What I Saw at the Job Conference

February 16, 2001

With my job search in full swing and my dissertation still undefended, you might be surprised to learn that I'm spending a lot of time these days listening to the soundtrack from A Chorus Line. I even picked up a copy of the music and lyrics. While my career hangs in the balance, I plink out show tunes on the piano, begging my wife to sing along.

Facing my 35th birthday and weeks from my defense, I have come to read A Chorus Line as strangely autobiographical. The 1975 Broadway hit seems to perfectly describe my current situation. Although the story is about a group of aspiring dancers, it's really about a job search; specifically, the anxieties and self-doubt that one experiences in trying to land a job in a tight market.

My favorite is the opening number, "I Hope I Get It," where the dancers are lined up with their publicity shots, singing brief solos like, "I really need this job. Please, God, I need this job. I've got to get this job!"

I couldn't get this song out of my head last month, as I spent four days in job interviews at the American Historical Association's (AHA) annual conference. As readers of my previous columns will know, this year's job search goal was not employment. All I wanted was to land twice the number of conference interviews as last year, and to top things off with the holy grail that is the campus visit.

How did I do? I bagged seven interviews at the conference (as opposed to last year's three), and am still holding out for a campus interview. So far so good.

Let me try to recreate the atmosphere of the job conference, an event with few ready parallels beyond the Broadway casting call. This happening combines giddy expectation and almost unimaginable pathos; a meeting of alleged scholars where fate seems as random as a winning lottery ticket; where each participant comes face to face with blissful redemption or conclusive rejection. If you want an academic appointment in the humanities or social sciences, this conference, be it heartbreaking or euphoric, is as essential as the signed dissertation. Come and take a look inside.

Colleges invite the top-20 applicants for their fall job openings to pay their own way to the winter conference. The event takes place in a big American convention town -- D.C., Boston, New York, San Francisco, or Chicago -- always situated in the most lavishly appointed hotel complex, never more than spitting distance from the best restaurants and (need I even mention it?) shopping.

So uniform is the conference experience across disciplines that only the fashion sense of the participants differentiates them. If the search committee is clad in all black, outfitted with two silk scarves apiece and pierced eyebrows, you are probably at the Modern Language Association meeting. If the committee chairman is sporting a brown polyester blazer with corduroy elbow patches, then you're at my conference, the A.H.A.

The format for job interviews at the history conference is straightforward and always the same: Half-hour meetings with a search committee of three to five faculty members from each college. The interviews take place in a massive convention hall which has been divided into hundreds of tiny, curtained cubicles. During the interview itself, you will hear swirling around you a symphony -- nay, a cacophony -- of voices identical to your own. If you don't know the answer to a given question -- for example, "How do you incorporate peer review into your teaching?" -- don't panic. In a moment or two, the answer will be supplied by a candidate sitting yards away, separated by that curtain.

After the interviews, the search committees narrow their candidate field to three lucky winners, who are then fingered for the much-discussed campus interview.

You certainly don't need a Ph.D. to spot the inequities so poorly concealed in this set-up. On the one hand, you have graduate students, forced to pony up $600 or $700 apiece to fly to the opposite coast and stay in a corporate hotel where, in rushed, 30-minute interviews, they try desperately to distinguish themselves from dozens and dozens of others whose qualifications and appearance are indistinguishable.

It would be hard to imagine a more pathetic, brow-beaten, and dispirited crowd than the mass of A.B.D. history grads I met at last month's A.H.A meeting. I haven't clasped so many clammy and trembling hands in a decade and a half of academic functions. Most astonishing was the palpable lack of confidence and overwhelming sense of vulnerability that I sensed in everyone I met. Didn't anyone read the widely reported statistics showing that this was the best history market in years?

Let's not forget that this is the Underachievers Club, where the revolution of falling expectations continues to gnaw at the A.B.D.'s sense of self-worth, even as faculty retirements open more and more positions every year. Who would have guessed that these are young academics resident in the United States, a land awash in the triumphalism of our post-Cold War hegemony? These may be the last Americans who are utterly, completely unsure of themselves, who have mortgaged the prime of their youth for a pie-in-the-sky job that won't pay 40K, whose future is a complete mystery even to them.

But never mind the hoi polloi grads, who are like so many cookie-cutter proletarian automatons in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. There is another class present at the conferences. These are the members of the interviewing committees, all tenured faculty members with steady incomes, who are enjoying their annual junket. Unlike the graduate students, who scramble to split the cost of rooms with their competitors and spend hours each night hungrily searching for budget eating options, the faculty reps take over entire hotel suites, schmoozing with colleagues in the overpriced lobby restaurant, and expensing even those grande frappucinos that they sip with impunity during the interviews.

The transcendent inequalities of the academic conference, so fixed in the minds of both the junket winners and the poor saps who pay and pay, may have already spawned a new raison d'etre for the entire academic establishment. After participating in a few of these conferences as an interviewee -- that is, as the cash cow -- you will cease to think of academic employment as anything other than a way to eventually come back on someone else's dime. A tenure-track appointment offers many rewards, but none will be sweeter than your first free A.H.A. or M.L.A., resplendent in all the glory that is the king-sized bed, sample shampoos, souvenir stationary, and those killer nachos in the hotel bar.

The night I returned from the conference, my Mom called to see how things went. "Which school did you like the best?" she asked. Posed to this card-carrying underachiever, the question seemed absurd.

"You don't get it, Mom," I moaned into the telephone. "What I want -- what I like or don't like -- is completely irrelevant. Ever hear of a buyer's market? This is a buyer's market, Mom, and I'm one of thousands trying to unload a piece of lousy property."

"Well, then," she said, cautiously, choosing her words this time, "where do you think you have a good chance?"

"Where do I have a chance?" I asked in disbelief. "You want to know where I see myself, Mom? Give me a two-year evangelical commuter college on the I-95 corridor, perhaps bordering a Superfund clean-up site, and I'll say: 'Hello Lady Luck! This job's got my name written all over it.'"

Of course, not everyone has the stomach for the molasses-slow humanities job search. Some graduate students come away from their first conference and immediately throw in the towel. Not me. I'm holding out for that phone call from one of the search committees. It could come any day now. I've taken to killing time at the keyboard, and have returned to the first number from A Chorus Line: "I really need this job. Please, God, I need this job. I've got to get this job!"

But as I now know, landing the job is only a prelude to the real prize. That's what I learned during my four days at the A.H.A., and I am now more determined than ever. I want my free conference, and I don't care how long I have to wait.

Daniel Kowalsky, a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is writing about his search for a tenure-track job this academic year in a regular column for Career Network.