A few weeks ago I published part I of my 2-part post on the academic job market. I decided to break the post into two because when you write something like “part I of my 2-part post” it makes you sound important, like you have a real plan. Are you not impressed? These posts represent my attempts to translate the harrowing experience of applying for tenure track positions in academia in simple, easy-to-understand terms (and gifs) so that you, my dear suffering academic, can avoid this conversation with your Nana during Christmas dinner:
Nana: “Didja get that teachin’ job yet?”
You: “No, Nana, I’m still waiting to hear about first round interviews.”
Nana: “First round wha? I SAID: Didja get that teachin’ job yet?”
Nana: “Boscovs is hirin'”
And then you go to Boscovs and grab an application because, you know, Boscovs!
So where were we? I believe the last time we spoke, I was telling you all about the dark sad month of December, when most of your academic friends on the job market have hit peak Despair Mode. They’ve already sunk their heart and soul into those job applications and though they’ve likely heard *nothing* from the search committees yet, the Wiki gleefully marches forward with a parade of “MLA interviews scheduled!” and “campus interviews scheduled!.” So your friend, the job candidate, is going to be depressed, anxious and hopeful, all at the same time. Thus, your primary job during the month of December is to keep your friend very intoxicated and very far away from the Wiki. Can you handle that?
The Wiki knows ALL.
Preparing for the Conference Interview
Assuming your sad friend was able to schedule some first round interviews and assuming he has recovered from his massive December hangover, the next step in the job market process is interview prep. First, a word on the conference interview. Not every academic field requires job candidates to attend their annual conference for a face-to-face first round interview (like I mentioned in my last post, many schools have started offering the option of first round phone or Skype interviews as a substitute), but still, many many departments prefer to conduct first round interviews in the flesh. For folks who live within driving distance of these conferences and for whom the conference is always a yearly destination, the face-to-face interview is actually a great thing: being able to look the search committee in the eye as you speak (are they bored? excited? offended?) helps you gauge your answers and your tone. I, for one, think I’m much better in person than over the phone.
But, unfortunately, loads of folks don’t have the funds to attend these annual conferences *just* to interview for a single job. This is especially problematic because many search committees don’t contact candidates about conference interviews until a few weeks (or even a few days!) before the interview. If you ever tried to buy a plane ticket a few days before your departure date you know that this is prohibitively expensive. For example, one year I scored a first round MLA interview when it was being held in Los Angeles. The plane ticket cost me over $400, plus the cost of one night in a hotel and taxis, etc. It’s hard to imagine another field in which the (already financially strapped) job candidate must pay hundreds of dollars just to interview. Later I found out that some of the other candidates for the same job had requested (and received) first round interviews via Skype. When I ended up making it to the next and final round of that particular search, I wondered, briefly, if it was because I had been so willing to fork over $400 in order to have a shot at a single interview. This is just one example of how academia perpetuates a cycle of poverty and privilege. But I digress…
Where were we? Oh yes, preparing for the conference interview. Usually my tactic is to study the research profile of every member of the search committee, study the make up of the department and its courses, and compile a list of every possible question I might be asked during the 30 minute interview. Then I print all of that info onto note cards and spend the remaining days and hours leading up to the interview whispering sweet nothings over those notecards.
Attending the Conference Interview
If you are like me (and most academics I know), you really hate wearing a suit. It’s an outfit that communicates “I am not supposed to be wearing this but I put it on for you, Search Committee.” I own 3 suits and they all remind me of defeat.
