Landing the Elusive Tenure-Track Job in Literature

January 21, 2002

Michelle E. Bloom, James M. Lang, and Sheila Hassell Hughes sat before a packed conference room at last month's meeting of the Modern Language Association knowing they had something that most members of the audience lacked: a tenure-track job.

Since graduate programs in English continue to churn out far more Ph.D.'s than there are academic jobs available, competition is stiffer than ever to land interviews for tenure-track positions, let alone the jobs themselves. So in a session aptly titled "How I Got My Job," Ms. Bloom, Mr. Lang, and Ms. Hughes were among those advising other Ph.D.'s on how to get one, too.

Today Ms. Bloom is an assistant professor of French and comparative literature at the University of California at Riverside. She was on the job market for a year before earning her Ph.D. in comparative literature with an emphasis in French from Brown University in 1995, but she failed to find a position.

Hoping to enhance her prospects, she moved to France, where she earned a graduate degree in film studies and took a job similar to a teaching assistantship at the University of Lyon 2. Although it was "far from a prestigious position or even an appropriate one for a Ph.D., I thought prolonged experience in France would help me on the job market" and that "being gainfully employed would help me become more gainfully employed," Ms. Bloom said.

"So," she said, "I swallowed my pride and a lot more French food," and stayed put.

Less than six months later, she landed an on-campus interview with a small women's college in the Northeast, but it didn't lead to anything. Then in 1996, she got a job as a visiting instructor for a semester at the University of Pittsburgh. In the meantime, she interviewed with the University of California at Riverside at the annual MLA meeting in 1996. A couple months later, she had an on-campus interview and was offered a tenure-track job. She started in July 1997.

Ms. Bloom attributes her success to earning the extra degree in film studies in France and to already being employed as an assistant professor, if only as a visiting one: "Once you get one job, it's easier to get another job."

Mr. Lang, an assistant professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., took a much different approach to landing his first tenure-track job.

When he first went on the job market in 1996, he had been working part time at Northwestern University's Searle Center for Teaching Excellence. He had earned his Ph.D. from the institution in 1997, but had been unable to land an academic job. So he took an administrative one there instead and signed a three-year contract with the center to do research and write about teaching at the postsecondary level.

Although he had hoped to teach on the side, he spent most of his time on administrative tasks. He doesn't regret it. "Staying at the university in this capacity helped me get the job I have now," he said. That's because he was interviewing with a teaching institution and coming from a teaching center, and therefore was able to talk about pedagogy in a more "sophisticated" way than he otherwise would have been able to do. Moreover, in his administrative job, he "learned how the university functions, ate dinner with the president of the university, and affiliated with the university's humanities center," and became more familiar with and better prepared for the job-search process, as a result. "The experience proved invaluable to me."

When you interview for an academic position, Mr. Lang said, search committees will ask you how your current administrative job has prepared you for an academic one. He answered that by saying that he had observed faculty members teaching in the classroom and gave them feedback, which helped him become a better teacher.

Mr. Lang encouraged those in the audience who had yet to find academic jobs to look for administrative positions, such as director of internships or special assistant to the dean. "If you're like me and a lot of graduate students in that you never want to find yourself employed anywhere except on a college campus," he said, "you might consider that road."

Ms. Hughes followed a more conventional path to the professoriate. Now working as an assistant professor of English at the University of Dayton, she spent three fruitless years interviewing for tenure-track jobs. All she landed was a one-year appointment as a visiting assistant professor of women's studies at Emory University, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1997.

The problem, she felt, wasn't with her scholarship. "Some of my colleagues said my interdisciplinarity made my candidacy attractive," she said. The problem, she came to realize, was her interview style.

She had always been told that her interpersonal skills were her strength. But after listening to a fellow graduate student's advice, she stopped seeing her interviewers primarily as "gatekeepers" or "potential in-laws" and herself as the "love-struck girlfriend," all of which, she says, led her to believe she was not in a position to assess them, when in fact, she was.

Her final mistake, Ms. Hughes said, was "trying too hard to show how special I was." In one job interview, in an attempt to demonstrate her teaching style, she tried to get the faculty members to participate in a pedagogical exercise she had created. "It backfired," she said, so "don't do it. Some people loved it. Some hated it. One man leapt out of his seat and said, 'I hate what you did.'"

Needless to say, Ms. Hughes didn't get the job, but she did learn a valuable lesson: "Not being hated or feared by one person in the department can be more important than being loved by several."

Greater self-confidence, however, ultimately saved Ms. Hughes from academic unemployment and, she thinks, led to her tenure-track job at Dayton, beginning in August 1998. She first interviewed with the university at the MLA meeting in Toronto in 1997.

The night before her on-campus interview, Ms. Hughes said she thought to herself: "I'm damn good, and if they can't see it, it's their loss. Not that I was at all cocky, I went into that interview with a more confident and self-contained attitude."

By the following March, she had gotten the job.