Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Job application season: a rambling lament

Anyone else find applying for academic jobs to be absolutely exhausting and frequently demoralizing?

When I apply for nonacademic jobs, I get excited about the possibility of setting off in a new direction, of meeting new challenges and learning new skills. I convince myself that dammit, I can run a museum's education department, for example, even though my experience in such a field is limited to part-time work and to much reading into museum theory. And although I only have about a year of university development (fund-raising) experience, I believe I could serve successfully as the associate director of an alumni giving program or even a major capital campaign.

Faculty jobs are another story altogether. Tonight I've been writing and printing off this year's first round of academic job applications. Both the desired fields of concentration and the application documents make me feel underprepared, even though I know I could walk into a classroom and teach undergraduates just about anything in the humanities (except foreign languages--not so good with those). Of course, I'd fare better in some disciplines than in others, but I'm confident my interdisciplinary background and specific teaching experiences would help me to assemble meaningful courses in, for example, American studies, women's history, U.S. history, cultural studies, creative writing, museum studies, public history, bioethics, science and society, literature, technoculture studies, and composition. (Yes, I have taught many of those subjects in one manifestation or another, or my dissertation fell within them.)


However, the subfields tend to be narrowly defined or the job ads include what seems to me to be an improbable combination of subjects. Middle Eastern studies and environmental literature? (OK, I made that one up. But you get the idea.) When they allow for a broad applicant pool--for example, "any concentration in any geographical area of North America since 1500"--I worry that my dissertation topic isn't sexy enough.

For those of you who haven't applied for jobs in the humanities before, just the first step can be pretty grueling. Depending on whether the position is a postdoctoral fellowship or a faculty position, the search committee might ask for any of these documents:
- cover letter
- CV
- three letters of recommendation
- dissertation abstract
- dissertation chapter
- published article
- teaching evaluation summaries
- graduate transcripts
- application form
- sample syllabi or course proposals
- teaching philosophy statement

Usually programs ask for 3-4 of these things. In my case, I'm confident about how I'm represented in approximately half of these documents.

What makes the process especially daunting for me is the fact that I'm applying for positions in so many different departments and programs. There's very little I can pull from one letter to another, so each letter takes me a lot of time. I feel I need to reinvent myself every time. In one letter I'm an environmental historian. In another I'm a scholar of U.S. women's history. In yet another I'm a specialist in material culture. Each repackaging and rebranding of myself is true to varying degrees.

More anxieties: Which conferences should I attend? All of the disciplines to which I'm applying interview at different conferences, and only one of them is local this year. And my budget is very, very tight because hey, I'm an adjunct.

During application season last year, I got stuck behind a guy at the automated postal machine. From his mailing labels, I could tell he was applying for jobs in economics. He had about 50-60 envelopes, and all of them were the exact same thickness, suggesting he could just stick the same cover letter and documents into each envelope, affix postage, and be on his merry way. I was jealous.

And then there's the matter of to where I should apply. I know I like Iowa, but what do I think of North Dakota? Would I be happy in the South? Would Mr. Trillwing? Are the public schools decent there? Would Lucas have to listen to some crap about intelligent design? Could I live with the humidity? Do I put myself in the running for what seems to be a perfect job in a city I consider to be the armpit of the nation? Do I want to even bother applying for a position that advertises a 4/4 teaching load? Can I imagine designing as many as eight new courses in a year? Would grading 3-4 papers from each of 150+ students sans TAs drive me insane? Would I have any work-life balance at all? What about the upper Midwest or Canada? Do I really want to go back to the hassle of shoveling snow and winterizing the house and car? And how do I feel about relocating Lucas two or three thousand miles away from his grandparents and other family members? (Currently we're about 400 miles away from extended family.) Do I want to move closer to that family even though it means we'll never be able to afford to buy a house and my commute will likely be long?

My parents are retired high school teachers. I saw my mom wade miserably through stacks of papers for decades, and I started helping her grade those papers when I was 11 or 12 years old. I also was paid under the table by a couple of my high school teachers to grade their papers. That means I've already been grading papers for 19 years. I've been teaching my own courses since 1999. I love designing courses, crafting class activities, and interacting with students, but do I want to grade papers every 2-3 weeks for the next 35-40 years? I'm not so sure.

In the midst of all this angst, I'm grateful Mr. Trillwing is not an academic. He's really the ideal "trailing spouse" because he telecommutes and because it's pretty easy for him to find freelance work if necessary.

In summary: Aaaaaaaaauuuuggghhh!

It's enough to make a person apply for nonacademic jobs, even though they're open right now and accepting one of them would mean ditching my teaching commitments for the rest of the year. And oh, look--how convenient! I happen to have six or seven such job ads sitting on my desk right now. But do I want an 8-to-5 job? What to do? What to do?


ArticulateDad said...

It probably goes without saying... but I'm with you on this one, Trillwing. From my seriously demoralizing recent experience, I have come to believe that the broadcast model of applying for jobs just doesn't cut it.

That said, the difficulty is finding the right filter for narrowing down the field of applications. It takes a good deal of soul-searching. But you've got to follow your gut.

I'd say, if you want an academic career, it'd probably be foolish to give up your adjunct teaching (unless you feel that you are strong on teaching, but weak on research and publications or some other aspect), or unless the difference in money or stability is that enticing.

You've got a lot of questions there. You've got to sort them out, and find some answers. For us, a permanent long commute is just out, but we could handle snow. We're focusing on finding a place we can both work within, say, an hour of each other, where we could buy a house in the middle.

