Survivor's Guilt

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

March 15, 2011

I was one of the lucky ones this year. I landed a tenure-track position in a humanities field. When the department chair called me to make an offer, I should have yelped with glee, danced a jig, even run around the halls of the institution where I've been a visiting faculty member for three years, shouting the good news to everyone and anyone who would hear it.

But I didn't.

This was my third year on the market. The first time around, I applied to positions selectively, with the confidence of someone who had two more years on a visiting contract. I had two interviews at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association and then two campus visits that year at desirable departments. That felt great. I was optimistic because I had my Ph.D. in hand, I had an article that had been recently accepted by a highly selective journal, and I had already established a record of excellent teaching in my visiting job.

Alas, I didn't get either position. But surely, I thought, my luck would be better next year.

When I went on the market the second time, I had more teaching experience, more publications, more awards, more presentations, and more recommendations. I had followed the advice of a friend who had landed his tenure-track job in 2006: More is more. Even though the job market had contracted in the fall of 2009, I applied to all 11 jobs in my subfield and received six invitations for preliminary interviews. They turned into four campus visits.

It's hard for me to capture the despondency I felt throughout February of 2010 as each week concluded with a "you're our second choice" phone call or with the news that the money for the position had been irretrievably lost to budget cuts. As March came in like a lion, it became increasingly clear to me that I wasn't going to be going out like a lamb to the greener pastures of a tenure-track position.

That was when I also came to understand one of the least-acknowledged aspects of the job market: It is incredibly time-consuming.

As candidates, we write cover letters tailored to each institution, craft two-page dissertation or book abstracts alongside writing samples, compose statements about our philosophy of teaching that take into account the needs of different institutions, and develop syllabi that line up with each department's ideas about its major.

Candidates who make it to a first-round interview spend countless hours doing research on the faculty members and curricula of the departments and imagining answers to questions about how their research, teaching, and personalities might fit. If candidates are selected for a campus visit, they write job talks and prepare teaching demonstrations that meet the unique requirements of each search committee. And then applicants spend one or more days visiting each campus, where meetings, presentations, receptions, and meals make each day a 12-hour slog of "being on."

I discovered that failed spring that I had spent so much time writing about my research and teaching that I hadn't spent as much time as I should have doing either of those things. If I wanted to be competitive on the market, I was told, I needed to get another article out, seek out more external grants, develop more new courses, and find even more opportunities for professional service.

But if you want to have a new publication or a new course on your CV for the next hiring season, you need to have those materials ready to go just as the last job market is spiraling into its death spin. And by then, you are already behind if you take into account the deadlines for getting new courses approved, or the four-to-six month review period for journals, or the possibility that an article will be rejected or require revision and resubmission.

April must be the cruelest month for unsuccessful job candidates. It's like finding out that you have to run a sprint after you've just run a marathon.

Somehow, though, I managed to write another article, get another fellowship, develop another course, join a committee, go to a conference, and return to my job materials with a frank assessment. When this year's hiring season got under way in 2010, I left my research and teaching (not to mention my now long-suffering family) to steep once again while I prepared my applications. And when I had 10 conference and phone interviews, I felt that familiar feeling of optimism and rising confidence. More is more, I thought, especially when it comes to the odds of landing a tenure-track job.

But as the weeks ticked by after MLA, I found myself keeping company with my old friends, rejection and uncertainty. They were increasingly accompanied by a new visitor, panic. And although I managed to get two campus visits by the end of January—one of which turned out to be "the one"—I had a hard time coming to terms with the other eight departments that didn't bring me to campus.

I tallied them up with the other positions that were now lost to me. Less is less, I worried. And maybe I just hadn't done enough.

Much ire has been directed lately at those "mad as hell" Ph.D.'s in the humanities who naively entered into a tanking job market and seem to feel entitled to tenure-track employment. What rarely gets mentioned, however, is the fact that almost no job candidate actually expects that a Ph.D. will, in and of itself, result in a tenure-track position.

We are told, however, that there are certain things we can do that will make us marketable. We're given to believe that if we start presenting papers at conferences and meeting the right people, we'll be well-positioned; that if we publish, we'll be strong candidates; that if we publish in really excellent venues, we'll rise to the top of the applicant pool; that external grants and awards will distinguish us; that lots of teaching experience at different institutions and service to our profession will make us the complete package.

And we're given to believe that we will be unstoppable forces on the market if we can do all of that and learn how to charm search committees.

Then, when a job candidate has done all of those things and doesn't get an interview, never mind a job, there may be some cause for being mad as hell. In my experience, most job candidates aren't mad. They're spent. And they're sad. And they're scared. And they are given to believe that next year, maybe one more thing will push them over the finish line and finally reveal academe to be the meritocracy so many of us are still secretly convinced it is.

When I finally got the call offering me the tenure-track job, I was just too tired to celebrate. And it seemed incredibly callous to yelp, dance, or run through the halls when I knew that more than 100 other exhausted candidates would get a form letter from a search committee or human resources. It seemed even more callous when I knew that the two other job candidates who had been invited to the campus would have to tell their advisers, friends, and families that they didn't get the job for which they had already worked so hard.

It's a small world, and so I knew one of the other candidates. That person had a spouse and a baby and, like me, had been living through rejections the last two job seasons and then working hard to do more and then even more. I didn't know the third candidate, but I did know how the job search can affect your scholarship, teaching, service, and personal life. What would it mean for both of them, and even for the profession, I wondered, if they had to sprint forward to another marathon or drop out of the race altogether?

I know that there aren't any easy solutions to fixing the job market in the humanities. But the toll it has taken will be felt for a very long time: by those who haven't yet gotten a tenure-track position, and also by those who have.

Sally Racket is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in the humanities at a research institution in the South.