Monday, November 05, 2012

The application season of broken dreams

Like Bardiac, I spent part of the weekend reading job applications, and like Bardiac, I also came across some eccentric ones: applicants who weren't remotely qualified for the position, or who submitted highly peculiar job letters, or both.

But although the weirdo applications are the more amusing to talk about, the for-real ones inspire stronger emotions. First, of course, is enthusiasm: it's invigorating to learn about so many interesting projects and to be introduced to so many interesting applicants. Second, however, come the sobering reminders of what awaits so many of these promising applicants.

Hints of their fates--or if not their specific fates, then the fates of many like them--are readily apparent in their cover letters and vitae. A surprising number of candidates are U.S. citizens now teaching overseas. In some cases, I imagine, the gig is a largely or entirely positive experience: a one-year immersion in a foreign culture, a chance to teach a wide range of classes to an unusual group of students, and a welcome adventure after the long slog of graduate school. But in other cases the applicants have spent many years abroad, often moving from country to country, and in positions that don't permit them to teach within their area of specialization.

Then there are the applicants who are still here in the States, but stringing together several adjunct positions two or three or five years after getting their degrees. There are a few who have actually stopped adjuncting, and hence teaching, bowing to the need for a more reliable job--but who are still hoping they might be viable candidates on the academic job market.

And finally there are the superficially more secure candidates: those comfortably ensconced in cushy visiting positions, cranking out multiple publications a year, possessed of sterling letters of reference from some of the biggest names in the discipline. . . but who can't seem to land a tenure-line job. Usually, they're not a good fit for our position, and not really a good fit for any position according to the conventional job-market categories. I'm not talking about someone whose work spans, say, the Victorian and Modernist divide (although those people can struggle, too); I'm talking about someone who's written a book with one chapter on Marlowe, one on Blake, one on Oscar Wilde, and one on Lady Gaga.

Let me be clear: none of the above scenarios is necessarily a dealbreaker or a kiss of doom; we all know people who took three or five or ten years to get a tenure-line job, but eventually wound up with a great one. But I look at these applicants and I think: Gawd. This fucking profession.


Anonymous said...

Just because a candidate isn't a good fit "for any job market categories" shouldn't preclude you from hiring an intellectual odd duck (capable of filling your teaching needs, of course) if her/his eccentricity would enhance your department. Job market categories exercise an intellectual tyranny that leads students to write paint-by-numbers dissertations in order to be immediately intellectually recognizable in the ten seconds a job letter gets. Take a risk on one of the weird ones.

Sisyphus said...

Ooh ooh all of the "Marlowe/Emerson/Wilde/Lady Gaga" grads are over here as postdocs!! And I don't think any of them will ever get jobs --- what will they teach? They haven't really gotten the experience to cover the surveys on one side of the Atlantic or the other, even now, and from talking to them I can tell you that they have *amazing* gaps in the historical context and criticism for my chosen time period.

Weird and interesting topics is good. Not having read (much less taught) a major canonical author who hung out with your Pet Author of Chapter 3, bad idea.

Flavia said...

Anon: what Sisyphus said.

I'm not endorsing the (somewhat arbitrary) conventional job-market categories, and I agree that the eccentrics are often the truly original thinkers; I really groove on some of the work that's being done by applicants who nevertheless are totally inappropriate for this job.

It's one thing for someone's research not really to align with the conventional job categories; that's fine. It's another if s/he's never taught anything close to the courses we need taught--and doesn't seem enough of an expert in the relevant field(s) to do so going forward. Our curriculum drives our hiring needs, and it's student need/demand that gets our lines approved.

I also think (and this is a side point) that it's an abdication of advisor/program responsibility to let a student write a Marlowe/Blake/Wilde/Gaga dissertation (that's a made-up example, obviously, but people do write such things). I'd never vote to hire anyone with a dull, paint-by-numbers dissertation. . . but it's also true that there's time enough for the wildly experimental project as one's second or third book--when one is not only more professionally secure, but also more likely to have the scholarly and intellectual chops to pull it off.

Dr. Crazy said...

This bears repeating:

"I also think (and this is a side point) that it's an abdication of advisor/program responsibility to let a student write a Marlowe/Blake/Wilde/Gaga dissertation (that's a made-up example, obviously, but people do write such things). I'd never vote to hire anyone with a dull, paint-by-numbers dissertation. . . but it's also true that there's time enough for the wildly experimental project as one's second or third book--when one is not only more professionally secure, but also more likely to have the scholarly and intellectual chops to pull it off."

The best advice I ever got when conceiving my dissertation project was that it was not the CULMINATING project in my career, but rather that it was a job-seeking document, the first major project I'd ever complete. Did that mean that I didn't "follow my bliss" in the dissertation that I ultimately wrote? Kind of. I still wrote about stuff I was passionate about, and that as my first book provided a useful if limited intervention in my field, but it didn't cross hiring fields, and it did help me to get the job I've got.

Because you know what? The whole point was being viable for a secure position that would allow me to pursue my more radical ideas FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. Now with tenure, I'm writing a version of the book I'd imagined as a dissertating grad student, and 1) the idea is better for the experiences I had teaching in my field full-time for six years before embarking on the project and 2) I get to live a nice life with a house and health insurance and a solidly middle-class salary while writing that book. I can't say enough about how good of a trade-off that was. And, no, I don't think that trade-off was "selling out" or something.

