Approaching the job market: some considerations

Note: I was asked to co-present at a job-seekers colloquium tomorrow within my PhD program at Syracuse, so I gathered some thoughts on the market which you can find below. Looking forward to hearing my colleagues’ thoughts on this as well since everyone experiences this process differently.

I turned 40 right before I accepted my job at Rowan last January — my only offer after a long, difficult search. I’ve worked in high schools, administered a writing center, designed community literacy programming, and despite my scholarly focus on amateurs and DIY publishing, I’ve taught professional writing more than any other college course. Moreover, my wife and I have owned a house in Syracuse since 2007, had 3 kids here, and enjoy a vast network of family and friends all over Upstate. I mention all of this because these things — for better and worse — factored into the emotional and logistical way I experienced the market.

I think factors like these — work/experience, friends and family, geographic preferences, career ambitions and allegiances — lead to significant differences in how we approach the process. There is no one way to summarize how anyone could process it. However, one central, practical manifestation — and one that you might begin thinking about right now if you are about to enter the market — comes through the question of how widely you apply. I opted to go wide (about 65 applications) and although it was a lot of work, I’m mostly glad that I did. I applied for English ed jobs, digital writing jobs, civic/professional writing jobs, writing center jobs, and jobs that were mostly tenure track, but not always.

Although I split childcare duties with my wife this year, I was unemployed and so you should take that into account as you read on. But one of the ways I looked at this decision (thanks in part to a mentor’s advice), is that there’s a strange emotional rhythm to the successes and failures of the market. For me, the game went a little like this: as long as I had other lines cast into the sea, a rejection was never as heavy as it would have felt had I limited my search to, say, 20 jobs. And even if I did, I was just too damn busy to linger on those failures. Aside from these psycho elements, ~65 applications gained me a lot of experience interviewing for different jobs, in different formats, and with committees/institutions that had very different dynamics. And it was a little fun.

On the other hand, had I been a bit more selective, I might have been able to write more institutionally-specific letters and prepared stronger materials. I often felt like my teaching letter was really a thinly-veiled research letter, for example, and it didn’t get me many interviews with teaching-oriented positions. The apply-widely approach also led to a very chaotic November/December where I was preparing for multiple campus visits, interviewing with schools on phone/Skype, and still applying for jobs all at the same time. This was very hard on my family. And in the end, I got a job I would have applied for no matter what criteria I used (in fact, a majority of my campus visit invitations were for positions I would have applied to had I been more selective). And Rowan was my first campus visit. 

But I guess what I’m really saying is this: Do you want to run a writing program? Can you handle living in an area where home ownership is virtually impossible for the professoriate? Do you have actual passion for teaching technical writing day in, day out? What are your loved ones willing to sacrifice for your career? Have you talked about it? How do you feel about it? And how conscious are you about your answers to these questions heading into the market? When I sought advice last year, time and time again folks encouraged me to consider both my professional and personal goals, even in the midst of a process where you seem to have very little control.

If you opt for an apply-widely approach (or maybe even if you don’t), the rumors are true: your first academic job search is a full-time job. It’s not that I did not believe this maxim when my mentors shared it with me over and over again, but it’s a different thing when you actually table your dissertation for 3-4 months and live with that decision. As a result, I thought it might help to spell out how this actually worked for me month-to-month and embed some advice within that arc.

Summer before: Based on the wonderful CCR job-seeker meetings organized by Eileen, I used some of my summer to redesign my professional website and draft app documents: 3 different cover letters (teaching/research/WPA), CV drafts, various philosophies, portfolios, etc. But really, I tried to make the most of my summer by getting as far ahead on my dissertation as possible. Ideally you want to have 80% of your diss (~4 chapters) drafted before Sept 1. I only managed 3 of 5 chapters and now it’s April and I’m scrambling to finish before I leave town in August. It’s not fun. Plus, the more you write, the better you understand your project and that’ll be essential when you give your job talk or discuss your work in interviews. (Although I got the job at Rowan, my job talks got better with practice, too.)

