Monday, February 28, 2011

Carney and the Job Search, Continued

This is the first of an as-yet undetermined number of posts about the conference and post-conference exploits as a Carney Sandoe candidate for jobs teaching at the prep school level. I’m still processing everything I leaned, but want to get some initial observations and thoughts up on the blog.

In keeping with an earlier post about the similarities between the secondary and collegiate job markets, I’ll start with the setting for the interviews. You know the “Pit” where many conference interviews take place for the MLA and AHA? (For those lucky enough to have avoided the pit, here is Daniel Kowalsky’s painfully accurate description from a CHE article:

The interviews take place in a massive convention hall which has been divided into hundreds of tiny, curtained cubicles. During the interview itself, you will hear swirling around you a symphony -- nay, a cacophony -- of voices identical to your own. If you don't know the answer to a given question -- for example, "How do you incorporate peer review into your teaching?" -- don't panic. In a moment or two, the answer will be supplied by a candidate sitting yards away, separated by that curtain.

Remarkably, the CSA meeting hall is worse: The tables are more closely packed together, and there are no curtains. Most horrifyingly, some schools held two interviews at the same table simultaneously: There would be two faculty members sitting across from two candidates conducting two interviews. I could only hope that the candidates were not applying for the same job. I never had the misfortune of sharing my table with another candidate, but without a doubt, the most difficult aspect of the interview was the noise. If the interviewer spoke in a soft voice, or if you had a loud-talker at a nearby table, half the questions were, “I beg your pardon?” At a few interviews, I found myself leaning across the table to hear a question, and half-worried that the interviewer might think I was coming in for a kiss. I should be clear that I do not mean this as a criticism – if there is a better way to conduct tons of interviews in a short time, I’ve never seen it.

The most surprising difference between the MLA and a CSA conference is that schools really do schedule interviews on site. When I arrived at the conference, I saw the table reserved by St. Prestigious Prep, and remembered that they were conducting a search in my field. I stopped by to chat with the guy sitting at the table, and found out he was the head of the middle school. It wasn’t ideal (I’m looking for an upper school position), but we talked for a while, and he suggested I set up a meeting with the head of the entire school for the next day. This would simply never, ever, ever, ever happen at a collegiate conference. The moral of the story is that my CSA Representative is right. If you want an interview, go ask for it. The chances are that you’ll get turned down – I was 1-for-12 – but all it takes is one.

As I said, more to come on this front, but right now I've only got time for small bites...



Money for White Men

We're not racist/sexist, just great equalizers.
Have you ever wondered why women and minorities get (allegedly) preferential treatment from higher ed scholarship selection committees? No? Are you sure? Well, OK, as a historian and literate human being neither have I, but a new group based in San Marcos, TX, the "Former Majority Association for Equality,"  wants YOU to start thinking about the pressing issue of gender and racial discrimination . . . against white men.

Better still, they want you--if you're the right demographic--to stand up and demand the country stop treating everyone else (i.e., all those people with boobs and vaginas and dual airy fairy ethnic identities like "African American," "Mexican American," "Asian American," and the like) as though they deserve extra money while you, a historically privileged member of the white male majority, are no longer worthy of special treatment.

"The Former Majority Association for Equality" is a Nonprofit Organization that was officially incorporated with the State of Texas in March of 2010. Its mission statement is as follows:

Our goal: To financially assist young Americans seeking higher education who lack opportunities in similar organizations that are based upon race or gender. In a country that proclaims equality for all, we provide monetary aid to those that have found the scholarship application process difficult because they do not fit into certain categories or any ethnic group.

We have a very simple mission: to fill in the gap in the scholarships offered to prospective students. There are scholarships offered for almost any demographic imaginable. In a country that proclaims equality for all, we provide monetary aid to those that have found the scholarship application process difficult because they do not fit into certain categories or any ethnic group.

But FMAFE wants to assure you that they are NOT racist or sexist; they're simply trying to make sure that white males in this country get a fair shake. For too long white males have found themselves victims of forces beyond their control. FMAFE seeks to rectify that issue. Young white men, they believe, deserve better from a country that their elite white male ancestors founded to serve (only) their white male descendants. What's wrong with making sure white men everywhere can achieve their gendered racial legacy?

