Saturday, December 02, 2006

While the Casserole Cooks, Some Musings about Being On the Market and in a T-T Position

I apologize for the length of this post. I didn't realize how long it would become when I began.

As the perhaps overly specific title explains, I'm waiting for my delicious dinner to cook, so I figured this would be as good a time as any to do this post that's been percolating in my brain about what it's like to be on the market when one has already secured a tenure-track position. I've kind of talked about some of this before, I think, so if it feels repetitive at points, I apologize. Also, feel free to skim (skip whole paragraphs) if necessary.

I suppose one of the reasons that I want to write about this is that I've felt kind of at sea in this enterprise of looking-while-employed. While I know some people from blogging who've successfully gone on the market t-t, and while I know some more senior people who've done the same, I don't really know anybody in real life, in my academic generation, who has done this. Not friends from conferences and not people from my grad program. But wait. That's actually not true. I do know of a couple of people who've moved, but they've tended to be in hotter fields than mine and the moves have tended to be lateral and made out of hatred for Job #1. This is not my situation at all. 1) I'm in no way in a "hot" field with lots of open positions. 2) The positions for which I've applied tend to be a step up (and in some cases a leap up) from my current position. 3) I don't actually hate my current job, nor do I have concerns about my ability to achieve tenure at my institution. So yes, while I know some people who might have done kind of what I'm doing right now, I don't know anybody with this precise experience.

And so, while I know that what I'm doing is not "weird" and that it "can" be done successfully, I have felt kind of alone throughout the process. It's not that I don't have mentors who've helped me through getting materials together and such, but those mentors are people from my grad institution, and they really don't seem to have a clear sense of what it's like to try to move on from a job like mine. I don't know. Maybe that's not fair. Maybe I'm not really as "unique" as I feel right now, but I guess this is the thing: one characteristic of my grad program is that it's not particularly touchy-feely. And there isn't anybody there who I really feel comfortable being open with about any fears I might have related to this process. I mean, my "mentors" have not asked me about how things are going. Honestly, the person who seems to care the most is the department secretary. So I don't know. I suppose I feel like they all expect me to just know how to do all of this stuff, and while that may not be true, I'm not comfortable enough with these people to find out if it's not.

I also feel like it's unusual for people to talk in an honest way about looking-while-employed in English, partly because the market is just so hard in all cases. On the one hand, I think we all accept that superstars will move from institution to institution. Or even not superstars but just really, really productive and fancy people. But when it comes to somebody like me - who came out of a good though not on-the-top-of-the-US News and World Report-rankings PhD program, who works at a Directional University with a 4-4 load, who has accomplished a lot scholarship-wise for such a program though a mediocre amount compared with what one would accomplish at an RI.... Well, I don't think that we often hear narratives about people like me going back on the market. I think that usually we assume that people like me will be thankful for getting lucky once.

And I suppose that one of the hardest things about my current position is that I feel guilty for not being as thankful as I think I should be. It's not that I don't appreciate my current job - I totally do - and I am appreciative most for the fact that this job has been crucial to teaching me that I really do belong in this profession and that I am really good at it. But see, there it is, isn't it? In some respects, being good in this particular job has made me wonder whether I might be even better if I were someplace else. And then that is the thing that makes me feel guilty.

But enough about that, I've talked about it before, and it's dumb. What I think I really want to talk about is what it's been like to negotiate the demands of being on the market as a t-t person.

The Application

What was most surprising to me about embarking on this process is that I hadn't realized how different putting together application stuff would be the second time around. (I sent some apps out half-heartedly after my first year on the t-t, but unsurprisingly nothing came of them, as they were basically my ABD apps with an updated CV and I only applied for like two jobs.) I thought that I knew how to do this, having been through it once. On the one hand, that was true. I had a version of a letter. I knew how many letters of rec. I needed to get together, and I had some recommenders who would only need to update for me. My CV has been constantly updated since the first market run, so it wasn't like I had to create the thing from scratch, as I did the first time. Also, I had a writing sample that wasn't just a crappy chapter of my dissertation (not that the chapter remains crappy, but at the time it had barely been revised and I'd not yet defended - in fact, it's one of the chapters of the book manuscript that I'm most happy with now and that needs the least polishing, but I digress). But so yes, I had all of the pieces of the application. I'd done this all before, right? But as I sat down to work on the cover letter, I had no idea how to go about revising it to show who I've become now that I'm no longer a student. I had no idea how to write a letter that highlighted important stuff but that left less important stuff out - as the first time around the whole kit and kaboodle went into the letter because that was all there was. And I had no idea how a CV not for my current institution should look. Well, not no idea, but less of an idea than one might imagine I'd have. And the letters - while that was in some ways the easiest part - I had two, and I knew from whom I needed to get new ones - asking people who are colleagues and not teachers for a letter of recommendation is a really weird thing. I guess what all of this amounts to is that for all of my "experience" from getting a job the first time, I really feel quite inexperienced and insecure about this process. And honestly, this is the first time I've felt that as a professor since my first year on the tenure-track. It's not a good feeling. And I don't entirely understand it.

