Monday, March 28, 2011

What's Life Like as a Visiting Professor?

Trying to decide if you should apply for a visiting position? Wondering if it's worth it to relocate for a temporary gig? For more on the life and professional prospects of visiting assistant professors, check out my latest IHE  column, "Just Visiting":

Friday, March 25, 2011

Kicked to the Curb: It Can Happen to You

At least this curb has a place to drain your sorrows.
One of my good friends (let's call him Moe) is currently a visiting assistant professor--VAP--at a very large public research institution in the south (a.k.a. VLP). Moe has worked his little hiney off since graduating in 2007 and starting his job at VLP. He sincerely believed that if he did the ten following things, in no particular order, something good would come of his efforts, either at VLP or elsewhere:

1. Teach great classes
2. Win a teaching award
3. Publish journal articles
4. Secure a book contract
5. Network and play nice
6. Mentor and advise undergrads
7. Serve on grad student dissertation committees
8. Present papers at conferences
9. Schmooze with tenured colleagues
10. Generally be a pleasant person and say "Yes" to extra service requests

Moe has done all of these things and more. In fact, twenty years ago Moe would have been halfway on his way to tenure by now. Alas, Moe has discovered that his hard work is not really valued by VLP. VLP has exploited Moe as much as possible, and taken anything Moe was willing to give, but given very little to Moe in return, other than a paycheck.

At the same time, Moe has discovered that the larger academic world also has little time for him. It's true, he has received a number of AHA preliminary interviews over the past few years, and even a handful of on-campus visits, but thus far Moe has failed to attain the object of his desires: a tenure-track job. Other universities pretend to care about teaching (even the hard-core teaching schools) but have spent more time grilling Moe about research productivity and whether or not he'd "fit in" at a small liberal arts school, for example, than asking about his copious teaching experience. One school even rejected Moe over the phone and noted that he lost the job because he "failed to make enough eye contact" during his teaching presentation. This is despite the fact that Moe has won a teaching award and is, hands down, one of the most popular and hard-working professors at VLP.

What's worse, Moe was recently told by the department chair at VLP that although he's a great teacher and good colleague, he will soon be demoted from VAP to lecturer/adjunct status and will be forced to take a $25K pay cut and teach additional classes, including online classes, if he intends to stick around much longer.
When Moe complained to a tenured faculty member about his woes, this particular professor responded by saying, "I know tons of recent PhDs who would KILL for you job. They'd be thrilled to teach a 4/4 plus online classes for $25K per year at a good university. You should be glad you have a job." Another tenured colleague said: "Pretend like you're on a postdoc! Make the best of it!" Sure, like anyone on a postdoc is supposed to be teaching themselves into the ground at the same time. P-l-e-a-s-e.

Moe is pretty pissed off and bummed right about now and I don't blame him. The last time I talked to Moe it was 1pm on the Friday before spring break and he was ready to start drinking. Drowning his sorrows has become Moe's method of choice for stress release because, lets face it, hard work certainly isn't going to pay off. Why bother working hard all week, and even on the weekends, if nothing ever comes from your labor? Why indeed.

So for all of you out there who are considering applying for VAPs or would even dream of turning down a tenure-track job offer for a chance at a VAP at an elite institution, think again. You're just as expendable as any other contingent faculty member. Moe kicks academic ass yet he was still kicked to the curb. It really isn't fair.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rookie Mistakes and Baby Tiger Syndrome

I just wrapped up a really great conversation with the head of the history department that didn't hire me. (For the sake of pseudonymity, I'll keep the school to myself, but to whoever got the job: You got the gold ring, my friend.)

As the chair and I discussed my interview, it became pretty clear that my candidacy was doomed by two things: rookie mistakes and Baby Tiger Syndrome.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Job Search Tale: Let Me Off the Rollercoaster

I've been blogging at random about my academic job search this semester but have not provided that many details thus far. Why? There are several reasons. First, the main reason is exhaustion: I'm pretty worn out after months of applying, traveling, prepping, interviewing, and waiting, and I haven't felt like reliving the experience at the end of the day. Instead of turning to the blog to vent, I've been reading novels or watching movies or surfing the net or talking to loved ones or sleeping or dealing with the habitual tasks of normal daily life. During the many weeks I've been job searching, I've also caught several nasty colds, all of which have me knocked me out for multiple days at a time. In essence, I'm burnt out, used up, and totally spent; I don't got that much to give.