September & October: Jobs come in batches starting as early as August, but because of how I approached them, they seemed to constantly flow from postings on the Rhet/Comp Jobs Wiki, Rhetmap, and the WPA list (I rarely looked at the MLA JIL, to be honest). I used a Google spreadsheet to keep track of the ones I wanted to apply for (noting deadlines, links to job descriptions, teaching loads, specializations, and any other details) and color coded them as the market progressed. As these positions were posted I also found myself writing additional required statements on diversity and ESL, and formatting specific teaching portfolios based on the parameters of the application. Speaking of which, the application interfaces are far from uniform and here you find yourself in the belly of the managed university. Interfolio applications were relatively painless but not common enough, and in the more chaotic moments of the search this actually factored into whether or not I applied. Also: from my experience, hardly any schools held initial interviews at MLA this January. As a result, the market schedule shifted and had earlier deadlines. My phone/Skype interviews started in mid-October, for example — well ahead of the MLA-centered schedule.

Late November & Early December: Because I applied widely, this was the time of the process when my life got pretty crazy. At one point, I had multiple campus visits in a 10-day period and a few interviews with schools in between, so all at once I was trying to research schools, write job talks, plan teaching demos, shop for cheap-but-fancy clothes, and continue to apply for jobs that had later deadlines. Nothing I did felt quite adequate and I had a least one emotional breakdown. Still, I’m not sure this was avoidable— just a symptom of an apply-widely approach.

Winter Break: I had a few more interviews in the middle of December and then things suddenly went quiet. This was the hardest part. I wanted to know how those visits went and I wanted to have more scheduled in case they did not go as well as I hoped. I did not have a holiday filled with cheer and I couldn’t help but think that the more time passed, the worse the news would be. At many of the visits I went on in Nov/Dec search chairs told me that they wanted to make a decision before the break. And yet it was important to remember that the timeline for each institution was different. Some were waiting on deans to authorize an offer, and some places brought 2, 3, or even 4 candidates to campus — all people who might have gotten an offer before me. I thought committees would keep me posted throughout this process but it turned out that I only heard from them once someone else accepted and the search was over. That said, in multiple cases I was encouraged by committees to get in touch if I got another offer. That’s something to keep in mind if you find yourself in the fortunate (rare?) position of getting multiple offers at once.

In hindsight, I can say that it would have been emotionally helpful to talk with people other than my wife and my dissertation advisor about what this whole process felt like. Perhaps it would have been good, like in support groups, to have a “sponsor” to talk with — someone who went through this before and would be willing to listen to my anxieties about real estate costs, the material realities of the job, and my innermost insecurities, such as why in the hell did I choose to do a PhD in the first place?

There’s much more to talk about, of course, but I wanted to end this post with just a few practical resources I returned to time and time again:

Rhet/comp academic jobs wiki. Most of the jobs I found were initially posted on this site. I used an RSS-reader Chrome app and subscribed to the RECENT ACTIVITY link on that site, which helped me manage it all. You can also use this site to get backchannel updates on jobs that have posted, but this info can be unreliable, quickly render you obsessive, and ultimately be counterproductive to your progress.

Rhetmap. This site, run by Jim Ridolfo at Kentucky, is useful not only because it geo-plots MLA JIL data, but includes a number of extras. When things were not looking good, for example, I reminded myself that this was the worst market statistically speaking in at least the last 5 years. I knew that because of tools like this market comparison visualization created by Chris Lindgren:

The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky. Not everyone is a fan of this book or Kelsky’s approach, but if you can get past the first few chapters where she reminds you of the terribly depressing club you are trying to enter, then there are some helpful pieces of advice. Plus the book is organized chronologically in terms of how most candidates experience the market, making it a manageable read on top of all your other responsibilities. She’s also often funny, direct, and includes memorable stories.

Google Analytics. If you have a professional webpage and want to see when and where users are reading it from, install Google Analytics. Although I’m sure it didn’t help my mental health (see academic jobs wiki above), this feature predicted some of the interviews I got ahead of the call.