Betwixt and Between

Brian Taylor

October 31, 2012

I did not set out to be a perennial job seeker. On the contrary, I thought I was on the straight and narrow path to a tenure-track job. After completing my dissertation in 2003, I received a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, fully expecting it would eventually lead me to the tenure track.

It hasn't yet. After more years on the job market than I would care to admit, I have plenty of teaching experience as an adjunct and a visiting assistant professor. I have held several prestigious fellowships, published book reviews, articles, an edited volume, and even a book. Each year I thought those new achievements would help me to win the ultimate academic prize.

Now I find myself at a point where I am no longer a fresh Ph.D.—the kind the jobs ads call for in seeking an assistant professor whose "Ph.D. must be in hand by July 2013." Nor do I fit the ads I see for a "distinguished scholar to fill a tenured post."

What happens when you are somewhere in the middle of those extremes? How are you supposed to market yourself?

The coveted tenure-track job seemed always within reach. Each year, as I took on temporary teaching jobs and continued publishing my work, I received positive responses to my job applications. I always had conference interviews and frequently on-campus ones as well.

Two years ago I came particularly close to getting a job. As the members of the department shook my hand in parting, I could see in their eyes that they knew I was a good match. A month or so later I received a phone call from the head of the search committee: She had offered the job to someone else; I was the department's strong second choice. The winning candidate had published two books and had tenure at another institution. I took comfort in being beaten for the job by someone even more overqualified than myself.

Somehow the years passed and I find myself now at this awkward stage. I am strangely overqualified for entry-level positions but have not yet passed through the hoops for a higher-level hire. It's hard to explain such a nontraditional, accidental career path to a hiring committee.

One answer to my dilemma would be to give up on the academic market. I was at an information session with the president of a major scholarly association in the humanities when one of the other participants asked him, "What if, say, someone has been on the market for three years, and—". "Then you need to explore alternative careers," that scholar interjected firmly.

He went on to explain his curt reply: Perpetual job seekers clog up the system and drive down teaching salaries. That is certainly true. He said plenty of meaningful jobs are available outside of academe. This is also demonstrably true. His final point: Certain people just will not ever get an academic job.

That is the part I have trouble with.

I am willing to concede that in every graduating class of Ph.D.'s there are going to be a few outstanding scholars who will get snatched up by prestigious universities. But looking at the sea of mediocrity that is most of academe, it is hard for me to swallow that most of those who get hired are any better scholars, teachers, or people than those of us who do not. To me the system seems far more random.

We all know of people who have gotten jobs belatedly and despite all odds against them. Someone in my field published her first two books while working full-time as a hospital administrator. Eventually she was offered a named chair at a prestigious university. A young man in my field went to law school when he found he could not get an academic position. Apparently he was still secretly hopeful though, because he managed to land a good teaching job in a not-particularly-attractive location before he completed his law degree. Since them he has moved on to an institution more to his liking.

Did I mention that I collect these stories? There is also the one about a woman who started her dissertation in one field but by the time she finished, found she really belonged in a related field. Unfortunately her adviser was not able to help her find a position in the other field. She worked for a few years in an administrative job at a university before publishing enough articles to attain a position in her adopted field.

I could go on. Stories of long shots like those making it into academe will only become more common, though not nearly as common as many of us stuck in contingent faculty jobs would like to see.

And maybe the fault is not ours. Perhaps the mistake lies in expecting doctoral graduates of the past decade to have traditional credentials.

Nonetheless, there must be some limit. I have only lasted this long in academe because I love the profession and have a partner with a real job. We held off on making any renovations on our home or any permanent decisions about our children's schooling because we were always on the verge of moving on. But despite the intense and continuing pleasures of teaching and research, and even the seasonal titillation of the job search, I have reached my limit.

So this will be my final year on the academic market. Fortunately, there are plenty of openings in my field this year. That is a welcome change from last year, when I half-heartedly applied for two faculty jobs, neither of which was a good match for my interests and abilities. One of those committees eventually got back to me in the spring to let me know that it had hired someone else. The other one has yet to be in contact, so perhaps they are still considering my application. ...

For whatever reason (could this be the sign we have all been waiting for that the Great Recession is over?), this year's market looks much better in my field. Last week I sent out applications to 12 institutions. Eight of the openings were for assistant professorships in or near my field. The other four universities were seeking full professors to fill named chairs. In consultation with a long-time mentor, I went ahead and included a brief paragraph in my cover letters for those chaired positions, explaining that I had essentially granted myself tenure. Needless to say, I did not use those exact words.

At this point I have little to lose. I applied to jobs even in locations where I cannot really imagine living. Up until now I have largely avoided doing that, but as this is my last chance, I may as well go all the way. If any offers actually come through from those places, I will have to decide where my priorities lie.

In addition to checking job listings and Wiki postings hourly, I have promised my long-suffering partner that I will think about what I want to do with my life if none of the jobs comes through. When I am feeling particularly cruel, I like to joke about trying my hand at the only field contracting and changing more quickly than academe; journalism! In truth I am not sure what other areas use the many skills I have developed in the two decades since I entered graduate school.

Editing for an academic journal would be mildly interesting, at least for a while. I have also thought about filling some sort of research role, at a museum or other public institution. There must be some position I could fill in the government or a local university, but I am not sure yet what it might be. In the coming months I will begin to explore possibilities—that is, if I am not too busy fielding requests for conference and campus interviews.

With luck, by next year you will read my follow-up column here about my improbable rise from underemployed and overqualified to tenured professor. In the meantime, perhaps those of you in the tenured ranks can work with future hiring committees to recognize the changing field and the need to embrace applicants with nontraditional career paths.

Na'ema Suleiman is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in the humanities who is a research associate at two universities and an adjunct professor at three.