The Worst That Can Happen

William Bradley explains how he found perspective on the tough academic job market.

October 3, 2014

Recently, I have had two sources of stress in my life. One was the knowledge that my visiting assistant professor appointment at my alma mater, St. Lawrence University, is coming to a close, necessitating my return to the academic job market.

The other was the fact that I was out of refills on my prescription for the synthetic thyroid drug levothyroxine. This is a pill I have to take every day, and the fact that I was out of refills meant that I would have to go to visit a doctor’s office.

 I don’t really like going to the doctor’s office. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998, when I was 21, and the disease came back twice before remissions seemed to stick in the spring of 2000.

I spent a good chunk of my early adulthood getting shots, having blood drawn, receiving chemotherapy, getting an autologous bone marrow transplantation, and eventually having radiation burn away both the cancerous mass and significant areas of my chest and back. For years after, I continued to visit doctors, getting a new oncologist every time I moved for graduate school or my academic career.

When I was hired in my current position, I did not immediately seek out an oncologist. I was initially only hired for a year, and I had plenty of refills left on the one prescription I still had to take, so there didn’t seem to be urgency. I knew that I needed to see a doctor, needed to take care of my health, but I also knew that I was healthy. The new job did wonders to increase both my productivity and my energy levels. I’m running and lifting weights again.  And if my previous malignancies were any indication, I wouldn’t be carrying around the extra weight I’m carrying if I was sick again. So it was easy enough to forget to find a doctor.

Until I realized that I was down to my last few pills. In fact, I had just enough to get me through to Friday, September 12th — the day that the Modern Language Association’s Job Information List was due to be released. 

I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading this that, in recent years, the job market has been pretty terrible. Particularly so for English. Particularly so for creative nonfiction, my primary field. I’ve felt very fortunate that my initial one-year appointment turned into three, and I have not been looking forward to the stress and heartache of applying for jobs, waiting for the phone to ring, and trying to  find cheap lodging near the main conference hotels in Vancouver this year.

Most of all, I have been dreading the possibility of bad news — that my academic career may, in fact, be over, if those calls don’t come. I’m not sure what I would do if that were to happen.

I think I avoid visiting the doctor for much the same reason — a fear of bad news. I can’t control the cells in my body any more than I can compel colleges and universities to create new jobs for hard-working personal essayists. So much is out of my hands, so I just try to go about living day-to-day. I teach my classes, I write my essays, I do my sit-ups, and I try to avoid thinking about the stuff about the future that terrifies me.

There comes a point, though, when the future arrives and won’t be ignored.

My new doctor seems very nice, and he didn’t even scold me when I told him it had been two years since I’d last seen a doctor (and didn’t correct me, either, by pointing out it had been closer to three years). He examined me, told me I looked healthy.

“Yeah, I’m healthy,” I agreed quickly.

“We’ll get some blood work and a chest x-ray to make sure,” he replied.

Dammit, I thought.

I got up the next morning — Friday, September 12 — took the last pill in the bottle, and completely forgot to check the Job Information List.  I got in my car and drove to the hospital for my tests, where I wound up in a waiting room with a television tuned in to "Fox and Friends," surrounded by other people. Some of them looked as healthy as I felt.  Others had unsightly bruises, or unnaturally thinning hair. Some were quite old. Others were younger than me. All sat in an anxious silence, waiting for their names to be called.

I remembered suddenly the last time I had been in this hospital — the summer of 1998, after finishing my initial chemotherapy treatments and planning to begin a four-week round of radiation therapy.  I had similar tests then. That time, the tests showed that my cancer was growing back at an alarming rate, which called for more aggressive treatments. I also remembered, as I sat there waiting, that the job list was supposed to be posted. You can probably imagine which thought took up more real estate in my mind that morning.

I don’t want to sound like I think I’m deep or “above it all” or that recovering from cancer “taught me a valuable lesson” or anything like that, but I think there was something useful about sitting in that room, with those scared and sick people, remembering a time when I was sick and scared too. I spend so much of my time worrying about my career, I sometimes forget that when I was 22, my doctor told me I only had a 40 percent chance of living to see 27. I’m 38 now. I was 26 when I met the woman I later married, when I was 29, and my wife and I have had a lot of happiness over the course of these 11 years I was not expected to be alive.

We have traveled to California, Key West, and Japan. We found and nursed back to health two sickly kittens. We have driven all over the Adirondacks, stopping in small-town dive bars to drink Molson Canadian with the bikers and hunters who are regulars. I’ve watched my friends’ kids take their first steps, become an uncle to my sister’s son, become a godfather to my best friends’ little boy.  And yeah, I’ve gone to graduate school, had a few academic appointments, published some essays and stories, attended conferences, written letters of recommendation, and helped students discover what they want to do and who they want to be.

In short, I have had an awesome time.

Teaching and writing has been important parts of my life, and I definitely would like to continue doing both — these past few years at St. Lawrence have convinced me that teaching writing and literature is the job of my dreams, and the results of those September 12th tests indicate that there is every reason to think that I have a lot of years left in me.  But it seems to me at this moment that, if I have to give up the academic life, I can do so. It wouldn’t be easy, but finding a new line of work is hardly the worst thing that could happen to me. And though I still don’t like going to the doctor’s office, I have to admit that I’m grateful for the reminder. As it happens, that was the very prescription I needed.

 Now, if someone will remind me of this in November, when the phone isn’t ringing and the interviews don’t seem to be forthcoming, I’ll be much obliged.


William Bradley is visiting assistant professor of English at St. Lawrence University.


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