MLA 2008: Fear and Interviewing

December 29, 2008

San Francisco — It’s a long trek up Nob Hill from the Hilton San Francisco, where most of the English sessions are being held, to the Fairmont Hotel, the location of the MLA Job Information Center. The Fairmont is about as deluxe as a hotel gets, with marble columns and an excess of gilded wood in the lobby. Nervous job-seekers park themselves on the the lobby’s plush chairs and settees before heading down to interviews in a ballroom in the bowels of the hotel. A pre-interview salon with crystal chandeliers and mirrored walls offers an unexpectedly posh place to collect one’s thoughts before the big moment.

The setting is deluxe. The job prospects aren’t quite so rich. Rumors of canceled searches and hiring freezes abound.

Jane Malcolm is a graduate student in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. A specialist in modernism and 20th-century literature, she applied for 40 jobs this year, her first on the market. About 15 of those jobs were subsequently canceled because of budget concerns. From what she’s heard, her experience is not unusual.

“The tenor this year really seems to be that the economy has eviscerated the job market,” she told The Chronicle. She did get an interview here, though, and is prepared to go on the market again next year if she has to, with the hope that this year is atypical.

Christopher Nicholls, a graduate student at New York University, was also venturing into the job market for the first time this year. A specialist in trans-Atlantic studies with a focus on “the very long 18th century,” Mr. Nicholls was qualified for a relatively wide range of jobs — about 30 of them.

He got one interview here. “That’s pretty good” for this year, he said in a conversation before the presidential address last night. “It’s been a rough year for most of us. The Victorianists I know had a particularly hard year. I was able to apply for both 18th- and 19th-century jobs.”

Increasingly, he said, people have come to see the first year on the market as a trial run anyway. “I want the right job,” he said. “I’m certainly not into a job that’s not on the tenure track, because that’s not a career.”

Candidates in some fields — Spanish, for instance, which has been a growth area for a number of years — seemed to be doing just fine. Jason Busic, a graduate student in Spanish at Ohio State University at Columbus, applied for 17 or 18 jobs. One was canceled. He got three interviews.

Travis Sorenson, a graduate student in Spanish linguistics at Texas A&M University, sent out 29 applications and got four interviews. “Spanish has been doing better for 20 years,” he said. —Jennifer Howard