Contingency Plans

Two job candidates cope with their mixed record of success and failure on the job market

Brian Taylor

June 23, 2009

Not long ago, our heroines sat down to tally their investments and returns from this year's academic-job market. Collectively we applied for 133 tenure-track jobs, nine postdoctoral fellowships, eight visiting assistant professorships, six limited-term instructorships, and six administrative positions in nonprofit and government organizations. And a partridge in a pear tree.

For Anne, a Ph.D. candidate in an interdisciplinary program in the humanities who has landed a tenure-track job, the tally ends here. But Lynn, a Ph.D. in English, has yet to land anything, despite a number of interviews, and still counting.

It would be all too easy, and common, for the more-successful candidate to admonish the less-successful one that she should have seen this coming, should have developed rock-solid contingency plans months, if not years, ago. But Anne wants her friend to understand that this outcome is not a reflection on Lynn's merit as a scholar. Anne still maintains that something will work out for Lynn, but Lynn is not so sure.

Despite the differing outcomes of their job searches, thus far, Anne has plenty of reason to commiserate with Lynn. Even though Anne has a job, she knows what it feels like to have her mailbox and in box flooded with a never-ending stream of rejections, which continue to arrive on a near-daily basis and grate on her even though they are now moot.

The worst rejections are those that tell you who did get the job —by name and credentials. Or maybe the worst are those that don't really reject you; instead they obliquely suggest that the "search has concluded" without having the fortitude to state outright that you were not chosen or that someone else was. Or maybe the worst are those poorly worded e-mail rejections that do not accurately describe your actual situation. For example, when you have already interviewed for a job and you open a form letter from the department secretary: "I regret to inform you that you were not selected for the interview pool."

Actually, the worst is when you are rejected out of hand, in April, because you won't have the requisite earned doctorate until May. And when you inquire about the unclear language in the ad, the same language that confused you in the first place is simply repeated back to you again and again, with the not-so-gentle reminder that "you are not qualified."

Anne fantasizes about forwarding those ham-handed replies to Miss Manners or, better yet, about a day when she will have achieved such prominence in her field that she can be the etiquette police for her chosen profession. Until then, this forum will suffice: Gentle Readers, if you are ever in a position to dash the hopes and dreams of job applicants, to grind out their lifelong ambitions under your jackbooted heel, could you please, please, please take a moment to proofread your letter? Get your assistant to sign it for you? And while you're at it, cut out the part about how qualified everyone else was. We can intuit that from the fact that we didn't get the job. Also, keep in mind that you are not the victim here. Although we might derive some comfort from the knowledge that there were 199 other rejects for the same position, we don't care about how time-consuming this deluge of applicants made your committee work, or how difficult your decision was as a result of all this interest.

Irritation and indignation notwithstanding, Lynn does not dare to count the rejection letters that her blood, sweat, and financial contributions to the U.S. Postal Service have produced. And as an added bonus, she has now learned of at least 12 positions that have been canceled because of financial constraints, including three for which she had already interviewed. It might not matter now, but of the 73 jobs that Anne applied for, 15 searches were canceled or suspended.

Despite the successful defense of her dissertation and her new title, "Dr.," Lynn knows she must force herself to sit down and deal with some hard truths. With most of the tenure-track positions already filled, she has only a few viable applications out for visiting positions and a postdoc or two still floating around. She could wait to hear about those, or she could campaign locally for an adjunct spot at one of several nearby campuses. The problem is that the timing doesn't jive. If Lynn decides to take on an adjunct position (or several), assuming there are still any available, she will have to sign a contract well before the visiting searches have concluded. That would preclude her acceptance, should a full-time offer be forthcoming. On the other hand, if she waits around for the search committees to get back to her, she will likely miss out on any local opportunities. Given her recent experiences, she finds nothing about this absurd timeline at all surprising.

Lynn has applied for positions outside of academe. Her most appealing alternatives include editing jobs, administrative work in governmental humanities organizations, and volunteer opportunities with national nonprofit groups. Originally conceived as "backups" to see her through a second year on the academic market, those positions are turning out to be anything but. After waiting four months to hear word on one of the administrative positions, Lynn wrote to her contact in human resources, only to learn that there were between 200 to 300 applicants and that the finalists had yet to be identified. That number is all too familiar.

Regardless, Lynn is not ready to give up on her tenure-track search or on academe. For one thing, having recently defended a dissertation of which she is very proud, she is not prepared to simply set aside two years' worth of toil, sweat, and epiphany. She still believes that this document is the foundation of her career. And as she pores over the long-awaited page proofs for a forthcoming article, she can't help but think that academe has not entirely given up on her, either. She has spent years establishing herself as a scholar, developing her teaching, gaining a foothold in the professional organizations that represent her field. There is truly no instant gratification in an academic life, but neither is there satisfaction in getting up and walking away from the professional portfolio she has built brick by brick.

As she prepares for next year's search, the visiting positions feel like good options for her, in many ways, because they will provide her with the type of experience she needs to flesh out her vitae. She recalls with mirth the increasingly redundant comments uttered by her previous interviewers regarding her extensive experience teaching composition. The fact is, she is applying for literature positions but has taught comparatively few literature courses. Also, a visiting post would, she hopes, give her the opportunity to experience life as a faculty member —as a colleague rather than as a student.

The drawback is that the visiting jobs are provisional, entailing a return to the impermanence and uncertainties that have plagued her scholarly existence thus far. Assuming she even manages to land one. In a market like this, the competition remains fierce even as the last vestiges of hope fade away.

During their increasingly frequent phone conversations, Anne counsels her friend not to lose hope, and she has committed herself to being optimistic on Lynn's behalf, just like Lynn did for her through many desperate months.

When Anne's adviser, for example, stopped expressing certitude that the job search would end successfully, Lynn predicted otherwise. When even Anne's mother, a lifelong overestimator of her daughter's abilities, switched from reassurances that she'd get a job to vague platitudes about how everything would "work out," Lynn assured her that an offer would be forthcoming at any moment. Lynn's job search has brought out the latent Pollyanna in otherwise surly Anne, and she sincerely believes that good things are coming. So she exhorts her friend not to do anything desperate (e.g., "Lynn, just throw away your application to bartending school!") and encourages her not to settle for anything less than she's worth (e.g., "That teaching load for that visiting assistant professorship on the doomsday-cult compound is too heavy for the money.")

Although she is daily tempted to hang it up, Lynn feels compelled to keep applying. She just can't help herself. Even though she knows time is running out, she cannot bring herself to beg locally for work, not because the work is undesirable but because to do so would mean that this year's search is officially over. She cannot accept defeat. And although Anne calls Lynn's perseverance "impressive," "admirable," and "superhuman," Lynn is not sure if she might better be described as "foolish."

Lynn has steadfast support in her corner from Anne, armed with spit buckets, water bottles, and rags to soak up the blood. Lynn's sage advisers are still cheering her on as well, forwarding her the occasional just-approved late-season tenure-track possibility. And so she keeps getting back into the ring, while Anne marvels at her determination and tenacity.

Lynn, for her part, never thought she would still be on the market well into the summer, but, she supposes, she is in very good company.

Anne Galina is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in an interdisciplinary program in the humanities at a research university. Lynn Elliott is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in English at a different research university. They have been chronicling their searches for tenure-track jobs. Their previous three columns are: "Adventures in Academic Purgatory," "Dispatches From the First Interview," and "Adventures in (Inter) Disciplinarity."