Friday, October 26, 2007

The Job Search Process

With the Bitchiness lifted, I now seem to be in the mood to do a real post! Hurrah!

At any rate, lots of people have been posting about job-search related stuff, and as I've not really posted about it in any but the most cursory way, I thought I'd weigh in. I'm in no way any sort of an expert on this stuff, though I have been through the process of applying and interviewing a couple of times now, and I have served on a search committee. So here are some thoughts, in no particular order:

The Materials
Putting together the materials is a job in itself. Now, that job is easier depending on one's given situation in a particular hiring year. The first time out? Well, for me it was brutal. I had a complete draft of my dissertation, but my personal life was shit, I wasn't living in Grad School City, I was working a really emotionally draining temp job to pay the bills.... Yeah. And being in English, I felt completely demoralized about the whole process, as if it didn't really matter what I did because the odds were so stacked against me, as an ABD candidate in a less-than-hot specialization, getting an actual job. I applied for around 50 things that year - including t-t positions and post-docs - and I was insane with the organizing of materials and the tracking of deadlines and stuff. Also, applying for that many positions (many for which I know with certainty now that I never had a shot in hell at getting), one of the biggest frustrations was that there were about 5 or 6 different combinations of materials that were required. Dude, why can't everybody just agree that all that's necessary in the first stage is a CV and a letter? Because, really, I don't believe that committees pour over each and every applicant's full set of materials with the same amount of focus: I think that the letter and the CV tell most of the story, and then people will focus on the extra materials of those who seem right from those two things. Maybe I'm not giving search committees enough credit here, but with positions getting upwards of 100 apps, I am cynical about the possibility that they're carefully reading every single thing in addition that they require people to submit.

My next time I sent some things out, well, it wasn't really for real. I didn't bother to have my references update their letters, and I hadn't really changed much as a candidate from my first time out. The third time I sent applications out, well, that was last year, and I really did do the process for real, although I limited my search and I only sent out 8 applications. Obviously, this made the process of getting materials together easier in a lot of ways. But also, I had changed a lot as a candidate, so it really did mean crafting a completely new boilerplate letter. In addition, my CV needed a lot of work because it had transformed into a CV that only made sense in terms of my current institution, as it was formatted. Figuring out what to send as a writing sample was easier because it wasn't about sending what sucked the least from my still-not-polished dissertation, but negotiating the process was more difficult because I was already in a tenure-track position and I felt a lot of tension about the decision to look in earnest (more on this in a bit). This year, well, my search is even more focused, with me sending out only a handful of applications. It's much easier than last year because of the work that I put into the materials last year. Also, because I'm applying to such a narrow range of types of institutions, I didn't need to do a lot of tailoring for the letters.

The Interview Process and the Search Timeline
A lot of people have a problem with the conference interview setup, and I think a lot of those complaints are legitimate. That said, I actually support the idea of the conference interview. Hear me out on this one. First of all, I think that you learn some important things about an institution from how they approach this first interview stage. How many people do they fund to go to the conference? Do they interview in a decent hotel and room, or do they interview in the pit? Are people at the institution engaged enough in the discipline not to see attending the convention as a burden? All of these, for me, are important indicators of whether I will fit at an institution. Next, I do think that the in-person cues in an initial interview are important, not only for the search committee evaluating the candidate but for the candidate who is interviewing. I know that departments about which I was really excited from what was there on paper (or on their website) and from telephone contact moved down in my rankings from the "vibe" that I got in the in-person first interview. I also think that doing the first interview this way, while it does entail expense for the candidate, constitutes a decent compromise between the no-cost option of phone interviewing (which is awkward at best) and the high-cost option of requiring people to do potentially more campus visits. Sure, campus visits are reimbursed, but that up-front out-of-pocket expense can kill you, even if you're NOT a grad student with no money. And if every school brought five people to campus instead of two or three (based on the fact that the money they spend sending committee members to MLA could ostensibly then be spent on bringing more candidates to campus) that would, ultimately, cost the candidate time (especially important if one is finishing one's dissertation, has small children, or at a teaching institution with a heavy load) as well as money. So yes, the conference interview means a cash outlay early in the process, but if one gets interviews at the conference, I think that it can be worth it.