The Process

Another weird thing about this go-around is that even though it's only a few years later, things have changed A LOT in terms of communication about the process. Sure, the first time around I was obsessed with the Chronicle of Higher Education forums, but that was really it in terms of online activity related to my job search. Well, that and the constant checking of email. And that remains the same. But now there is the wiki. And there is blogging. It's very easy to be "connected" to the job search constantly, and that was not my position the first time around.

Another weird thing about the process is that last time I was able to temper my desire because I just needed a job. Any job. Part of this was because I'd be a newly minted PhD. I didn't have high-falutin' notions about my worth on the market in my field. Moreover, I was living with a guy who'd been unemployed for nearly two years, so realistically, I felt like I'd better get a job or we'd both be screwed. (Though, of course, as soon as I got a job "we" - as in the relationship - were screwed, so whatever.) The point here, though, is that I didn't even LOOK at specific stuff about the places I'd applied until I got interviews. I didn't ENTERTAIN THE NOTION of researching places before deciding to apply. All that mattered was a t-t job - any job. As my mother would say, beggars can't be choosers. (My mother loves a well placed cliche.) This time, well, it's very difficult to focus on just "getting an offer" because, well, I don't need an offer. I just want one. And I have been choosey in deciding where to apply. And, really, with all of the people out there who need offers, who am I to want one, and one of my choosing, right? Now, you might say, "But Crazy. If you leave your current job, that will then open up a hiring line, so you've no reason to feel like you don't deserve to look!" Except here's the thing about my job. I'm not sure they will rehire another person for my position. I don't think that I should say more about it on the blog, but let's just say that the fact that they hired me for this position was kind of surprising, and they will not necessarily need to fill a gap that might be left in my absence. This is not something I'm losing sleep over or anything (nor should it be), but it is something that is making this experience radically different from my last real time out on the market.

Balancing Life on the T-T with Looking for Something New on the T-T

This is maybe the weirdest part of the whole thing. It all began with telling my Very Supportive Colleague about it, and then telling my chair. It was very weird to tell people whom I like and with whom I enjoy working about looking for another job. Not bad. Just weird. What's become weirder is now going along as if nothing's changed (and really, nothing has, other than that I'm in the middle of this process) and not telling other people.

Now, BFF obviously knows that I'm looking (and in fact, she's applied for a few things, too), but I've not mentioned it to other colleagues. Nor should I, I know. But this week I had drinks with some colleagues (for the first time, I might add, because they'd thought that I was part of a faction in the department that I am solidly not aligned with, but that's another story) and it was on the tip of my tongue to mention it, but I knew it was best to refrain. It was weird, though, because the conversation was such that there was a clear presumption that I'm in it for the long haul here, and while if I am ultimately in it for the long haul here (as I may well be) I'm glad that I participated in that conversation in the way that I did, if I'm not then... well, I don't know. I just hate feeling guarded (as you might imagine from all of what I spew on this here blog) and I knew that the right thing to do in that situation was to be somewhat guarded.

(Actually, an aside: one of the things that was funny about this outing was that my colleagues were enchanted by me and kept saying things like they had no idea how funny I was and how awesome I was because I seem like such a "team player" in the department, and I said, "well, duh, that's the smart way to be!" but it made me realize that maybe I'm a lot more guarded than I realize I am given certain situations. Or, rather, maybe I'm not "guarded" exactly in some kind of an intentional way, but I have a tendency to be quite self-protective if not in an intimate group of people, and not to give much away about where I really stand on things. Can you believe that about me? It's so weird, because I always feel like I'm the sort of person who can't keep my mouth shut and can't keep secrets and, hell, can't even keep a pseudonym going without problems. But apparently in real life I'm quite the Miss Mysterio.)