After donning your weird interview suit you head to the hotel where your interviews are being held. This is possibly the worst part of the conference interview: a lobby filled with shifty, big-suit-wearing, sullen academics who are all doing the same thing you’re doing: freaking the fuck out. The air is thick with perspiration but also something more ineffable than that, a pheromone possibly, that signals to everyone around you that your soul has been compromised. The stakes are so high (it’s your only interview in this job season!), the competition so great (all of these people are smart!), that the gravitas of the room feels wholly out of control but also wholly reasonable. You breathe in the fear of your cohort as you step into the crowded MLA elevators (so famous they have their own Twitter account) and that fear cloud follows you as you march down the carpeted hallway of the Doubletree Hotel, counting off room numbers until you reach the one containing your search committee. Often, as you’re about to knock, the previous job candidate is walking out. It’s very important that you try not to make eye contact with this individual or else you risk getting sucked into their vortex of anomie (pictured below):
Now begins the oddest part of the conference interview: being alone in a hotel room with a group of punchy, overly caffeinated search committee members you’ve never met before. You may need to perch on a bed during the interview. Some members of the search committee may go to the potty in the middle of your schpiel on how you “flipped” your classroom or had your students teach you or whatever pedagogical bullshit is currently in vogue. Time will move much faster than you think it can and before you know it, your conference interview (the one you paid $400 for) is over. You nervously shake hands and slink out the door, trying to avoid eye contact with the sweaty mess waiting in the hall. Now you wait…
The Campus Interview
It may take days, weeks or possibly months, but eventually someone will contact you to say that you did not make it to the next round, thank you very much for your time, we wish you luck in your job search, etc. But, maybe, just maybe, you are one of the lucky few who moves on to the final round of the search: the campus interview! At this point the pile of candidates has been whittled down from 200-400 to just 3 or 4 candidates. I have been on a total of 8 campus interviews in my life and they run the gamut from positively delightful (swank hotel, great meals, gracious department members) to the miserable (the time I was told I’d be eating all of my meals on a 2-day interview “on my own” [except one] because the Search Committee was…too busy to eat with me? I saved all my receipts from the food court, trust me). But campus interviews generally include the following:
- Q & A with the Search Committee
- A teaching demonstration, followed by Q & A
- A research presentation, followed by Q & A
- Meet and greets with students
- Meeting with the dean/provost/generic white male in expensive suit who is way too busy to be meeting with you
- A tour of the campus
- Classroom visits
- Meeting with real estate agent/ tour of town
- Group meals with various department members
Campus interviews are also challenging because they need to occur when faculty and students are on campus, which means they happen during the semester, when the job candidate (whether she is a graduate student, TT professor, or contingent faculty) most likely has classes of her own to teach. So, for example, last year when I was on the market I had 3 campus interviews (yay!). But then I had to scramble to find colleagues who were willing and available to teach my classes for me (and yes, it’s really awkward to ask a co-worker to cover your class so that you can interview for another job. Thanks guys! <3). That also means you’ll be doing a lot of grading and course planning (not to mention interview prep — hello again, note cards!) on planes and in airports. During the month of February I was out of town more than I was in town.
Let me assure you that campus interviews aren’t inherently traumatic. In fact, they can be downright pleasant if you think of the campus interview as a 2 or 3-day party thrown in your honor during which people will ask all manner of questions about your research and teaching and your big old brain. It’s kind of an academic’s wet dream if I’m being honest. We lovelovelove talking about ourselves. One thing that makes the campus interview difficult, though, is that it requires you to perform your Best Self (the Self that is continuously charming, smart, ethical, engaged) all day, for several days in a row. When you wake in the morning at the Best Western you will pull your Best Self out of the closet and iron it. Throughout the day you will tug and pull at the Best Self, making sure it is neat and presentable and that Tired Self or I-Still-Have-Papers-to-Grade-for-my-Actual-Job Self or Your-Kids-Are-Crying-Because-This-Is-Your-Third-Trip-This-Month Self doesn’t peek through. It is a days long exercise in faking it.
In order to be a viable job candidate it is necessary to imagine yourself (I mean *really* imagine yourself) working at University X: teaching their students, collaborating with their faculty and staff, doing your research in their kickass libraries, etc. You need to make yourself fall in love with University X in order to make the Search Committee fall in love with you. And I suppose that’s why it hurts a little more to get rejected at this round than you might expect. Because when you get rejected, YOU get rejected. All of you. And that’s tough.
Campus interviews are also hard because so many things can and do go wrong — from travel mishaps to weather-related delays to folks (usually well-meaning members of the search committee) who say and do the wrong things at the wrong times. Below is a small sampling of some of the stories academics sent to me when I asked “What was your worst campus interview experience?”
