advice for newly minted PhDs on the academic job market

By | February 4, 2016

I’m on the academic job market. This is my third time on this particular merry-go-round, although the first two times around I didn’t quite feel ready for any sort of tenure-track position. This year, though. This year I felt ready. For the first time, I had a completed dissertation–a project that made me incredibly proud, and still does–and the PhD that goes along with a completed dissertation. I had two years as a post-doc at a well respected research university. I had a book with my name attached to it, a few book chapters, and some first-authored articles, with a few more publications in press. I had some stellar teaching evaluations to show off, and a research statement and teaching philosophy and a statement of my commitment to diversity. I had all the stuff they tell you that you need to have, in order to be competitive in what they also tell you is a very, very tight market.

Perhaps most importantly: I felt ready, really ready, to take a faculty position. In previous years, cover letters and research statements and teaching philosophies were almost impossible for me to write–because I didn’t really know what I wanted to say in them. This year, I came at all of my job materials with a clear sense of my academic and professional identity, a belief in and commitment to the work I do.

Here’s my advice to you: Don’t let them trick you into believing that any of that matters.

Don’t let them trick you into believing that being good, or being smart, or being committed, or being a hard worker, will protect you in any way. Don’t let them convince you that growing your cv can protect you from despair.

I’ve been receiving two to three form rejection emails each month. There’s no way to predict when those emails will arrive, and no way to predict how cruelly worded or dismissive those emails are. (Yesterday I received an email that said, in part, “We completed phone interviews and chose candidates to invite for campus visits. As you can surmise, we did not choose to consider your candidacy.”) My oldest outstanding application is from early September–five months ago. There’s no reason for me to believe I’m still in the running for that particular job, and yet I can’t cross it off my list until I get the official rejection email.

You might end up like me, scrambling for work a year, or two, or three, or more after finishing graduate school. If you do end up like me, you might look around at your friends and classmates who got interviews and job offers and found their way into tenure track jobs that look a lot like the kind of job you want, at the kind of institution you think you could make proud, if they would only give you a chance to show them. People will tell you not to take that personally–that the fact of your continued lack of gainful employment has nothing to do with you, or your skills, or the reach or impact of your work. You don’t have to believe them.

Because those same people, when they receive awards or promotions, might very well talk about how their skill or intellect, or their hard work, or the reach or impact of their scholarship, earned them the reward or promotion. Both things can’t be true: If it’s true that landing a job in academia has very little to do with the applicant’s qualities, then promotion within academia has to be treated as the same kind of arbitrary process. Hey, next time someone you know is awarded tenure or a major scholarly award, tell them not to take it personally–they just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time. If they agree with you, then you might think about asking them for advice on how to approach the academic job search.

Feminist scholarship within the social sciences warns us against the masculinist bias of theories of human development and human experience. The psychologist Carol Gilligan, summarizing this bias, notes a negative or dismissive view of  tendencies toward interdependency, collaboration, and emotional responses to competition, success, and failure–traits that are associated with femininity, and also with people who are socialized female.

I’ve been told not to take any particular rejection personally. If you’re on the job market, you’ve probably been told this too. You don’t have to follow this advice. Consider it a feminist stance, if you like–disappointment, frustration, rage, despair, and sadness are wholly legitimate responses to a system that asks you to throw your work up against the wall, again and again, in the hopes that anybody at all will take notice. They’re wholly legitimate responses to a system that embraces its status as a buyer’s market.

The system demands secrecy at all stages. We’re not supposed to write publicly about the job search process while we’re in it; this may make us seem… too emotional. Or too opinionated. Too vocal. Too weak. We’re supposed to demonstrate, you know, more masculine traits: emotional detachment and a willingness to separate what we do from who we are. But this despair, this grief, these feelings of deep disappointment are currently both what I do and who I am–at least today, sitting as I am at the intersection of rejection and uncertainty. Maybe I’ll feel different tomorrow, or next week or next month. Who knows–maybe tomorrow I’ll post about the amazing tenure track job I’ve accepted.

You can change your mind about how you feel. You can put into words the way you’re feeling today even if you feel different things tomorrow. That, too, is some advice I have to offer you.

One thought on “advice for newly minted PhDs on the academic job market

  1. Kalei

    I was struck recently when a fellow teacher said something like “your students shouldn’t know how you’re feeling, especially not at 7:45am.” Their example was to highlight the importance of being in a positive mood at work, but I have thought about it so much since then. As educators, are we really supposed to be unemotional, detached, and give no indication that we have a personal life and personal needs? That sounds like a real slam to a good percentage of people in the world, especially those disinterested in manufacturing emotionless citizens. I connect to your desire not to remain indifferent and unaffected. It seems like it would hurt to not be recognized for all the work you have done and continue to do. At the same time, maybe it doesn’t feel like that sometimes. All this is to say: emotions are hard.

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