But back to the topic at hand. At any rate, it's been weird to have to keep my mouth shut about being on the market. Which is perhaps why I'm so annoying lately on the blog and to all of the people who do know, as I can't just blab about it in a normal way in my day-to-day life.

Another weird thing about this has to do with my students. I find myself wanting to tell them. Not all of them, but in particular, I find myself wanting to mention it in my upper-level class, which has a great rapport and with whom I feel quite close. I know that this would not be appropriate, but at the same time I really hate the idea of blind-siding my students. You know, I actually found myself wanting to tell some of my freshmen, too, who interviewed me for an assignment for another class they're taking, and who asked me things like "why did you choose to work at this university?" I gave them my standard answer that talks about how professors don't choose where they work (which, of course, is more than they want to know, but I figure, educate them young, before they come to me talking about their dreams of becoming professors and then I have to dash them), but again, it was on the tip of my tongue to say, "you know, I might not want to work at this university forever, and in fact I'm looking for another job." Obviously I couldn't say that, but it occurred to me, in more than one of those interviews. The fact is, I feel better about not telling my colleagues about the fact that I'm attempting this than I do about keeping it from my students. While I don't tell my students everything about my life, I really don't feel like I hold back with them. They usually know what's going on with me, even if in an oblique way. The fact that this is something that is off limits, and that if it goes well that will be sprung on them, well, it really makes me feel kind of shitty. My colleagues, they'll get it. Whether they like it or not, they're grown-ups, and they don't really need me for anything. My students do need me for things. And the kind of students that I teach will be unlikely to ask for anything from me if I leave, even though I'd be more than happy to continue to mentor them. If there is anything that makes me feel ambivalent about my search, it's the student aspect of the whole thing. I really love my students, as much as I bitch about them. And I really feel like they need a professor like me at this institution, and if it happens that I get the opportunity to go? It's not that I think I'm not able to be replaced, but... Well, my institution doesn't hire a lot of people like me. I wish it did, but it doesn't. And if I have any ambivalence, it is related to the fact that if I do get an offer, it will mean that those students won't have courses like the ones I teach anymore, and they won't have me as a professor anymore. Ugh.

Also related to this balancing of the current job with the job search is the fact that I think I may be doing two opposite things simultaneously. On the one hand, I think that I'm overconfident about my prospects on the market, and so I'm much more likely to say, "fuck it, I'm great, who cares if I get those papers back in a timely fashion! Who cares about evaluations!" which of course could come back to bite me in the ass if I end up staying here. On the other hand, I think that I'm trying to hard to seem like I'm "engaged," and thus over-extending myself in order not to appear like I'm looking for greener pastures. I'm not sure if there's a way to resolve either of these things before I find out that I'm rejected by all possibilities.

(Incidentally, I got my first rejection today - and after reading it, I have to say, "thank you, search committee, for I feel like your department would not be for me, as your rejection letter made you seem like a department of quite pretentious people who would totally not appreciate my many charms and skills. And in case you think I just can't take rejection, I refer you to my reaction to the rejection from the Publisher earlier in the week, and I also will note that I compared this particular rejection to the pile of rejection letters I've saved since applying to grad school, and I felt it was particularly pissy.")

But again, I digress. I suppose to conclude this section, I hadn't realized how fraught it would be to be on the market as well as to try to do a good job at my current job. How hard it would be to throw myself into the ring while continuing to throw myself into the good work that I know I do here. I think I'm managing it, but it's not easy.

To conclude:

