A call was sent out a few weeks ago that there was a story being done about the cost of the current job application process and how that process has evolved.
Now, we can talk about how much money the job application process costs; five years ago when I was on the job market the first time, the cost in printing and mailing over 150 applications (give or take; there were some that were electronic) was not insignificant, especially when my husband was a graduate student, I was an adjunct, and we had just had a baby. We had to pay for all of us to go to Chicago for MLA interviews (thankfully, living in LA meant we could shop around for cheaper flights). I can’t remember if I got some money from the MLA (I think I did) and from my department (pretty sure I didn’t because I wasn’t presenting).
There was also the cost of my flying out to on-campus interviews. Now, I was reimbursed, but it usually wasn’t until after interest had started accruing on my credit cards. There was also the added cost of child-care while I was gone. And in Southern California, that is expensive. I also had to invest in some nice post-pregnancy clothes, as my pre-pregnancy suits didn’t quite fit yet.
And, I was doing this while struggling with post-partum depression. The emotional highs and lows were exacerbated by my already fragile state. Thankfully, I found medication and a therapist that helped. Should I count that as a cost of the job search? Thankful that we had (self-purchased) insurance for me.
But the search process was ultimately successful. So I can’t really look back on the experience as a negative.
This time around, it was less expensive. Interfolio was a great help for that (although still not completely free). Less printing, less mailing, less cost (thanks IHE!) but way more anxiety. This is the cost that doesn’t get mentioned enough. The mental toll of this process this time around was almost debilitating. I went into the first process with a certain degree of naïveté; I thought my letter and CV were fine, and the experience taught me that they were, in fact, fine, based on the number of interviews (and ultimately a job offer) I received. This time, I stressed over every inch of my CV and letter, revising them constantly. Can I afford to use the professional help to make them “better”? (No, I can’t.) This time around, I have two kids, a mortgage, student loan payments…
I would read about stale PhDs, how being a public intellectual (if you want to call me that) is career suicide, how my publications weren’t in good enough venues, how I have too much or too little x or y. I’d read conflicting advice: letter-head, no letter-head; this font over that font; this wording, that wording. Just go to the “expert,” just pay for the help. How? When? These letters and CVs were often worked on late at night, after the grading, after the kids had gone to bed, or on weekends when more than anything I just wanted to hold my kids and spend time with my family. Job applications are a full-time job, but I already have one full-time job, a number of part-time ones, and a family that loves me, that wants to have me around.
Even writing this, my heart is starting to race and my hands are starting to shake. This reduction of my career to a few lines on a CV and a carefully wrought (and yet apparently flawed) paragraph or two… My career ruined by a typo, a misused term, too much jargon, not enough theory, not new enough, not interesting enough, coming on letterhead from a school that is subpar, teaching classes over and over than don’t meet a hiring departments needs. Crafting syllabi for courses I will probably never get to teach, in ways that don’t experiment enough pedagogically, or maybe they experiment too much. Every word, every piece of spacing, even decision, possibly making or breaking my career.
And none of it was good enough.
Not one shortlist. Not one phone or MLA interview. The emails, more sympathetically-worded this time than five years ago, expressing their deep regret, 300, 400 candidates, all excellent, difficult to choose. But they chose, and they didn’t choose me. Back to the lists, back to the letter, back to the CV. Seeing friends get interviews for jobs I applied for. Seeing and knowing their qualifications, wondering how I will ever be able to compete ever again because I am stuck at a sub-par university teaching a 5/4 course load of writing courses when you want a job in literature. But I have to stay strong, be positive, be professional because you never know who is listening, who is watching, who will see one misplaced tweet and decide, nope, take her off.
I am not alone in feeling this way. Not in higher education, not in this general job market. And I am lucky because I do have a job. But, mentally, I can’t keep doing this. It takes up too much time and mental energy for almost zero payoff. Stay positive, the advice goes, but I can’t change my CV, I can’t change what school I work for, I can’t change the courses I currently teach or have taught. This is me, and the message is for so many of us, the majority of us, the “me” that you are isn’t good enough for full membership into the guild. You can teach classes, but you’re not worth being a real colleague.
Am I giving up or am I letting go? Call it what you want, but I don’t have the currency to carry on this way. Maybe that means that I don’t really want it enough, or that I’m dedicated enough. Maybe it shows that I’m too weak for this job, or I’m not cut out for this. Maybe. But given the “return on investment,” I’m realizing that my time and effort are better served on something else.