The Six Steps of Preparing a Job Letter

I’m applying to about a dozen jobs this year*, and so far, every job letter has gone a little like this:

Step One: After seeing the job announcement, a combination of excitement, curiosity, and anxiety rushes over me.  “What a great job!…right?  Where is this school, anyway?  Do I actually qualify for this position?”

Step Two: Terror strikes.  “I am absolutely not qualified for this job.  There are so many better candidates out there.  What are they looking for, anyway?  Surely not me.  There is no way I’m getting this job.  I should just bag this letter and go play video games.”

Step Three: Confidence builds.  “They might actually be interested in my research, if I frame it in this way.  Their course catalog has a few holes in it; I’m pretty sure I could help them on that.  This might work out.”

Step Four: Hubris appears.  “Ooo, I just thought of a great line — they’re going to eat this up!  No one in their department is doing anything like me; there are gaping holes in their curriculum and scholarship.  And I’m pretty sure I know someone in the department.  Yup, I’ll get an interview.  Or maybe they’ll just call up and offer me the job right away.  But then again: do I want this job?  Am I too good for it?”

Step Five: Doubt sinks in; constant revisions begin.  “Hmm, I don’t like that sentence.  Neither will they.  Am I pigeonholing myself?  Or does this make me look too much like a generalist — someone who knows a little about a lot, but not a lot about anything.  Maybe that’s what they want?  What do they want, anyway?  Do I fit those qualifications?  Probably not.  Maybe I’ll get an interview and can pick up the pieces then.  I should be so lucky.”

Step Six: Exhaustion, relief, and spite upon sending the damn thing.  “Nothing more I can do now.  Just wait.  And you know what?  Fuck them if they don’t like me.”

I’m pretty sure this isn’t healthy, but it’s worked this way for every letter I’ve sent in.  Currently, I’m in between steps five and six with a few letters, including one for a job I really, really, really want.  And I can’t wait for the process to be over.

* This is a very small number.  A friend of mine is applying to about fifty.  Crazy.

Heeding Thin Lizzy’s Call

The boys over at The Edge of the American West are back.  So is Ashley Squires.  It’s all provisional, of course, but Thin Lizzy’s prophecies, it would seem, must be realized.  I’ve been in absentia for a few different reasons:

  • My partner and I produced a baby a few weeks ago.  It turns out this is very time consuming.
  • I’ve been applying for jobs like crazy.  Also very time consuming.
  • Teaching = time consuming.
  • All things in life = time consuming.

But I do miss writing for the dozen or so people who stop by The Bench, and so I’ll get back to it.  Hell, if two tenured professors and a fellow ABD job-seeker can do it, I should certainly be able to.

Delusions of Other Opportunities

Some thoughts on the recent article by the AHA’s president and executive director (reported by Inside Higher Ed here):

Things Grafton and Grossman get right:

  • The dearth of tenure-track jobs can not be blamed on the current economy.  Instead, there are two villains: state legislators who defund higher education, and deans and administrators who hire cheap temporary workers (aka adjuncts like me) instead of tenure track workers.
  • Graduate programs don’t consistently train students for careers outside of academia. The best you’ll get is a couple of brown-bag lunch meetings on the subject.

Things Grafton and Grossman get wrong:

  • They try to let administrators off the hook for hiring cheap temps because “university budgets…lead administrators to opt for flexible, contingent positions,” and there’s some truth to that.  But it doesn’t account for the decisions that lead to ballooning administrative budgets at the expense of faculty budgets.  In other words: stop hiring managers and building fancy computer labs, and you’ll have more money for teachers.  It’s about priorities.
  • The problem with getting a job outside the academy isn’t that there is some sort of negative stigma attached to such positions.  It’s that these jobs do not exist in the quantity that Grafton and Grossman would lead us to believe.  They mention “Chief of Staff of the Army, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, museum curators, archivists, historians in national parks, investment bankers, international business consultants, high school teachers, community college teachers, foundation officers, editors, journalists, policy analysts at think tanks.”  Two sub-thoughts about that list.  First: investment bankers and international business consultants?  Yeah, I’m sure some of these types have history PhDs, but they probably have MBAs, too; the history PhD is incidental.  Which brings me to sub-thought number two: you don’t need a history PhD for any of these other jobs.  They say a “doctorate is a vital asset” — asset, yes, vital, no. For most of those positions, you’d probably be better served with some other degree: politics, for instance, or archival studies.  If you have a history PhD, it’s not just you and your mentor who expect you to get a teaching job; it’s pretty much every other potential employer.
  • If graduate programs are going to train students for non-teaching jobs, they also need to push for those other jobs to appear.  It’s all well and good to train me how “conceptualizing relationships between structure, agency, and culture” will get me a job as an investment banker (ha!), but if investment banks aren’t looking for people to do such things and aren’t thinking of history PhDs as top candidates for these jobs, all that extra training won’t help.
  • They cop out on one of the things departments can do right away: stop admitting so many damn graduate students.  Or, more specifically, don’t admit any graduate students that you can’t pay for.  This is one of the greatest crimes in the academy, and it must stop.  Plenty of schools do it; I, for instance, was admitted to USC without any funding.  The lovely acceptance letter proposed that I pay more than $20,000 a year for the privilege of working my ass off for a few years, after which I would have found few job opportunities and massive debt.  This is so transparently greedy — sure, kid, come on in; we’d love your tuition dollars! — that it would be hilarious if it weren’t so dangerous to these students (burdened with debt) and to the job market (now a massive pool of reserve labor, including some souls desperate to do anything — like take a series of adjunct positions for which there should actually be a tenure track job — to pay back their debt).