I've been rambling for way too long about all of this. The casserole has been done for ages, and I'm not sure what more really I could add even if I wanted to add anything. But I wanted to write all of this because this is the sort of narrative I wish I'd had before deciding to embark on this process. I also think that maybe it's a valuable narrative to have out there because I think there's a perception about people who consider leaving an institution like mine of being unthoughtful about what they're doing - just in the profession for ME ME ME and not caring about students or teaching or service or whatever. This hasn't at all been my experience. I'm not looking to escape teaching (though, I won't lie - I am looking to escape the 4-4 load) nor am I looking to escape teaching the kinds of students I teach in order to bury my head in a pile of books. It's just that I want a different life than the one I've got right now. I want to see what I can do in this profession and as a person. And maybe, at the end of the day, I'll end up seeing that in exactly the same job I'm in now. I'll be disappointed if I don't get another offer, but it really won't be the end of the world. And I suppose that's the best thing about my situation right now - that I'm in a position where it won't be the end of the world if that does happen. There are a lot of people for whom it will be the end of the line (in this profession at least) if they don't get a job this season. I'm thankful not to be in that position, but it doesn't mean I don't recognize that it is the position for some and it doesn't mean that I don't recognize how unfair that is. I don't know. I suppose we'll see. But I think I'm going to MLA whatever happens (unless I'm so dejected by being rejected all around that I stay at my mommy's house begging for sympathy), and so if others are going to MLA, drop me an email, yes? Perhaps we can organize some sort of festival of blogger fun.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Heh. I SO could have written this three year ago (or whenever the hell I was on the market in your situation - I can't do math). Seriously, I agree with everything you say here. It's quite the strange position, and it always seemed so sneaky, and weird to be so obsessed with something about which most of the people in your life know nothing. So, anyway: YES.

Addy N. said...

Hey Crazy: I sent you an email awhile back- you should email back so we can compare job search notes! I feel a lot of the same things you do, but it's even weirder because (1) only one person in my department knows, (2) my husband is in the same department and ALSO on the market, (3) I am on committees to decide things for next year, knowing that I may not even be here, (4) we are interviewing candidates right now and I feel somewhat indifferent, since I may not be here next year, (5) I can't BLOG about any of this, because I'm not entirely sure that nobody from work reads my blog (I feel fairly safe commenting on others' blogs, since I don't blogroll, and (6) I already have an interview scheduled for February, but am wondering how I will handle my classes if I get others- btw, my husband also has an interview for a different position at the same place! This certainly makes it look like a serious possibility now. We feel so much like nobody here would even think of us doing this, because we should "just be grateful" to have tenure track jobs together in the first place! It is a bizarre sort of situation and I sometimes feel I am sneaking around behind my colleagues' backs. OK- this comment is becoming as long as your post! Please, do email back soon! And good luck with your search, too!

kfluff said...

I sent in an application for one, yes one, job--basically the fantasy job for which I actually have some serious qualifications. Like you, I also find myself wanting to tell the people I care about at my job--certain faculty, students, etc. But the part that I'm really feeling is the--what if I'm not even here next year? Then who cares?--it's ridiculous in my situation, really, as the chances I'll get it are anorexic. But it's difficult to continue to plan ahead and invest in the future of your present institution when you're also thinking about how you might fit in at another.

Thanks for articulating all of this.

helenesch said...

Yeah, thanks for writing this post--you articulate a lot here, and pull together various things you've been writing about for a while. It seems to me that while you (probably rightly) have this sense that others think you really don't know what you're doing--that you're going on the market for reasons that are not good ones or are somehow selfish--in fact, you've put *lots* of thought into this decision. Although I'm tempted to tell you to just try to stop second guessing yourself, I can see why you feel so alone here. People outside of academia just don't understand much about the academic job market (my non-academic friends try, but I think they just can't understand what it's like for humanities folks to find a new job). And yet many people in the profession have their own issues--they may be jealous of you for having a job at all, or think that you should be happy to have a job that you at least don't "hate."

But you deserve so much more than that! And I think you know this, which is why you're at least trying to see what else is out there for you. Teaching a 4/4 load really can get tiresome. I only teach 2/2, and I find it hard to do much else during the semester. Plus you want to be at a place where you're able to thrive research-wise and continue to grow as a scholar and teacher.

Anyway, I'm rambling now too... I guess I just wanted to thank you for writing this post and for being so honest about the whole process. Although I'm not applying for anything at this point(I just got tenure and love my job, though wish I could live someplace else), there's a lot here that I can really relate to.

Nels P. Highberg said...

Since we're interviewing, I'll be at MLA, so if there is a blogger thing, let me know. I'm not sure I'm going to the blogging panel on Sat. Morning, but I might.

It's also interesting on my end to be reading applications from people who have jobs and from those who are ABD. We've even had people with tenure at other places apply for our asst. prof. position. Quite a range, more than I expected.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this--it's a really interesting look (possibly) ahead.

And I'll be at MLA, with or without that damn nametag (or with a homemade one of my own). I'm planning on trying to make the blogger panel, so perhaps we'll all run into each other there? If not, maybe a bunch of us should coordinate something. . .

