Job Search 2.0: Breaking the Silence

When I first began working, in the summer of 1995, I remember being inculcated with the codes of capitalist labor. The less said about interviews the better, I was told by a parent. Never, my sister instructed, was I to discuss how much I earned with anyone. Erring on the side of good will among friends and colleagues, these aren’t the worst suggestions. However, I’m increasingly convinced that such instructions explicitly disfavor the worker, favoring management and reproducing inequities of the capitalist system.

I was reminded of these codes when I read Lee Bessette’s blog post asking, “To blog or not to blog?” about her academic job search. Lee mentions exhortations from colleagues to remain silent, to obey the impulse towards secrecy that renders the process inscrutable until experienced firsthand (and sometimes even then). For years, I’ve been aware that we cling to these practices because we believe it’s the only way we can fit within the system. Over the past year, however, I’ve realized that these codes are dehumanizing and dangerous. If we don’t discuss the job search as anything more than a painful memory, we add to the mystique of gaining academic employment, isolating ourselves in the process.

The secrecy that the job hunt seems to warrant is no less than corrosive. While we may openly trade advice on cover letters, CVs, and interviews in blog posts or placement workshops, we say little about our fears or how to tackle them. Yet, failing to have outlets for our anxieties only encourages them to breed, isolating us in the process. This isolation, in turn, can’t be good for our job applications – or for us. As such, it prevents us from openly addressing some of the less tangible aspects of the academic job search.

As a woman of color, I feel particularly hesitant about disobeying any implicit mandates regarding jobs, but that too is part of the conspiracy of silence. In the spirit of openness, I offer my overture towards ending such secrecy. Here are some of the lessons I learned during last year’s job search, which I outlined for myself before beginning this year’s run.

Your Personal Worth Is Not Determined by the Job Market
I know I’m not the only one who has brought her laptop on vacation or woken up at 5:00 am on Christmas – and not because there are presents under the tree. The danger of such a work ethic is interpreting professional rejection as personal rejection. Those of us who identify our academic work with personal political concerns can be especially susceptible to this phenomenon. Yet, without insider information, it’s impossible to know why I wasn’t considered for a job, why I wasn’t asked for additional materials, why a campus visit didn’t materialize. I’ve learned that the job market is filled with known unknowns and unknown unknowns, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense. Economies contract, searches get cancelled, committees don’t necessarily know what they want until they see it. These are the mysteries of the (job search) universe, and they don’t confirm that I am a bad candidate – or worse, a bad person. To avoid such negative thought patterns, I focus on parts of the process that are in my control: items on my CV, quality of my materials, tailoring of my job letters. Additionally, I make sure not to neglect facets of my life that aren’t academic. I try to head to DC every six weeks to see my parents. On Sundays, I always can be found watching my notoriously terrible hometown football team lose. Most evenings, I stop working after a late dinner and catch up on television shows that, no matter how I spin it, I’m not watching “academically.” I make time for a cup of coffee or a phone call with friends. To be sure, I feel overwhelmed at times, but I try to remember that work always will be there when I get home and it will take up all the time I give it. Nurturing other parts of my life is an important reminder that the academic self is one part of me. In turn, this understanding allows for some more objectivity when tempted to take rejection personally.

Non-Academic Family and Friends Won’t Understand – At First
I feel very lucky to have a number of people in my life who are supportive and encouraging of what I do. I hate to say it, but they weren’t able to wrap their minds around the academic job market until they saw me experience it (and, actually, neither could I). After all, these are the people who love you and think you are the most brilliant person they know, so who wouldn’t want to hire you? With a partner, particularly with matters of geographical concern, similar dynamics are at work the first time around. I recall having a conversation in which I mentioned a perfectly wonderful city (let’s call it “City X”) and discovered that my partner did not think City X was an acceptable city. I was in a tizzy. If City X was a problem for him, what hope was there for anywhere else in the world? I called one of my best friends from grad school, who I knew would understand. She was sympathetic but I could hear the smug undertone of “When I go on the market next year, my partner will be unquestionably open to City X.” Just a few weeks ago, she and her partner had the SAME conversation about City Y. I reminded my friend that her partner needs to experience the academic job market by proxy to understand. The good news is that just one run on the job market is enough for anyone paying attention to learn. Just yesterday, my mother was giving me the “known unknown” pep talk.

