Monday, November 29, 2010

A Post-Turkey Wake Up Call

About this time last year I was anxiously awaiting responses from the various tenure-track, visiting assistant professor, and fellowship applications I had begun sending out in September '09. (I think I applied for a total of 7 postdocs, 10 tenure-track jobs, and 3 visiting positions.) Mostly I heard . . . silence. Then, a few days after Thanksgiving I got a call inviting me to attend a preliminary interview for a tenure-track position at the AHA in San Diego. Woo hoo. Go me.

Drop $1,000 for a 30 minute chat? Golly, I'd love to!
Thinking that, surely, this call was a sign of good things to come, I booked a flight, bought a new interview suit, and made other necessary arrangements to attend the conference. The whole kit and caboodle cost me about $1,000. And I'll be the first to admit that this wasn't chump change. Oh no, that $1K was precious money I would have otherwise spent on rent, food, and bills. But at the time I figured, what choice do I really have? Either I fork out the cash and take my chances or I bow out now with no possibility of landing an academic job. When it came to the history job market and my position as an insignificant peon in the greater academic universe, everything seemed so black and white. Either I put out and pay up or I get out. That's just the way it is.

As the conference approached I hoped to receive other invitations to interview at the AHA but, alas, I did not. Instead, I had search committees calling me out of the blue on speaker phone, literally, at 5 or 6pm the week or so before Christmas asking if I was available for a phone interview the next day at 10am or earlier. Yikes! Talk about last minute. (Let this be a warning to you, fellow job seekers. Whether you're applying for academic or non-academic jobs, you never know when someone will want to interview you in person or via phone or skype. It's best to be prepared for anything.) Other places skipped right to the chase, forgoing preliminary chats all together; they had secretaries calling to set up on-campus interviews way in advance, as far away as February '10.

It suddenly dawned on me around X-mas that while my AHA appointment card was shockingly, embarrassingly empty, particularly compared to my friends in other sub-fields with 4-5 interviews lined up, I nonetheless still had a few cards on the table due to the increasing numbers of search committees skipping traditional conference interviews. Hope remained alive.

Fast forward to April 2010. By then I had participated in 2 phone interviews, 1 AHA interview, and 2 on-campus interviews, none of which ultimately resulted in an offer. All of my efforts on the job market had come to nothing. (Although I did receive an offer for a postdoc shortly thereafter, so yay for small mercies.)

What is the point of this story? Well, only that while the future remains uncertain, this is the time when all the craziness begins. Right now. For many Ph.D. and A.B.D job seekers in the humanities and social sciences, the period covering the end of November through the first half of December is nerve wracking. You know that large universities and small colleges alike intend to hold preliminary interviews at your field's annual conference (AHA or MLA, for example), but with budgets tightening across the country, and searches frozen at the last minute, it's touch and go. Should you buy a plane ticket, book a hotel room, spruce up your wardrobe, and spring for a fancy new laptop bag, just in case you get a nibble? I did last year and it really wasn't worth it. But, then again, that could just be sour grapes on my part, right?

Still, of all my friends who also spent $1K to interview at the AHA last year, even those who had multiple prelim. interviews and subsequent on-campus interviews, here is the total # who netted a bonified tenure-track job at the end of the process: 0. Zilch. Not one. It turns out that none of us got our money's worth from attending the AHA in San Diego. But nearly everyone is prepared to do it all over again--this time in Boston.

As December 2010 approaches things are looking fairly similar for me, except that I only submitted applications for 5 academic positions this year, all of them tenure track. No visiting gigs or fellowships this time around. I'm tired of moving every summer, or every semester in some cases, and living out of a suitcase. So, too, are my family members. It's great to win fellowships or receive offers for visiting appointments, of course, because it means technically speaking you're "still in the game," but for how long? If you hop from one fellowship to another or from one temporary position to another without landing a tenure-track job for several years in a row, when is enough finally enough? What is a reasonable time frame in which to conduct, and conclude, an academic job search? 3 years? 4 years? More?

