Playing by New Rules

May 16, 2006

You are standing in the hallway of a posh Philadelphia hotel 10 minutes before a job interview at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Nervous, you fidget, and pace up and down. Thankfully the lobby bathroom had been an easy find.

Your plan is to knock on the door in five minutes. Yeah, five minutes early sounds right. You reach into your coat pocket and suddenly remember the small bottle of hotel-supplied mouthwash stashed there the night before. Mouthwash is a good idea; didn't CNN just run a report on how halitosis sufferers can't smell their own condition?

Two minutes to go until interview time. Only now there is a problem. You walk up and down the hall again, this time looking for a place to spit out the mouthwash -- no plants, no trash cans, no public bathrooms on this floor. Had you been a regular user of mouthwash, you could have predicted this dilemma. Sleek black doors, carpet, and elevator are the only possible spittoons.

You stare at the security cameras which stare back at you. It's time for the interview. Doesn't mouthwash take five years to digest? No, that's chewing gum or maraschino cherries. You swallow. You pray. You knock. Your 2005-6 job search is under way.

"You" in this instance means, of course, "me." I have realized far too late that I should have drunk a lot more during that meeting in Philadelphia. Minty-fresh and smashed, I might have made a better time of it during my interviews.

One search committee from a Los Angeles-based institution tried to convince me that research like mine would instantly be featured on the campus's television station. It's Hollywood, they proclaimed. "Son," said a senior member of the same group (whose filibustering during my interview made me appreciate the brevity of U.S. senators), "you'll only have to put up with me for five more years." Son? Five years? Five more minutes in that room was too much.

During another interview the next morning, I found myself surrounded by the department chair, a random faculty member who wished to sit in on the proceeding, and two members of the search committee. Oddly missing, though, was the head of the search committee. I instantly presumed his absence equaled his opposition to my candidacy.

Forty-five minutes into my interview, the head of the search committee finally entered the room, with bloodshot eyes and a mortified expression. A mysterious tension that I mistook to be my own doing riveted everyone else in the room. "Next time," Mr. Late announced, "I'm staying in a hotel that knows how to give a wake-up call." I sat in wonder, witnessing the novelty of a committee member more shaken than a job candidate.

My experience after the convention sustained the madness. My favorite example comes from the peer reviews of my book manuscript. One claimed the work "beautifully written and deeply engaging," while another said that "the author seems to struggle with writing; syntax and word choice are problematic throughout."

Hmmmm. What have I learned so far this year? Fresh breath doesn't guarantee success in interviews, and I am either a capable writer or I am not.

Hope had governed the early stages of my job search this year. Using my three years of experience on the market as a guide, I thought long and hard about how to present myself in the cover letters that would lead to my AHA interviews. In previous years, I opted for the what-I-think-this-institution-is-looking-for letter over the this-is-who-I-am version. The former approach secured me some meetings with prestigious universities, but ultimately left me dissatisfied.

"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself," cautioned Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Man, you was who you was 'fore you got here," said Jay-Z. So this year I followed what every worthwhile career counselor, 19th-century wiseman, and 21st-century rapper advises: Be yourself.

My cover letter spoke of combining music history and American history, "storytelling and scholarship" (a phrase that likely made the multitudes attached to the Germanic Order of Dissertation Writing turn in their graves -- if they were dead). My letter also talked about my careful attention to writing as an invaluable tool for learning. If I was going to be reading rejection letters, I made sure it was going to be me that those letters were rejecting.

It turned out that, for a while, they loved me. And one campus interview did arise from my convention interviews.

Which explains why I spent Valentine's Day 1,800 miles away from my wife, looking across a dinner table into the eyes of Mr. Late, the search-committee head who had needed a wake-up call. He told me he has trouble sleeping; that was why he had been delayed for the first interview.

After two nights and a day in the steamy South, I headed back to snowy New England armed with a positive attitude, formal institutional information, and less formal institutional gossip. I had learned all the departmental news about divorces and sexual preference (and changes in sexual preference that had led to divorces).

Then came the wait. During my visit, I had been assured that, in an effort to close the job search as quickly as possible, a decision would be made in the week following my departure.

One week passed. Then two weeks. Ah, let's give them three weeks for good measure. After the third week, I accepted what I had begun to suspect: My 2005-6 job search was going to end without an offer. Notification arrived in week eight: "The position was offered to the other candidate, who ultimately accepted."

In years past, that would have been the point at which I would scrutinize the whole process to figure out what tweaking was required to make next year's search a success. But four years without a permanent job offer is too long. It is time to explore other interests (which, fortunately, I have).

As a graduate of the Juilliard School and a veteran of Team USA's long-course triathlon team, I'm used to fierce competition. So I'm not deterred by the challenges of the academic market. Ultimately, I know that if I were to keep trying, I would land an assistant professorship.

I simply think it is time to regain some sanity. The game will be played by new rules -- the object is to enjoy, not to win.

That news has struck most of my colleagues and advisers with disbelief. ("But your book is coming out in 2007!") I am neither particularly sad nor jubilant about my situation.

Until now, my wife and I have been willing to relocate nearly anywhere in the country to allow me to pursue an academic life. But we are tired of the yearly expectation of a move.

So we have embarked on a search for a home in Connecticut -- the perfect place for my wife's actuarial career, and close enough to (and just far enough away from) our families in New York.

As for my career, I will continue to seek history positions nearby (note to my recommenders: don't file away those letters just yet) knowing that severe geographic limitations will curtail my viability on the academic market in the fall. So I plan to start financing a fledgling freelance writing career with work as a personal trainer.

For those of you who choose to continue your whirl about the tenure-track job carousel, I wish you the best of luck. And drink up, the hotel mouthwash is free.

Scott Gac is a Ph.D. in American history who is in the final year of a postdoc at Yale University. His first book, Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Culture of Nineteenth-Century Reform, is due out in May 2007 from Yale University Press.