In Which the Academic Market Looms

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

August 13, 2012

This last semester, I began reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, better known to television fans as Game of Thrones. Martin's novels are probably the reason that I'm now treating this year's job market in history like some epic, dismal battle that I will have to face, shield and sword at the ready.

I picture a room full of faceless search-committee members, just as I'd imagine an arena populated by many monstrous dragons in need of mortality. Except we all know that if I am truly brave, I will not seek to slay my dragons, but rather to assume my place among them.

Like Tyrion Lannister, second son of a tyrannical ruling family in Martin's fantasy, I'm entering this world of violence reluctantly. I am, after all, an academic who would rather use her brains than compete against hundreds of other applicants for victory. Indeed, I've avoided penning this column because doing so admits that the job market is real. But the job postings for the 2012-13 season have begun to appear, confirming that the time has come to acknowledge reality and make ready to enter the fray.

I won't be walking to war alone. I am lucky in that my adviser has pre-emptively e-mailed and offered to read and comment on whatever draft materials (cover letters, CV's, teaching philosophies) I want to send along. Friends who have successfully navigated the job market and recently served on search committees have done the same. The people who've pledged to fight for me are far better than sellswords, and it's good to know that I have a support network cheering me on.

I've tried to prepare myself for weathering a long siege with various academic accouterments. My shield is a fully drafted dissertation on a fairly sexy topic. My greatest weapon is a peer-reviewed article in an excellent journal. I've peppered my CV with presentations, and created and maintained an online presence. Like Littlefinger, the cunning master of coin (or treasurer) for the king in Game of Thrones, I've supported myself with money from various outside sources, though none of my money comes from brothel proceeds, as his does. A couple of my grants are significant, though I'll avoid naming names for the sake of my anonymity (one needs to be careful in this market).

I know enough about myself, and the way that the job market functions, to know what I should and should not do. For example: I should avoid the Academic Jobs Wiki; I should try not to let rejections bother me, because there will be many of them; and I should try not to envision myself living somewhere until I know I have a chance of getting an interview (or better yet, an offer). Most important, I should try my very best not to let this market turn me into some soulless, frozen Other (the zombielike creatures in Martin's fictional world).

I know these things, too: I will check the wiki anyway—inevitably, obsessively. The rejections will wound me, because they always do, just as the acceptances for grants have sent my spirits soaring. And I will be unable to avoid picturing myself ensconced securely in a new life, because I've been a wandering, rootless graduate student for some time. When you've seen others ascend to their hard-won reigns, it is difficult to acknowledge that you must wait patiently, and that even if you do bide your time, triumph may still prove elusive. Would-be Queen Daenerys Targaryen learned that lesson; I must learn it, too.

As far as the wiki goes, I'd rather know about my candidacy one way or another than sit by the mailbox waiting for a rejection letter that rarely comes. The Internet is full of little birds that carry welcome and unwanted information equally well, and there is no way to ignore them completely. In a way, I have to hope that the rejections do indeed turn me into just the slightest bit of an Other, so that I don't obsess over the refusals and allow them to hurt me so. A modicum of insensitivity will serve me well.

My faults as an academic loom large over the selling points of my CV. Although my dissertation is drafted, it's still just that: a draft. I won't defend until the spring, and thus, my shield is not as strong as it could be. I'm still having trouble looking beyond the dissertation in order to discuss how my scholarship, writ large, separates me from the crowd. I'm aware that I need to do that, and be prepared to answer the "So what?" question about my research. I can only hope that I will find the words in time to put them down on letterhead.

I also possess very little teaching experience. I've read about pedagogy and want to teach, but my graduate program doesn't offer its students much chance to do so.

I was a teaching assistant for a couple of years, and during that time I did get the chance to run my own class sections. However, by the time I had a master's and was qualified to teach adjunct courses at community colleges, I had to travel for my dissertation research. After that, I held writing fellowships that prohibited teaching. So I've seized on the available options but still worry that it won't be enough. My lack of teaching experience sticks out like Brienne of Tarth (the unattractive lady-cum-warrior), and there is nothing more I can do about it but prepare to answer questions about how I would teach certain courses.

I lie awake at night and wonder how I will pay for my undergraduate loans if nothing comes together a year from now. And I panic, despite my preparations.

So I've been training. I answer the "So what?" question in my head as I go for jogs in the early-morning hours. I've started writing template letters for research universities and small liberal-arts colleges, and am beginning to polish my syllabi. I read sample interview questions and practice my responses to anyone willing to listen to me.

I've also been trying to keep my body healthy, knowing what's slated for the months to come. I've been sleeping as much as possible every night, hoping to build up a cache that I can use to forestall the future effects of sleepless nights. I've tried to work out each day; if I can't control the turmoil inside my head, then at least I can provide myself with a cushion of endorphins. This physical exercise is also preparation for the days when I will want to do nothing more than salve my injured pride with grilled cheese.

The short summer months feel like the last gasp before I submerge myself in the gore of a yearlong bout. I've carried out as much reconnaissance as I can before I get ready to face my enemy—but I also know that if I let her, the enemy within will triumph before my external foes have a chance to beat me down.

I know that being freaked out in this manner for a year is an unsustainable position. I know that I am being overly compulsive. I know that there will be a plethora of events beyond my control in the ensuing months, which is why I want to be as prepared as possible. Summer must end eventually, you know. And winter is coming.

Eunice Williams is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in history at a Southern university. She is working as a writing fellow while she searches for her first tenure-track job.