Stories of Failure: Academic Job Market Edition

I've really come to love and appreciate stories of failure. I don't think we talk about failure nearly enough, including how to handle it or how to regroup in the aftermath.

Here's a personal story about failure on the academic job market and a reminder that failure isn't a reflection of who you are as a person or your self-worth.

 If you know any anyone applying for academic jobs right now, please be as kind to them as possible. They are under massive amounts of pressure and holding on to a tiny thread of hope that the impossible will happen for them and they will get a tenure-track job. They’re also probably competing in a ferocious Hunger Games-style application process with at least 350 candidates who also want the job. In the meantime, they’re also likely fending off student loan lenders who have no sense of humor about things like the wholesale destruction of the academic job market or sympathy for circumstances of individual poverty. Job seekers may also be wondering how they’ll eat this week.

To the uninitiated, the academic hiring process seems truly insane. When you’re surrounded by academic culture, the insanity of the market isn’t immediately obvious. You just assume that this is just how we do, particularly if you’re one of those people who doesn’t have a lot of experience outside of academia and now you’re getting a PhD. (If this is you, not knocking you, but just pointing out that your expectations about the job application process have been shaped by academic norms.) If you’re a person who has successfully applied for and gotten non-academic jobs before, the academic job market may seem like some bizarre slow-motion hazing ritual.

Back when I thought that I desperately wanted to be an academic, I spent months crafting my application materials for each of the twenty (TWENTY) or so jobs for which I was qualified. I spent weeks rewriting and reformatting my CV. I crafted meticulous cover letters. I did research about each of the university departments, making notes about faculty research interests, existing curriculum, and how my research complemented the overall department. (Plot spoiler: historians of modern Central America are somehow not a hot commodity.) I cut and pasted my cover letters on to my graduate department letterhead. I edited vigorously to cut my cover letter to exactly two pages. I described the significance of my research. I briefly discussed my teaching philosophy (expanded in a longer document called Teaching Statement) and made sure that the sentences about my teaching organically derived from my Very Serious Research. I described my second project and publication plans. I got letters of recommendations. (As a bonus, I had a committee member who I couldn’t trust to not sabotage me in a letter of recommendation, so had to find another recommender.)

I sent off my applications with a dossier service an chose the cheapest electronic delivery option whenever possible. I also sent off expensive and hefty envelopes with three hard copies of all materials: two page cover letter, CV, three letters of recommendation, a teaching statement, a research statement, teaching observations from my adviser, and some glowing student evaluations for good measure.

In 2014, I was shortlisted for two jobs. I attended my annual meeting for the first time in an expensive city that I couldn’t really afford. and paid $1500 out of my own pocket for a cheap flight and the “discounted” conference room rate. I avoided ordering actual meals at dinners and opted for the cheaper appetizers. [As PhD students, we were reimbursed $200 for travel expenses.] 

I tried to meet influential people (who were not, for the most part, interested in talking to graduate students). When I mentioned two my interviews to one associate professor, she informed me that she’d had eight interviews the year she applied. Oh. That was then. This was now. I felt grateful for my two puny interviews. One was for a job I actually wanted.

I had awkward interviews with search committee members in their hotel rooms. At the time, going to the hotel room of three strangers for a job interview seemed weird, but part of the process. [Everyone was lovely and nothing untoward happened, but I now look back on those hotel room interviews with a mixture of horror and incredulity. The idea of interviewing graduate students in private hotel room now strikes me as creepy and unsafe. It’s hard to picture this kind of interview happening in a non-academic setting. “So, a group of three people you’ve never met will be interviewing you in a private hotel suite for the cashier position.” OMG NO. I sincerely hope that the AHA addresses this, although I am not holding my breath.]

I did my best. I had prepared by rehearsing a mock interview with my committee, reading everything I could about the interview process, and practicing in the mirror. I waited. I refreshed the job wiki several times a day despite the fact that it reading it made me feel bad about myself and caused extreme anxiety. I received radio silence in return.

In 2015, I applied to my second round of academic jobs. I received no responses whatsoever. None.

I not only had run out of patience with the job market, but had also run out of money to continue hoping and waiting another year for another chance on an awful job market. I gave up and quit. I haven’t applied to an academic job since 2015 and have no plans to do so in the future. I wonder in retrospect if I should have tried harder or sent more applications or been more patient or become independently wealthy so I could continue pursuing academic employment. Maybe things would have been different. Maybe not.

If you’re on the academic job market this year, dear reader, hope for the best, but expect the worst. I feel a bit like the academic angel of death, but please be aware that so, so, so many people are not going to get jobs this year. Or the next. Or the year after. I’m sorry. I know it sucks.

I can’t speak to other disciplines outside of my own, but if you’re on the academic history job market, you’ve probably seen the 2016 AHA job report. It’s bad. The results, which will surprise absolutely no one, were that 2016 was the worst year for academic jobs on record since the 1970s. The report shows a total of 501 jobs for historians, twenty-six of which have Latin America as a primary focus. Twenty-six.

 A few people you know will get jobs but most won’t. You will probably feel stabbing jealously when your friends land positions that you’re entirely qualified for and yet slipped through your fingers. You may also feel rage when the candidate who ends up getting the job that you really wanted turns out to be a mediocre scholar who just happens to be well-connected. Other academic job applicants will end up with temp jobs with fancy names: post-docs, lecturers, adjuncts, and the euphemistic visiting assistant professorship. Many applicants will not end up with any of these options, but will instead be left holding on to the remaining shreds of their dignity and self-esteem and wondering what the fuck to do next.

If you’re one of the many, many, many people who don’t end up with even the crappy consolation prize of an adjunct position, your worth as a human being is entirely independent of your professional accomplishments. You are not your work and your work is not you. Your sense of self has probably taken a wallop. Be kind to yourself when you’re hurting.

Here’s what I want you to know today: you are a worthy person. Full stop.

(The blog will be taking an end of the year hiatus until 2018, but will return then! See you next year. Thanks for reading.)