Only an optimist would undertake an academic career advice column during a recession. But then maybe only an optimist would use “recession” to describe the current economic skid.
I suspect I was invited to offer advice to those seeking positions in higher education because of my own convoluted career.
In the late 1980s, another cruel time for an English Ph.D. to seek employment, my dissertation director offered an accurate assessment (and forecast) of my career prospects. A kind mentor, he offered to read drafts of my CV and application letter as I prepared to become one of the market’s wares. “Just start by listing all of your qualifications and experiences,” he advised reassuringly. I took him a little too literally. Soda jerk at Ashworth’s Drugstore. Color guard in the Cary High School band. Clogging hostess at the now defunct Land of Oz theme park on Beech Mountain. “My, you’ve had a checkered career,” he temporized. “You’ll want to do a little revising.” I’m still not sure whether his tone was wonder, pity, or fear.
As is often true in academe (and life), detours -- whether chosen, inadvertent, or imposed -- can finally get you where you want to go. I admire those who marched rather than meandered to their first academic post, but I doubt I’m in the minority. The important point is that there is no single right way to begin or, for that matter, to sustain a career. So here are my circuitous qualifications.
I spent three years on the job market, interviewing with liberal arts colleges, private universities, and state schools small and large. While I can feel my face crack into a Dame Edna rictus of horror when I revisit one or two interviews, most were at worst educational and at best genuinely engaging. The first year the market shocked me with its utter indifference. The second year I shocked myself by turning down a couple of tenure-track job offers after I decided the locations would make being single feel like being an alien. The third year I found myself arriving, then thriving at the University of Iowa. Along the way, I was a teaching assistant at North Carolina State University and the University of Illinois. With a master’s degree, I taught as a visiting lecturer at Western Carolina University. While completing my dissertation, I was a visiting assistant professor at Marquette. I remember grim weeks when my roommate and I confronted the relentless intransigence of the pinto bean. I also gained friends, colleagues, and sometimes painfully won knowledge about the complexities of academic life along the way.
In my own career, I’ve jumped back and forth between the solid square of the usual faculty position and sudden, unexpected openings. I’ve been an associate chair, associate dean, and associate director of our center for advanced studies. I have served on many search committees and hosted many job candidates. One of the most thought-provoking and important assignments I’ve had is to help graduate students in my department prepare for the placement process.
Getting a job is tough, especially right now. The economy promises more tricks than treats. Statistics say there simply are fewer positions than qualified people. The increasing reliance on part-time, adjunct (or “contingent”) instructors poses formidable challenges in too many ways to list here. We all acknowledge these realities; many are battered by their impact.
Anyone who is on the job market has heard this bad news yet forges ahead. That’s what I did. I learned much is out of your control, but that’s all the more reason to focus on the moments when you can communicate all you’ve accomplished. Understanding the steps and stages of a search helps. Learning how to use abilities cultivated as teachers, researchers, performers, and politicians in the search itself helps. The students in my department find that the more knowledgeable they are as they tackle the parts of the process under their control, the more their chances improve. So does their sense of dignity.
Thus far in my checkered career, I’ve been caught in tight corners but avoided stalemates. I give luck a lot of credit, but I’ve bolstered good fortune by assuming I always have more to learn and asking for advice. With the help of those of you willing to share insights and suggest topics, I hope to cast a little light on the path to a career. At the same time, those of us in the privileged position of being tenured can reflect on ways to make searches of all kinds as humane as possible.
Suggestions for column topics are welcome. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org