ALL OF THAT SAID, I think that it sucks that committees don't get their shit together to invite people for interviews with enough advance notice that people who are not already attending the convention for another reason could legitimately wait to register and organize travel stuff until they knew that they had a reason to attend. I've had friends who've bought the ticket and all the rest and who've had the Morbid MLA of Despair when no interviews came through. That's just bullshit. I've been lucky that this hasn't happened to me. I know all of the reasons why committees don't get their shit together to do this, and from the committee side of things, I do understand, but it's one of the things that should change about the process (which would also require universities to change their process for when they confirm that a department has a hiring line, so this isn't only on the committees or the field - it's about changing some important stuff in the larger bureaucracy of this profession). Note, though, that this would probably lengthen the process even further, moving deadlines up by at least a month, so making such a change would suck in its own special way. This would not change the process in such a way that it wouldn't suck.

Campus Visits
You know, I love a campus visit. Or at least I've loved the two that I've done. It's like spending the whole weekend for the first time with a guy you're dating. Everybody's busy trying to impress everybody else and make sure that it's an awesome time and you're getting to know each other in deeper ways. You don't get much sleep, and you go out to eat and spend all this time together having great conversations.... The thing is, when you're "single," i.e., unemployed or underemployed, this experience is all about hope and promise and there's not really any static. This is something that you should be doing and enjoying. When you're not technically "single," i.e., you're in a tenure-track position, it's really complicated to go way for a few days with somebody you're not "engaged" to. Now, your nearest and dearest and least judgmental friends may know what you're doing, and they'll cover for you if necessary, but taking those few days away is tricky business, especially because you don't ultimately want to "break up" with your current institution if this rendezvous doesn't turn out to be all that fabulous. Again, there are things that can make this easier to negotiate, like if you have a good teaching schedule in the interviewing semester, if you're childless, if you have the support of higher-ups in your department. There are things that can make it much more difficult to negotiate, like if you have a crappy teaching schedule which means that for each campus visit you'd have to find ways to cover all of your classes, if you have kids (particularly young ones), if you are in a hostile department and you don't have the support of at least a few important colleagues. I'm lucky that I'm in a really supportive department, but this is the hardest part of the process for me now, because I don't want to fuck up my current gig in the service of exploring possibility.

The Current Job
And so this brings me to where I am right now, which is being in a position of looking while decently employed. I feel a lot of ambivalence about going through this process, when I know that my institution has invested a lot in me (not without results that are positive for them, but still) and when I know that they really look forward to tenuring me. A few people this year have asked why I didn't go up for early tenure this year, as I could have done and probably successfully, and I've been evasive about my reasons for not doing so, because I really don't want people to think that I'm not grateful for the opportunities that I've had here or to give the appearance that I'm thoroughly disgruntled (which I'm not - I'm just partially disgruntled, for reasons having more to do with personal life shit than with the job, although the job does contribute to the personal life shit, which is why I'm selectively looking for another job). In addition, I'm ambivalent because of how this will affect certain students of mine, should I get another position. It's difficult to be committed to one's current place and one's current students when one is surreptitiously putting oneself on the market. I know that it would be stupid to burn bridges in my current position or to behave as if I won't be here next year, as I could well end up here next year. But at the same time, I feel guilty for giving the appearance of permanence when I know that should I get an offer I will take it. There's really nothing to be done about this situation other than what I'm doing, and I do feel like if I do what's best for me that I can still be a good colleague to my colleagues here and a good mentor to my students, even if I'm not employed at this university. That doesn't make the situation any less fraught, however.

And yes, I know that those who are on the market without a job already probably are thinking right now, "what I wouldn't give to have those problems!" That would be my response, too. One of the things that sucks as an ABD candidate, or as a recently graduated candidate who's struggling to make ends meet with adjuncting or a lecturing gig, is thinking about the fact that one is going up against candidates like me on the market. I know that the thought of that when I was on the market ABD was totally paralyzing. The thing is, and I really do believe this, I'm not certain that my chances are really any better because of the position that I'm currently in, and sometimes I think they may be worse. Perhaps I'm naive, but one thing that I see now is how limited I am as a candidate. Either they want me for what I've done, or they don't. There's nothing that I can do to change who I've become in this field, and who I've become has been in many ways determined by this first job (which may well be my last, should things not go well).

