Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Miserable Life of a Job-Seeking Professor

“Applying for an academic job is not just sending in a cover letter and résumé. Here’s what the single most sought-after job in my own discipline, German studies, is currently asking: ‘Letter of application, updated curriculum vitae, three letters of recommendation, teaching statement, research statement, and one writing sample (maximum of 25 pages).’ That ‘letter of application,’ by the way, is no one-paragraph me want job now email. It’s a two- to three-page essay, specifically tailored to that position and worried over for days.

“Sure, OK, that’s a lot of work, but this would be manageable—if every job required the same dossier. But they don’t. Every search committee wants something different (and often special), whether it’s made-up course syllabi, or lesson plans, or a DVD of your teaching, or an official undergraduate transcript. (Oh, and everyone’s deadline is different, too.) Going on the market, especially for the first time, can easily suck up weeks—effectively a second unpaid job your cousin is doing while teaching a full course load or finishing a dissertation.

“So after your cousin has assembled his dossiers, and submitted them, and followed up with his overtaxed recommenders, he waits until December, when interview requests start trickling in—or don’t. Because of the sheer number of candidates applying for precious tenure-track jobs, a common reaction to the receipt of one of these meticulously crafted (and expensively mailed) 40-page dossiers is a deafening silence; most candidates learn they will not be interviewed by checking crowdsourced discipline wikis, aka the corner of the Internet where dreams go to die ...

“But even this would be fine, if these angst-producing interviews (often conducted at conferences attended at the candidate’s own expense) meant you had a real shot at that job—but they’re actually the first round; your cousin’s still up against 24 other candidates. He won’t know if he’s a finalist until late winter, when he is (or, more likely, isn’t) flown out for a merciless three-day gauntlet of on-campus meetings. If he beats all the odds and gets that precious offer at Southwestern Prairie Technical College, his cycle ends, mercifully, in March. If he doesn’t, then he’s off to the ‘secondary market,’ a rolling collection of ads for one- and two-year “visiting” positions. Visiting from where? you might ask. From nowhere.

“So, even though your cousin has been actively seeking employ for almost a year, he often won’t secure something until a week or two before fall classes start—a “visiting” gig if he’s lucky (although this might mean moving away from his spouse), or adjuncting penuriously in the town where he already lives. He’s got about three weeks to be relieved he won’t starve, until the next year’s meager job list comes out.

Rebecca Schuman