Helping Yourself Get Lucky

June 02, 2000

After nearly six months of thinking about, preparing for, and coordinating an academic job search for tenure-track positions in English literature, my opportunities emerged within the space of a week in mid-February.

An early January telephone interview with an East Coast liberal-arts college eventually led to an invitation for a campus interview in February; while I was in the midst of my interviews on that campus, the chair of the English department at a comprehensive university in the Midwest called my house and told my wife he wanted to invite me there to interview as well.

When I returned from my interview on the East Coast, I called and scheduled the second campus interview. On Thursday of that same week I received a job offer from the liberal-arts college. After six months -- not to mention six years of graduate school and three years working in an administrative position -- dreaming about that elusive tenure-track job, it was difficult not to scream Yes! into the phone.

But I didn't. I had another campus interview scheduled in four days, so I asked all the questions I could think of about the job and asked for a week to think about my decision. Although I was quite certain I wanted the job I had just been offered, I thought I at least owed it to the other university to visit the campus. Wasn't it possible that the campus interview might change my mind?

It was possible -- but I knew it wasn't likely. The campus I had in mind when I embarked upon my job search was a Catholic liberal-arts college, with a reasonable teaching load, in Chicago or on the East Coast. I wanted a college that would give me the opportunity to publish outside the arena of traditional literary scholarship, an institution at which my interest in writing fiction, book reviews, and personal essays would not hurt my tenure case. I wanted to teach courses in my area of specialization, 20th-century British literature, as well as literature surveys and creative-writing courses.

This was precisely the college I had found, and almost precisely the job I was being offered.

So I thought and deliberated, debated with my wife and a close academic friend: Was I doing a disservice to my potential colleagues at the comprehensive university if I canceled the campus interview and never gave them the opportunity to change my mind, or was I doing a disservice to them if I went on the campus interview while my heart and intentions seemingly lay elsewhere?

I'm not sure if I would have resolved this dilemma had I continued to frame the debate in these terms. Fortunately, a very practical question occurred to me the morning after I received the job offer, and I dashed off an e-mail message to the department chair at the comprehensive university inquiring about the timetable.

Case closed. That institution would not be able to make a final decision for another three weeks, and I could not reasonably expect the liberal-arts college to wait that long for me. So, with a clear conscience and with a growing sense of excitement at what lay ahead, I canceled my campus interview.

And then I made another phone call, and brought nine years of my life to a happy close.

So now here I sit, one of the lucky ones -- and it feels exactly as good as I thought it was going to feel. Disillusion may set in next year, but for the moment, and probably for the first and last time in my life, I'm hoping the summer will go by quickly.

Only one question really remains for me, as I look back upon my experiences on the market: How and why did I end up as one of the lucky ones?

Luck may indeed be part of it -- I have seen too many well-qualified graduate students left out in the cold not to recognize that -- but I think I did one important thing to help myself get lucky. This may be the one lesson others can draw from my experience.

My first run at the job market in my field -- in the 1996-97 academic year -- ended unsuccessfully, but I wanted to remain in the academic environment. During that year I had been working part-time at my university's teaching center, and when a full-time position opened up at the center, I applied for it and got the job. I was originally offered a three-year contract, and so I planned to settle in for three years, continue to research and teach as much as possible in my field, and then take another run at the market.

I have no doubt that staying at the university and working in an administrative position helped me succeed in this year's market. Even though I did not teach many courses (one a year), could not really do research in my own discipline during work hours, and spent most of those work hours on service and administrative tasks, I learned an incredible amount about how universities function. I served on search committees, ate dinner with the president, attended talks by visiting scholars, remained in contact with colleagues from my department, became affiliated with the university's humanities center, and spoke with a wide variety of faculty members about their teaching, their research, and their perspective on higher education.

Those experiences proved invaluable to me as I was crafting a cover letter, fine-tuning my résumé, and researching the different colleges to which I applied. My experience in the administration made me a far more savvy and knowledgeable candidate than I otherwise would have been.

Most graduate students who find themselves finished and unemployed won't find jobs as assistant directors of centers for teaching, so in that sense my experience may be unique.

But these kinds of administrative positions -- if not this exact job -- exist everywhere on your campus, even if you are not aware of them: directors of internship and outreach programs, special assistants to deans and provosts and presidents, coordinators of universitywide programs for graduate students, researchers and writers in administrative offices, and so on.

Somewhere on your university's Web pages you will find a list of current job openings; look through that list for jobs that might provide you with administrative experience while you prepare for another run at the market. In the meantime, keep in contact with your department, offering to teach courses in the evening or in summer programs.

Better yet, look around for part-time jobs filling these roles while you are still a graduate student, even before you reach the market stage. Should your first time on the market not work out, you will make yourself a stronger candidate for full-time administrative positions when they open up.

Several years ago a well-published and highly respected art historian told me that, when he finished his Ph.D. and found himself unemployed, he decided to concentrate on his research and drive a taxi to pay the bills. He did this for three years, and did it successfully -- in the end he secured a tenure-track job at a top research university.

Until I came into my current position, I assumed that his was the only road that led from academic unemployment back to the tenure track. I see now that it was just one possible road.

The road I have taken led me to the tenure track as well. It enabled me to stay in the university environment, and it taught me a great deal. If you're like me, and you never want to find yourself employed anywhere but on a college campus, it's a road you might consider -- and you might end up helping yourself get lucky as well.

I know now that the three years I spent in that administrative role paid off in my efforts to land on the tenure track; all I have left to discover is whether the tenure track makes these last nine years worthwhile.

Stay tuned: I'll keep you posted.

James M. Lang is currently the assistant director of the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University. This fall he will begin his position as an assistant professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. He will be writing occasionally about his first year on the job.