Develop Your Own Definition of Success
I could choose to define “success” as getting a tenure-track job, but I try not to do that. For me, it’s a lot more motivating to take what I call the “long view/short-term success” approach to the market. This year, like last year, I’m on the market ABD – I could have finished last year but I decided to take a fellowship that lets me teach one upper-level seminar this year and have the rest of the time to work at will. The downside is that getting a job without the PhD in hand is difficult. Therefore, I think of my markers of success accordingly and progressively. It’s hard to temper my expectations when I think about what happened last year. I’ve heard from other job-seekers that this is a common occurrence. My anxieties about this process are only exacerbated by the advice I get from those around me. Last year, in early December, I heard everything from “You’ll get some interviews” to “You won’t get any interviews because you don’t have a PhD.” But none of these people, well meaning as they are, knew anything more than I did about decisions search committees would make. I prefer to focus on incremental goals and manage my definition of “success.” If I get requests for additional materials, I view them as successes. Last year, when I had interviews at MLA and on campus, those were my successes too. Doesn’t mean I’m not hoping for more (I am) or don’t worry about where my paycheck will come from after May (I do). It just means that I take the time to acknowledge individual instances of validation rather than defining success as the elusive TT job, a long view goal that likely will take longer to achieve.

Keep Your Friends Close
One of the reasons Emory appealed to me was the collegial nature of the graduate student community. I credit this collegiality with the fact that two of my closest friends from graduate school are in my fields. In fact, we’re currently applying for the same jobs. As always, we share successes, anxieties, job ads, postdoc notices, cover letters, abstracts, and the rest of our writing. I happily will raise a glass to them if their job searches work out, even if my own doesn’t. When it became clear to me that two of my friends would someday be competing with me for jobs, I vowed it wouldn’t get in the way of our friendships. One friend and I settled naturally into awkward-free banter about experiences on the market, search strategies, “Did you see the ad for X?,” and “That job at Y looks perfect for you!” With the other, I wasn’t so sure how to address the issue. One morning, we were discussing the market over breakfast, so I asked straight out, “Are we going to share our job market experiences with each other?” She replied, “I’d like to,” and that was that. There’s really no better a person to peer review job letters than someone who knows what you’ve been up to for the last five years and who can point out accomplishments that you haven’t included in your materials. My own experiences run counter to the advice given to me by colleagues who have advised me never to show my materials to anyone who might be “competition” – and wouldn’t let me read job letters from previous years. The reality of the job market is such that any of our applications are just a few in a significant pool of qualified applicants; ultimately, “competition” between us is relatively insignificant. Plus, we have different strengths to offer universities, despite being in the same fields. Equally important are academic friends who aren’t in my fields because we can gauge the suitability of each others’ work for non-specialists. I also don’t overlook friends and family outside of academia, who are quick with words of encouragement, which are always greatly appreciated.

Know Who You Are
The best job market advice I’ve received – unfortunately, I don’t remember from where – is “You are who you are, and you can’t be anyone else.” Perhaps fellow job seekers can identify with the experience of reading a job ad and thinking, “Am I a specialist in 14th-century basket making? Maybe, I could be.” Faculty members bring any number of perspectives to the question of which jobs we should explore, how extensively we should apply, and which institutions are most likely to be interested in our work. My approach is to ask advice from all who are willing to give it, compare the responses I receive, and make the right decisions for myself. Advice is invaluable because faculty members who either have been on the market or served on a committee recently can help parse job ads. Yet, advice inevitably will be contradictory, and I know that I’m the one who has to be accountable for the decisions I make. For me, this process involves scrutinizing my CV, from my publications to presentations to courses taught, to discern jobs for which I could make a convincing case. This process is helpful as I apply to jobs because having a clear vision of who I am as a scholar allows me to identify how aspects of my experience attest to suitable candidacy for particular jobs. Thus, tailoring a letter isn’t about a paragraph at the end but how I have represented my experience in each paragraph of my letter.

