The Season Finale of My Search

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

August 20, 2012

Like the season finale of a new television show, my first year on the job market in Britain ended with an unexpected surprise, a bit of sorrow, and a cliffhanger. The unexpected surprise is that I got a job offer. In fact, I got two.

First, a college where I had been teaching part time asked me to take over the job of adviser and administrator for incoming and second-year undergraduates in the new academic year. Besides teaching courses in my field, I would help students arrange their classes, keep up with their progress, and generally watch over them. In certain ways, it's my dream job since it involves a great deal of student contact and administrative work that I've never done before but that interests me. The only problem: The position is part time, with a small salary.

A week later, I had an interview at a top British university, an interview I was sure I had failed by being too confident and too relaxed. In fact, apparently I had succeeded by being just those things. British universities make hiring decisions much more quickly than American ones do. Three days after my interview, I discovered not only that I had been chosen but that the department didn't have any other candidates if I said no.

The phone call offering me the job was an immense relief and pleasure. But what I found most interesting was the assumption on the part of the caller that I would accept instantly. She seemed to have no expectation that I would negotiate or consider turning down the offer. When I asked her some questions that are the norm in the United States, she was clearly taken aback. What were the retirement benefits? She didn't know. How many courses would I have to teach? She couldn't precisely say.

Even lacking the answers to those questions, it was a very good job, the kind of job I'd been hoping to get all year. Nonetheless, I had worries. For one thing, it became clear during the interview that the university was extremely research oriented. I am not. I think research is vitally important, certainly, but I rank it equally with teaching, not above it.

For another, the job offered me nothing new: It would not involve any advising or administrative duties that would challenge or stretch my skills. What it would offer was a permanent position with a salary. And that's pretty hard to beat.

In the face of uncertainty, I did what every wise academic does: I began to do some research. In this case, that meant I sought out advice from pretty much everyone I knew: My mother all but begged me to take the research job. A friend pointed out that there was a lot to be said for being in a job while you look for another. But my best (nonacademic) friend pointed out that sometimes fulfillment outranks salary.

I consulted Web sites that offered contradictory advice: "If you got one job offer, you can get another," and, "In these straitened times, think very carefully before you turn down a job."

The comment that truly swayed me, though, came from an utterly disinterested observer, an English friend who was not an academic. "I can't give you any professional opinion," he said, "but I can tell you that it's a terrific university. But there's nothing else there."

Wait, I thought, didn't I just leave that party? I moved overseas after quitting a tenure-track job in the United States because I was miserable in the isolated location. (Oddly enough, shortly before my interview with the British research university, my old American institution informally asked me to reapply for my former position. I declined.)

Past experience had shown that, for me, the quality and support of a university couldn't make up for its isolation. Present experience has shown me that, in these straitened times, you cannot "publish your way out of anywhere" or "always find a better job than the one you're in." These days, once you're in a job, you might be stuck there forever—although the same, I realize, might be said once you're out of a job.

So I turned down the full-time offer at the isolated research university and accepted the low-salaried, part-time job I really wanted at the British college.

I am both pleased by my decision, and terrified. What if I don't get another full-time offer? Ever? In fact, that possibility veered into the realm of reality almost immediately, when I wasn't granted even an interview for a different full-time position at my current college (that was the sorrow in my season finale). I was wounded by that, but the hiring committee explained that it had found other candidates more qualified for that particular post. I had intended to use the 2011-12 academic year to settle in and establish myself. Instead, as 2012-13 approaches, I find myself established only as a part-time employee, with more responsibility and not much money to show for it.

Yet I've accomplished a great deal in the last 12 months. I've kept writing and publishing while teaching over 20 hours a week, and I've been proud of what I've written, and felt it was significant work, which I've rarely felt before. I've established myself in a new country from scratch, even if that has involved foolish choices and nasty surprises. It also involved some lovely perqs, like free cake, a different one each day, in the faculty common room.

Perhaps more important, I've learned that my devotion to my career, and to my subject, doesn't spring from any source but myself. The articles and reviews I wrote and published over the past year were written for my own pleasure, or out of my own sense of determination. I started a writing program at my college out of a conviction that all university students can improve their writing, and that program has taken root and grown.

"They don't just say that you teach them writing," the head of my college said to me recently about my students. "You give them confidence." In an institution that appears to offer precious little of that commodity, I'm proud to be singled out for supplying it.

All of which is very fine on the "you go, girl!" level, but still leaves me underemployed in Britain. Moreover, the Research Excellence Framework, the review effort that was responsible for producing so many open faculty positions this year, ends in 2014, so there may be fewer jobs advertised. That is a worry, and I'm a worrier, so I'm worried (this is the cliffhanger). I've learned this year that a heavily research-oriented job, especially in a remote location, is not what I want. And I continue to believe, for some inexplicable reason, that it will all work out.

But I still haven't told my mother I didn't take the full-time job.

Emma Thornton is the pseudonym of a Ph.D in the humanities who is teaching in part-time positions in Britain.