So far this year, looking over the postings, and tossing out some because they don't fit our criteria, or because the stretch might be too much, or because the teaching load would be heavier than I'd like.... is quite freeing.

It sure would be nice if committees thought about the potential pool of applicants before drafting some ridiculously broadly worded announcement. Alas, they often don't.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Wow, Trillwing. There's not a lot of advice that I can give, but I'm sure not looking forward to that process.

And I think that it's wise to narrow down the search to eliminate those jobs and locations that you know you'd hate.

(BTW, if you applied just to the West Coast in Canada, there'd be little to no snow-shovelling. I'm just saying.)

apparently said...

I sent off a mere 7 apps this week (only 30ish more to go) and it took several hours. I'm with articulatedad - why to do they write ridiculously vague criteria - why can't they just tell me that want to hire a person studying X using method Y so I won't feel so bad when I get rejected or better yet, save my time and not apply at all.

Anonymous said...

I'm going anon for this because my blog has nothing to do with my work life and I'd like to keep it that way.

I'm a museum person "married" (air quotes thanks to GWB) to an academic. You've just inadvertantly triggered one of my pet peeves with academia. You write:

"I convince myself that dammit, I can run a museum's education department, for example, even though my experience in such a field is limited to part-time work and to much reading into museum theory."

Why? Because you have a PhD? Why do you think that entitles you to a job for which you're probably not qualified? It often seems to me that with the phd comes the belief that the professional skills for all other jobs that don't demand specific certification (medicine, law, etc.) are insubstantial and easily acquired.

Most of the PhDs I know are so-so teachers. Why? Because their PhD programs assume that simply knowing content is enough to teach it.

I'm curious... what skills do you think are involved in running a museum's education department? Directing a capital campaign? More than you know, I'd venture.

You acknowledge your own cockiness when it comes to academic jobs, but assume that non-academic jobs are yours for the taking, just waiting for you to apply for them. And yes, that irks me.

Leslie M-B said...


Thanks for your comments. I always enjoy a good rant!

Of course I don't think my Ph.D. qualifies me to just drop myself into the museum field.

I worked for 3-4 years in a museum's--well, science center's--education and exhibitions department, so I know something about how they're run. I delivered classroom outreach programs, developed summer courses, evaluated community outreach programs, and designed several exhibits on a broad spectrum of science topics. In addition, my scholarly work has been on material culture, girls' experience in informal educational settings, and women's contributions to museum education. I also was key in developing a couple of hands-on science education programs, one at a state fair that attracted a million people in two weeks. So I *do* know something about museum ed, and in particular informal science ed.

As far as capital campaigns go, I worked for a year in a university development communications office, interning and then as an employee. I was invited to stay on as a maternity leave replacement for the university's director of development communications, so some people have recognized that I have some competency there. I worked on two major capital campaigns, one for an regional performing arts center and one for a major environmental research center. I also have worked as a grant writer.

For the record, I was being a bit sarcastic about being able to snap up nonacademic jobs. I'm sorry I didn't convey that clearly enough. What I meant to say--and then got off-track in my ranting--was that I'm trained to be an academic but I feel overwhelmed by it. And yet I don't feel the same anxiety about nonacademic jobs, and I'm wondering why.

Also for the record, in addition to being an academic and working in science centers and development, I've been a journalist, worked in arts (symphony) marketing, spent a little time in educational publishing, and started my own editorial and graphic design business.

My skills aren't solely academic, and part of what I was trying to say (but failed to say, I now see) is that I have some useful skills but have been dissuaded from applying them outside of the academy because earning a Ph.D. in the humanities and not getting a tenure-track job is equated by many people with failure. Saying that I would apply for nonacademic jobs, then, was not a way to say that nonacademic jobs take fewer skills (far from it! Raiser's Edge database administration, anyone?), but rather a way for me to express a burgeoning feeling of independence I have from the academy.

I hope that clears things up. I didn't mean to offend, and I have the highest respect for people in the nonprofit, and especially the museum, sector. Waaaaay overworked and usually underpaid, you all are.

Leslie M-B said...

Oh, and Anonymous? The implication that I'm not a good teacher, that kind of stings.

Of course I don't think I could teach preprofessional museum courses in which I have no training--conservation, archives management, museum registration, IPM, etc. But public history, museum ed, community outreach--those I probably could teach successfully.

You're right, though--teaching isn't just about knowing content. It's about being able to help students develop critical thinking and communication skills. In my opinion, in some fields (*cough* American Studies *cough*) the content is just an excuse for arriving at bigger concepts and skills.

Anonymous said...

Trillwing -

Thanks for the clarification. You sound a heck of a lot more qualified than the boss I had who thought her phd in botany qualified her to run an science museum education department (it didn't, by a long shot).

I got off-track in my ranting myself... I didn't mean to imply any insult to your teaching at all I agree completely that teaching is about more than just content. I happen to see a lot of academics who would identify teaching critical thinking as among their course goals but haven't put much time into thinking/reading/learning about how to make that happen.

Would you say that's fair?

For what it's worth, I agree with you on the academy's attitude towards non-academic jobs. My partner took a year away from the academy and felt like all of her former peers didn't know what to do with her. She eventually wound up falling off the wagon of non-academia and now has a very cush TT job. Which for the record, allows me to work in a museum and be paid squat!

I wish you good luck in the job search, wherever it takes you.