Friday, September 14, 2007

A Reply to a First Time Job Seeker.

As it happens, I have been teaching Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience this week. Blake’s answer to your question would be, “No, you can’t get it back, but why would you want to?” Oh great, answering a question with a question, I hear you say. Not to mention channeling a writer who has been dead for, oh, 175 years or so.

I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years. (I have tenure at a moderately selective private college.) There are no guarantees, of course, but you sound like a perfectly good prospect for any number of decent academic jobs. I was on a search committee for a Literature position last year. The position was approved late and we were afraid we’d have a weak – and small – pool of applicants. As it turned out, we got about seventy-five applications, at least half of which were appropriate for the job. The other half really did not fit the job description we had published and apparently were just using a shotgun approach. If the job is in 19th century British Lit and you mostly did the American Transcendentalists (yeah, I know, nobody does them anymore) but also took a seminar in Wordsworth, you are just not going to be hired. Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste our time. (Departments have a responsibility, by the way, to write job descriptions that actually describe the job.) Applicant files that come in late in the process have a much worse chance of being taken seriously: Check the joblists regularly and get your file off quickly. It may sit on a secretary’s desk for a while, but it will be complete and in the file box when a member of the hiring committee comes in on a weekend to begin reading files.

Anyway, back to my department’s recent position: Working separately, the three members of the committee (an assistant, an associate and a full prof) read all of the application files and made notes. When we got together with our rough lists of best applicants there was a remarkable amount of overlap. Any of them could have done the job. This may sound very basic, but the key thing that all the top applicants shared was that they had responded specifically to our job announcement. The cover letters described specifically how the applicant’s training and experience fit the statements in the job description. We asked for a statement of teaching philosophy: each of the top files had one. The letters of reference or placement files arrived in time for us to read them with the rest of the file. You may not believe this, but as I read the files, I always started out rooting for the applicant. I wanted each of them to get the job and was disappointed when a cover letter or a c.v. or teaching statement faltered and I had to move the applicant down my evolving list. I also kept a copy of our job announcement on my desk to remind me to stay focused.

So what happened? Our top candidate took another job before we could invite her for an interview. We brought the next two candidates to campus for interviews. Our second choice withdrew and took a job outside academia. We hired the third person on our list. We would have been happy with any of the top ten. That fact could be either comforting to the person just going on the job market, or terrifying, I suppose, depending on how one frames it. Contingency is ever present. Why did the hiring committee like Dr. Able a little more than Dr. Baker? Hard to say, just a feeling. You cannot do anything about that, but you can do something about all those other things. And that means you have some control over the process.

It is painful to be ejected from the garden into the world of experience. But who would want to remain a child forever? To quote God, from the 2nd chapter of Genesis, “You will earn your living by the sweat of your brow.” Thorns, snakes, bullshit & search committees. And if you’re willing to adjunct for a decade – you do love teaching, don’t you? – I’ll be retiring. Just kidding. This is RYS, after all.