“Of course I have a couple, but the one most worth talking about was this: An older male (tenured) faculty member who, while I was a captive audience in his car, said, ‘I know there are some questions that it’s illegal to ask you, but I don’t know what they are, so you’ll just need to tell me if I ask something inappropriate.’ Yes, please let me do all the work of managing the conversation, navigating complicated power structures that you’ve just managed to make even more tricky despite LAWS designed to keep you from doing so, and disciplining you as to correct behavior–all while trying to impress you so I might actually have a shot at paying off my student loans someday. Sheesh.”
“Following a [campus] interview, several weeks later, I’m called by a search committee member, who tells me clearly that he’s not offering me the job, since the decision isn’t yet made. But he wants to know whether I’d accept it if offered. I don’t understand, trying to be nice in saying, in effect, “why don’t you offer it to me and find out,” and he rambles on about junior candidates “playing” his university by not accepting jobs, and them not wanting to waste their time on me if I’m one of them. No salary is mentioned, no details offered — I’m just supposed to tell him there and then whether I’d accept.”
“I was on a campus visit and went to lunch at the swankiest restaurant in town. As I was served my quiche lorraine, I happened to notice an older man projectile vomiting into an empty pitcher. I was the only one who had this view, and it was all I could do to eat and smile and answer my seatmates’ questions while the staff cleaned up.”
“I get a call one afternoon from the search committee chair. I’m a finalist for the job (for which I wasn’t even phone interviewed, so I’m not expecting any of this), and she’s taken the liberty of booking me a flight. For the next week (!). She suggests she could change it “if I really need to,” but it’s clear what that’d mean to my candidacy. Said flight leaves at 11pm, connects in Chicago at around 3am, with a two hour layover, and I’ll be met at the airport by someone who’ll drive me the remaining hour. I am told I can sleep in the car, but of course I can’t actually do that. I’m then assured that since they know this flight “isn’t ideal,” on the first day, “all” they’ll ask of me is to have a lunch, an afternoon coffee with grad students, a dinner, and a meeting with the grad and undergrad committees who’ll “just” ask me what classes I could teach. When I arrive at the university, with it snowing outside, the inn they’ve put me up in doesn’t have my room ready (it’s ~8am), so I just have to sit in the lobby and explore the snowy environs for a couple of hours. And that meeting with the grad and undergrad cttes. turns out to be about 12-15 people, all of whom have questions for me, grilling me about the finer points of my diss and dense theoretical issues for 2 hours.”
“A university was flying me in for a Monday-Tuesday campus visit. They had me scheduled to arrive very late on Sunday, so that I’d get in after 1am. They had things scheduled at 8 the next morning, so, naturally, I asked if I could come earlier. They told me no. A flight delay meant that I first got to the hotel at 2:45 and the front desk was closed. I then had to frantically call the after-hours line, which advised that I walk 3 blocks — with my luggage, in the middle of the night — and get keys from another site that the company ran. I get in, go to bed, and am up at 7 for my first appointment at 8. The person never shows. I call the department, but b/c it’s early, they take a while to call me back. It was probably 8:45 when they tell me that I should walk — well over a mile — to campus to make sure I’m not late for my 9am meeting. I sweat through my shirt.”
“When I was still a green ABD [dissertation not completed], I found out I was a finalist for a position at a prestigious school, one which I didn’t think would even look at me twice. Even my dissertation chair was surprised that I was invited for a final round interview. My first night there I had dinner with the chair of the search committee who casually informed me that they had a visiting professor in the department who was also competing for the position. That helped to explain the aloof behavior of everyone I met the next day, as it was clear they all really liked the visiting prof and wanted her to keep her job. For example, after my teaching demostration the search comittee took me to a Chinese lunch buffet. During lunch everyone at the table talked only to each other about people and things I didn’t know. Or they were silent. I would occasionally try to break the silence by asking different people at the table about themselves or their families. They would answer me politely, then go silent again or start a private conversation with someone else at the table. This was super intimidating for a young, insecure scholar and so halfway through lunch I got up, went to the bathroom, and cried. Then I dried my tears, reapplied my make up and went back out to lunch. No one even noticed. I did not get the job but was pleased to hear that they offered the visiting prof the job and she turned them down for a better place.”
