In the Thick of It

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

November 26, 2012

I remember September. I recall staring at the postings on H-Net and bemoaning the absence of jobs. Now it's November, and oh, how I long for September.

My friends who went on the market last year complained about applying to 60 or more jobs, but by late August I could count only 15 or so that I could reasonably convince myself were suitable—not because the others were too far away, or the teaching load was too heavy, but because I couldn't conceive of any way to assert that I was a good candidate. Where, I wondered, would those many additional job ads come from?

The month of October, that's where. Readers, life has been busy.

There are definitely worse things than having too many job applications to complete. I know I'm lucky that my work is broad enough to fit into several categories. But the plethora of items on my to-do list has resulted in some very long days.

In September, I thought I was ready for the market. Now I have a list of things I wish I'd prepared by the end of August. In addition to having cover letters drafted for big research universities and small teaching colleges, I have also needed:

  • A research statement.
  • A teaching philosophy for a large university (this one includes a paragraph about teaching graduate students).
  • A teaching philosophy for a small liberal-arts college.
  • A teaching philosophy for a large liberal-arts institution with M.A. programs but no doctoral students.
  • Three different writing samples.
  • Four different syllabi.
  • Scanned copies of my transcripts.

Furthermore, although I thought I was ahead of the game when I asked my recommenders for their letters by August, I was clearly mistaken—and subsequently late in delivering at least one of my application packages. I would suggest that if you're going on the market next year, start asking for recommendation letters in June or July.

I've learned some things in the process of sending out my materials. For example, although I prefer online application systems because they don't necessitate spending extra money to mail large amounts of paper that the search committee will only skim, I also know that Web applications result in more busywork. I am getting increasingly cranky about filling out my job and education history over and over again online when that information is already on my CV. Some systems don't recognize "B.A." in lieu of "Bachelor of Arts," and more than once I've found myself shouting at my computer screen. It took me many tries to find a way to shrink my graduate transcript into a PDF that meets most online portals' size requirements (copying each page of the PDF into a text box in Word, converting each image to greyscale, and then saving it as a Word file seems to do the trick).

The job market has also been an exercise in keeping my compulsive behavior at bay and letting go of mistakes. I wish that H-Net and The Chronicle posted all jobs on any given day at a set time so that I wouldn't feel compelled to check back at various points throughout the day. I'm glad I found that typo in one of my cover letters in time to fix it for the next application, but oh, how I wish I'd caught it before sending it out at all.

The market has also required me to maintain a sense of humor. I didn't know what to say to the search chair who kept sending me the same link to an HR application I had already filled out three times, nor did I have a prepared response when I was informed that my cover letter and CV had mistakenly landed in the lap of a search committee seeking a professor of Spanish. Still, it was nice to laugh about those incidents with friends.

It's all felt like a trial by fire. I thought I was prepared, and indeed, I'd managed to throw together some documents that were pretty much ready to go by the time job deadlines started coming up. But I've also had days when I've sent off five or six applications (hence the unfortunate typo), and many, many moments when I've floundered in trying to master an entirely new genre of writing—like the research statement—only to send it off in the nick of time.

I should note that those documents usually fulfill the requirements of job applications only. I hadn't realized how fully postdoc applications would also consume my life.

Each postdoc application is unique. Sure, sometimes I can revise the research statement from application to application, but I can't really transform my proposal for a one-year postdoc into a statement that satisfies the requirements of a three-year position. Almost all of those applications require writing samples specific to that particular postdoc. One application, for example, required a 3,500-word piece. That, my friends, is the length of a conference paper. So I've revised, and revised, and revised again.

When a committee member asks if I'm working on my dissertation, I laugh nervously. It's not that I'm not editing—I am—it's just that I'm having trouble conveying to professors who went on the job market years ago just how low those dissertation edits rank on my list of things to panic about.

I now have a defense date, which is a big relief. I totally sympathize with a friend who once compared the art of herding cats to the monumental task of getting your committee members to agree on a date when they can all appear in the same place at the same time. Still, having a defense date also feels very much like I've just removed my safety net. If nothing comes through this year jobwise, I can't go back to my graduate program and hope for security in the form of a teaching assistantship.

Despite my sense that there's too much to do, the hardest thing to deal with at present is the waiting game. I possess no deep reserves of patience. I still check the jobs wiki and have received several "wikijections" so far—meaning I read news there that makes it clear that I am not in the running for a particular position. I still think that it's been better to know about the status of my applications than to not hear anything, although perhaps that feeling will change in a week or two. In a few rare instances, the wiki has even lifted my spirits, such as the time when some kind soul informed readers of a problem with one university's online system for receiving recommendation letters. To that person who included a new e-mail address for those letters: Thank you!

Luckily for me, I can't sit around waiting all day because I still have many job deadlines to meet; I think they'll help me occupy my time. And if they don't, well, there are always dissertation edits.

In addition to a defense date, against all odds I have secured a campus interview. Given the fact that it might take place before I hear about conference interviews from any other departments, I'm trying to remain calm and to treat it as an opportunity to practice everything—my job talk, my interviewing skills, my questions for the academic dean.

If I win the academic lottery and this campus visit results in an offer, that will be fantastic, but I also think that the only way to stay sane at the moment is to try not to treat the visit like an event that might determine the rest of my life.

In the meantime, in addition to crafting job-market materials that conform to mysterious disciplinary norms, doing battle with antiquated online application systems and dossier services on the fritz, and refraining from checking the wiki every hour, I've got new items to tackle. The center that's given me a writing fellowship has generously offered to set up a mock job talk, and my adviser and I have planned a practice interview session. I'm walking around mumbling fake interview answers to myself and preparing to speak about my project in the most engaging way I know how. And I’m continuing to add job postings to my to-do list.

As I said, life has been busy. I hope that December is kinder to me. And I hope that it's kind to all of the rest of you doing battle with the market and with your to-do lists.

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 or a postdoctoral appointment. Her first two columns were “In Which the Academic Market Looms” and “Going Rogue.”