Tuesday, November 03, 2009

More on The Search with WAY Too Many Applications

I thought since I'm such a crappy blogger lately that I should turn my response back to recent comments into a post. I know. Lame. But what can I do? I'm swamped with stuff right now, and all I want to do is whine. I think Facebook has become my whining place now, and so that leaves me silent on the blog more often than has historically been my norm. But seriously, people, I feel like I'm going to collapse on the spot. Between teaching and mentoring and grading and committee work and showing up at things and yadda yadda yadda, I ain't got no ideas at the end of the day worth blogging about. I'm just fried.

But so anyway, to get to some things that showed up in the comments. First, the easy one. A number of people have marvelled at the number of applications I described as "strong" in my previous post. Let me clarify: that percentage was not about perfect fit. That percentage was about "strong candidate who could easily do a tenure-track job, who's got the package of research and teaching and all that jazz and who has the degree (or will have by date of appointment) and who is in the general area in which we are searching. " Having looked at more than 125 applications now, I would still say that about 75% of those fit that bill. But. That doesn't mean that 75% of those are *ideal* for us specifically. Just that let's say it were the apocalypse and all of those who were *ideal* were washed away in a flood. We could easily come up with 10 candidates who would do from the survivors, and we could hire one of them, and it would likely be just fine. Now, in terms of applicants who hit the sweet spot of multiple of our preferences, and whose letters I liked and who sounded interesting and cool and like they'd actually be into working here, I'd say that we're looking at more like 15-20%. In order to get to a reasonable interviewable number, we'll need to get rid of about 2/3 of the people from that long short list.

On the one hand, this is an embarassment of riches. I think in part it's because we wrote a strong ad that really did communicate what we needed and really did narrow the pool. (If we had sent off the original draft of the ad without making it more specific, I truly believe that we'd have gotten like 7,000 applications.) While there are a some folks who are really trying to stretch in ways that would win them the title of ultimate Twister player, for the most part, we're getting applicants who do have business applying for this position. Also, in part, I think this has to do with the fact that we are in what many would consider a pretty decent location. On the other, the fact that we've got so many people who we could reasonably interview/hire makes the whole process, as Hylonome wrote, "exhausting and, at times, devastating." We are not just trying to find 10 qualified people to interview. We are in a position where qualifications are so totally beside the point. Instead, this process is going to be about splitting hairs. And with that being the case, it's not about qualified or unqualified - it's about whether the people seem to "get" us - whatever that means. I guess I'm so insistent about this because saying "Oh, only 10% of applications are really on target or really are qualified" I think really perpetuates the myth that if one just applies to the jobs for which one is "really" qualified, that one will get a job. I think we all know that's not necessarily true. An applicant may be qualified, and an applicant *still* may be passed over. In fact, that's actually a strong possibility. Because we're going to have to kick a lot of "really" qualified folks to the curb - even before we get to the point of interviewing.

I also want to note that this job is not in one of the most totally glutted (ahem, 20th century anything) fields. I'm in one of those fields, and seriously, serving on this search has made me more committed than ever to advising my students NOT to do my field UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES if they insist on pursuing grad school, which I hate, but which really is how I feel. Because if this is how it is in a less popular field? Jesus. I don't know how anybody gets a job in the more popular ones. I don't know how I got my job, really, looking back on it all. Or, I kind of know specifically what contributed to me getting an offer, but the reality is that I was motherfucking the luckiest girl in the world. Not because I'm an imposter or I'm not smart or I wasn't qualified. But rather because I know they looked at about the same number of applications in the search for me and the fact that I made it through the various cuts given what the applicant pool probably looked like is astonishing. I'm seriously astonished that anybody gets a job, seeing what I'm seeing from this side of the table.

Also, I feel like I should note this. The applicants that I feel sorriest for are those whose dissertations really fall smack in between two hiring fields. Those people who are neither one thing nor the other. Their research sounds fascinating, but seriously: if I need to know that you can teach and advise MA theses across a hundred years of literature in a particular national tradition, if you only hit 30 years of that in your research and teaching, you're not a contender. And so I repeat the advice that I got from my dissertation adviser when I was embarking on coming up with my dissertation topic, just in case anybody is reading for whom it would be a help: a dissertation is, first and foremost, a job-seeking document. So while you may be passionate about crossing period boundaries or national traditions or genres or what have you, save that "it doesn't really fit anyplace neatly" project for after you get a job. Write a dissertation that clearly demonstrates your immersion in a hiring and teaching field. A dissertation shouldn't be the last major research project you ever do. It should be the first.