The second reason for avoiding lots of discussion about the job search is my fear that I might jinx myself by, for example, making assumptions about the search process or my particular chances or, even worse, celebrating victory too soon. Talking about the whole thing in retrospect is much easier and I have every intention of revealing more details in a series of future posts. But I have a hard time expressing all of my angst in real time. I like to let stressful experiences marinate in my mind for a bit before I relive the moment by telling the tale.

My job search this year has been characterized by lots of ups and downs. One minute things seem great, the next minute I'm bitching to myself, and anyone who will listen, about the grave injustices of the academic world. I've had a job offered to me and then taken away, due to budget cuts, and then returned again at the last second; a job placed out of my reach because I didn't make the top three, only to find myself back in the running; and a job I never thought I'd get nearly fell in my lap, and seemed like a possible slam-dunk after the campus visit, but was then whisked away for good. As such, it's nearly April and things are still up in the air for me due to the craziness of the academic job market.

But I will say this: Sometimes the ups and downs can hit you on the same day, the same afternoon even. I was shown the door for one job at 5pm and then offered another at 8pm. That was one crazy evening.  I spent the hours between 5-8pm rethinking my professional choices, wondering why I hadn't made a clean break with academe last year (when I started this blog), and pondering what it would be like to live a life of the body rather than the mind. (Pilates instruction perhaps? Gardening? Dog watching and grooming? There is a whole world of alternate careers out there for someone who is sick of thinking too much.) I also thought about how I had handed academe the reigns of my life, once again, and asked the ivory tower to guide me to my next destination.

After 8pm, once I knew I had a legitimate tenure-track offer on the table in an ideal location for my family, I felt numb more than anything. Here is what I've been searching for for months on end. I should be thrilled, right? I should be calling everyone I know and freaking out. But what I really felt, once the numbness subsided, was:

A) disbelief
B) a guarded sense of relief (show me the contract before I get too excited)
C) anxiety about the future

Now rather than rebelling against the system and jumping ship, or remaining on the fence, I'm about to yoke my professional and personal future to academe. I'm also about to accept an entry-level academic position for fairly low pay, relatively speaking, in an expensive part of the country. Now I will actually have to continue researching, writing, and publishing my book. I'll have to apply for fellowships and attend conferences, all on a shoe-string budget. I'll have to network and ass kiss to get tenure in 6 years time. I'll have to put up with demanding undergrads and stingy administrators and grade papers at night and on the weekends. During one of the worst job markets in recent history I landed an actual tenure-track job. I'm pretty freakin lucky. It's exciting. It's scary. It's a brave new world.

And I still have one more on-campus interview to attend too . . . The show isn't over until the fat lady sings or the contract is signed, whichever comes first.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Getting my head back in the game

Okay, sorry about that last post, and thanks so much for the supportive comments. I read recently about a piece of software that keeps you from sending emails when drunk. I need one that keeps me from blogging when freshly rejected.

There is an aspect of the secondary search that I have been puzzling over for some months now, but have not written about it, less out of fear of appearing foolish than the fact that I had a question, but no answer. As you, dear reader, have probably figured out, one of the major differences between the academic and secondary markets is the timeline. By this time of year, all but the most tardy and muddled-headed search has wrapped up. (I'm talking to your employer, Eliza!) But secondary schools are just heading into the on-campus phase, and it will be another month before these positions close.

But there is a bigger difference than this, and here is where I become confused. In the world according to my Carney Sandoe rep, the vast majority of teaching positions have been announced. (These positions, it should be noted, are positions that schools have known about for the better part of a year.) To fill these positions, CSA had their big conference last month, and if your ship hasn't come in yet, the odds are very high that you'll be standing at the dock for another year.

But when I ask prep school teachers, I hear something completely different. Every one of them agrees that next month, a second wave of searches will begin. This is because schools are only now offering contracts to faculty for the 2011-12 academic year. Thus it is only now that some faculty will announce their retirement (or that they have taken the job that I had my eye on). As a result of these retirements/moves, there will be another set of openings in April and May (and even June or July). (Unlike colleges and universities, independent schools don't have to wait a year to fill a position. Got a vacancy starting in the fall? Fill it.)