One obstacle that we immediately anticipate is to not appear racist or racially motivated. We do not advocate white supremacy, nor do we enable any individual that does. We do not accept donations from organizations affiliated with any sort of white supremacy or hate group. We have no hidden agenda to promote racial bigotry or segregation. FMAE’s existence is dedicated around one simple principle, to provide monetary aid for education to white males who need it.

So, are you a respectable white male in need of $500 for school? Contacted FMAFE and you might hit the jackpot.

Full Disclosure: Young white women are on the board, so you may or may not get fair consideration after all (you know how those people with vaginas can be tricky), but FMAFE does try its best to satisfy all white males who apply for funding.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Announcing On the Fence Relaunch 2011

On the Fence is now officially a team effort, starring Eliza Woolf and Benjamin Harrison. We're both in the midst of major career transitions (more on this later) and will be updating the blog regularly.

I'm in the thick of an academic job search and might actually be starting up on the tenure track somewhere this fall, while Ben is in the process of transitioning out of the ivory tower for good. Just as I'm on the brink  of jumping blindly off the fence in one direction, Ben is poised to jump with his eyes wide open in the opposite direction. Who is the craziest? Tune in to future posts to find out . . .

Regardless of where we end up, however, Ben and I plan to keep blogging about our experiences and discussing issues relevant to academics, higher ed, and job-seeking PhDs and ABDs. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A reader's question: Prep schools and job security

I just received the following question from one of our readers, and (with that reader's permission) have decided to post it:

Dear Dr. Harrison,

I found your blog extremely useful. I guess you have not left academia yet, so you may know the answer to my question. I was wondering what job security is like at boarding schools? I realize that they do not offer tenure, but what is to stop them from refusing to renew a contract for a variety of reasons, i.e. it is cheaper to replace a more experienced teacher with a less experienced one?

Any thoughts?


Curious in Cincinnati

Dear Cincy,

Good question! I know that the lack of tenure is one issue that gives some academics pause when they consider leaving (or giving up on) the academy. One of my colleagues here has opined that I'm crazy to give up a job for life. (She is a friend, so I took no offense.)

Honestly this is not a question I've thought much about, mostly because you're the first to ever raise the issue. I've interviewed a half-dozen PhDs who teach in secondary schools (about half of whom have been doing so for 10+ years) and nobody has mentioned job security as an issue, and certainly not in the way you describe it. (By contrast, I have heard rumors that Bennington College - who also don't have tenure - will occasionally clear the decks for cheaper, more junior PhDs.)

This isn't to say it's not an issue anywhere, but that I am unaware of it.

That said, your post raises a good question and speaks to the factors you should consider when searching for a school. First, pay attention to how long other faculty have been at the school. Some schools will actually boast that "On average, Prestigious Prep faculty have fifteen years' teaching experience and twelve years at Prestigious." That's a good sign. If there seems to be a high turnover among faculty, you should hesitate before accepting an offer. (That said, if you are looking for a "starter job" facutly turnover might not put you off - obviously people can leave!)

You can also look into a school's finances, both through annual reports, but also through the website: (Registration is free.) It includes financial information on many non-profits, including endowment, operating budgets, and salary for senior administrators. If a schools got a lot of money sloshing around, they're unlikely to look for cost savings by firing senior faculty. (Warning: Guidestar can be a huge time-suck if you are at all snoopy.)

Finally, pay attention to a school's reputation. A place that has been around for a while, and has a regional or even national reputation for excellence is less likley to engage in these sorts of shennanigans than a newer school that might be on the verge of going under.

Good luck, and thanks for reading!



Monday, February 21, 2011

Countdown to Carney, Pt. 1

According to my Carney representative, the last 48 hours before a hiring conference are the most hectic, so (as events warrant) I've decided to post more regularly over the next couple of days, and then once I arrive in DC.

So far, it's hard to see how things could be going any better. Forgive the bullet points, but I have to break down some numbers.
  • My application package has been sent to about a dozen schools across the country.
  • Nine of these schools will interview in DC.
  • I sent letters of interst to four of these nine.
  • Five schools have requested interviews.