Wait for the Workflow
When I was a first-time job seeker and while polishing my materials to take them on the road this time around, there was a seemingly long, painful stretch when the process of constructing and revising job materials felt interminable. The more people willing to read my letter and give me feedback the better, but the front-end time spent on the materials is always more significant than I estimate. I find these periods of time incredibly painful because the job letter, teaching philosophy, and teaching portfolio genres feel unfamiliar and challenging. Yet, both last year and this year, there came a time when all the pieces fell into place and suddenly the job application workflow settled into an easy rhythm. When I have all the working parts ready and get into the routine of selecting which pieces belong with which jobs, the process of applying to jobs becomes almost automatic. When I see certain keywords in job ads, I know which versions of my letters I can mine to construct a tailored letter. The more I negotiate university or department websites for information, the more easily I find what I need the next time. When I feel like I’m straining under the burden of the application process, my workflow eventually makes itself known. I just have to wait for it.

Develop a Wiki Strategy
Tempting as it is to believe otherwise, the Academic Job Wiki is not a tool of transparency. It provides a small, questionably representative sample of data about the job search. What exactly a job seeker wants to do with this data is an individual decision. There are just so many variables at play with the job wiki that I’d rather not get involved. If I had good news to report, I wouldn’t want to be someone’s “wikijection.” There’s no guarantee that someone’s materials request (whether real or not) means you’re out of the running – just last year, I had a materials request days after a date on the wiki, and I received an interview. Additionally, with jobs requesting full applications upfront, the additional materials stage is often moot. One of the best choices I made last year, however, was to decide how I wanted to use the job wiki. I knew I didn’t feel comfortable contributing data because I don’t believe it’s as anonymous as it seems. I decided to use the wiki as another source of job ads and to leave it at that. By Christmas, I’d know whether I had interviews or not, so I wouldn’t be waiting too long for solid data. How to use the wiki is a personal decision, but it’s important to make a decision – and own the decision – before you find yourself sitting in front of a computer hitting refresh over and over and over.

You Don’t Have To Be Miserable
Oddly, some job market advice pieces tell us we will be miserable for the duration of the job search. Given that conventional wisdom dictates it can take a few years to find a position (if at all), are we meant to be miserable that long? I admit that last year I quickly was falling prey to job market misery by October. Then, life decided to throw me way more perspective than I wanted and two people close to me became ill. With my attention divided between them and the job market, I was quickly and unpleasantly reminded that there is more to life than the academic job market. Instead of spending November and December anxiously waiting to hear about requests for additional materials or interviews, I was focused instead on the surgery and recovery of someone important to me. Instead of nervously ruminating about campus visit requests, I was waiting to hear about blood test results and prognoses. I’d much rather have just had the job market on my mind, but that experience continues to remind me that a more balanced approach to the market doesn’t hurt. After all, my worrying isn’t going to change the outcome – it can only interfere with my writing, prevent me from enjoying a weekend with my parents, or distract me from tasks that still require my attention, job or no job.

I am reluctant to pitch this post as anything more than my own ruminations because I ultimately believe that we each have to find our own ways to incorporate our academic job searches into our lives without letting a search take over our lives. While there are many excellent blogs and posts about surviving the academic job market (Ryan Cordell’s resource list, Gerry Canavan’s advice post, and any number of posts at ProfHacker or The Professor is In, to name a few), there are very few job seekers sharing their experiences in situ. While I won’t be blogging about particulars or live-tweeting my job search, I realize that if I say nothing, then I’m not doing my part to break the silence.

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3 thoughts on “Job Search 2.0: Breaking the Silence

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