A Good Search

June 03, 2004

It's now been a little over a month since I accepted a tenure-track position, and I'm still coming to terms with my good fortune. More than one friend has compared success on the job market to giving birth: You forget the pain once the little one arrives.

I can't say that receiving the offer has completely blocked out the various pressures of my search, but I do know I'm more sanguine about my future in academe than I've been in years. Almost overnight, it seems, the overwhelming anxiety that threatened to become a permanent character trait has been replaced by an excitement that's been missing for quite some time. In short, life is good.

As a bookend to my first column, then, I want to devote at least part of this entry to a topic that isn't always discussed in career forums: namely, an example of a positive job search.

When I was preparing for the market last fall, I scoured the Web (as many of us do) for advice and insight into the search process. Nearly every site I found seemed to offer two types of information: statistics on the absolute impossibility of ever finding a job, and horror stories about rude, offensive, or downright hostile interviewing committees.

There is no doubt that the job market is rough and that jobs are scarce. Many talented colleagues I know have yet to snag a position. And I'm sure, too, that some hiring committees are nasty, even cruel. As an already anxious, nervous candidate, I would have benefited as well from hearing at least a few details about what a positive experience on the job market might look like.

In some ways, the job search is not unlike a series of blind dates, and in my field the Modern Language Association operates as the matchmaking service of choice.

Just as with dating, candidates (and hiring departments) invest a lot of emotional energy in the search, hoping they'll be admired, courted, and chosen. And just as with dating, one party often has the upper hand in the relationship. Candidates are the ones who have to "put themselves out there" and who have to impress hiring committees with attractive CV's. But even at the beginning stages of the search, there are signs that may help candidates know whether the job they're pursuing is housed in a department that's a beau rather than a bounder.

From the outset, the department whose offer I eventually accepted acted like an ideal date. Members of the hiring committee were quick to acknowledge receipt of my application, they provided a timetable for the interview process (to which they scrupulously adhered), and they were unfailingly polite in both their paper and electronic correspondence.

When the chairman called to arrange an interview at the MLA, he demonstrated a clear familiarity with my work and made a conscious effort to schedule the meeting at a time that would be convenient for me. Such attention -- even if it was the norm for this department -- stood in stark contrast to other interview requests I received. As a result, I was primed to like both the college and the committee.

Attuned to the potential awkwardness of a first meeting, the committee members made sure I was comfortable during the interview. They were warm and engaging, and asked thoughtful questions about my work and pedagogy. The meeting was relaxed, genial, and surprisingly fun. The perfect first date.

Many all-too-familiar early relationship fears nagged at me when I returned from the convention, however. Did they like me? Would they call? Apparently in keeping with one of the cardinal rules of dating, the department waited an appropriate amount of time before phoning to invite me for a campus visit.

The visit itself (not unlike a first trip to meet the parents) went very well. My job talk was well attended, faculty members whom I hadn't already met made a point to introduce themselves, dinners were fun and chatty. All in all, it felt like a good match.

When the offer came, then, I felt as though I were joining a department whose personality meshed well with my own. And I was convinced that this was the right job for me when the department made a point to ask about my partner and his needs during our negotiations. They had taken the time to know not only my work but me -- a gesture that reflected my own conviction that the professional and the personal could exist in mutually sustaining ways.

It's that aspect of my experience on the market that's been most on my mind lately. Much of my success this year, I believe, stems from the difficulties I faced in my search last year. (I shared those details in my first column about how I had turned down a tenure-track offer last year because the institution did not extend domestic-partner benefits).

That experience taught me a lot about my personal values and their relationship to my ambition. My decision to turn down that job was a difficult but correct one -- for me.

That understanding was confirmed, in sometimes ironic ways, by the letters I received from readers in response to that column. Many were supportive and even empathetic. But a good number expressed outrage at my decision. One reader in particular said I was crazy to turn down the job and took me to task for my apparent short-sightedness: "We must think very hard about our choices and opportunities; the consequences for principled decisions can be economically devasting."

Condescension notwithstanding, that argument makes sense. What I find troubling, however, is its conflation of my values with those of my critic. Being on the job market is not a collective undertaking, after all. The only we involved in any search are precisely those people who make the process such an intensely personal endeavor.

Perhaps it is in forums like this, then -- in which individual stories are shared for a wide range of readers -- that a reminder of the personal dimensions of the job search is especially apt. Finding the right job, like finding the right romantic partner, depends to a great extent on candidates' knowing who they are, what they want, and what they value. And no one but the candidate can know just how personal those professional decisions can be.

Steve Pink is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in English who is teaching as a lecturer at a major research university. He has been chronicling his search for a tenure-track job this academic year.