So if you are scoring at home (or if you're by yourself) I'm batting 5-for-4, which is as impossible in baseball as academia. (As I said to a friend in the field, "Remember the year you had interviews with your top five schools? No, me neither.")

It's also possible that there are more interviews to come. I received a request to interview for a department chair position. (I declined it due to location and cost of living issues.) And more schools are registering for the conference and posting jobs. (Right now there are about 200 schools registered.)

Now, one reading of this is that I'm totally awesome. But I don't think that's true. I think that the correct reading speaks to the differences between the prep school and academic job markets. For college teaching jobs, a doctorate, publications, and years of teaching experience might not get you in the door. For prep schools, all of these make you stand out from the twenty-somethings who are looking for their first teaching gig. You might not get the interviews, but you will be noticed, and in my case my CV has clearly worked in my favor.

That said, I've been through the academic wringer too many times to think that a job is in the bag. Conference interviews won't necessarily lead to campus interviews, and campus interviews won't necessarily lead to job offers. But they're a start, at least.

Friday, February 18, 2011

When You Know You're in Good Company

Suck on this.

I'm pleased to announce that, according to my blog stats page, a number of readers stumbled across this particular blog after googling the following phrase: "academic job market sucks." It's a sign of the times when a blog about the search for tenure-track academic employment, and various alternate career possibilities, finds fellow wayward and disillusioned PhDs and grad students through search terms involving the word "suck."

This is not something we should dismiss. Oh no, I think it's pretty clear whether or not some of us choose to jump ship now, later, or never, or whether or not we have degrees from Fancy Pants Ivy U or Rural Soul-sucking Backwater U, we're all in agreement about one thing: The academic job market does indeed suck, particularly this year. We may be the most educated people in America, and certainly special with our membership in the PhD club, which represents less than 1% of the country's total population, but when it comes to finding, or not finding, a tenure-track academic position, sucks is still the most appropriate word to spring to mind.

 Speaking of which, Slate did a brief opinion piece five years ago on the word "sucks" that I think is especially relevant to this discussion. "Suck It Up: A defense of the much-maligned word"  []. 

"Are you offended by the word sucks? Do you loathe the way it's crept into everyday conversation? Do you wish sucks would just fade away, like other faddish colloquialisms that were eventually discarded? Well, sucks to be you. Sucks is here to stay."

Why, what's so great about sucks? Why do we still turn to this word time and time again to express our deepest feelings of disappointment and despair? Because, as Seth Stevenson points out, "Sucks is the most concise, emphatic way we have to say something is no good. As a one-syllable intransitive verb, it offers superb economy." And poor bastards like us need "superb economy" now more than ever, since those of us on the academic job market are so damn impoverished after spending thousands on our education, room and board and other necessities for six plus years, not to mention airfare, lodging and registration fees to attend hiring conferences in our disciplines. (Where we sit in a hotel room with other employed scholars who ask us a string of random questions for 20-40 minutes before unceremoniously shooing us out the door and then, professional task completed, hitting up the bar for some shots and academic gossip.)

So think of it this way: the phrase "academic job market sucks" = "the academic job market is no good." It stinks, it's rotten, it's putrid, it's a raw deal. Sure, it sucks to be us. But at least we know we're in good company when other scholars feel, and speak, about the job market in the same way.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gearing up for a Carney Conference

One of the factors that can make the transition from the higher education market to prep school stressful (in addition to walking away from a career!) is the murkiness of the job search. Veterans of the academic search will be pleased to know that the prep school hiring process features all the opacity of higher ed, but with enough twists and turns to keep things fresh. (Think of it like the Coen brothers’ reimagining of True Grit rather than Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.)

First the opacity: As with any search, there is a lot you will never know. Will the school consider candidates with a PhD? Many searches are general – “English Teacher” – will they consider someone with your specialty? While these questions will come to mind, as in the higher ed process, you can’t know the answer, so don’t worry about it. (That said, if a department already has faculty with PhDs, you can at least know they’ll consider your application. Unless they've been disastrous in the classroom.)

Second, the timeline: As with many fields in higher ed, prep school positions trickle out over the course of several months. I received my first referral from Carney Sandoe back in November, but the action doesn’t really get started until February. It’s also worth noting that schools continue to post positions until late spring. Unlike colleges and universities, where hiring a new teacher requires fifteen signatures and an act of God, prep schools can move much more quickly. If a teacher decides to retire in April, they’ll hire a replacement in May of that year.

