Media. Cultural Studies. Writing.

The Academic Job Market: One Year Later.

Category : media studies, memory · by Apr 12th, 2011
Emo Spring!

One year ago today, I had given up hope.

Every Sunday in the summer of 2009 my partner and I went to a small donut shop in East Syracuse, ordered two donuts, and took a booth in the corner. Millworkers came in to buy coffee and lotto tickets. We worked on research statements and teaching philosophies. In late September we hung a map of the United States on the wall of our Syracuse apartment, and began to stick a pin in the map for every appropriate job listing we could find. By November there were 90 pins stuck in the map, color coded for tenure-track, visiting, and post-doc positions that each of us had applied to.

The process, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, was grueling. Winters in Syracuse, hardly a cakewalk to begin with, took on a darker pallor as rejections began to roll in. Between the two of us, we had received 3 dossier requests and one request for an MLA interview. I personally contributed 0 to that total, and busied myself with tending to the map–for every rejection letter, the pin went into the Atlantic Ocean. Things were getting pretty crowded in the Gulf by Christmas. All the while, I could feel myself changing–I was short with colleagues, my writing became fatigued and undisciplined, and the energy went out of my teaching. I stopped going to the gym, to grad parties, or even out to the movies. I had prepared myself, I thought, for the possibility that I would not be one of the lucky few to get a job in an incredibly competitive market without a completed dissertation (one particularly painful rejection letter was addressed to “Michael D. Dwyer, M.A.)–what I had not been prepared for was to garner absolutely no interest whatsoever. I’d done everything right in my grad career–publications, teaching, service, even fundraising–and it meant nothing, to anybody. Whenever I received a mass rejection email without the addressees blind-copied, I maniacally googled my competitors to find that they were not only people with degree in hand, but often highly accomplished scholars that already had jobs that I would kill for. After that happened three or four times, well, it became harder to go back to my library carrel to work on the eighth draft of the third chapter of my stupid, stupid dissertation.

I attended MLA in Philadelphia and did my absolute best to support my partner in her own harrowing interview process. Beyond that, however, it was fairly difficult for me to keep from screaming. My own department was running a search for a hire in my general field, and though I tried my very best to not learn anything about it, it was hard not to overhear my colleagues discussing the merits of this or that candidate and not scream “WHAT HAVE THEY DONE THAT I HAVEN’T???”. Whenever friends tried to offer support, I felt resentful and defensive, and then felt like a jerk for holding it against them.

A brief glimmer of hope in January (a phone interview! a campus visit!) was snuffed out by February when I realized that the only department that expressed any interest in me (a small state school with no media/cultural studies major) was not at all right for me. The interview alternated between awkward and inexplicably awkward (I have since come to understand that there was an internal candidate,  which explains some things). I found myself desperately hoping to get a job that I was terrified to actually take. When I got a request for an interview at SCMS a few weeks later, I thought of it as my last chance.

The conference was invigorating, the interview went well, and the campus visit that followed was infinitely more positive than my previous experience. The chair of the search thanked me for coming and told me that they’d make their decision in about a week.

Two weeks went by.

It was the last pin left on the map.


The following Friday I got a call from the Dean at Arcadia University, offering me the job. I took it, of course, and could not be happier with how things turned out for me.

I felt the need to write this experience down not so much to convince others to keep hope alive on their own job search–those kinds of stories never meant much to me before my own job search, and they sure as hell didn’t mean anything to me during those awful winter months. I don’t imagine my getting a job is much solace to any of the equally qualified people who didn’t in the last few years. Instead, I wanted to chronicle this experience so as to remind myself (and any who care to read it) that going on the market is so frustrating largely because it is so un-generalizable and unpredictable.

I certainly never imagined during all those months where I received a deluge of rejections that I would be even more frightened of getting an offer in March. But I was.  I didn’t anticipate the degree to which junior faculty testing the market waters (or just trying to move on to a new city) would impact my candidacy at small liberal arts schools. That happened too. And it was also the little things, like how after doing it approximately eleventy billion times, I still could never remember which way to put the department letterhead into the damned copier so my job letters printed out correctly, or how tiny insignificant things like mis-reading the intramural soccer schedule became indisputable proof that I could never, ever do anything right. I don’t think these are things that Gregory Semenza or Kathryn Hume should have included in an appendix or anything. I just think that for anybody that is tempted to offer advice on the job market, or try to compare your own experience of the job search with those of a peer, or colleague, or mentor, or whatever, would do well to account for the radical unpredictability of the experience as a whole.

One year later, I really only have one thing to say about the job search. I will say it three times.

It is not a meritocracy. It is not a meritocracy. It is not a meritocracy.

One can’t expect a certain experience of the job market because of the name of their department or their advisor, or where you’ve been published or how long you’ve been teaching, or any of that. That stuff matters, of course, in forming candidacies. I did the best I could to prepare for my job search, and I continue to do the best I can now, but I am under no illusions that I did the search “better” than any number of other qualified people, or “worse” than others. I fell into the right spot, and I’m thankful for that.

Which is not to say that I have survivor’s guilt–I think I deserved this job as much as anyone else did, and I’d like to think that I’m doing pretty well at it. It’s just that, like Munny told Little Bill and Snoop told Michael, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.


(2) comments

Jason Mittell
13 years ago · Reply

Great post! The metaphor I like to use for the academic job market is a poker tournament – you need skills to survive, but merit isn’t enough to keep you winning, as you need to get good cards along the way. And depending on what’s in your hand, “good cards” can be highly subjective. Thus success in the market is an indicator of merit (plus some luck), but failure is not necessarily due to lacking merit as maybe you just got stuck with crappy cards.

13 years ago · Reply

Great post. Your dead-on description of how the weather, the routines of late-stage PhD candidacy, and the mounting sense of failure (as your rejection letters stack up) warp together is… chilling.

Everyone keeps telling me that the main thing to understand about the job market today is how decidedly _accidental_ it is–that some little thing is going to trigger a success for you that you just never saw coming. As you rightly point out, though, that advice (and every other narrative about what does or doesn’t happen on the market) is hard to connect with when you’re in the midst of things. I think at the end of the day you have to use that frustration (and desolation) to motivate you to get more done. Having been on a search committee I can say that there’s a healthy dose of accidentality that discriminates between a vetted pool of candidates who managed to cross at least one initial threshold of viability.

Also, thanks for the tip about the donut shop. 😀

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