Thursday, September 14, 2006

Quality of Life (A Job Market Post)

Bbound asked, in response to my post yesterday about the MLA Job Information List going online, "Out of curiosity, how much did quality-of-life issues narrow down your choices to those six?"

I thought that this was a good question, and one that might be of particular interest to the grad students (particularly those in English) who read this blog, and so I figured I'd post my response rather than burying it in the comments. So, to begin:

First, before we can talk about how I arrived at my list, we've got to talk about what we mean by "quality of life" issues. A lot of times when people in academia talk about these, "quality of life" translates into "I must be in a major metropolitan area on one of the coasts where everyone is a democrat and life is sweet." Or, when people in academia talk about these, they often talk about something that roughly translates to, "a place where I can be near to/live with my spouse/partner." Or, finally, they might mean something like, "a place with decent culture and where it's good to raise children and we can afford a house and there are good schools."

Now, I'm not questioning the validity of any of these, but these are not my issues, or at least they aren't entirely my issues. According to the usual measures of what gives a person good "quality of life," I should probably stay in my current location.
a. The cost of living is such that one can live on a professor's salary in the humanities.
b. I am in a metropolitan area, with an international airport that is a hub for a major airline.
c. The location has good museums, a nice symphony, a Shakespeare company, etc.
d. There are many fine restaurants, good local music scene, etc.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. The point is, none of these things ultimately matter if you don't have a reason to go out and to do these things. Well, maybe b. still matters. I think that the first time I went on the market I equated "city" (even if it is a small, midwestern city) with "quality of life." I think I was wrong. I think that, perhaps, I had a bad attitude about a few of the places that I interviewed, and I wonder now whether, had I been more open-minded, I might have found that I did like it there. Because here's the thing: I am not the sort of person who's going to the symphony for every performance, and I think I've been to the various museums maybe once since I've lived here. While I do go to dinner fairly regularly, I'm not out trying each hot new restaurant. Part of this is because I'm a creature of habit. Or maybe I'm even a little lame. But that's real life, and so really, how much does it matter that I'm in this city-like location?

So, in looking at the list, I did not limit myself by location, other than that I do need to be within 1 hour of an airport. No truly middle-of-nowhere locations for me, as even I am not that open-minded. I have no ties to anyplace in particular, and yes, my family is all in one place, but the reality is that I only go visit a couple of times a year anyway, and you know what? I can afford the airfare. Sure, it's nice to be able to jump in the car and to go to them, but that's not a necessity.

So how did I get to the six? (Which is actually now 7, since I heard from a person about a search that is more fit for me than one might think upon looking at the ad.)

1. Well, to be blunt, there were only like 14 jobs total in my field. a) I am in a small field. Most universities only have one person - at most 2 - to cover my country/century. b) There isn't a lot of person-retiring-need-to-replace-position hiring in my field. c) Many places try to combine a position in my field with something else, which sometimes works for me, but more often does not because I don't really do the "hot" thing people often seek. d) I really am defined within this specific field as a scholar, which is a good thing in many ways, but it also means that "stretching" is less easy to do.

2. Even the year that I did the full-on assault on the market, the year that I got this job, when I applied for many jobs I was barely qualified for, I only was able to justify myself for approximately 50 applications. I know people who have sent out close to 200 in a season, so clearly I'm not in a high-demand field.

3. Quality of life also relates to one's professional life. My main criteria for narrowing my list was lighter teaching load. If I'm going to move just to be in the same job, my life will not demonstrably improve.

4. I zoned in on applications that really sounded like me. This is a luxury that I have precisely because I have my current job.

5. I think that one of the things that I am looking for is more campus life at whatever institution I might be hired at. I remember in college my professors being around at big events on campus, and I remember seeing my professors at the local coffee shop or restaurants or bars or whatever. I liked that. And I think I imagined that I would step into that role when I became a professor. My current institution, because really there is no campus life, doesn't have that. It's changing and moving more in that direction, but faculty seem very disconnected from the campus, and by extension students seem disconnected from the faculty. I'd like to be at an institution with a culture that's different from that, I think.