The question then becomes, how do we explain the discrepancy between what Carney says, and what teachers say? If this second wave of jobs is a reality (and I'll keep you posted), why doesn't CSA go after those as well?

All I've got is an educated guess, and I'm happy to hear from anyone who knows better. My thinking is that CSA is powerful, but they work on volume. (Why? For the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: "That's where the money is.") They can handle the block of jobs that come out in January and February, and funnel them into their big conferences. These are the low-hanging fruit. But the spring jobs come out in dribs and drabs over three or four months. For a guess, they require more resources to fill, and are thus less profitable.

So both stories are right. Carney's season does end in March, but the rest of the world's does not. The pace slows, to be sure, but that doesn't mean that things are at an end. So even if you are signed up with CSA, keep an eye on the NAIS listings, for there may be jobs there that CSA doesn't handle.

And good luck out there!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Now your sample size is none.

Okay, my half of this blog was going to be about my transition from the tenure track to teaching at prep schools, but it now appears it may be rather less informative and rather more depressing.

I just received the nicest, most apologetic rejection of my career. (And I've recieved over a hundred rejections, so that's saying something.) To make matters worse, I really loved the school, and they really liked me. But they had 200 applicants.

One year ago last month, I recived precisely the same news, also from a dream school. This hurts as much, and raises the very real possibilty that (for this year at least) the prep school market is not one whit better than academia. I mean if you don't get a job, who cares how many interviews you had, right?

So I've got one on-campus interview left at a school I'm having a hard time loving. And after that, I've got fuck-all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Your Sample Size is One (On campus with Prestigious Prep)

As I noted in my last post about on-campus interviews, I'm completely new to this, so take everything here with a grain of salt. Most of you know more about the collegiate process, so I'll focus on the differences between the two.

The most obvious difference between a prep school and (many) university interviews is that rather than a presentation of your research they will drop you into a classroom full of students and turn you loose. What they want/expect you to do will vary widely depending on the school, as will the amount of guidance you receive. Sometimes you'll receive a specific topic, other times you'll get little or nothing to go on. Some tips to make things go more smoothly:
  • Bring a baggie full of large name plates (the ones that fold into tents) and sharpies. As students come in, ask them to write their names. This will make it much easeir to call on students without resorting to, "You, in the blue sweatshirt."
  • If you are going to lead a discussion of some sort, make it a self-contained unit. Bring a copies of a short reading, and have them do it in class. (Better yet, have them read aloud.) You could try leading a discussion of the reading assigned by the regular teacher, but you're betting your job that the students did the reading, and if they didn't you'll be out there flapping.
  • Treat the class like the first of the semester. (No, don't go over the syllabus.) They don't know you, and don't know your shtick, so explain what you are going to do in class. Also, if you are prone to excessive enthusiasm, tread lightly. (I'm kind of loud and might have scared the 9th graders.) Be 80% of yourself.
  • Write on the board. (You might bring your own dry-erase marker for this. You don't want your class torpedoed by an equipment malfunction. Incidentally, what do you call it when a dry-erase marker runs out? They can't dry out, can they?)

A second issue to keep in mind is that department politics in a prep school can be quite different than a college or university. In large part, this is a matter of scale, and the significance of a single hire to a department. From a political perspective, at all but the smallest colleges, your arrival in will probably not be particularly significant. By contrast, at all but the largest prep schools you will be one of four or five people in the department, so your arrival will be tremendously significant.

For example, many prep schools are rethinking their AP offerings in the humanities, and some APs are on the chopping block. While you might not have much sympathy for standardized testing, and hate the idea of teaching to the test, these classes have been around for a long time, and inevitably have strong support among some members of the department. In a small department, your position on this issue will likely determine the future curriculum. As a result, the way you answer a question such as, "What do you think of the AP?" will shape the way different members of the department view your candidacy. My argument here is not that you should avoid answering this sort of question ("Gee, I haven't thought about curricular issues" will get you nowhere), but you should know why people care intensely about your answer.

Beyond this, the prep school interview will feel quite familiar. You'll get a nice dinner, meet a bazillion people, and get a bazillion different versions of the same questions (all focused on teaching).

And don't worry - you'll do great.