But so now on to the more difficult question that (not) just another girl posed in a comment:

you note that people need to find the time for research, but please help me figure out how the hell to do that while teaching 5-6 courses at 2 or 3 different schools a semester, and still having to pick up some kind of temp work to make ends meet. or am I, as I suspect, completely screwed and I might as well give up now, even though I've only had my degree a year.

A full time, decently paid 4/4 load with health insurance seems like the freakin' holy grail right now.

I really feel like this deserves an answer, and I am going to try to answer it as honestly as I can. First things first: I don't think only a year out of a degree is the time to give up. I do think, however, that one needs to be realistic about how long one can reasonably do the adjunct thing and remain human. Personally, I had always planned that three job market cycles would be my maximum. Again, I was totally lucky and so never had to put that plan into action, but that was my plan. I can also see 5 as being a reasonable number at the outside, if one is more patient than I am, and particularly given the funding/hiring situations at universities right now. More than that, and I say get out. Your life is more important than this profession.

But now for the actual comment. Let me note that this is only one person's (my) perspective, and other people may have differing opinions, and I'm coming at this after having reviewed all of these applications over the past couple of weeks. YMMV.

1. I really don't believe that anybody should be adjuncting teaching 5-6 classes a semester (whether at one university or multiple universities) plus temping to make ends meet. The reality is that at a certain point, more teaching experience does absolutely nothing for you, particularly if you're not getting the opportunity to develop courses in your hiring field. If my department is hiring a person to teach Medieval literature, say, the fact that you've taught basic writing, comp, technical writing, creative writing, intro to lit, the survey, and an American novel course does not do anything to assist your application. Nothing whatsoever. My impulse would be to say that it would make a hell of a lot more sense to adjunct just one or two courses per semester (to keep your hat in the academic ring) and to temp full time (which ultimately can lead to being able to buy health insurance once you've clocked a certain number of hours). On the weekends, you can work on research, which will add to your marketability in ways that teaching until your head falls off won't. And yes, that course of action sucks mightily. How do I know that? Because I temped full time the last year of my PhD program. Was it fulfilling and good and did I feel like I was using my education? No. But I paid my rent. And my fees for still being in the program. I didn't go into (much) further debt. And sure, I hated my life, but I'd have hated my life if I were adjuncting to pay the bills, too. And the adjuncting would have taken a lot more time and energy. And temping to pay the bills didn't stop me from getting an academic job.

2. Showing that you're a consistent researcher need not mean racking up publication after publication, not for a job at a place like mine. The point is not the length of the publications portion of your cv, or even quality of venues, but rather consistency. I can say this. The baseline for me in evaluating applications has basically been that a person has to have at least one or two publications. They need not be fancy, but they should be original articles and no merely encyclopedia entries or reviews. "Under review" doesn't count. "In progress" doesn't count. "Revise and resubmit" is slightly better, but it's not a publication. "Forthcoming" is grand. I want to see that you're getting your own ideas out there. If you're adjuncting, I don't expect you to be racking up publications, necessarily, but I do expect that you'd attend at least one local (or close to local) conference a year during that time if at all possible. And I'd hope that you'd gotten at least one article to publication during grad school, and attended some conferences during grad school. Again, the publication(s) could be in an essay collection, a mediocre journal, a conference proceedings. But if you've done NOTHING other than your dissertation, with the applicant pool that we've got? Well, we don't need to take a chance on you. That's the cold, hard truth.

