The Chronicle ran a piece today called “The Long Odds of the Faculty Job Search.” Two narratives are told – a search for a creative writing position at Ohio and a search for a linguist at Florida.
Academic job search narratives – at least in the Humanities – are attractive for what they might reveal: the secrets for success. When I was a graduate student, I was very interested in these narratives; I believed that they would show me how to get a job. There really are no secrets, of course. One must prepare (build a CV), write a dissertation that is part of a larger conversation (so others will be interested), attend conferences as a grad student (start to build audience and show you are in the field) and meet people (network with those who might later know you when you apply).
This is the preparation. Many people don’t prepare. For the prepared, which we can assume includes a significant number of applicants described in the two Chronicle narratives, then comes the network. The network brings together the human (committee) and non-human (CV, letters of recommendation, previous experience, dissertation topic, school one applies to, etc) actors. When people say the job search is a “crap shoot” or “lottery,” I assume that they are talking about the network. The network is neither; it is merely the moment where actors come together and the result of this coming together is a job offer. The actors can come together, really like the candidate, and still not make an offer. Or the actors may come together, not make an offer because they weren’t satisfied with the network that formed, and the candidate can still be great. With the humans, it is extremely difficult to predict what will occur. In searches I’ve chaired or been a member of, we sometimes agree, we sometimes don’t. As a candidate, I was accepted or passed over by the humans for all kinds of reasons, some of which I still don’t understand today. We can’t really control the humans. We can’t control the non-humans either, but we can interact with them differently.
I offer my own brief narratives as example.
- 2001. I am graduating from the University of Florida. I have more interviews than anyone else from my program. I have publications. I have a textbook about to be published. I know people. I ran conferences as a graduate student. I also have a year left of funding if things don’t work out. I don’t get an offer until almost the end of the hiring season, as WPA at The University of Detroit Mercy. A small Jesuit liberal arts university is not my first choice. But it’s what I get. One non-human, my interviewing skills, has failed me. I obviously don’t interview well. The year of funding left is a non-human actor in this network that does not influence my return to graduate school. I take the job and its very low “take it or leave it” offer. The funding affects me in that I know I could return, but the poor performance after so many interviews has more effect in this network: Who is to say I will do better the following year? I also already know someone at UDM.
- 2003. Over an informal dinner, the chair of Wayne State asks me to apply to their opening. I don’t. I’m not sure I want to stay in Detroit, though I know I want to leave UDM at some point. When the job is not filled, and it is re-opened in the Spring, I do apply. As probably the only candidate, I get the job and its much higher salary. The actors – an unfilled job (a job unfilled, actually, after several tries) and already being in Detroit play a role as much as my background and CV. So does that dinner. It returns to the conversation during the campus visit. I also already know someone at Wayne.
- 2007. When we can’t get spousal hires at Wayne State or Penn State, we go on the market, and I get an offer at the University of Missouri. Two actors – beyond my book about to come out and my CV – play a role (as far as I can tell). I’ve been a WPA previously (the position included being the WPA), and the first person the job is offered to turns it down. In the logic of the university, paying an extra few thousand in salary is not the same as hiring someone’s partner. That is, our hiring costs Missouri more than the extra few thousand the first person wanted, but our hiring does not affect salary compression. The WPA position at UDM is an actor here. It plays a role. I also already know someone at Missouri.
- 2011. When we are asked to apply to The University of Kentucky (we are not on the market), one actor plays an important role (as far as I can tell) beyond my CV and books. When I was WPA of the composition program at Missouri, a talk on Turnitin.com was held by the IT educational group, ET@MO. I don’t care about Turnitin, and as composition director, would never allow it to be used program-wise. But, as composition director, I felt I should attend and hear what the group was saying. No one else attended. The Vice Provost showed up and saw me there, and he heard some comments I offered. When the Campus Writing Program position opened up at Missouri (a better paying position than composition director with much better amenities), he remembered me. That WAC position of a million dollar program, an actor in this network, played a role when we negotiated our acceptance at Kentucky.
I only touch upon a few actors here: people I knew, positions held and accepted, space (Detroit also was an actor), attending a talk no one else attended, a dinner. I gave a talk a couple months ago, and a graduate student picked me up to take me to the airport the next day. He apologized for not coming to the talk. “I had a lot of papers to grade.” The talk took about an hour and a half. That hour and a half could eventually be an actor in a network the graduate student may later enter. Or not. I feel comfortable, though, saying that the paper grading will not be a significant actor later.
Of course, one does not know. The one actor I always return to is that Turnitin talk. If I hadn’t gone, would I have been WAC director? Would I have received a level of ethos that would later have to be addressed in a future job negotiation where an endowed professor position was put on the table (would I, as only Associate Professor have received that offer)? I don’t know.
My advice regarding the job narrative is something like: gather all the actors into your network that you can.You have no idea how they will interact later on, but if you have no actors (no dinners, no conference discussions, no attending talks by people whose work is or is not in your field, no whatever), you likely have nothing. I watch a lot of graduate students (at Wayne, at Missouri, and even here at Kentucky in our brief, not totally involved time), have nothing. They go on the market without any networks to enter and be a part of, and are angry when the results are not positive. Grading papers as excuse to not interact with someone? Not a valuable actor later on. Driving someone to the airport? A good actor, but interacting in a more scholarly way by attending the talk (how do people give talks? how do they present themselves? what do they talk about? can I engage with that person afterward?), a better actor.
When I was a graduate student at our main conference, I asked a question at a fairly well known scholar’s talk on a textbook he was co-writing. My question was a critique – I wanted to know why something hadn’t been included. The scholar responded, and we talked afterward (I told him my name). A month or so later, I was asked to review the textbook for the publisher. The network provided me a little money for the review (good for a graduate student!). In 2001, I interviewed at the scholar’s university, and he was on the committee. We knew each other. I didn’t get the job, but I know that my question was an actor in this network. Even without the job, I still think the actor was important. Networks aren’t good or bad things. They don’t guarantee success or failure. They are our interactions. If we have no interactions, we don’t have much of a career and often, we don’t have a chance to start a career in this profession.