The Long Slog: Looking for Academic Work, No End in Sight

This perfectly captures how I'm feeling right now.
So here it is, mid-March, and I'm still stuck in career limbo. I've been interviewing for tenure-track academic positions since December (!!) and things remain up in the air. At this point, after numerous phone interviews and a couple of on-campus interviews, as well as weeks spent prepping for interviews and then waiting uncertainly, I'm feeling tired, worn out, and increasingly numb. So are many of my job-seeking friends. We're all at the end of our ropes.

I started out this season in close contact with a group of about five other academic job seekers, all of whom (except me) are currently visiting professors, and only one of us thus far has been offered and accepted a tenure-track position. Depression and anxiety are running rampant and for several of my friends the game's already over. They played their hand and lost. I'm still playing but have no idea if I've got a winning hand. Only time will tell.

In the meantime I'm having a very hard time focusing during the day or sleeping at night. I'm not getting much accomplished as a result, and I'm absolutely sick of making new files on my PC with pages and pages of info. on each school/department. I feel like I spend most of my waking hours prepping and worrying. Prep, worry, prep, worry, prep, worry. Oh, and freaking out once in a while. I can't stand the uncertainty!

My job stats this year are as follows:

Positions applied for: 6
Preliminary interviews: 4
Campus invites: 3
Campus visits completed: 2 (I've got 1 upcoming)
Pending offers: who knows?

I had honestly hoped that things would be clearer by now, one way or the other, and that I'd be able to start making plans for next year. But, instead, I find myself just as uncertain about my plans for the fall as I was three months ago. The entire academic job search process is exhausting and frustrating; closure is hard to come by. The funniest thing is that I really didn't expect to find a job this year. Truly. I only applied for six jobs! (Because there were only six decent jobs in my field.) The fact that I ended up with three on-campus interviews out of six is pretty shocking. Getting an actual offer would be even more shocking.

But one thing I've discovered is that department's ran some of these searches not knowing there would be such huge higher ed budget cuts and now the positions themselves are in question. If I end up unemployed at the end of this semester it will be because someone else was a better fit or the funding for the position was pulled by the administration at the last minute. Either way, sucks for me. I'll keep you posted.

*Anyone else want to share their 2010-11 job search stats?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Don't Panic! (Er, okay, panic, but don't panic about panicking.)

Okay, just back from my first on-campus interview, and here's what I learned. (Or at least here's what I think I learned. My sample size is pretty small, and the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data', so the lessons here might not actually apply elsewhere.)

First and foremost, if you are a PhD thinking about jumping to a prep school, it's not unusual for you to panic, and wonder if you are making a horrible mistake. So far I have melted down twice in the last month. "I don't want to teach at a prep school," I complained. "I want to teach at a small, wealthy, liberal arts college, with pre-tenure sabbatical. Iwant to make $65k as an assistant professor, and $80k as an Associate. I want a 3-2 teaching load with no class larger than 20."

The problem, of course, is that I had fallen into the trap of comparing my real-world options with my fantasy-world options. I wrote a version of this elsewhere, but it is stil true:

I think that it is extremely easy to get addicted to being on the market in the way a gambler is addicted to searching for the Big Score. There is the anticipation as the jobs are posted/cards are dealt, the excitement as you mail an application/place a big bet, and the disappointment when you are rejected/lose the hand.

You might always lose, but there is also no reason to leave the job market or get up from the table. Why? Because there's always another hand to play or another year to apply.

The addict's challenge is to realize that while there is some truth to the saying, "You can't win if you don't play," it is almost as true to say, "You can't win if you do play." But the panicky voice in your head is only telling you the first story, and that story is for suckers.

So what to do when you panic? First, do nothing. Don't call your rep, don't email search committees. Just let the panic be. Then, breathe deeply, and remind yourself why you are making this move: You will have better students. You will make more money. You will have a choice where you live. You will be able to send your kids to an excellent school for pennies on the dollar. Repeat.

If you need to, to read this thread:,66956.0.html It was my original cris de coeur when I started down this road, and it might help remind you why you did so as well.

Then, have a drink or two. Get a good night's sleep. See where things stand in the morning. Have any of the things that made you want to leave academia changed? Have any of the attractions of prep school teaching (or whatever other career you have selected) diminished. Probably not. Then carry on.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Numbers and Thoughts about CSA and the Secondary Market

I'm recently back from an on-campus interview, and will write on that soon, but I want to wrap up a few loose ends from my visit to the NAIS conference. First some numbers:

# of schools I could have interviewed with: 6 (ie. schools at the conference to which I applied)
# of interviews: 5
# of interviews a typical humanities candidate had: 2
# of interviews a typical math candidate had: 20 (no kidding)
# of invitations to campus I have received: 3
Average salary I could expect: $55,000 (PhD with five or so years teaching experience)
# of candidates schools bring to campus: 3-5 (yes, five)

Okay, what does all this mean?