3. You know, a 4/4 job, t-t, with benefits, is kind of the holy grail. But it's not heaven or nirvana. The fact of the matter is that in a 4/4 job, while your teaching would decrease, and your security would increase, and both of these are substantial and not-to- be-sneezed-at gains, your teaching wouldn't decrease that much, your research expectation would go from zero to not zero (even at a place like mine, where you only need a few articles to be totally sure of getting tenure, there would be external pressure there that doesn't exist if you're not in a t-t position), and at my place, your service expectation would be through the roof. In other words, while you'd have security, and more money, and slightly less teaching, you'd also have a fuck of a lot more you'd be expected to do and a fuck of a lot more riding on it. If I take into account the service and teaching portions of things, during the academic year I'm working - even now, with many courses "in the can" and a system and being all acclimated to the institution and such - an average of 60+ hours per week. Yes, I do not have the anxiety of not having money. Yes, I have job security (now nearly total since earning tenure). Yes, I have benefits. Yes, I have the holy grail. But if I want to do research, I have to make the time for research. (Which I'll note I've not done in the way that I need to since summer.) This job, my job, is not like skipping through fields of flowers and devoting myself to a life of the mind. If I get the sense from an applicant that this is their vision of what working here will be, I am immediately turned off. Why? Not because I'm personally affronted or something but rather because I think that they are completely clueless about, and thus would never be able to handle, the demands of this particular job.

4. The thing that I think is most insidious about adjunctification is that it makes applicants conceive of themselves and identify themselves as less than because they are adjuncting. Look: I've read applications from people who are part-timers, full-timers (non-t-t), VAPs, Assistant Professors - hell even a couple of associate professors who are willing to give up tenure to get out of their current situations. I've read applications from ABD folks. The fact of the matter is that my cream of the crop includes a range of folks. What matters to me isn't where you work - it's what you do. It's how you fit what we need to hire. It's whether you seem confident in your abilities, instead of beaten down by your obstacles. The fact of the matter is that adjuncting doesn't taint a candidate. What taints a candidate is whether they appear to be sucking on the lemon of adjuncting (or any other circumstance), as opposed to making lemonade out of it. And yes, this does come through in people's letters of application. I don't want to work with somebody who's all "my life's so hard," because you know what? Your life's going to be hard when you get this job, too. Even if you think now that it won't be. I want a colleague who can see the silver lining to a dark, gray, hideous cloud. I want a colleague who's excited, and positive, and who has Big Plans, in spite of obstacles. Because there will surely be obstacles here, and you'd better have the fortitude to handle them if we hire you.

But with all of that being said, I just want to note for the record that I answered at such length because I felt like the question deserved it. Adjuncting sucks. This profession is fucked up. It is totally ridiculous that I'm disqualifying people from my interview pool, at this particular university, because they don't have publications or because they aren't just exactly my fantasy candidate. But the reality of my applicant pool is that I don't have to be kind and I don't have to make any concessions. I suspect that's the reality at most places. I mean, I'm joyfully tossing aside candidates with Ivy PhDs, candidates with motherfucking books out. Because they're just not "us." And I can totally do that because I have such a huge amount of great candidates from whom to choose. It's not fair, and it's not a meritocracy. Not because our candidates that we will pick don't have merit. But rather because, in this situation, so many have merit that I don't have to bother with the ones who don't intrigue me. Whatever their pedigree, whatever their accomplishments.

And I think that's seriously the reality of the job market.


Anonymous said...

I sometimes describe myself as falling between hiring fields but actually I don't. I'm right in the center of a hiring field that doesn't exist but should. How very edgy and how very useless. I do have teaching experience in a more reasonable area, which helps, but I'm sure this is a huge disadvantage when it comes to large groups of applications like this.

Dr. Crazy said...

that's exactly it, Anastasia. I have a colleague in another department where they got 12 applications for their search. when you have 12, or even say, 30, applications, you can be a more generous evaluator. But with this many, those people in between fall through the cracks.

Earnest English said...

Here's another perspective:

I'm on a search committee right now, and I can say that out of about 60 so far, only about 12 are really qualified. What does that mean? That means there are probably only 12 who can really teach what we need them to teach. People with those glorious publication records and pretty degrees and post-docs who can't teach what we need them to teach are instantly thrown out. We don't throw applications out because of lack of publications, because we recognize that it's hard to write a dissertation and publish at the same time. If someone were a couple years out and had nothing circulating, we'd know that s/he wouldn't fit in because our tenure guidelines include publications. We try to pick a person who has a good shot at getting tenure, and that really requires a research agenda. So that's what we look for: concrete plans. I personally argued for this in our committee meetings, recognizing that adjuncting and dissertating both make publishing nearly impossible.

Deborah said...

Your perspective from the other side of the search is actually sort of reassuring. I'm on the market for the first time, and I'm trying to be realistic about it (as in, I'll be shocked if I even get an interview). But the idea of being a good fit for a place makes a lot of sense. I don't want a job at a place where I won't fit. Why would anybody? I did keep this in mind when deciding where to apply, but "fit" can be a hard thing to figure out since most job ads aren't as precise as it sounds like yours was. And it sounds like there's more to it than one can actually say even in a well-worded ad.