Liz Ferszt said...

While my point of view here is not very popular, I did want to say that I think Dr. Crazy is quite sincere in her mixed emotions of being on the job market while already employed at a place that seems to support her very solidly.

I'm chairing a search committee for a new Romanticist this year at our college and it's remarkable how many applicants we're getting who already are 2-3 years in to a T-T job elsewhere.

Our first question, I can tell you for sure, is why are you leaving? And be careful how you answer. Too negative and we don't want you to visit your bad attitude on us as well, and too positive and we'll assume you're just a casual job voyeur (and MLA is full of them), and we won't waste any more time on you.

helenesch said...

Hasn't Liz Ferszt already made her views on this known? Frankly, I'd like to stop seeing people make you (Dr. C) feel bad about this decision.

In any other career, people do what they need to do to move forward in the profession in a way that allows them to grow as scholars and teachers (and they don't feel guilty for applying just because they already have a job!). I just do *not* think you should feel bad about this! And if a hiring committee can't understand why you'd want to move on to a "better" institution (in terms of research and teaching load), then there's something wrong with them.

luolin said...

I think this is a good post. There is (or at least was at my grad institution) a huge infrastructure for helping grad students negotiate the job search. Once you're employed, it's very different, even if you still have some support from grad school mentors.

I did a half-hearted job search a couple of years ago, and one of the reasons it didn't go anywhere is that I didn't really know how to deal with the transition from grad student applicant to tt employed applicant, and I didn't really want to move enough to make the effort (I just thought I was supposed to apply as a backup since I was up for tenure that year.)

After my first year on the market, I actually thanked a search committee chair for his rejection (when I saw him at a conference the next year), because it was so considerate, and such a contrast to the worst ones I got ("pretentious" is a good description).

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'm glad that this long-winded post was something worth reading for you - for me it was worth writing in large part because getting it all down on paper has made me a lot less stressed out. Of course, we'll see how that continues as we move through this week. :)

Liz Ferszt said...


I think my comment is valuable job seeking advice. As a long time veteran of the job wars, I was hoping that my view might be of use to those of you who are involved in the early part of your careers. I see too many young professors stumped for an answer to that question, and it always sinks their chances.

No offense was intended.

ZaPaper said...

I have no intelligent comments to make about this post because I'm only on the grad student and not on the market yet. All I can say, from the land of no ovens anywhere (and not even a proper stove in my lousy flat) is ...I really wish I could have a bite of that casserole. Oh, and of course I hope your search goes well, and no guilt. The kiddies'll make do without, as will the grad students who NEED the job. I applaud you doing what's best for you.

Anonymous said...

Like Nels, I'm on a committee too this year, and Like Nels, we've getting apps from everyone from MFAs (for a job that's nothing like a creative writing job) to tenured faculty (two, in fact, from the same institution, oddly enough). And I'm learning that all sorts of different factors come into play. So while I wholeheartedly support the effort to find a better fit, I can say that when/if we meet some of these later-career folks, I'd be surprised if we weren't asking the questions (at least implicitly, which may be even more dangerous to the candidates, I'd imagine) that Liz has laid out. I'm guessing, Dr. C., that you'll want to have your response laid out.

That said, I think the answer you've laid out here--that you are not dissatisfied with the institution, and are committed to teaching, but would like to find some time in your teaching to concentrate a little more on research, while also finding a better fit in the community at large--to tread that fine line pretty convincingly.

Obviously, I'll be at MLA, and as I've only ever met a handful of bloggers IRL, I'm dying to meet you and some others. Let's set something up.

Unknown said...

Oh god - I'm glad Tiruncula linked to your post! I got my first rejection letter today - it wasn't snarky like the one you described, it was just...early. Like, "we DEFINITELY want you to know that you have no chance at this job - happy holidays." I'd be interested in any blogger meet-up (I think the panel I'm presenting on might be the same time as the blogger panel...)

But really, good luck and I hope that you have lots of options, whatever you decide to do!

academic coach said...

You are not alone. I have at least 3 coaching clients this year alone who have t-t positions (or already tenured positions!) who are on the job market.

You have an easy answer for the "why are you looking" question -- your 4-4 load. ie. I love teaching but wish I had more time for research.
I assume, that is, that you are mostly applying to places that are higher on the food chain and thus require less teaching.