First, having the PhD (and decent supporting materials) puts you head and shoulders above other candidates. While at the conference I met a candidate with a PhD in the same field as me, and she had about the same number of interviews. (Any on campus yet?)

Second, and perhaps in contrast to what I've implied in previous posts, landing a job is hardly a given. Obviously I'm doing very well (for a humanities guy), but one of the things at which I excel is coming in second in the on-campus phase of job searches. There is no reason to think that this won't continue.

Finally, I want to make a couple of points about the candidate's relationship to CSA. I want to be clear up front, that my CSA Representative has been extremely helpful. Thanks to my years on the collegiate market, I'm pretty neurotic, and my rep has put up with some pathetic emails and questions.

That said, you should always remember that you are not the client - the school is. Your CSA rep might like you very much as a person (or think you are completely insane), but he does not care if you, qua you, get a job. All CSA cares is that the position is filled by a CSA candidate. If it's you, that's great. If it's the woman who interviewed before you, equally great.

In other words, you are a prostitute, CSA is your pimp, and the schools are the johns. (I know this is awful to say, but if you have a better analogy than this, please let me know!) The pimp doesn't care which of his prostitutes goes with a particular john, so long as the john pays up and the pimp gets his cut. You don't have to worry about your CSA rep slapping you around (and believe me, I deserve it), but it would be good to remember where CSA's interests lie, and that in many cases they do not coincide with yours.

Next up - on campus! (And more neursois!)

Monday, March 07, 2011

Einmal ist Keinmal: Life as a Sketch

The stage is set and the audience is waiting; are you ready?
In the opening chapters of one of my favorite novels of all time (Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being), the narrator ponders whether he would be better off with or without his lover. The problem, he realizes, is that we can never truly know what we want because we only live one life. Without previous lives to consider, and previous choices to learn from, how are we supposed to know what will make us happy?

"There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, 'sketch' is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture. Einmal ist keinmal . . . What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we only have one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all."

This is pretty profound, if depressing, stuff, and I find myself continually returning to the notion that we live everything without warning, utterly cold, taking life's developments as they come.

Consider an interview, for example. We do our best to prepare and try to imagine what the employer wants to find in us. We run through mock questions and scenarios, wear our finest interview clothes, put a lid on any unpleasant aspects of our personalities that might crop up in high pressure situations, and try to be on our best behavior at all times. The curtains open, the lights come on, and we're live. Act one, scene one. GO.

After surviving a number of intense on-campus academic interviews for tenure-track jobs this semester, it dawned on me that only once the whole experience was over was I able to figure out exactly what the department in question was looking for. I had to go through the motions and perform cold before realizing, often days later, what I could or should have done to cinch the deal. This is not just one of the many perils of the job search; as Kundera points out, it's one of the perils of life as we know it. There are no rehearsals or second chances. This is it. No wonder we have so many dreams in which we find ourselves on stage, completely (and inexplicably) naked, not knowing our part in the play or our lines, not having a clue why we are there or what the point of it all is.

In many ways those dreams are simply preparing us for day-to-day conscious reality. They're in place to give us a fresh perspective on existence. Interviews work much the same way. We do our best but it's usually not our actual best. We don't have time to practice, other than in our safe and comfy homes. (Not the same!) With a thorough on-stage rehearsal before the main event we'd really be primed to land the job. Instead, we just have to hope that our impromptu performance ends up being one of the best the audience sees during the rehearsal. That's why sometimes you can end up landing a job even though you know you weren't your best. Clearly, in comparison to you, the other candidates folded under the pressure of the one-shot role. That's why impromptu anything is always great experience for job interviews. So my advice for job seekers: get out there and go on blind dates or do something, anything, difficult and off the cuff in public. This is your chance; but it's OK to blow it. Sometimes. Happens to the best of us.

*Speaking of second chances, if you believe in that sort of stuff, check out my interview with Ann Daly, a professor who gave up tenure to start her career over, at IHE today: