Deidra Faye Jackson recently earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she teaches in the Departments of Writing and Rhetoric and Higher Education. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.
When I reflect on my years-long tenure-track faculty job search, I have to pay homage to British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose lyrical words help me rationalize the aftermath of yet another academic post rejection. One of Tennyson’s most popular quotes – my retooled version – helps me take stock of my pent-up anxiety, the dispatched stacks of CVs and applications, and the sweet finales of search committee interviews: Is it better to have been interviewed and rejected than never to have been interviewed at all?
My immediate answer is yes, and an array of published articles suggests that such rejection in the academy is good for the soul. Commentaries such as this one, that one, and the one over here seem to say, “Chin up, Kid” – at least you had the chance to flex your interviewing skills, to become a better thinker, to take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, and to prove that you and your talents are still competitive in the field.
But then left with these versions of participation trophies, you remember that you’re in academia and, depending on your field, you’re also swimming among a mighty tide of other newly minted Ph.D.s who also are vying for available tenure-track faculty positions in a tighter-than-tight academic job market. After experiencing yet another rebuff, you consider a different, more grounded question: What just happened?
This is not that blog post that tells you how best to position yourself for a tenure-track job or the one that encourages you to either consider the alt-ac route or to stop trying to land one altogether. The point here is to help us emerge with our self-esteems intact, to minimize our self-doubt – an inevitable outcome of rejection – and to recommit to hanging in there with the tenure-track job search, if we so choose.
If the choice to remain in academe is a priority, stick to the plan. I’ve kicked myself and questioned my skills and abilities because of my inability, so far, to land that tenure-track post I assumed I would earn after finally earning a Ph.D. and having the requisite experience in teaching, research, publishing, and presentation.
These days, it appears almost unseemly for those of us to still be in pursuit of prized tenure-track faculty spots. I’ve even been discouraged from applying for tenure-track positions by those employed in similar tenure-track and tenured positions that I hope to attain. But for the hopeful among us who, nevertheless, eye such academic jobs, the thick skins we grew while in the persistent throes of the deep reading, writing, research, and contemplation demanded by our doctoral programs serve us well as we repeatedly compete for elevated academic admittance that is exclusive and so much harder to achieve.
We’ve earned our doctorates, published and presented research papers, logged years of teaching and professional work experience, and have gained respect from our students, peers, and administrators. In graduate school, much of our doctoral training is geared toward our grooming as new and fellow members of the esteemed professoriate (as opposed to the “precariate,” an academic class comprising adjuncts, lecturers and other provisional positions existing in “precarious” career situations); there seem to be fewer moments spent explaining the grim realities of the likelihood of actually joining such ranks, should they be among our post-graduate goals. Justifiably, it is with much greater zeal and profuse praise, these days, that many of us are encouraged to chase more lucrative career opportunities outside academe and to embrace corporate, non-profit, and other alternative-academic prospects and pathways.
It’s gratifying to see the communities that galvanize on such social media handles as Twitter’s @TrynaGrad, @academicswrite, and @FromPhDtoLife, and such hashtags as #gradlife, #blackgradlife, #PhDlife, #phdchat, #FirstGenDocs, and many others that provide graduate students with valuable resources, sounding boards, and support systems that seem to instantly mobilize when needed most. You see students express anxiety about applying to graduate schools, lament their lackluster performance on their first exam, and convey apprehension at attending their first academic conference; from first-year to post-doc to early-career researcher, and beyond, academic insecurity abounds.
But resist allowing such angst to wreck your psyche. Don’t let rejection, especially, repeated or isolated, diminish your talents, progress, and triumphs. Tennyson’s famous quote taught us that regret (or rejection) can be hard to accept but it also served another essential purpose: it offered a blueprint for the way we should handle future relationships and tenure-track job prospects.
Are you still holding out for a tenure-track position? What has been your experience? If you landed a tenure-track position, what advice do you have for those of us still hopeful for a coveted post? Tell us about it in the comments or on Twitter!