Shaun Huston said...

Amen to #5. Whenever I find myself musing about going on the market, this is one of the push factors that first comes to mind. I've made a few posts on this subject on my blog. The best is probably this.

Flavia said...

Can I just say: 200 applications?? What the hell were those people STUDYING?

I think that if I had applied for *every single job* listed in the Renaissance, each year that I was out, I would have barely hit 50. (In point of fact, I applied for about 30-35 jobs my first year, and about 25 last year, since I had a good fallback in my lectureship.)

So if you were selectively applying to 50, that still sounds like a better crop than in my field...

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh no - it wasn't selective applying to 50 AT ALL. It was pretending that I was a host of things that I'm not. In truth, in looking at the list most years, there are maybe 20 jobs in my general field and really only 5-10 that actually fit what I do.

(Example of a job I applied for my first year that was a total stretch: A generalist job where they wanted somebody who could teach Restoration lit. You know my field, Flavia, and that surely ain't it, but I did TA in a class related to it once....)

Dr. Crazy said...

That's a fantastic post and it's EXACTLY what I mean. Ok, readers of these comments - go read Shaun's post about college towns right now!


Bardiac said...

Great discussion.

Can I interject a little of the downside, though?

I really like what Shaun said about a college town needing a solid population of graduate students; PhD programs mean people are often in place for more than four years, and so give a sense of continuity.

I, too, value having faculty involvement on campus. But I worked at a campus where faculty involvement was often pressured (or mandatory). It's not pleasant to be expected to be at student production_017 of the year when you need to be grading final essays or prepping exams. Going to four regalia-mandatory events every year to listen to the people with money talk gets old very fast.

I think students see the faculty involvement all on the positive side, but it's not always that way if you're a faculty member who's expected to drop other things to be that involved. I don't know what your undergrad experience was, but maybe be suspicious that you didn't see the whole picture, or that being a faculty member there wouldn't be quite as ideal as it may have seemed?

bbound said...

Thanks for the post!

Dr. Crazy said...

You're welcome, Bbound :)

Point taken about the difference between the way that such things are viewed from an undergrad perspective vs. a faculty perspective. I'm actually acquaintances with a few professors from my undergrad days now, and the sense that I get is that their experience is not terribly onerous in this regard. Obviously there are things that faculty are expected to attend (as there are at my institution), but the sort of things I'm talking about are things like hearing a famous poet come to speak or other such things - not just the pomp and circumstance stuff and not going to student-sponsored productions and events as a rule. (Incidentally, I did not go to a SLAC, but a sort of non-descript state school.) I suppose the point, though, is that my professors, for the most part, lived in town, and there was real interaction between students and professors on a day-to-day basis. Some professors invited students to their houses - not because they were required to do so but because they wanted to and it was part of the campus culture. I saw professors at the coffee shop that I hung out at. Just normal things like that. At my current institution, and in the surrounding neighborhood (which isn't a neighborhood), there are no hang-outs. If I wanted to invite students to my house, I couldn't because it's inconvenient for so many of them. That's the stuff I'm talking about more - the day-to-day stuff. Not so much the pomp and circumstance stuff.

Piss Poor Prof said...

It is funny how things turn out as we age...the things we saw as romantic and intellectual (insert specifics that are equally appealing) turn out to be full of mortgages, obligations and menial work.

One thing on the list that you address tangentially but which I think is center-most is the sense of local community. I almost said family, but I have since learned that "family" can be, as it were, a relative term.

This sense of family would most certainly include the young people in our lives...those who sit and look up to us, hoping to learn and emulate (which, by your post, we did). So, in the spirit of identifying what it is that we look to when we "decide" (the outside, mitigating circumstances elided away) to live somewhere.

"Slacker" speaks of a community...look at the local prime-time offerings, and they all point toward the same thing...people who profess to care about us. If you can quantify and bottle that, then I think you have your first order criteria.