Tenured Folk: Is It Safe To Go Back On The Job Market?

July 29, 2011, 1:16 pm

Are you chum and the job market the Big White One?

In the case of the Tenured Radical, I think we can say:  most definitely yes.  After two years on the job market, I recently accepted an offer of a tenured faculty position at rank. While I have not yet entirely digested the experience, I have a few reflections on it in the event that you too are thinking about going on the market as a senior person.

I know, I know.  All of my advice is supposed to be for the nontenured or the jobless.  But senior people have dreams too, don’t they?  So after years of telling other people what to do, I put some of my own advice into practice.

Acknowledge that it’s a big step. Such a big step, in fact, that after I sent off my first job application eighteen months ago I became briefly elated, a state of mind that was followed by a longer (although short) depression.  Reflecting on this, I can say one thing for sure:  if you have been at one school for a long time (in my case, nearly my whole career); if you have summoned the nerve to put yourself out there to be rejected; if you have written a letter that is based on finding something out about the school and imagining yourself there — well, all of those things separate you ever so slightly from your place of employ.  I found it unnerving, although I got used to it.

Apply for jobs that actually interest you and you may do well. The three jobs I applied for were all very different: two of them asked for administrative experience (which I have) and one wanted the whole teaching/colleagueship/scholarship package in which we claim to specialize at Zenith. But the interesting fact for me is that I was interviewed at every university to which I applied, even though they were very different jobs.  My feeling is that this had something to do with finding a strong correlation between the job, the university itself, and the things that I was personally interested in pursuing at this point in my career.  Hence, each job spoke both to a deep intellectual commitment of mine, and to a sense of what that particular job might accomplish for the next stage of my life as a scholar.

Talk to people who work at the institutions that interest you, and people who know people who work there. This isn’t primarily a strategy for writing a great job letter:  it’s a strategy for figuring out whether your sense of the institution and its intersection with your interests is accurate, whether it is worth your time to pursue this particular job, and if so, what you will use the very short time you have to talk to the people there for.  That said, if you get discouraging information about your prospects for being hired at a place you would like to work, you shouldn’t necessarily be discouraged.  When I inquired about one institution I was told repeatedly that their priority would be to hire a woman of color (which I am not.)  This made me like them even more because if I had been running the search, this is exactly what I would have wanted to do.  Hence, my predisposition to admire them — and a number of subsequent encounters that illustrated the depth of the department’s intellectual commitment to cutting edge knowledge in the field that demands an attention to race, gender, sexuality and post-colonial critique — made me even more determined to compete hard for the job.

Have at least one letter that testifies to your strengths as a colleague and/or a teacher. There are very few of us who are so famous that we can be hired without regard to our behavior, our teaching or our administrative skills. Furthermore, there are only a select few institutions that are just trolling for “stars” who will make the university lustrous but contribute little to a department’s functions.  While as a senior person you may feel that it is your privilege to shed some of the responsibilities you had in your old job, bringing on a full professor who is phoning it in and sees the salary as a publishing stipend is something very few departments can afford.

In my case, I applied for one job as a faculty dean and another as a chair (I received an offer for neither one) so the administrative chops were very much an issue.  However, it was also on the table for job #3, a full faculty line, which is the one I was offered and have accepted.

Expand your view of what counts as a positive job market experience. Lest you think that I have rhinoceros hide, I would say that when I realized that I would not be offered jobs #1 and #2, I was as disappointed as the average aspiring tenure-tracker.  Not devastated, you understand, because I had a good job already.  But devastated in a different way, since campus interviews as a senior person are entirely different.  People treat you really well. You also have the opportunity to meet lots of very accomplished people, up to and including the administrators you would report to and the administrative staff who would support you.  At one school, I met everyone from the president on down, and they were all smart and interesting; at two schools, the administrative staff was thoroughly integrated into the work of the department and had a tremendous intellectual, as well as professional, commitment to the enterprise.  Through these meetings with the people who you would work with, many of which are devoted to hypothetical problem-solving and your vision, you begin to develop a sense of whom you would be if you worked there.  You begin to like this person, and you fantasize that you have become hir. I left all my interviews feeling excited, and this is, of course why the disappointment was so keen in the cases where the school made another choice.  There was a life that I imagined I might have that was suddenly foreclosed.  Of course, the job I did get was a huge thrill, for exactly the same reason.

How do you deal with failure on the market as a senior person? First off, you are already a senior person somewhere:  this means you have a successful career, whatever you might want to change or improve.  Second, because I applied for a limited number of jobs and was interviewed for all of them, I don’t feel that I failed in any respect (particularly since I was offered a wonderful job.)  In relation to not receiving an offer from the two other universities, you might notice above that I used the phrase “the school made another choice.”  That’s literally true for all jobs at all ranks that you get a campus interview for: you aren’t rejected (I sometimes hear disappointed candidates use the word “blocked,” as if a cabal in the department halted their natural ascension to the job they deserved), you just weren’t chosen.

Not being chosen doesn’t mean you failed.  This is even more important to remember for senior positions, because the “fit” has to be forever, and excellent candidates who did great interviews will not be chosen for reasons they are not responsible for.  There are institutional agendas that even a well-informed candidate can’t possibly know.  It’s also important to remember that you may be working so hard to demonstrate that you are a good fit for them that you might be missing important information about why it isn’t the right job for you, much as you might want it to be.  In other words, you doing the greatest interview you can do may have demonstrated to them why you are fabulous, but someone else is right for the job.

How does blogging affect your candidacy? Who the heck knows? I do know I was asked about it at all the schools.  For one I think the question was accompanied with some anxiety, since the position there would have been very high profile (I pointed out that the President of Zenith blogs too, and that the tone of a blog has to align with a person’s responsibilities to others in the meat world.)  For the other two jobs, I am pretty sure the blogging was a positive, particularly with the younger set.  But do have something coherent to say about your blog, particularly to the full professors:  most people over 50 don’t really know that half the things they read on-line are blogs, and what they have in their mind is Cousin Suzy who posted something horrible after the annual Christmas eve party two years ago.  A significant on-line presence, if you have one, is something that you bring to the table in a new job.  Make sure they know that you understand the dimensions of that, as well as its perils.

What was the most unexpected aspect of the search? I discovered in my own job search that the private-public university gap is bigger than I thought and it is hard to cross from the private side.  A great many people with whom I interviewed in the campus visits I had at public unis seemed skeptical that someone who had enjoyed the benefits of a private institution for her entire career could make the leap to their campus.  Being a cheerful, hard-working and optimistic person, I viewed this passage as a learning curve issue, but my impression is that those who interviewed me thought it was a far more serious problem and that I was underestimating its difficulties.  I have several plausible versions of why they may have thought this, drawn from conversations I have had from friends, but I would say that it is a misconception that most of us from small, comparatively wealthy institutions would be unhappy, or couldn’t hack it, at a big public. That said, one friend of mine who did make the jump said that the differences are navigable, but real, and are something that anyone like me (who had genuinely wanted to work at a public institution) should think about more seriously than I had.

How do you tell your friends you are leaving? It’s really hard, particularly if you have grown up (I don’t just mean getting older) at your first job, as I have at Zenith.  On the other hand, I will be rejoining three colleagues from earlier lives, and getting to work with another young person who I once interviewed and wanted very much to hire.  I also try to remind myself that in The World, people change jobs all the time and they don’t lose all their friends.

So stay tuned for the Progress of the Radical as I transition over the next year, keeping old friends and making new ones.  And of course, the job-lorn might want to click here for the opportunity to replace me while I take a year’s leave from Zenith, beginning in January.

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