“I have a really wonderful MLA interview with the chair of the department. She’s really interesting, engaged, etc. The pay is terrible at this place, the course load enormous, and the town/village is not that great. But, I am excited–in part because I liked the chair so much. Note: chair is the only person at MLA. When I get there, I learn that a committee–not the department, not the chair, a committee of five–will exclusively vote on who gets the job. There is both a teaching and research talk. At the research talk, no one from the committee shows. I give a talk to three people. I have yet to meet the committee who’s voting. I don’t meet anyone on the committee for meals, coffee anything. They are the only one’s who are voting. I eventually have one large Q and A with the committee. That is the only time I see them. At the teaching talk, one member of the committee shows, for which I am absurdly grateful to him. It is clearly being implied (to the chair?) that they are choosing not to consider my candidacy at all. Yet I’m there for 2 and 1/2 days.”
“I went to my final dinner with 2 committee members and a person outside the department. One of the committee members was the only junior person [in my field] in the department. She seemed super stressed about tenure and her place at the uni. That should have been my first sign. She also asked me all kinds of badgering questions about my theoretical approach, training, etc. Needless to say, after two bottles of wine for the table (!!!), I went to visit the ladies room to take a breather. The junior member followed me into the bathroom to ask me why I want a job there, to talk shit about her department, and tell me that I could do better. The weirdest part is that the chair of search committee in my exit interview told me the job was mine and they really wanted to hire me. In the end, they offered it to someone else and those folks act like they have no idea who I am when I see them at conferences.”
“I could tell you my most horrific campus interview story was when a member of the search committee noticed I saw him picking his nose and then stopped taking to me. I could tell you my most horrific campus interview story was members of search committee made a toast to finding their new hire (i.e., me) and then called me two weeks later to say I didn’t get the job. I could tell you my most horrific interview story was when I had my bags packed to go interview for my dream job and the dean cancelled my interview. I could tell you my most horrific story was when my old department offered me my old job back but then rescinded the offer after I asked for $2,500 more. I could tell you my most horrific story was when a search committee chair called me one night and said it was down to me and another candidate — only to call the next day and say the committee was re-opening the search. But really, my most horrific interview story was when my current employer made me an offer, and I accepted it. The other stories are just that: stories. Comedic ones at this point. As the old saying goes, comedy is tragedy plus time. But my current job is just tragedy in the eternal present.”
Or this campus interview horror story here, a story which many commenters over at Inside Higher Ed thought was somehow exaggerated or false. But dear readers, I assure you it was not.
The Waiting, The Waiting, The Waiting
Well, this could go on for quite some time, I’m afraid. Remember that job that required a $400 plane ticket to Los Angeles? Well, after my campus interview I waited months for news. Then one day a form letter from the university’s Human Resources department arrived in my mailbox. It began “Dear Applicant,” and then informed me that the position for which I had been interviewing had been filled. That’s right, after months of interviewing, after flying roundtrip to LA for my first interview, and then flying again, mid-semester (they paid this time), for the final round interview, I didn’t even receive a rejection with my name on it. That was some major bullshit. There is also the famous case last year of a philosophy candidate who was offered a tenure track job, then had the offer rescinded when she asked for things like maternity leave and a course release. Lean in, my ass.
Yes, the waiting can take MONTHS. Because clearly hiring a professor requires the same timeline as vetting a Supreme Court Justice (actually it takes longer). We are that important, don’t you know? Then, one fine day you get that letter or email or (if you are super lucky) a phone call that says “I regret to inform you…” and then you know that 9 months of work have been in vain. So you take a deep breath and gird your loins because it’s now April and next year’s job season is already gearing up. Maybe you should try again, just one more time? I’ll bet your suit still fits.
And really, this gets to the core of the problem with the academic job market — the amount of preparatory work, the difficulty of making it to the next round, the days-long interviews, and then the waiting — all for a job that ultimately pays way less than you think it does. Keep in mind that the tenure track job — as a concept and as a reality – is slowly disappearing. As the old Catskills joke goes: “These jobs are terrible and there’s so few of them.”
So, there you have it: my comprehensive guide to the academic job search. What have I missed? What stories do you have to share (I’ll take good ones, too). Thanks for reading and happy job hunting. May the odds be ever in your favor.