Getting On in an Off-Season

March 03, 2009

A couple of years ago, I responded to a call from The Chronicle's Careers page, looking for essays from job seekers. The idea, one many of you may be familiar with, was to follow an apparently promising candidate as he (in my case) progressed through the various eviscerating stages of an academic job search. So I pitched my story, which was, for me, a way of pitching my candidacy, if to no one but myself.

At the time, I thought I was an ideal candidate for both The Chronicle and the field of contemporary American literature. It was my second try seeking a tenure-track position. My Ph.D. was complete, I'd won a couple of awards for my writing, both within and outside my institution, and I finally had some upper-level courses under my belt. Plus my dissertation-committee members were firmly behind me with accolades and encouragement. I was ready.

So for my first column, I wrote about how driven I was to secure a tenure-track position. Sure, I'd been roughed up by my first run-though, but that was without a Ph.D. in hand. This time was surely going to be different. This time there was a wife, a forthcoming baby, and a completed degree. And this time I had the ambition, the real need for an income that convinced me that I was going to get a "real" job. And of course, by that, I think you all know I mean a tenure-track job.

In the time between writing that first essay and its publication, I managed to secure a one-year position as a visiting assistant professor. It was a job, but not the job, and so it didn't seem worth writing about at the time. In retrospect, that was arrogant and wrong.

I did not get a tenure-track job that year. When I was offered the temporary position, its value completely escaped me. There is no doubt that most of the blame for that dismissive attitude lies with me. But part of it also came from academic culture. My large, public university rarely discussed such temporary gigs in preparing us for the market, and never extolled their virtues.

So let me do so now. Many of you have not have found tenure-track work this year (and given the economy, that is probably the case for more Ph.D.'s than usual). At this point, the conventional recruitment season is winding down in many fields. Some of you may even be ready to hang it up, either until next year or for good. But, from my perspective, you couldn't be making a bigger mistake.

Sure, the economy is in bad shape, but people have still found positions in the tenure-track market. Some of those people are assistant professors vacating one tenure-track position for another. Their departure may not even be known yet to their department chairs. That's not duplicitous behavior, it's just the way of the pre-tenure world. Other new hires may be senior professors who got fellowships or coveted visiting professorships at fancy universities. Many of those people fill vital roles on their campuses, and what they do cannot simply be divided among the adjunct pool.

All of that is to say that the positions those departing faculty members now hold will either turn into late-season tenure-track hires, or, perhaps more likely, become temporary visiting positions. And that is where you come in.

I offer my own experience as a case in point. That visiting gig that I deemed barely worth mentioning in my failed search for a real job? It turned out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

For one thing, I was required to teach four courses a semester, so I was eight sections more experienced as a teacher when I hit the job market again this past fall; 12 sections deeper by the time I arrived at the Modern Language Association's annual conference in December for interviews. Those courses put me in contact with hundreds more students than I had taught previously, and each had their own needs. They required new examples, better analogies, and more diverse metaphors. Failing to become a better teacher under those conditions would have meant failing as a teacher, period.

In my visiting position, I was also introduced to a community of people with experiences wildly different from my own. I learned how to explain my dissertation-cum-book project to people way outside my field. And they helped me see connections between my work and theirs.

So when I hit the interview room this year, I was in a better position to open my research bubble to the rest of the world. That's a point I cannot stress highly enough: In seeing connections between my work and other periods and fields, I was also able to see the value of those fields more clearly in terms that made sense to me. When interviewers (especially at the campus level) spoke of their work, I was genuinely interested, and it showed. I understood how my work could benefit from working with them, and my interest in their research seemed to make my interviewers more comfortable with me, and thus, more inclined to like me.

As a visiting instructor, I also got valuable insight into what it means to be a team player. The department had hired me, not to pursue my own interests, but to fill a particular need. I learned how to spot gaps in a department and how to make claims to fill them.

Finally, a visiting position forces you to write while carrying a full teaching load. Well, guess what? That's how you're going to have to write for the rest of your career, barring that rare sabbatical. And if you land that coveted tenure-track position, you'll also have to juggle committee work and student advising, too. Part of your burden as a job candidate is to convince the search committee that, if hired, you will be able to earn tenure. That means writing while teaching a full load. It's easier for search committees to believe that you are capable of doing that if you've already done it as a visiting instructor.

The side benefit is that during my visiting stint, my writing improved. With another year under my belt, my writing sample was tighter, my job letter was stronger, and my interview skills sharper.

Obviously, this has been a bad year to look for tenure-track work. Fewer jobs have meant more candidates per position. But there were some open tenure-track lines this year. And there will be good openings next year as well. The competition will be stiff. You're more likely to get one if you have experience as a visiting instructor that helps you stand out from the many recently finished Ph.D.'s in the hundreds-tall pile of applications.

I offer this as encouragement for anyone who, like me, felt dashed by the regular hiring season — in my case, twice. You may have had interviews at your discipline's major conference, you may even have had some campus visits that went nowhere. But the game isn't over yet; it just gets a little different as the prize becomes temporary positions. Learn how to adjust, but keep trying.

Seriously. Keep trying. On my third try, I got a tenure-track job. It's a better job than I ever believed I would find. I know for sure that I have that better job because of my first "real" job, the visiting one that didn't even seem worth mentioning when I got it.

Norman D. Plummer is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in English from a public university in the East. He chronicled his job search in 2007-8 and will start his first tenure-track job in the fall at a small, private liberal-arts college in the West. His previous columns are "Try, Try Again," "Fallow, the Yellow Brick Road," and "Just Visiting Again."