Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Apply everywhere --- or should you?

It shouldn't be news to anybody that getting a tenure-track job in English is about as difficult as getting on a major-league baseball team. The job market is tight, the positions are rapidly being converted to adjunct and visiting positions, and there are more eager young grad students out there than you can shake a stick at. (Please don't shake sticks at the grad students. It only annoys them.)

So as I have been working up another year's worth of job applications I have been mindful of the advice drilled into my head: apply everywhere. You cannot be picky at this time of your life. You won't be able to tell if you'll love it there from the website or the job ad. Apply everywhere. Myself, I have been an application- sending machine, tossing envelopes at any job I seemed remotely qualified for.

I have seen fellow job-seekers be chided for leaving off schools in undesirable locations, with religious missions, with heavy teaching loads, schools with no name recognition. "You can't afford to be picky; it's easier to get a job if you have a job." It's understood now that no one ends up at their preferred level of school on the first time out and you have to work your way up. Apply there anyway --- you can "write your way out." While my department is still snooty, assuming that only students who get R1 jobs in desirable locations are a "success," they at least recognize that we don't get these kinds of jobs on the first go-round.

It's a buyer's market. Search committees can pick among hundreds of equally-qualified and brilliant applicants who do pretty much the same thing, so they think of the most exact "fit." Evidently us job-seekers are supposed to work to fit in exactly but not think about how the institution should or could fit to us.

Like I said, this is standard job-market advice at my school. But a recent dust-up over junior faculty who go back out on the market suggests that this is not as simple as it seems. All I've gotta say is that the whole profession should be talking more openly about how common it is for people with a job to go back out on the market, the "ethics" of it, and how it makes people feel. Because my department is openly teaching its students that this is standard business practice, not a sign of self-centered pomposity. Within the UC system itself it is common for us to "poach" junior faculty back and forth --- this is a major way our department moves up and down in the rankings. (Score two years ago: lost two, gained one. This past year: gained one.) When we lose someone, we are sad, (and it can be a huge inconvenience, especially for grad students, if this someone was supposed to fill a gaping hole in our studies) but it is hardly unexpected or described in the language of betrayal.

And this trend is just another sign of the crappy job market and larger structural patterns at work. The structure of the market itself is pressing junior faculty --- who don't have much "choice" in their jobs or locations before this stage of development --- to wait until they have jobs before considering their own desires and needs. If the "front end" of the system is structured to grant all the flexibility to the employers and none to the applicants, then it is not surprising that once applicants have jobs and some element of power they start seeking flexibility. It's like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, transposed to the employment world --- someone who is starving and unemployed (ahem! hello!) can't be picky about location or security or job quality, but as those lower needs are cared for, the job holder can move on to the more intangible needs and desires.

I like to think of myself as a pretty easy-going person who's happy pretty much anywhere and loves to teach and learn about a lot of different things. But I won't really know if I can thrive in any specific job until I get there. Right now my desires are for a paycheck. And some health insurance and retirement might be nice too. Once I have that I may be able to figure out what I really want, as a scholar and as a person. But I simply can't apply to only the places I am sure I would love --- the job chances just aren't that good. And I can't soul-searchingly ponder whether I could make a lifetime commitment to each and every school I am applying to --- besides the time constraints, there's the fact that I'm going to get a huge number of rejection letters, even if I do get some job offers, and the more I am invested in working at a school, the more heartbreaking each rejection is.

The old labor phrase goes, "we want bread and roses too." Is that too much to ask? Is there something wrong with the idea of searching first for one and then the other?


Fretful Porpentine said...

Well said. I'm stunned at how out-of-touch with the current realities of the market some of the people who have weighed in seem to be. And, in the end, it is a job -- not a marriage, not a religious vow. (There is a reason why hardly anybody gets married or takes holy orders after one forty-minute interview and one weekend visit with the prospective spouse or church, right? It's pretty silly to expect a lifetime commitment under those circumstances.)

heu mihi said...

I'm coming late to the whole discussion--been out of blog-touch this week, apparently--but wow. Like Fretful says, I'm stunned by some of the stuff I'm reading. I think you've hit on the situation, Sis, and that the power dynamic is exactly as you've described. Well put. And yes, MANY grad schools--like mine, for example--teach us that *of course* we'll want to keep looking until we get a job that suits us: i.e., to consider our own self-interest, at least to a reasonable extent.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

LOVE the Maslow's hierarchy of needs analogy. Brilliant.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

What NK said -- this particular analogy is perfect, I think. When I was an ABD on the market, I applied *almost* everywhere (about 30 out of 35 jobs that I was qualified for), avoiding only those that I knew for certain would be a disastrous fit. I recall coming home from one on-campus interview, thinking "I hope they don't offer me this job, because if they do, I know I'll take it."

Now, yr 5 on the TT at a better-than-average job, I can afford to look for some of those intangibles -- mainly because I'm getting 80% of my needs met where I'm at.

undine said...

Good advice. I just realized that I stole your word "dust-up" for my post on the issue (plagiarism!).

The Constructivist said...

I've been out of touch, too, since I finished that job letter advice thingie and while I understand the apply everywhere necessity, I want to reiterate that there are better and worse ways of going about doing it. If you send your standard R1 letter out to a teaching institution, you can almost kiss that job away. Yes, departments even at satellite schools in state systems can be incredibly picky even at the letter/c.v. evaluation stage. Here's why: people are getting better each year at writing fantastic standard letters. So there might be 100 equally qualified and interesting people who have to get culled down to 10-12 by MLA-time. How do search committees do this? They look for people who show that they have thought about the actual wording of the job ad and how they fit it, have researched the institution just a bit so they can customize their letter efficiently but effectively, and/or who have showed in other ways they are actually excited about working at that particular location/institution. At least that's how it's worked here in my going-on-10 years of searches I've been a part of in various ways.

On the junior faculty moving thing, I'll have to devote a post to that. The anti-looking attitude is pure b.s. While it's true that people who have made a commitment to changing an institution want to see a similar drive in others, you have to be pretty stuck-up about how awesome your town/city/institution is to be pissed at someone who wants to go elsewhere. Ridiculous.

Michael E. said...

Coming a little late to this, I want to assure that what you are being told -- that moving around as junior (and even senior) faculty is, in fact, a standard business practice. I have known people who have done, including several former graduate students from the program where I teach, and they have found the departments very sympathetic. As long as you have been a good citizen while you have had the job, nearly everyone is sympathetic to someone leaving for good reasons. There are, of course, a few self-righteous assholes on this questions, but they are basically the same people who are self-righteous assholes on every question and can be disregarded.

Sisyphus said...

Thanks all! PS constructivist, I didn't mean "random barrage" when I wrote "apply everywhere" --- that's why it's so tiring, cause I have to tailor or at least look at the web site of all those different places.

Undine, you may have "dust-up" with my compliments. "kerfluffle" you may have to ask DD for, as he's used it several times recently.

And I wish jobs and gumdrops for everyone! Holla!

sexy said...