As with higher ed, the key moment in the process is the huge hiring conferences. These are run by CSA and by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). Since I’m working with CSA, I’ll focus on their process.

About a week before the conference, CSA sets up a website where schools and candidates schedule interviews and send messages. While a dearth of interviews a week before the MLA can signal career-death, such is not the case here. According to CSA, most interviews are made in the 48 hours before the conference starts. This can certainly put you on edge as you wait to hear from schools (and wonder if you should check on the refund policy for your plane tickets), but it’s the nature of the beast.

If a school decides to interview you, they have the option of sending you an old-fashioned email, sending you a message through CSA’s site, or they can simply sign up for one of your open time slots. Whatever the case, schools drive the process. They schedule interviews and you say yes or no. (If you get an interview, take it. Even if you’re not sure you want a job, at least talk to the school. It’s good practice, and you never know what you might learn.) Most of the interviews will come from schools to which you’ve applied, but it is also possible that you’ll receive requests out of the blue.

Another difference between the higher ed and prep school markets is that you can apply for jobs at the conference, even if they are not hiring in your field. To someone fresh from the MLA this sounds like advice your mother-in-law would offer (ie. completely insane), but it makes sense because the hiring process is so different. Here’s a notional example:

Boston Preparatory Academy sends their Dean of Faculty to the conference to hire a Spanish teacher. In the back of her mind she knows that there is a good chance that one of her French teachers may leave at the end of the year, but none has made a decision. (Many schools don’t sign contracts until April or May.) While at the conference, the Dean receives a message from a CSA candidate with a PhD in French literature saying, “I’m a French teacher in the midst of a secondary school search, and am particularly interested in teaching at Boston Prep. I will be at the CSA conference in February, and would love the opportunity to learn more about your school.”

Because the Dean knows that a position might open up in the coming months, she goes ahead and schedules the interview. The candidate has a stellar resume, shows initiative, and it’s only half an hour out of her day, so why not? The interview goes swimmingly, and both candidate and Dean walk away feeling that it would be a good match. A few weeks later, old Mr. Smith announces he will retire, and the Dean says, “No problem. I’ve already talked to a candidate, and he’s fabulous.” Granted it’s unlikely to move quite this smoothly, but it does seem to happen.

As the conference gets closer, I’ll continue to blog about my experience, but at this point I’m just waiting for my first interview…

Good luck, me.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Private School Market I: The More Things Change

"What, you're still a mess?"

As I’ve wandered onto the secondary school market, I’ve been struck by both the similarities between this process and the higher education market. The first point of continuity is that the ritualistic aspects of the application process are virtually the same. I get up in the morning, and check the NAIS website to see if anything has shown up in the wee hours. Once at work, I check email occasionally constantly in hope of receiving an interview invitation. Then I check the job board again, and log onto the Carney Sandoe website to see if there is anything new there. In other words, applying for prep school positions is no less an obstacle to getting real work done than applying for college positions.

As annoying as this similarity is, even worse is the fact that that while the market is different, my neuroses are pretty much the same. I find myself agonizing over inconsequential choices in my cover letters: Should this be a comma, a period, or a semi-colon? Which will impress the committee most, Arial or Times New Roman? I convince myself that nobody will want to interview me. I convince myself that I’ll have to choose from five great offers. I wonder when I should buy plane tickets to the conference. I wonder when the search committees will meet. I wonder if I should call the department chair and ask when the committee will meet, so I know whether to buy plane tickets. I wonder if I can afford to live in Boston/San Francisco/Chicago/DC/San Diego. So for those of you thinking that the wounds left by many years on the academic market are easily healed, it may not be so.

Another similarity became apparent during a recent phone interview with Progressive Preparatory School, a great private school in _________. The interview went great (I think), and I hope to make the on-campus phase, but towards the end of the conversation, the interviewer mentioned that the school had received two hundred applications. At first I took this as good news – if a school as good as Progressive Prep dug my application out of so deep a pile, I must be doing something right. But then I realized that this also means that the competition for the good prep school jobs is no less fierce than the competition for a tenure-track college or university position. (In fact, there were fewer than a hundred applicants for the tenure-track job I have now, so in purely quantitative terms things are even worse.) As disconcerting as this is, it’s important to note that numbers don’t tell the whole story. As my interviewer noted, many of the other applicants are 23 year-old college graduates, and thus in a different category than a forty-something PhD. This is not to say that someone with a PhD is a better candidate – the degree will chase away some schools – but that schools will read your application differently.

