Fail Your Graduate Students

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.

Reflections on the Job Market, 2012

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.
  8. 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.