Eight Is Enough

January 23, 2007

I am a job-market widow. In each of the last eight years, my husband has gone on the market in search of a tenure-track position in English. In those years, I have seen it all.

The first time Matt entered the market, he was still a year away from finishing his dissertation. But he wanted to test the waters and gain interview experience. The whole process was unfamiliar and exciting, and Matt and I learned the ropes together. I reviewed his application materials, stuffed and sealed envelopes, and developed the same love/hate relationship with the mail carrier and the telephone as my husband did.

That first year we weren't actually expecting a job offer. It was a test, only a test. But a job offer did come. The offer was solid, if not sexy, and would have relocated us relatively close to our families. Even so, we turned it down. Matt would have been compelled to complete and defend his dissertation in less than six months, and our early job-market success infused us with optimism.

"If I can get a decent offer without a dissertation," my husband gushed, "imagine what we'll get next year when I've actually defended!"

The second year on the job market, we felt seasoned and self-assured. It was no longer a test, it was an adventure. Matt was the intrepid explorer, and I was the real-estate agent, cost-of-living analyst, and oddsmaker all rolled into one. I commandeered and color-coded the map outside my office at work. Its official purpose was to track corporate sales across the United States, but I used it to track English-department openings. With colored stickpins and yellow Post-its, I evaluated the pros and cons of each location, performing hours of Internet research.

My favorite job opening that year -- flagged with a red stickpin -- was a college on the coast of Maine. As a child, I had been enthralled by a picture book recounting the adventures of a young girl living on an island off the coast of Maine. She dug for clams, talked with seals, and went to the grocery store by boat. In my child's eyes, it just didn't get any better than that.

So with Matt's application winging its way to Maine, I began to dream about raising a family in New England. I pictured a small cabin nestled in the woods within sight of the sea. In fact, I even found the perfect place on We could have a three-bedroom cabin on its own private island -- all for $130,000. Matt could take a boat to work, and I could quit my job to clam in the summer and quilt in the winter.

But there was no storybook ending that year. Matt received a few interviews and a couple of campus visits, but no offers. And no Maine.

When the third year ended in like manner, my excitement -- and my investment -- in the job market faltered. Although we kept assuring ourselves that we had made the right decision in turning down that first offer, our sense of certainty started to wane.

To protect myself from the mounting anxiety and second-guessing, I stepped back from the whole process. I no longer did research on each position, assessing the average rainfall, humidity, and temperature of the location. Instead, I just tried to support Matt. I figured that being a counselor and a cheerleader was a big enough job.

Luckily, I myself had a good job during those first forays on the market, so Matt's inability to find a tenure-track slot didn't affect us financially. And Matt used each additional year to improve his publication and teaching record. Things changed considerably, however, when I became pregnant.

The fourth time Matt headed off to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, he left me with a two month-old baby. I had quit my job to be a stay-at-home mom, so our financial stake in his search was significantly greater. Those four days in December were difficult. I was sleep-deprived and struggling with mild postpartum depression. Matt was stressed and fighting off the flu. We were all miserable.

Apparently Matt was able to summon enough strength to impress a few search committees, for he received several campus invitations, one of which resulted in an offer.

But Matt had serious doubts. He was worried about the price of housing, the teaching load, the nature of his courses, the mission of the college, and the geographical location. I had long ago abandoned my expectations of his finding the perfect job; I was on board for any job. But after hearing Matt's reservations, I supported his decision to decline. I didn't want to be the one forcing him into a position he didn't want. I had worked jobs that I hated, and I couldn't ask him to do that.

Luckily, Matt's department arranged adjunct work for him for the next year. We breathed easier and vowed to try one more time.

In Matt's fifth attempt on the market, he hit the jackpot. Of course, that doesn't mean it came without drama. Matt missed his flight to the MLA conference that year. After waiting all day at the airport in the vain hope of finding another flight or a standby seat, he returned home in defeat. Seeing him walk in the door, when he should have been interviewing in San Diego, was one of the worst experiences of my life. We both cried. Our tears were full of desperation, for Matt's department head had warned us there would be no more adjunct work.

Matt made it to MLA the following day and miraculously managed to reschedule all eight of the interviews he had missed the previous day. Crammed together, he ended up with 14 interviews in less than 19 hours. It was exhausting but it was enough.

Eventually he was offered a tenure-track position that has been a perfect fit. He is well liked by his students and colleagues and is finding enough time for his research. While this is not Maine, I am enjoying myself here as well. My family lives within a day's drive, the schools and parks are amazing, and the weather is perfect.

Those of you keeping track are probably wondering why my husband has been on the job market for eight straight years if he found the perfect job after five?

Unfortunately, we have found that Paradise comes with a pretty steep price tag. On Matt's salary, we cannot afford a house in the area, so we have felt compelled to pursue openings in less costly parts of the country.

The first year in Paradise, Matt could bring himself to apply for only one position. The next year, he applied for three. This year, he's up to 11.

Our eight-year stretch on the academic job market has been a harsh tutor, but it has taught us things about ourselves, our relationship, and our expectations for the future that we would not have known otherwise. We have learned to deal with disappointment, uncertainty, and success. We have learned to accept that there are no guarantees and to ground our sense of self-worth in stuff that isn't mulled over by unpredictable search committees.

If we had known then what we know now, we might have accepted that first job offer. Maybe even the second. But having held out for the third, we are at least happy that my husband has a satisfying job and earns enough to pay the rent, allowing me to be home with our young children.

In the meantime, Matt has been busy with yet another round of interviews at MLA.

And what am I doing to aid his search?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I haven't looked at a single opening online. I know nothing about the local housing, schools, or weather. And I haven't found a new island on which to focus my dreams. Instead, I'm trying to focus on today. I'm hoping that the real-estate market in the area where we now live will come down in price. I'm hoping that somehow, some way, we'll be able to stay.

I'm tired of being a job-market widow. Eight is enough.

Michelle White is the pseudonym of a stay-at-home mom married to an assistant professor of English at an institution in the West.