A Final Thought (Because I'm Crazily Optimistic in Spite of My Efforts to the Contrary)
So as I was driving home today, that stupid fortune from last week popped into my head. And I thought, "Oh my God! What if 'failure is the mother of all success' means that my failure on the job market last year means that I will get the Greatest Job Ever this year, which I wouldn't have been able to do if last year's run hadn't been a bust? What if the crappy fortunes are actually really excellent and insightful?" And then I laughed at myself for being a total moron.

And so with that, I close :)


k8 said...

Thanks for this! I am currently obsessed with all of these issues since I'm on the market in English. One thing I wondered as I read this (and this could be because I am obsessing about this, too) is how you view the issue of blogging while on the market, especially for those of us who really aren't all that anonymous?

Dr. Crazy said...

You know, K8, here's what I've decided for myself about it, and I'm not sure if it's right, but here it is.

I don't say anything on my blog that I haven't said to colleagues or that I wouldn't stand behind should a potential colleague inquire about it. I express frustrations with aspects of my job, sure, but I try to vent in ways that are reflective and useful (or just utterly vague) and I don't talk smack about colleagues, individual students, or goings on at my institution. Now, I don't think that this blog is a "professional" document, and I don't present it as such, and for this reason, I write under a pseudonym and I don't think that the blog should be part of the equation when I'm being considered as a candidate. If an institution to which I applied became aware of the blog and had a problem with it, enough that they wouldn't hire me because of it, I would take that as a pretty strong indication that I wouldn't be happy in such an institution (although this is a luxury I have because of my current position). And so, I'll go along with the blog as I've gone along with it, and I'm choosing not to be paranoid about it. I won't, however, write in detail about my search, about interviews, about any part of the process this year until I've either signed a contract or been rejected. Might the blog sink me on the market anyway? Sure. But so might a great many other factors, not all of which have to do with my CV or performance.

That said, I'll add that of the jobs I'm applying for, people whom I know through this blog alerted me to three of them, and honestly I feel like the blog has really been a positive in my professional life much more than it's been a negative. I'm sure that there are people out there who think blogging while academic is "wrong" or that writing a blog that mixes the personal and professional is, well, unprofessional. But I've not encountered those people, and I hope I continue not to encounter them.

The best advice I can give is no advice at all: you've got to decide what best works for you, in terms of having an online presence and in terms of what you choose to write about. I know that's not terribly illuminating, but I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, one last thing though: if you can be connected to your blog through an easy google search of your real life name, you might want to consider making yourself ungooglable.

Anonymous said...

I totally see the value in the conference interview, for both sides. the timing is just shite. I bought my ticket really early this year, hoping to get a paper in and get some money. no die. now it's interviews or the morbid AAR of despair. except their holding it in a town that is home to a captive walrus. so, you know, I can find things to entertain myself that don't involve the overwhelming anonymity of milling around with 5,000 other ABD losers. I don't really mean losers. except I kind of do.

Anonymous said...

no dice. dude.

k8 said...

Mine does come up in google searches, but I do have a general self-censoring rule: if it would have embarrassed my [somewhat cool] grandmother, it probably doesn't belong in public space. I don't blog specifics about the job search and I don't talk about my students. And, I do have a separate professional site/online teaching portfolio that is listed on my cv and that I mention in my letters as a place to go for more about my teaching.

I think there are interesting debates about this. Sometimes, it almost seems like a generational issue, but I hate to make that generalization b/c I know instances where that doesn't hold true. But, even if I did remove myself from google's searches, pages could still come up because of he way google's cache history works.

Belle said...

As somebody who's looked for jobs while having one, I go back to some excellent advice I got from a senior faculty member who had awesome credentials and jobs. She told me to get tenure, still keep looking. If an offer came through, use the tenure as leverage to get it in new spot too. This from a woman who castigated the Pope (JP2) for the church's treatment of women.

Meaning she was pretty darned sure of herself, her abilities and her options. She's amazing.

Russell Herber said...

Your experience is really helpful and supportive, since now I've been through the same. And it's really exhausting, esp. these campus visits. job search