MLA Sessions Give Job Seekers Practical Advice and Hope


January 08, 2012

Conversations about the state of the academic job market are pervasive here at this year's annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Frustrated and disheartening chatter has spilled out from panel sessions to dominate casual conversations. How prospective candidates can survive the chaos of the job hunt, make themselves marketable, keep their egos intact, and land on their feet appears to be the conference's unofficial theme.

The last really good year for job prospects in literature was 1988, when there were 2,075 openings, said Lisa R. Schneider, who is chair of the English department at Columbus State Community College, in Ohio. A look at the MLA's yearly reports on job listings since then reveals a decline in the proportion of openings for tenure-track positions.

Only 20 new jobs have been added to the MLA's listings for this year compared with last year. Over all, there are 75 tenure-track openings in literature: for example, 25 in composition and rhetoric, 24 in British literature, 14 in American literature, and four in creative writing. Competition among job seekers remains fierce, even at community colleges. Ms. Schneider says that at her institution, she has seen as many as 100 applicants vying for one opening.

In addition to the scarcity of jobs, speakers are talking about how graduate programs are shrinking, the demand for contingent labor to teach composition courses is rising, money remains in short supply, and battles over the future direction of disciplines continue to dominate institutional politics. Among the consequences, according to Wendy Hesford, an Ohio State University English professor, are "the return of the repressed" and "apocalyptic predicaments about the state of the humanities."

Preparing to Land a Job

Perhaps to curtail some of the gloom and doom, the MLA has broadened its focus on careers by offering seven sessions for attendees who want to be better prepared to land a job that is both fulfilling and full-time. Five of those sessions, which took place on the first day of the conference, offered participants a mix of common-sense advice, personal stories, and hope.

Many graduate students preparing to enter the job market have important questions: How do I write a strong cover letter and build a competitive CV? How should I network with others in the field and prepare for interviews? How many publications should I have? When is the appropriate time for me to apply? How do I convey the right image to search committees? How do I speak the language that shows I can identify with prospective employers?

A three-hour, preconvention workshop, which was closed to the press so that job seekers could feel comfortable airing the challenges they are facing, was expected to stress the ways participants can work to ensure that their graduate training prepares them for a broader range of nonteaching jobs in higher education. The workshop was to provide concrete advice about how graduates can make themselves more marketable by revamping their CV's and tailoring their cover letters to the requirements of job postings. Participants were also expected to discuss the vast array of administrative positions that many graduate students don't know exist.

Shaun Longstreet, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Marquette University, was a workshop leader. He said in an e-mail that the session's goal was to help graduate students "break through the false dichotomy that one either must find a tenure-track [job] or string together chains of adjunct positions within the academy or they have to leave.

"There are many people within the academy, people with doctorates, thriving as academic staff who still produce research and publish, attend conferences, and teach," he said.

Brenda Bethman, acting director of the women's and gender-studies program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, also helped lead the workshop. She said that graduate students need to think about how they can convey their teaching and research skills in a cover letter: "One problem many graduate students and/or faculty members have is figuring out how to describe what they've done as teachers and researchers in ways that resonate with hiring committees for staff positions."

Mr. Longstreet added, "I suggest that every graduate student start thinking about their career opportunities as soon as possible, to become caretakers of their career trajectories, and take ownership of their own employment options by seeking a wide range of advice and input."

Landing the Job

After she attended the preconvention workshop and then a panel about careers at two-year colleges, Ms. Schneider said, "attendees complained and said they'd rather hear from people who had recently landed jobs."

At a packed evening session titled "The Job I Got," two people with Ph.D's and one who had earned a master's degree shared stories about jobs for which they were hired in 2010 and discussed how they traversed the search process. Each panelist had approached the job market in slightly different ways.

Ron Broglio, a professor specializing in British Romanticism at Arizona State University, spoke first. "Every day I am thankful to have a job. Not just to have a job, but also the fit," he said. "It didn't come easy. I paid my dues to get here."

Mr. Broglio, who earned his Ph.D. in 1999, suffered years of rejection. After three years as an adjunct, he landed his first tenure-track job in literature in 2002 at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he published numerous articles and three books. But he was denied tenure—the faculty wanted him, but administrators did not, he said. Recovering was difficult, he told the audience.

"It was hard getting hopes up, only to have them dashed, and watching the repercussions affect my family and livelihood. It was hard to keep believing in my dreams," he said.

Mr. Broglio said he had to continue to build a track record of success so that search committees would have faith in him. He also continued to publish and network.

"Not only did I have folks who wrote letters for me and looked in their own and other departments to see if jobs were available, I also felt their support and encouragement," he said. "It took time to develop these connections through conferences, forming conference panels, publications, and fostering special issues of journals around my topics of research."

Unlike Mr. Broglio, Colleen Rosenfeld, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College, found immediate success. Ms. Rosenfeld entered the job market during her seventh year of graduate school at Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus.

"It's important to stay in grad school for as long as you can to get a lot of work done and take advantage of the support of your faculty mentors," she said. "You want to be ready. So by the time I went on the market, my dissertation was entirely drafted, even though I was still tinkering and revising."

One obstacle she encountered was personal. Ms. Rosenfeld, who applied to 27 schools, said that when she went on the market, her partner was finishing his Ph.D. in neuroscience and was looking for a postdoctoral fellowship the same year.

"It turns out, he subordinated his search to mine," she said. Her partner eventually won a fellowship near Pomona. "So the best advice I can give is to fall in love with someone who will subordinate his or her job search to your own," she said, drawing laughter from the audience. "That's something you go back and forth about over your lives."

Ms. Rosenfeld also strongly advised against tailoring research to the market or departmental needs. During her search, she sent the same cover letter to every institution, highlighting aspects of her research and teaching strategies when necessary, and she stayed true to her research interests.

"I never pretended to be something I wasn't," she said. "It's also important to note that while interviewing, it's not about what you know. Search committees want to see you converse with them. They want to see that you can think in the moment. It's OK to stumble. It's important to be able to think out loud and to convey who you are to them."

The final speaker, Rachel Brooks-Pannell, a tenure-track composition instructor in the English department at Columbus State Community College, in Ohio, is still completing her dissertation. Ms. Brooks-Pannell took a nontraditional approach to the job market by building work experience outside of higher education.

Before attending graduate school at Ohio University, Ms. Brooks-Pannell worked for city governments in California as an event organizer and a program coordinator. She said those positions prepared her for the "work, politics, and power struggles that are part of the detailed planning, careful negotiation, constant communication, and implementation required in an organization that serves and teaches its community, like a college or university campus."

In addition to her work experience, Ms. Brooks-Pannell said good student evaluations and faculty observations after her first year of teaching composition courses at Ohio University made her marketable and earned her a position as the assistant director of the Center for Writing Excellence and Writing Across the Curriculum at the university.

"My administrative work as a graduate student taught me the importance of being involved on campus, both inside and outside the classroom, as well as inside and outside of the English department. It made me even more marketable," she said.

After finishing her Ph.D. coursework and written exams at the university, she moved to Columbus, Ohio, got married, and took time off from teaching to work on her dissertation and to have a baby. Although her priorities shifted, she began tutoring students of all ages in reading and writing. Through her connections at Ohio University, she taught composition courses through the university's distance-learning program.

When her daughter entered preschool, Ms. Brooks-Pannell set her sights on landing a job at Columbus State Community College. "I feared my absence from the classroom would overshadow what had previously made me marketable. Fortunately, I was wrong," she said. Although she struggles with the amount of grading she has to do, and with technology that was introduced during her long hiatus, she loves being back in the classroom.