Summer Schemes

Eliza Woolf offers advice on strategy and perspective.
July 21, 2010

The summer months are finally here. For job-seeking Ph.D.s and A.B.D.s, as well as tenure-track faculty members hoping to move elsewhere, this sweltering season offers a welcome respite from the rigors and disappointments of the lousy 2009-10 academic job market.

Still, despite the much-mocked cultural myth of the laid-back professor, who spends his or her time off idly napping and drinking margaritas by the pool on someone else's dime, an academic’s summer months are never as idyllic as one might imagine. The period capping one hectic academic year after another is usually spent doing several (if not all) of the following tasks: teaching summer courses; writing/revising manuscripts, journal articles, and essays; traveling to archives and conducting research; presenting papers at local, national, and international conferences; designing new undergraduate and graduate courses; writing lectures and creating slides; catching up on recent publications in one’s field of expertise; and networking with other scholars.

The list is even longer for academics currently seeking tenure-track positions or lectureships next fall. In addition to the tasks mentioned above, un- or underemployed academic job-seekers typically spend the summer months revising their CVs; crafting polished, updated cover letters; gathering letters of reference; scouring employment ads on a daily basis; applying for and working odd jobs to pay the bills; moving cross-country to the site of yet another temporary teaching gig; deciding whether or not to split up from partners and children if need be; and, when push comes to shove, borrowing money from loved ones, the federal government, or loan sharks.

For academic job-seekers, summer is a time spent less on R&R and more on strategizing, caffeinating, and hunting for promising job leads and intermittent paychecks. Or in my particular case: all of the above plus nail-biting, insomnia, and soul-searching.

The problem with being both a human and an academic used to delayed gratification is that most of us like to make plans, even if we don’t often follow through or our complicated machinations fail to work out on a regular basis due to external circumstances (like a brutal job market). But we can’t seem to help ourselves; we’re too busy scheming to improve our own personal slice of the future. Planning keeps academic job seekers busy and gives us a smidgen of hope.

Nearly everyone has heard or read snippets from the classic Robert Burns poem, "To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough" (1785), in which the poet comforts a field mouse whose nest he has accidentally destroyed:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e.
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
I know “the best-laid plans of mice and men” has become an annoying cliché, but Burns captures my ambivalent feelings about the job hunt this summer precisely: it is largely pointless to spend all of our down time making plans for next fall. These schemes will – and usually do – go awry. Besides, planning is what got me, and no doubt many other junior academics, into this mess in the first place. (If I go to graduate school and do XYZ, then a tenure-track job will surely follow . . . If I accept this fellowship, present at this conference, conduct research in these archives, publish in this journal, network with Professors Big Time and Major Cheese, then a tenure-track job will surely follow . . . and so on.)

After spending so much time and mental energy devoted to career planning and deferred fulfillment, when we ultimately fail to achieve our goals it really rankles. Self-doubt creeps in, anxiety levels rise, depression threatens to pay an extended visit, and bitterness rears its ugly head. There is a disconnect between future prospects and past costs, a widening chasm of unfulfilled expectations, dashed hopes, and financial and emotional debts.

Burns was right. When it comes to being a scheming human – and a neurotic, job-seeking academic at that – the mouse is “blest, compar'd wi' me.” Oh, would I were a present-focused mouse!

But, alas, I am human after all — undeniably, painfully human. Hence I cannot stop myself from dwelling on the past and pondering what the future holds. The present is only of minimal concern. I’d like to relax this summer but continue to spend the majority of my time plotting and forecasting and preparing for a dual academic/nonacademic job search. I make daily TO DO lists and check them more than twice.

So for those would-be suitably and gainfully employed readers out there who, like me, find it impossible not to spend at least part of their summer wisely, I’ve put together a list of relevant resources for Ph.D.s and A.B.D.s seeking either academic or nonacademic positions (or both) next fall. This list, though far from exhaustive, is geared toward academic job-seekers who are aware that, ultimately, they may not be able – or want – to work in academe but refuse to abandon the ivory tower officially, at least not yet.

Books for Career Transition Periods

  • Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, “So what are you going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia (2007)
  • Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (2004)
  • Carol Eikleberry, The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People (2007)
  • Jerald M. Jellison, Life After Grad School: Getting From A to B (2010)

Preparing for the Job Search

  • Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong, The Academic Job Search Handbook (2008)
  • Susan Britton Whitcomb, Job Search Magic: Insider Secrets from America's Career and Life Coach (2006)
  • Cynthia Shapiro, What Does Somebody Have to Do to Get a Job Around Here! 44 Insider Secrets and Tips that Will Get You Hired (2008)

Finding Your Passion

  • Barbara Sher and Barbara Smith, I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It (1995)
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (2008)
  • Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (2002)
  • Gina Lake, Radical Happiness: A Guide to Awakening (2007)

Web Sites for Academic Job Seekers Considering Plan Bs

  • The Versatile PhD
  • Leaving Academia
  • Beyond Academe
  • Interview Questions

Job Ads for Ph.D.s:

  • Inside Higher Ed --
  • Chronicle of Higher Education --
  • H-net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online --
  • [for STEM fields] --
  • Federal Government Jobs --
  • Non Profit Jobs --
  • Media Jobs --
  • Private School Jobs --
  • Science Jobs --

I desperately want to start my career in the near future; however, being as mouse-like as possible, this summer might be nice for a change. Mice don’t read, obviously, but the following novels/novella promise to at least keep my mind focused on a few things I do love right now: contemplating the human condition, laughing at myself and academe in general, and writing.

Labor, Life, and Human Existence

  • Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
  • Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1938)
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
  • Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)
  • Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962)

Summer Laughs About Academe

  • Kinsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1953)
  • Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys (1995)
  • Jane Smiley, Moo (1995)
  • James Hynes, Publish or Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror (1997)
  • Richard Russo, Straight Man (1997)

Readers, what are your plans this summer? Do you intend to travel; take it easy; teach; strategize in preparation for the 2010-11 hiring season; pursue a new career; work odd jobs to keep financially afloat; or do something completely outlandish with the remaining weeks of your summer break?


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