeling, perhaps less welcome, of freedom from my advisers, who have so carefully watched and guided me over the last six years. I have always welcomed their direction and hope they’ll continue to steer me right. But they also no longer have a technical obligation to do so, although they have professional reasons — it’s good to get your students jobs — and, I dare say, personal reasons, as my friends. But I’m more or less on my own now. And there is some confidence that comes with that, and some realization of competence — perhaps I do know what I’m talking about, at least sometime — but mostly it’s just a feeling of space and opportunity, however terrifying.