Faith, Persistence, and Luck

December 19, 2003

Last fall, in the first year of my first tenure-track job in English, my department asked me to head a search committee for a new hire. Strangely, I was into it, even after six frustrating years on the job market.

I had been one of 166 applicants for my position, and we ended up with nearly 100 for this new opening. It was not what many Ph.D.'s would consider a plum job. We are a small college with a heavy teaching load of four courses each semester, half of them in freshman composition. Our students are sweet but mostly not very academically inclined. The pile of applications that accumulated in the department's office exuded an air of desperation, a feeling I knew well. And the legion of English Ph.D.'s who will converge on the Modern Language Association's annual meeting later this month know it well, too.

I have experienced more job interviews and almost-hires than anyone I know -- more even than a friend of mine, Laurie, who was my comrade in misery during the years we both held three-year, temporary faculty appointments at Interim State University. For two of those years, we shared tales of hope and despair: jumping through hoops at MLA and at campus interviews, waiting for the phone to ring with an offer, and then realizing that the call wasn't going to come.

At some point, we both bottomed out on the whole process, realizing that we'd done everything we could, and if the academy wouldn't have us, we would still survive. We had our husbands, dragged across the country to a temporary life while we looked for more permanent employment. We had our young daughters -- best friends, oblivious to the vagaries and pure chance of the academic job market.

Laurie finally got that elusive offer -- actually, she got two -- during the final year of her three-year appointment. I was not so lucky that year, which was my second at Interim State.

I'd had two campus interviews that year and knew I'd done well; I heard audible sighs of approval at one interview, and was told outright how impressive I was at the other. My husband and I let ourselves hope, since both interviews were at colleges in the Northeast, where I am from and where we had lived before uprooting to Interim State. So we were devastated when I didn't get either one. Devastated, then angry and fed up. We made a new plan. The idea of staying in my temporary job felt like another year of putting my fate into the hands of strangers, and we'd had enough of that. So within days after I turned in my final grades for the semester, we packed up and moved back home. It was time to play the game differently.

In my six years on the job market in English -- over the course of 19 MLA interviews, seven telephone interviews, and seven campus interviews -- I've pondered the psychology of rejection. Laurie and I liked to compare it to dating. Sometimes the nerdy guy from University of Podunk calls when you are hoping for the cool guy from Desirable Area State. Finally, a guy you think you might like calls you, he's interested, you arrange to meet. The first meeting goes well, more phone calls and soul searching: Is he the one? Can you wait for someone better? But you forge ahead, you're ready for something serious, and look! He calls again! He invites you on an extended, weekend-long date. You accept, and you let yourself be seduced. Then you wait by the phone. You curse yourself for hoping. He isn't the one; you just convinced yourself he was because you wanted someone so badly. But maybe he'll call tomorrow.

That's the first love, er, campus interview. After a few more, you become jaded. Love stinks. On some interviews, it's obvious there's an inside candidate (think not-quite-ex-girlfriend). You can tell because the committee/date seems to be just going through the motions.

If the interview process is like dating, then the process of recovering from professional rejection is like getting over being dumped: First comes the shock and disbelief, then sorrow, anger, finally the determination to move on, followed by renewed hope and a vow never to fall into the same trap again.

At my last two campus interviews, I was seven months pregnant, so, impressive as I may have been, I presented irrefutable evidence of a life outside the academy. I cannot speculate on how much my pregnancy factored into the hiring decisions; it's impossible to tell, and of course, technically such considerations are illegal. One department was full of mothers and I felt quite comfortable there; at the other, I couldn't gauge the effects of my impending motherhood. When the rejections came, my husband and I had important decisions to make about how and where we wanted to raise our growing family. Going back to where we had family and friends, and he had a job waiting, made the most sense; I could work part-time and perhaps find another way to use my Ph.D.

I got lucky by opting out of the system. After moving home, I landed a temporary job at my small college, which led to a tenure-track position. I am now in my second year on the tenure track, although you could say it is my third since I was an inside candidate and will get credit for time served (prison metaphor intentional.) By giving up, I found the job of my dreams.

It isn't my dream job, really, but it's a lot better than the penal metaphor might indicate; it's the years on the job market that sometimes felt like a prison sentence. I find myself settling in at last at a department with great colleagues, at a college with family-friendly policies, in a region of the country we love. I am lucky indeed. After being passed over elsewhere for internal candidates, I certainly felt no compunction about any advantages I might have had as an insider myself. It was my turn to catch a break.

What's hardest to shake, while on the market for so many years, is that creeping sense of inadequacy. Was I too serious? Too casual? Did I drool on myself? Or is my work really inferior, not worthy of the validation a job offer brings? We all know the market is flooded with able and worthy Ph.D.'s all competing for too few tenure-track openings. But what is the secret of rising to the top? Persistence, perhaps. Faith. Certainly, luck.

Well, my story ended happily, and I got to this point by making peace with the caprices of the job market. How could I communicate that to the candidates who were applying for our new position?

Some of them were people we rejected right off because they did not meet our needs. I knew well why they had applied for the job, even though it was outside their area of expertise. Applying for jobs that are a stretch is an act of faith (or desperation?) that something, anything, will come through. The pile of applications on my desk was evidence of stunningly talented scholars and teachers, only some of whom would find jobs that year or any year. It was a heartbreaking process to put their applications into the reject pile. In the end, we interviewed seven or eight people by phone and then brought four to the campus.

I had imagined that leading the search committee would be cathartic, part of my recovery from six years of rejection letters. I was determined to see that our candidates were treated as respectfully as possible, so when the committee was late in replying to them, it weighed on me. The applications arrived in the fall, but it was several weeks after the winter holidays before our committee could even begin to work through the pile.

During my long job search, I had actually fantasized about being on a search committee and doing it right. But when the time came, it turned out that much of the process was out of my hands, making delays inevitable. On my own, I could have worked through the pile in a few days, but I was one of five people on the committee.

Other parties had to have their say as well: the department head, the vice president of academic affairs, the dean, the human-resources official. One thing I could do right was to conduct the actual interviews respectfully, but at this early stage I wished there were some way of responding personally -- with more than a form letter from human resources -- to all the rejected applicants, to honor their hard work and worthiness as scholars and teachers.

I felt for the scholar of the 19th-century novel who applied for our job. His letter, his recommendations, his vita, all attested to undeniable brilliance. His dissertation sounded fascinating, groundbreaking even. He had his Ph.D. in hand, an impressive publication record, strong teaching evaluations, a decent visiting position. Although he had clearly been on the market for at least a few years, he did not yet sound bitter. But our needs lay in another century, so he was unsuitable for our position; still, it grieved me to reject him.

For me, ending up where I am somehow required those years of crisis, and I am happy, even at peace, to be here at last. I must trust that job candidates will find for themselves a way to survive the cruelties of the job market, and emerge, battle-scarred perhaps, but intact.

Alice Knox Eaton is an assistant professor of English at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass. After an exhausting but interesting search process, her department succeeded in hiring its top candidate.