(not) just another girl said...

thanks for responding. I'm very surprised that my outburst of frustration and, well, vitriol at the whole profession actually caught your eye.

I'm actually in the process of job-hunting outside of academia, including temping, but the market is not great, which I think also adds to the frustration and anger. It's good to hear that there are people out there who don't immediately think "eewww, adjunct cooties!" and toss us aside, and who recognize that it is difficult to get a book published when overwhelmed with classes and commuting, and with the accompanying lack of travel funds for research.

I think a lot of us who are newly graduated see that we are competing with people who have been out for a few years, have serious publications and degrees from "better" programs, and we just get dejected. I still remember my first rejection letter, for a visiting position, which thanked me for my application and then went on to discuss the TWO books published by the candidate they hired. My little ABD self was horrified.

For me, it is not the workload that is so stressful, but the financial and health considerations and the uncertainty. Working 60 hours a week? Sucks, but that's what I signed up for. I'll get a little cranky to my partner and occasionally overwhelmed, but that's normal for us academics, isn't it? In the last 2 years of grad school, I wrote my dissertation, presented at 4 conferences and published an article, while teaching 3/3 and working an office job 20 hrs/wk, and it was possible-- sucky, but possible. This is why a 4/4 with benefits is the holy grail-- not because it seems easy, but because I am mostly exhausted by uncertainty and poverty and the fear of even a minor health problem to put me over the edge. To actually have a living wage and a sense of stability? I can hardly imagine it. And I would really like an office with a door that locks and my very own desk.

Luckily for me, I'm still somehow able to summon a bit of enthusiasm and hopefulness whenever I'm faced with a new job letter, and hopefully someone will hire me before that is killed by the demons of adjuncting. I'm not asking for kindness, but I would like a fair chance, and to believe that my need to make a living while getting my degree-- and afterward-- hasn't ruined my chances of getting a job. I'd much rather be turned down because the committee thinks my research focus is stupid than because the committee thinks adjuncts are inferior and somehow less qualified to teach.

Shane in Utah said...

those whose dissertations really fall smack in between two hiring fields. Those people who are neither one thing nor the other.

This is an important point, and I think it's even more true of interdisciplinary programs and dissertation topics. There's a lot of lip service paid to interdisciplinarity, but when it comes down to sifting through dozens or hundreds of applications, most hiring committees are going to look to the people with degrees in English to teach American literature than those with degrees in that amorphous, ill-defined entity known as "American Studies," for example.

If I were a beginning grad student looking for a diss topic, I would go look at the MLA job listings and the way job needs are often described. Pick a topic that will fit neatly into curricular pigeon-holes. As Crazy says, save the interdisciplinary, period-crossing labor of love for your second book.

Susan said...

I love your comment about being astonished that anyone gets a job. But my adviser always told me that almost every search gives one person a job. It's cool when you are that person, but while I don't think it's random, there is some degree of serendipity involved.(job in your field, good fit, you are in good shape when you do the interview, etc.)

Anonymous said...

it's too late for me on this advice about choosing a topic, so I'm just going to have to get a job anyway. heh.

Ann said...

"The point is not the length of the publications portion of your cv, or even quality of venues, but rather consistency.

Ditto this. If you're being considered for a tenure-track job, you need to give them some sense of your ability to publish amidst your other responsibilities, and to do so consistently. So, 1 or 2 articles is very good for an ABD or a recent Ph.D., but if you've been out for a few years, you need to show more than that. Two adjuncts in my department did just that last spring:


They did it by showing they were active scholars, as well as people teaching 4-4 loads and getting lots of teaching experience.


Doctor Pion said...

"a 4/4 job, t-t, with benefits, is kind of the holy grail."

One of the things I did not appreciate until I pulled together a bunch of data on physics jobs (look under the "jobs" tag for one on "demand") was the fraction of jobs that were outside the R1 world where I got my degree and also worked for some time. By which I mean, that is where MOST of them are!

I don't know if your field has anything like the data mine has, but I'd bet few jobs are 1/1. Part of this is due to a much lower rate of turnover in the 1/1 jobs.