On a final note, I’d like to suggest that anyone contemplating the PhD to Prep School route have a look at Brent Whitted’s article “Why I Teach in an Independent School,” published in 2001 in the journal Profession. Brent briefly discusses his decision to jump from a Canadian university to a prep school in Los Angeles, and outlines the ups and downs of prep school teaching. He points out that the pace of teaching is radically different – classes meet daily, after all – but he also emphasizes the joys of working with smart, ambitious students. If you have access to JSTOR, have a look. If you don’t, drop me a note, and I’ll see if I can find a PDF.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The On-Campus Marathon

You're going to need more than this to survive.
 Why is it that all on-campus interviews for tenure-track academic positions have to be complete nightmares? Most last a couple of days but let's say you're lucky and only have to be on campus for one day. It's still going to be a marathon. Survival of the fittest!

The entire experience could go down like this (assuming your flight isn't delayed or cancelled):
You fly in, presumably the night before the main event, and are immediately whisked off to dinner with multiple people. Sometimes they keep you out pretty late, depending on what time your flight landed and how long it took to get from the airport to the restaurant, and by the time you reach the hotel it's 10pm or later. You've got less than 8 hours before you need to wake up and wow everyone. So you make some calls to loved ones, unpack, lay out your interview outfit, go over your job talk, etc. and then finally pass out at 12am.

When the alarm goes off at 6am or earlier, you spring into action, get ready, and then anxiously look over your schedule for the day, which looks something like this:

7:30 AM Breakfast with grad students
8:30AM Interview with search committee
9:30AM Meeting with HR (where they tell you a bunch of crap--> all irrelevant unless you get the job)
10:30AM Meeting the Department Chair
12:00PM Lunch with Department Members (TBA)
1:00PM Meeting the Dean and/or Vice Provost
2:00 PM Campus Tour
3:00PM Job Talk
4:30PM Meet & Greet with Department
5:30PM Exit meeting with search committee
7:00PM Dinner

The interview day is guaranteed to last over 12 hours, but if you add the time spent going out to dinner at the end of the day, you're looking at a 15 hour day. That's 15 hours straight spent trying to be amazing, polite, witty and coherent; 15 hours where you're "on" non-stop, trying desperately to make a good impression on the 30-50 people you may come into contact with. Yikes! Not to mention time spent impressing during the dinner the night before or at the breakfast the next day or on the long trip to the airport.

The whole process amounts to an exhausting, painful whirlwind. And the worst thing is the waiting period once you've returned home and all the questions that run through your mind 24-7. How many days or weeks will go by before I hear something? Will I ever hear from them again? Did they like me? Was I the best candidate? Should I have answered that question in a different way? Why did I get the spinach salad at lunch?! I should have brought floss in my bag! Idiot!!

While you're waiting to hear back about the results of campus marathon #1, you're invited to interview at a different university. Oh joy! But this time they want you to interview for two days and give both a job talk and a teaching presentation. So you've got two back-to-back 12 hour days to look forward to and less than 10 days to throw together a new talk (because they asked for something entirely different than the first school) and a teaching presentation on a randomly assigned topic. You hope they won't notice that you're wearing the same interview outfit throughout the entire visit.

By the time you get back from visit #2, which was even more tiring than the first, you've got another email inviting you to a 3rd interview at faraway university and you've learned on the academic jobs wiki that the first school has already offered the position you coveted to someone else. Ouch! Bummer! Thus the marathons continue until, finally, there are no more invitations. You're spent and the job possibilities have dried up. Now you wait and hope and wait and wait and wait. The next thing you know it's spring, you're still unemployed, and you've gotten shit all done since January. You've spent the entire semester trying to find a tenure-track position only to come up broke, empty handed, behind in your research, and pissed off.

Welcome to the world of the academic job seeker!!