It used to be the case that Ph.D. advisors at excellent/good but not ivy schools told their students to expect to go on the market several times before grabbing the coveted brass ring: a tenure-track job. In the meantime it was expected that a new Ph.D. would continue teaching, researching, and, most importantly, publishing in some form or another in order to remain competitive for the next season's job cycle. If a job applicant failed the first or second time out, it was critical that she up her game. Otherwise, the party would soon be over for good. The pressure, you see, continues to mount the longer one has been "out." The Ph.D. itself may not ever expire, but the Ph.D. holder starts to look a bit warn out and rough around the edges after a few years. And search committees like fresh, sparkly things, or so I've heard.

Irrespective, I'm not gambling on the AHA this year. I'm not attending. If a search committee at one of these 5 universities actually wants to interview me, I am going to politely ask for a phone or skype interview. It would be nice to attract notice from potential academic employers, but I'm not holding my breath. Opening myself up, mentally, to the possibility of a non-academic career has really helped take the edge of the job market merry-go-round. I may be stressed about my professional future, but I'm not walking on pins and needles praying that someone will invite me to spend a thousand bucks to chat with them for 30 minutes about my research and teaching interests in a hotel room in Boston in the middle of winter.

Although, if the phone does suddenly ring tomorrow and someone asks if I'm available for a skype or phone interview at 8am on Wednesday, I will say "yes, of course." Then I'll put down the novel(s) I started over Thanksgiving break, smack myself a few times, and quietly freak out. I hate surprises involving interviews.


WorstProfEver said...

You go, girl! It really is a gamble, and the numbers don't lie: the people I knew who got T-T jobs were the ones who had 12-15 conference interviews. And I'm not talking superstar candidates who pitted several offers against each other (which does happen). These started with many conference interview, got a few campus interviews, then exactly one offer in a place not of their choosing.

I think it's a wise decision to put your foot down at this point, and not waste cash for a bad bet.

Corinne said...

It's difficult because, on the one hand, you hear about people who've admitted they're not attending the MLA or AHA and have asked for phone interviews, and the SCs were kind enough to comply. Sometimes these people get invited to campus, sometimes they don't. For those that don't, is it b.c. of their performance or the fact that they skipped the conference interview? Who knows?

It's a gamble for sure. But, I agree with you; either way it's just silly to drop so much $ for a couple prelim interviews. If you had 6 or 7 or more, then it might be worth the $. Sucks, though, how we're just supposed to wait and wonder and then decide whether or not to buy a plane ticket!

(The 1st year I attended the MLA as an A.B.D. I bought my ticket in advance and ended up with 0 interviews. How lame.)

Eliza Woolf said...

Wow, I can't imagine having 12-15 academic jobs to apply for right now let alone prelim. interviews to attend. If you're into gambling, I'd say 10 or more interviews is enough reason to spend the cash. But 1 or 2? Please. I spent $1,000 for one 30-min conversation last Jan. and never heard from those SC members again. I learned my lesson!

Anthea said...

I'm hearing from more and more people that there's really very little point in spending all that money for very little in terms of the outcome - a job. Yes, it's good to be able to meet one's friends from graduate school, catch up up others etc etc...and perhaps even have a drink together on top of an interview. But the real issue is that it's a big gamble and it's not worth it anymore.

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Anonymous said...

Bravo!! I truly appreciate your honesty. This is my second time on the market for a TT (the first, I readily admit was premature; I was still writing my dissertation at the time).

This time around, I have major research findings being disseminated on the national level (social sciences). I have applied to 10+ schools so far and all I hear is silence. The silence is deafening and while I am blessed to have a full time researcher job, I know my heart lies in academia. Maybe it is a crapshoot after all. We will be patient together. Good Luck!!

Eliza Woolf said...

It is a big gamble and for most junior academics looking for tenure-track jobs, the days of having 10 or more preliminary interviews at our field's annual conference are well behind us. I've never known anyone with more than 4 or 5 conference interviews at the AHA.

More and more universities are now offering alternatives to the conference interview, too, options which we should by all means embrace. Let's not make things too easy, otherwise A.B.D.s and struggling new Ph.D.s will be expected to shell out the cash to attend the MLA or AHA indefinitely!

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