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.
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.
Over at The Edge of the American West, Ari Kelman’s giving out a few free tips on dealing with the AHA. For those on the job market, or headed there soon, it’s helpful.
Some advice as well from PhDinHistory here.
For those who aren’t on the market, the AHA looms ahead, scaring the poo out of weeny little grad students (like me). Kind of like a 30th/40th/50th birthday. And like those auspicious milestones, I expect the AHA is not quite as scary as we’ve been led to believe. In the end it’s an interview for a job, and we grad students should get a grip and deal with it as such. That being said, the AHA interview does seem like a freak show: hundreds/thousands of candidates corralled into a big room, filing in front of glazed-eyed interview committees, doing their best not to look like the amateurs that we grad students are. The more I think about it, the more I understand the extent to which our profession’s institutions and traditions create the conditions for utter madness or, at least, the social ineptitude which we historians are so well known for.