Thank You for Your Interest

June 09, 2005

I've been reading through the files documenting my recent job search, trying to gain some perspective.

My interpretive sense, honed by years of graduate study in history, tells me that the link between my interview at Harvard University and the one at a local community college is that neither was followed by an offer. Looking back at the letters from more than 20 search committees is an eye opener:

  • Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider you.

  • I am writing to acknowledge the receipt of your application.

  • Thank you very much for your expression of interest.

  • Thank you for your application for our advertised position.

  • Thank you for your application for the currently advertised possible position.

Reading through the pile of correspondence, I now know that I wasn't the only one confused. Some places relegated me to the reject pile so fast that they couldn't match letter and envelope ("Dear Dr. Gossemar, ..." Who?)

Others were so infused with confidence -- "We will make our decisions. ..." -- that I suspected, even though they had yet to proceed to the interview stage, that they had already made their selections.

Then there were the groups that seemed to exhibit no control over the process whatsoever. That less-intimidating bunch appears to have summoned celestial powers; they "hoped" to make the right choices and "expected" to meet certain deadlines.

My favorite letter tells of a meeting in the early fall scheduled "in anticipation of creating a shortlist of candidates to interview." I, for one, got all tingly waiting for that moment.

The fact that I'm able to reread those letters at all marks a noticeable change in my attitude. In the past, I burned such correspondence, and promptly followed that with a ceremonial flushing of the charred remains.

Don't get me wrong. As the final rejection letters, the ones stating the obvious -- "I am sure you realized some time ago that we did not go further with your candidacy" -- trickle into my mailbox, I've looked lovingly at boxes of matches and the commode. But since I'm sharing these details, I thought it might be better to express my dismay in another way. Besides, a good flushing may have saved Nemo, but, over the years, it hasn't helped me find a job.

So instead, I've been able to glean these nuggets from the (thankfully) brief rejection letters:

  • "Everyone on the committee had positive things to say about you and your preliminary interview."

  • "Your credentials were outstanding."

  • "Many of us are looking forward to seeing your book in print."

Hey, rejection isn't so bad.

I prefer honesty and have used the academic "F-word" (failure) to describe my search so far. Notice that I said "my search" and not myself.

For a long time in American history, unemployed individuals were blamed for their predicament. Those indolent Colonials, several centuries later, would be seen as victims of how society was designed -- it's the structure, stupid.

People advise you not to let feelings about a job search reflect feelings about your work (and, by extension, feelings about yourself). I understand why I'm not supposed to do that. The intimacy of rejection, though, is undeniable. To reject is to refuse to recognize (or to spit out, vomit). It's not surprising that each letter has affected me enough to cause stomach pains.

But no matter how sickened I've been by the entire job hunt, I also cannot deny how much I've learned. Presenting yourself to a search committee is different from other public and academic productions. The versatility required during job interviews is, in its own way, just as demanding as the mastery of a topic needed for most other academic situations.

I am a job candidate. What can I bring to an institution as a teacher, a scholar, a writer, an adviser? What have I done in the past, and, how would I change things in the future? Job interviews would be easier if they were just a lot of playing, singing, and dancing, but smoke and mirrors only gets you so far.

It's no secret why many departments are developing programs to help place their graduates in jobs outside of the traditional mission of doctoral departments: There are too many of us to fill too few tenure-track positions. The competition is real, and so is the whining (the one universal, interdisciplinary specialty in academe).

My tenured and nontenured (and never-to-be-tenured) friends all complain about their jobs. They are too busy to do adequate research. Their jobs don't pay enough. What will they do in six years when their contracts are up?

Six years? Wake up. I am complaining about now. I will also complain about later, whenever that may be.

Yes, I am dying a slow death through encouragement. Yes, I know that a book contract is a good thing. Yes, I am continuing to apply for every opening out there. Yes, professor, I am simply nodding to make you feel better about your role in all of this. Yes, I am.

Why is it so difficult to plan for next year when you don't have job? Isn't that a little strange? No matter. I have no ill will. And I'm going to keep reading my rejection letters; I'm sure some Truth lies therein:

So, I wish you well with your continued search, in case you have not yet found a position.


Scott Gac is a Ph.D. in American history who is in the final year of a postdoc at Yale University. He is chronicling his search for a tenure-track position. His first book, "Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Selling of Antebellum American Reform," is due out next year from Yale University Press.