A Job-Market Captive Redeemed

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 18, 2013

A month ago, I would have written a remarkably different column updating my life as a captive of the faculty job market. A month ago, I was traveling for two campus visits, nervously scribbling notes on planes, in airports, and from the confines of hotel rooms and hoping my interviews would lead to something.

I had scheduled the two visits back-to-back—giving myself a day at home in between to recharge—because those were the dates offered to me. I wanted to seem accommodating.

As I began to pack for the first trip, it occurred to me that I should check the weather. Noting the likelihood that a ridiculous amount of snow was going to drop on my home region in the Northeast, I decided to pack my tiny suitcase with enough clothes for both campus visits, just in case.

I suppose you can guess what happened. I made it to the first campus visit at a research university in the South, and found my return flight to the Northeast promptly canceled due to the snow. I spent the day trying to focus on my meetings and my job talk without conveying how worried I was about making it to my next destination on time.

In a way, the turn of events was wonderful. I felt lucky to spend so much time at a place where the faculty members seemed unceasingly warm, welcoming, and professional. By the time I managed to board a return plane, I felt that I could be happy there as an active member of a great department.

As snow accumulated back home, my extra time cushion between visits disappeared. My next interview was at a public college in the Northeast. On the day my visit was supposed to begin, I was still in the South. I woke up at 3:30 a.m., got a cab to the airport, flew home, pulled my snow boots out of my trunk, dug my car out of the parking lot, and drove a couple hundred miles to the college.

Luckily, the search committee hadn't scheduled any preliminary meetings or meals for that first night. I ordered a whole pizza for dinner because they were willing to deliver it to my hotel room, and ate it while poring over notes I hadn't had time to look at yet.

The first interview had gone well, so I tried to carry that confidence with me as I started the second one. But it didn't go as smoothly. Members of the search committee seemed skeptical about my relative lack of teaching experience, which made sense given the fact that it was a teaching-oriented college.

Although I had no teaching demonstration scheduled as part of the visit, I tried to use my job talk to allay their concerns. I paused in the middle of my talk to lead a brief discussion with the undergraduates who were in attendance. In the midst of so much uncertainty about my future, it was good to be reminded just how much I enjoy teaching. I felt myself hoping that I would indeed get to be an assistant professor in the fall.

The day after I got home, I received the news that the Southern research university had offered the job to another candidate. I was bereft. The Northeast public college had already told me that I might not hear anything until late in the spring semester because the administration there has a tendency to move slowly.

That's when the panic really set in.

I tried to keep busy. I had a phone interview with one more department, received a rejection for a coveted postdoc, and got word that I was the runner-up for yet another postdoc. Meanwhile, I continued to apply for things, throwing my hat in the ring for visiting positions and going back to my lists to check for impending deadlines.

Then I got an e-mail from a British research university. Weeks before my two campus interviews, I had applied to a few positions abroad. I had almost no clue what I was doing in foreign applications. I'd asked around, so I knew enough to call my proposed classes "modules"; to apply for "lectureships" rather than assistant professorships; and to talk about how my research would fit into a given department's research contributions.

So I was pretty shocked when the British university e-mailed to tell me I had been shortlisted and would be interviewed via technology. Another e-mail informed me of the time for my Skype presentation and interview.

The night before, I compulsively checked to make sure that I knew what time on the East Coast matched the time of my presentation abroad. On the duly-appointed morning, I donned my suit sans shoes (although some people say it relaxes you to do a Skype interview in jeans or yoga-pants, I opted to wear my suit pants, just in case), and prepared to present my 20-minute job talk to a committee of people who, I assumed, had met most of the other candidates in person.

I felt simultaneously disadvantaged and optimistic. The other candidates had probably all sat in one room together (as I'm told often happens in British searches), and perhaps gone out to lunch afterward. I didn't get to meet the committee in person, but I didn't have worry about letting my nerves get the better of me standing face-to-face with members of the committee and the other candidates, either.

I gave my research presentation before the sun rose, had my Skype interview before noon, and took myself out to lunch. Then I came home, opened up my laptop, and started to draft another cover letter. I was rereading a job ad when my phone rang. It was the British university calling to offer me the position.

Later that week, I received an offer from the Northeast public college, and then learned I had won the postdoc for which I was originally the alternate. I don't think I've felt so relieved or relaxed since passing my comprehensive exams.

I'm still in the middle of determining the exact shape of my future, but I already know how staggeringly different this week feels when compared to those early weeks of February.

I knew I was stressed, but I don't think I realized the extent to which my uncertainty about my future was bearing down up me. Evidently, not knowing how I was going to pay my bills, or where I'd live, or whether I'd be able to keep doing research and publishing had really been impeding my ability to function like any semblance of a normal person.

I feel immensely lucky. Mostly, I am just looking forward to getting back to being a scholar, rather than a captive of the job market for another year.

In 1994 the historian John Demos published The Unredeemed Captive, the story of Eunice Williams. She was a young American colonist kidnapped from the town of Deerfield, Mass., by a group of French and Native American raiders, and taken to present-day Canada, where she lived out the remainder of her life. Regardless of the fact that extant documentary evidence on Eunice remains almost entirely silent, Demos managed to write an entire book about her captivity.

Despite the fact that I knew very little about the job market, I have endeavored this year to give voice to my own worries, fears, and, eventually, joys as a captive—now a redeemed captive—of the academic job market. I wanted to do so because I am, at heart, a historian who feels the need to chronicle her life's events.

After writing 51 job applications and 16 postdoc bids, going on three campus visits (and a fourth by Skype), and spending seconds, minutes, hours, and days antagonizing about my future, I think my job-search story is almost finished.

Next comes the final decision.

Eunice Williams is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in history at a Southern university. She is working as a writing fellow while she searches for her first tenure-track job or a postdoctoral appointment. Her first four columns in this series were "In Which the Academic Market Looms," "Going Rogue," "In the Thick of It," and "Life as a Captive of the Job Market."