This second book is good for my teaching and my enthusiasm and my engagement with the discipline. Even if it doesn't rock everybody's world when it's done, and it likely won't, I do know that it's doing really important work at least in the microcosm of my university and for the small group of students that I teach. Had I written this as a dissertation? Frankly, it wouldn't have done anybody much good - not only would it have hurt my chances at full-time employment, but also it wouldn't make any impact on students in the discipline, because I'd only be teaching comp. That sucks. Yes. Gawd, this fucking discipline. But it's the truth.

EngLitProf said...

The rules of confidentiality, professionalism, and tact prevent us from playing a game of “What’s the most unmarketable dissertation topic you’ve come across?” I will only say that I have been surprised at some projects that students at even the best programs are professionally clueless enough to come up with. A few years ago a former student came up to me at the MLA convention to ask for job-market advice. He had gone to one of the best Ph.D. programs in my discipline, but he had written on an author who is only a step or two above Wyatt and Surrey in people’s thinking; he had written on a single work by that writer; and he had written the dissertation in a form that meant it could not be transformed into either a book-length argument or into a series of articles. I wish I could go into more detail.

Flavia said...

Dr. Crazy:

Sing it, sister.


Oh, now I dearly want to know! But you're right that we could play this game for ages. Sometimes a student really can't be dissuaded (I know at least one case like that), but more often such dissertations are the result of indifferent or disengaged advisors. It's their job to steer students in a productive and manageable direction.

Comrade Physioprof said...

It is interesting to hear about the humanities aspect to this. I advise my PhD students that it is their grad student years when they can afford to take the biggest scholarly risks--go big or go home--until they reach tenure. As post-docs and junior faculty, they need to be more conservative and focus on being "sellable".

Doctor Cleveland said...

I deny that any early modern writer is a step *above* Wyatt and Surrey!


EngLitProf said...

You know, I would hate to see Flavia’s blog boycotted by Doctor Cleveland and the other Wyatt and Surrey devotees over at the *Tottel’s Miscellany* Guild, but we do need some names to exemplify the authors a young scholar should not be too insistent about specializing in. In the interests of peace, maybe we should use Thomas Lovell Beddoes or Jack London?

On eccentricity: it is amazing how a novice can make a bad pitch for a good idea. I have a friend whose first book has a title with the form “GreatAuthor’s Adjective Something.” However, back when it was a dissertation, he always described his topic as “How GreatAuthor Uses the Word ‘Something’ in His Letters.” No, no, no.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I am, obviously, just pulling your leg, ELP. Sorry if I pulled clumsily.

EngLitProf said...

I knew *you* were joking, Doctor Cleveland. But there are rapid fans of Sir Thomas Wyatt out there, grabbing people in the street, and shouting, “What do you mean, Petrarch’s original is better?” And Surrey people still haven't gotten over that whole business about the beheading.

Bardiac said...

The Marlowe/Emerson/Wilde/Lady Gaga sounds a little out there, but if you switch out Emerson for Whitman, I bet you'd have the latest queer theory across the times diss.

But yep, it's heartbreaking to read all the great apps and know we're aiming to hire only one.

Flavia said...


That's interesting. I get why candidates would have to/benefit from being intellectually conservative as post-docs--but why as junior faculty? And what is it, structurally, that allows them to be bigger risk-takers in grad school?

Academic Drag said...

As one of those academic untouchables, I find this post incredibly depressing. Even though you put in a disclaimer that these aren't NECESSARILY dealbreakers, it's clear that those five-year-out TT positions are the exception, and most of us are just damaged goods once we've stooped to adjuncting to pay the bills. I was "lucky" enough to get my degree in 2008, just in time for the Great Job Market Implosion,and fell into the 6-courses a semester/two campuses rut out of desperation. Now, even though my dissertation and research were strong and my teaching evaluations are pretty glowing, I have very little hope of even getting a second look. I fool myself into thinking that I'll be able to eke out the extra hours of the day to someday write my way out of this hole, but I've basically lost hope of ever getting an actual job. I don't know if your post and sympathy make me feel better or worse, or just settle right into my overall sense of demoralization.

Flavia said...

Academic Drag:

You have my sympathies, though that isn't quite what I said. A five-year-old PhD who hasn't yet landed a TT job is by no means damaged goods as a candidate at my institution, and good credentials will hold their value (not forever, but a few years aren't make-or-break). There's absolutely no reason a recent PhD is *inherently* superior to an older one, especially if the hiring institution cares about teaching experience. (Personally, I'd rather hire someone a few years post-degree than someone who's defending in the spring.)

If the candidate doesn't have any publications, well, that's a problem. But it's a problem whether she's ABD or post-degree.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but I've only just read it - this is really very interesting, especially to hear from the US side of things - the idea that it would be a bad idea to write a PhD on some author who is 'only a step or two above Wyatt and Surrey in people’s thinking' is totally foreign to my experience the UK, where the majority of early modern PhDs are on stuff no one's ever heard of, let alone thought about. Wyatt and Surrey sound wildly canonical! Sounds like another of many reasons why it's very difficult to imagine landing US positions with a UK educational background - and makes me wonder whether this is actually a problem for job-seeking PhDs in the UK.