How to Fail on the Academic Job Market

As you look for a job, you should be just as mindful about how you aren’t finding one as about every other aspect of your search, argues Heather Steffen, who offers advice on how to do that.

January 5, 2017
 
 
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No one should plan to fail an academic job search. While you’re preparing for and undertaking a search, you must believe that you will get a job, you deserve a job and the statistics don’t apply to you. But the fact is that most humanities Ph.D.s and ABDs don’t find a tenure-track or permanent position the first or second year out on the market, and too many never will, no matter their qualifications.

I have a job now (actually two jobs, both good, both contingent), but a year before I finished my doctorate -- and at the tail end of two years on the market without a single phone interview or request for materials -- I organized and presented on a professionalization panel about getting hired in academe. My heart broke a little every time I emailed out an event reminder. When the day arrived, surrounded by newly hired assistant professors, I gave advice about how to not get an academic job. I share it here in two lists with the hope that my experience might help others to get started on the right foot or survive application season with their sanity and sense of purpose intact, no matter what happens.

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You have to be just as mindful about how you fail to get a job as about every other aspect of your search. Here’s why.

  1. Failing to get a job takes just as much time and energy as getting a job. Not getting a job doesn’t mean you send out fewer application packets or have to keep track of fewer recommendations.
  2. An academic job search is going to strain all your relationships. Whether it’s that you can’t get the dishes done -- even though your partner’s been doing the chores for three months -- or that you don’t have time to go home for Thanksgiving, a job search will make you a different kind of person for at least six months. A failed job search will make you a worse kind of person. Once the optimistic application phase passes and you have to start accepting that you’ve failed to find a position (or failed again), all of a sudden you technically have the time to jump back into your dissertation, back to the chores and back to family gatherings. But chances are you won’t have the energy or emotional fortitude to want to right away.
  3. While you are failing to find a job, you will constantly encounter awkward, embarrassing and painful social situations. Those begin in November when your colleagues and friends on the market get phone interviews. The holidays bring a tidal wave of extended family asking what you’re doing, why you haven’t finished your Ph.D. yet and what you’re going to do next year -- and making lame jokes about all these things (I hear they have an opening at the literature factory!). By the time you get to the convention (spending $1,000 you don’t have to go to a city you can’t see because of the conference and the snow), you feel like a broken record every time you tell someone that, yes, you’re on the market, but no, you didn’t get any interviews. The 10th time someone with tenure commiserates, you’re going to want to punch them in the face. You have to prepare to fail so you don’t wind up checking the felony box on your applications next year.
  4. Both in public and alone, you are going to feel weird, hopeless, embarrassed, like you have no control over your life or your future, like a failure, panicked, anxious, scared, ashamed, guilty, distracted and, at times, joyously and exuberantly nihilistic. Be ready to do affect management on a grand scale and to practice every kind of self-care you know.
  5. You have to prepare to fail at your search because the stakes of failing are high. You will need to find some kind of revenue stream if you’re past funding. You might need to move or to retool for alt-ac or nonacademic jobs. And you’ll definitely have to keep going with your dissertation, teaching, publishing, child rearing, caregiving, dog walking and plant watering. All those things take energy, intelligence and emotional presence. You need a failure contingency plan so you have the wherewithal and grit to pick yourself up sometime in April and get your life back together.

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Although I wouldn’t recommend you approach your failed searches the same way I did, the giant mistakes and small victories I accomplished during that time came with some lessons. These are the ones I hope not to forget next time I’m looking for academic work.

  • The February before you go on the market, submit a paper to the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association or your field’s hiring convention, or put together a session. That way, if you have to go to the convention and have no interviews, you still get a good line on your CV, can network your ass off and can answer, “Do you have any interviews?” with “Not this year, but I’m giving a paper on a fascinating panel about …”
  • Do these things less: drinking, smoking, whatever drugs you do. Do these things more: exercise and eat healthy. Start an exercise regime and healthier diet the summer before you go on the market so you’ve got your new habits established by October. Find activities you can do with supportive friends that don’t involve drinking.
  • If you have any history of mental health problems, get in touch with your counselor in August. Plan to get on medications if you have needed them in the past.
  • Sleep as much as you can from August through May. Six hours a night is not enough.
  • Think about your goals. Consider where you’d like to be professionally, but more important, consider what you want and need in your life: A dog? Kids? Time to watch TV? A boat? To live near your best friend? Write those goals down now. Revisit or revise them whenever you need to get centered.
  • Do not spend all your time reading job market advice articles. Stop reading that stuff altogether in September unless you need to answer a very specific question. Market advice can and will eat your life; you’ll feel like you’re working but you won’t get anything done at all. (Pro tip: It’s OK to staple or paper clip your materials.)
  • Keep in constant, honest communication with your partner or anyone whose day-to-day life is financially, geographically and/or emotionally tied to yours. Inform them early on that you will sometimes, without warning, change your mind and then change it back about major life decisions. Ask ahead of time for patience.
  • Do not disappear. You’re going to be tempted to hide during the whole year you’re on the market, especially after you realize you’re not getting responses to your applications. But you must stay visible in your department and professional network. Keep in touch with your adviser; attend at least one lecture, reception or brown-bag lunch each month; and use your colleagues who are also on the market as sounding boards and a support network, rather than fearing them as competition.
  • If a particular friend, parent, family member or colleague is putting too much pressure on you, refuses to be sympathetic or drives you crazy, take a break from them for a week. You have to take care of yourself first, then those who live with you, and then everyone else.
  • Connect with colleagues you know at different institutions. A secret about the horrible no-interview trip to the convention is that you can meet other people having the same year as you. Build strength from talking about how you’re all surviving and how you can help others survive the job search better in the future.
  • Do not get involved with groups of people who do nothing but bitch, complain, panic or sulk. If you must bitch, complain, panic or sulk publicly and/or drunkenly, limit this indulgence to once a month.
  • Take time to figure out your financial plans and needs. Find whatever temporary jobs you need to make it through. You can leave them off your CV, and the best job this year is the one that pays enough to feed you and allows you time and energy to fill out applications and write your dissertation or articles. No job is shameful.
  • Fantasize about exit strategies. The best ideas for nonacademic or alt-ac employment show up when you really let your mind go and think about everything you could do if you just didn’t have to worry about these applications and this stupid dissertation anymore. That’s exactly where you’ll be if you don’t find an academic job. Make this a situation you crave, not one you fear.
  • Cultivate one radically new hobby to remind yourself that you can teach old dogs new tricks and to take your mind off absolutely everything for a few hours a week. Train for a marathon, lift weights, learn scuba or vegan cooking. Bonus points if you can do this hobby with your partner or a friend you don’t see often enough.
  • Draft and memorize a range of elevator speeches to answer these questions: “You’ve always been such a good student, aren’t you exaggerating about the bad market?” “Well, what did you expect would happen with a Ph.D. in that?” “What are you doing next year?” “Why haven’t you finished your dissertation yet?” To fail gracefully, you need these responses almost as much as you need good interview answers.

Whatever happens, try not to blame yourself for your failure unless you are truly doing a crappy or half-assed job with your applications. In the midst of it all (and this will be a challenge), do your best to maintain an objective view of your own work and materials. Gather as much feedback as you can get, and remember: your work is solid, your materials are good but can always improve, and next year is going to be your year.

Bio

Heather Steffen is a postdoctoral scholar in English and a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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