Finding a Friend in a Competitor

October 26, 2001

If I have learned one thing about graduate study it is that it is a solitary endeavor. Certainly, there are associations and conferences and occasional social events with colleagues, but for the most part, the bulk of what we do is done in isolation.

This is doubly true when looking for a job. Even the best of friends are too consumed with their own careers or too removed from the market to provide any real assistance. Professors and mentors surely help, but their energy is consumed by writing letters, making phone calls, and offering a running list of dos and don'ts -- none of which come in the form of real emotional support.

For those unaware, there are two things that candidates quickly notice about the job search. The first is that it is time-consuming. Finding the openings is simple. The difficulty comes in preparing the individual CV packets and tailoring them to the position and the institution. In a world where words matter, it is important to make everything perfect or near-perfect. (The other day I discovered a typo on a cover letter that I had sent in my first batch of applications. Certain death, I instantly surmised.) Although there is an impulse to deem it "close enough," you can never spend too much time working on a letter of application or a statement of teaching philosophy.

The other aspect of the job search is that it is humiliating. It is at this point when you second-guess your qualifications: Maybe you should have gone to another university, learned another language, had a different adviser, earned an additional Ph.D. (just to be safe), or published more. You definitely should have published more. When said together, the letters C and V begin to sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. It is the record of what you have accomplished professionally and the means by which others will judge you, and it can never be impressive enough.

When you are looking for a job, it is seemingly you against the world.

This is true in part because of the competitive nature of the job market in general and of careers in social science in particular. I seem to recall being warned of this when I announced my intent to go to graduate school and study politics, but my excitement about the decision and my interest in the subject overwhelmed any voices of rationality, however near (and insightful) they were. Besides, it would be years before I would be looking for a job, and things would most certainly change by then. Yet things have not changed all that much, and I now find myself alone in "the great hunt." The warnings of the past naturally proved quite prophetic; fortunately, no one has reminded me of the fine counsel that I then ignored.

To further complicate matters, I now find myself competing for jobs with a colleague -- someone who is finishing his degree from the same university, the same department, and studying virtually the same thing. It would be miraculous enough for one of us to find a tenure-track job; two is beyond the scope of divine intervention.

The coincidence of our dual job search is really just that. Although Will and I started graduate school at the same time, we began at different institutions, with me having transferred after receiving my master's. Just over a year ago, I discovered that we were on track to finish next spring. This, I felt, was cause for alarm, or certainly something to be avoided. At the time, I was not concerned that it would compromise our friendship; I was mostly troubled by the image of me waiting tables. The potential for tension certainly increased after Will and I decided to share an apartment. Not only would I be competing with dozens of strangers from around the country, but also with the guy who sleeps down the hall.

Then a strange thing began to happen: Will and I became better friends. In the few short months that we have been looking for jobs, Will has really served as a constant source of inspiration to me, and I hope that I have done the same for him. Nothing helps to overcome the frustrations of the job search more than hearing someone else's frustration. What is more, Will and I regularly work together looking for positions, discussing what to send and what not to send, and even sharing postage. That we study the same thing only increases our capacity for assistance. Will certainly would have caught the error in that letter, had I thought enough to let him read it before sending it out. Not cooperating from the outset could have cost me a job. And besides, even Thomas Jefferson had editors.

This is not to say that our friendship has not been tested or that cooperation came easily. There was a period when it was unclear how closely we would work on our respective searches. I recall the evening when Will completed the first draft of his research and teaching agenda. He was quite proud of it. I was sure that he would ask me to read it, but he did not. I suspected that he did not want to show it to me, for one reason or another. I certainly did not intend to show him what I had planned to send out.

Nevertheless, the competitive side of me did not hesitate to ask him if I could read his draft, and the affable side of him acquiesced. Apart from being quite good, another thing struck me: Will's research interests and approach to teaching were vastly different from mine. While our job searches would occasionally overlap, for the most part, Will and I would be looking for different positions and appealing to different employers.

As a consequence of this foray into cooperation, I showed him some of the things that I had been working on for my applications. He went over them thoroughly and gave me several valuable suggestions. I returned the favor later that week when he was fine-tuning the final draft of his cover letter. Far from competing, Will and I were making each other better candidates and receiving much satisfaction in the process. If we could not find jobs on our own, we were going to keep one another focused on the task at hand and work toward this new and common goal. After all, if Venus and Serena Williams can compete head-to-head in world championship tennis matches, certainly Will and I can apply for some of the same jobs.

We have come a long way since the first days of the job search. It is now common, when applying for some positions, for one of us to defer to the other. On one hand, this has the unfortunate consequence of making fewer jobs available. On the other hand, they are jobs that were likely unavailable anyway. Will and I recognize which one of us is better qualified for each position, thus allowing more time to be spent pursuing jobs that would make a better fit.

In our apartment hallway we have placed a map of the United States, and we have been using straight pins to mark the many job applications that we have sent out. (Will's pins are red; mine are blue; and the rejections will be black.) In one sense, it is one more task related to the job search that could easily be avoided. But the map is a constant source of amusement.

From all this, I have concluded several important lessons about competing on the job market with friends. First, there must be good communication. It is impossible to pretend that the most important (and most constant) activity in your life is not taking place, so be upfront about it. Good communication also requires that you be honest with one another about your needs. We have already given each other permission to be excited when the first job offer arrives for one of us. I've also learned that humility is the best medicine for humiliation. Mostly, for Will and me, this means laughter. A sense of humor is a great ally when you are on the job market, but two is even better.

Although we have found much help and satisfaction in working together, I would suggest that job-market partners be chosen wisely. It is better to go it alone than to have an enemy as a partner. The old adage that one should keep friends close but enemies closer does not apply here. Your enemies will be close enough; there is no reason to make yourself more vulnerable or more burdened than you already are.

In the end, our searches have become one search with two equally important outcomes. I am not sure that either one of us will find the position that we are looking for -- during this round of applications, at least. I am certain, however, that the process will only strengthen our friendship.

Steven Michels and his friend Will R. Jordan are currently completing their Ph.D.'s. in political science at Loyola University Chicago and helping each other find tenure-track positions.