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Essay on landing an academic job when not expecting to

On the Fence
Walking Away From Acceptance
December 10, 2012

I remember the moment the call came last winter. Feet up, glass of wine in hand, I was trying to decompress after a multiday academic interview on the other side of the country. Silencing the distracting post-interview internal monologue ("Why did I say that? Did they notice I wore the same shoddy suit two days in a row? What did the dean mean when she said ...") was my only goal that evening. And the wine certainly helped — up to a point.

So when the phone rang, I answered it casually, never expecting that my life would change. The caller was not a close friend or my mother, as I had assumed, but the chair of a history department at a large state university, calling to offer me a job. Not just any job, mind you, but a tenure-track job in my field. Everything I thought I knew about negotiating went out the window as I gushed about how much I looked forward to joining the department. Proper negotiations would come later, of course, but my unbridled enthusiasm was pretty clear from the get-go.

After the call came to an end, a powerful wave of relief and lightheaded giddiness washed over me. Someone, somewhere, for some unfathomable reason, had decided that I was employable. That I was worthy of being paid a decent annual salary plus benefits, to do whatever it is that I do, pending a tenure review down the line. It seemed like a miracle. And it many ways it was, given the bleak state of the academic job market and the overall economy at the time.

Other, more complicated aspects of my emotional reaction upon receiving an academic job offer are more difficult to describe; please bear with me as I attempt to explain.

By this point, my "career path" after graduating with a B.A. in history at the age of 22 had included the following, in chronological order: leasing dank apartments to unsuspecting freshmen at an apartment complex; working as a receptionist in a chaotic doctor’s office; attending graduate school for six-plus years, subsidized by student loans, teaching assistantships, and summer courses; and, post-Ph.D., pursuing temporary, low-paid fellowships and adjunct teaching gigs, interspersed with long periods of unemployment.

My professional path had essentially petered out not long after I graduated with a doctorate in history, dumping me in a sad, careerless ditch. I was now both academically overqualified and underexperienced for my previous positions of leasing agent and receptionist, yet unable to secure a job in my chosen field.

Like so many fellow humanities Ph.D.s on the academic job market, I experienced the various stages of grief not long after filing the dissertation. First came denial, as I refused to accept that years of hard work and poverty, and many thousands of dollars in student loan debt, might not pay off after all; that mine was a youth misspent, not on booze, sex, and illicit drugs but on books, overpriced coffee beverages, and research trips. As my alleged career grinded to a halt, repressed feelings bubbled to the surface. I was angry, not at the world, but at myself — for being an idiot. Only a naïve moron, I raged, would put herself into copious amounts of debt to pursue a career that was fast becoming a relic of the 20th century. Stupid, stupid, stupid! In retrospect, I think the “anger” phase lasted quite a while for me. (Others I know were stuck in the denial period for years.)

Then the depression hit. I was never going to be a professor and neither were many other talented Ph.D.s with whom I was acquainted. We were all equally out of luck, and some had already fallen victim to the part-time, no-benefits adjunct-faculty trap, where a number remain marginalized and under-employed to this day.

It might seem obvious now, that a huge chunk of doctoral recipients in the humanities will not find full-time academic work, but at the time it felt like a devastating blow. What the hell else was I qualified to do? What did I want to do? When the vast majority of one’s youth is spent pursuing a specific professional goal, it’s incredibly difficult to walk away, and more difficult still to head in the right direction.

Entering the acceptance stage took at least a year or two, and a number of books from the Zen and the Art of _______ (fill in the blank) series, but when I arrived it was fantastic. In time, I no longer regretted attending graduate school, or craved an academic job, or felt envious of those employed persons more fortunate than myself. Sure, I was still poor, unemployed and hopelessly in debt; but I was O.K. with that. Such is life.

My family and friends were skeptical. "After moping around and feeling sorry for yourself for years, how can you really be over the whole thing?" they asked. "More to the point: what else are you qualified for?" The answer was that I no longer felt like my personal identity or happiness in life depended upon landing a tenure-track job. I felt free for the first time in years, open to possibilities in and outside of academe.

It took time for this realization to sink in, and it really is true that a significant level of graduate-student "programming" occurs in the academy. Professors are trained to cultivate hoards of junior faculty minions, eager to carry on the tradition of writing for an audience of a dozen or so like-minded scholars, more or less, while lauding the ground breaking efforts of their illustrious senior colleagues. The prospect of promising graduate students abandoning this venerable academic system for another model, either by choice or duress, is not a topic frequently broached in faculty meetings.

But it happens. A lot. The best graduate students are forced, or choose, to leave their field of expertise or academe in general, sometimes in droves. There are simply too many of us. And, frankly, a lot of life exists "out there," beyond the confines of the ivory tower.

The funny thing about the acceptance stage, at least for me, is that it opened up countless doors. I felt a new sense of curiosity about the nonacademic world and paid more attention to the wide array of interesting and challenging jobs other people performed on a daily basis. At the same time that I reveled in my newfound mental freedom, however, checking library books out about resume writing and career transitions and applying for all sorts of nonacademic dream jobs, I decided to throw my hat into the academic ring again. I had the application materials on hand; it seemed silly not to try one last time. What did I have to lose? Plus, as the title of my column suggests, I was still "on the fence," ready to follow whichever path offered employment at the end.

When success came on the academic job market a few months later, I was grateful — and floored. Why now? Why not a year or two ago, when I regularly sipped the Kool-Aid, blissfully unaware of other professional possibilities? You rejected me, academe, but just when I’m confidently pursuing other leads, you decide you want me back?

With a tenure-track offer in hand, abandoning the profession no longer seemed like a viable choice. I was thrilled to have a job, believe me, but still felt a tad uneasy. Not because I assumed more promising academic positions existed beyond the horizon. I knew that was not the case. Rather, taking this particular job meant the end of job-seeking, new career prospects, and boldness. It meant pleasing my advisers and annoying a few of my still-struggling academic friends. It meant quietly returning to my chosen profession within the ivory tower and doing what was expected. Above all, it meant the end of acceptance.

 

 

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