We Need a Bigger Box

To find the right job, write Cheryl Reed and Dawn M. Formo, Ph.D.s need to think beyond the tenure track.

August 3, 2011

When we were interviewing contributors for the first edition of Job Search in Academe, an editor at a respected academic journal told us apologetically that she "liked her job, she really did!" Many of the pleasures of teaching, she told us, were central to her job on the "outside": working with writers, playing with words and layouts, engaging in meaningful conversations, working a varied schedule. The tragedy is that she felt she had to convince us of that. We, on the other hand, were encouraged. She'd opened up a world of possibilities that "grad school think" had narrowed down to a pinpoint of light.

During grad school, for many reasons, the tenure-track position becomes shorthand for not being a loser, for becoming a "grown-up," for "not wasting your education," for following your passion. It's all or nothing. You either have a tenure-track job and succeed, or you don't and you flop. Here's what the tenure-track position really is. It's a cluster of skills and scenes and built-in colleagues and "clients" that translates the grad school experience into meaningful, productive, and satisfying work. We seem to have forgotten that it’s a construction, a mode, a jigsaw puzzle of many different things that have become the most easily accessible and understandable export for the skills you're learning.

Until recently, job hunters haven’t had to think about how to put all this together themselves — it's prepackaged, with beaucoup rules and rituals and conventions — and it's worked for a lot of people for a very long time. But it's not the only way to put together all the things you’ve worked so hard to be and do. It's just the most easily recognizable. As the Taco Bell Chihuahua would say, "Time for a bigger box."

So, before you come to any conclusions about where you fit in the economic downturn and the dismal prospects in the job market these days, you really should know what (or who) is in your head. As the saying goes, "If you don’t know what you want, how will you know when you get it?" We realize that you think you already know. The first thing that comes to your mind will probably be some version of "tenure-track blah blah blah." But who's that talking in your head? Is that really you in there? It might not be.

So, humor us. Give yourself some uninterrupted time and daydream a little, as photographer Arthur Meyerson tells his seminar participants, about the perfect job on a perfect day. (Watch out: the tendency here is to say, "I'm in a tenure-track position in a Tier 1 university, blah, blah, blah." Resist! That already creates a box to cram yourself into. Instead, throw away titles and labels and just describe what you see, feel, think, hear.) What time of day is it? Are you inside or out? With people? Animals? Machines? What are you doing — writing, working with your hands, talking? How does it feel -- high-energy, relaxed, intensely focused? What are you wearing (no, we’re not getting off track — you need to know if you’d rather be in sweats or a three-piece suit).

Keep asking yourself questions like this until you run out of steam. Perfect job – perfect day. After about 15 minutes, you should be able to talk about what you actually like doing. Next step is to see what clusters of those little pleasures you can create with different job scenarios. It might be tenure-track. It might be something totally different. What do you want? What do you really want?

If you uncover your own quirky likes and dislikes, you’ll be able to strategize how to go after a job that combines as many of the things you like with as few of the things you don’t as possible, whether that has a time-honored label and ritual, or is something completely unimagined as you sat in first year seminar. Don't get us wrong: a tenure-track position can be great (we’ve both been granted tenure in large state systems), but it's not the one true path to happiness. Our own career tracks and those of some of our colleagues have taken wildly different turns, with treks through corporate consulting, creativity coaching, educational software development, publishing, and grant writing, along with the more traditional teaching, writing, and administration.

We’re not going to tell you Pollyanna tales of the job market or, conversely, claim there is no hope. Instead, we’ll just ask you to take a savvy look at the market as it is today and assess what you really want and how you’re going to make it work. What you need to know is what, specifically, you enjoy, at the level of individual, everyday tasks.

It may be a combination of things you piece together, like corporate consulting plus creative work on the side. Or a tenure-track position with a stripped-down curriculum and resources. Or a "sidestepper" -- like the editor who "really liked" her nonacademic job, or a grant writer, or a software tester -- where you take a job that uses what you like about teaching and research, but doesn’t carry either label. There are many different things you can do, but you’ve been – we’ve all been — just a little bit brainwashed to think of the tenure-track position as the only real marker of success and everything else as "settling."

Here's what we found from interviewing grad students, adjuncts, successful hires, search committee members, administrators, and corporate consultants: we really are in a "create your own reality" mode in this economy. It's hard to hear all this when you feel like you’re being shut out of the market and your dreams and rightful expectations are thwarted by forces beyond your control, but the first step toward sanity is looking for ways to make it work right here, right now. The old templates need to be rethought. The work you love is out there. It just may come in a different box than the one you’re expecting.


Cheryl Reed, who teaches at San Diego Miramar College, and Dawn M. Formo, who teaches at California State University at San Marcos, are the co-authors of Job Search in Academe: How to Get the Position You Deserve (Stylus).


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