Friday, October 19, 2007

Job Market Zen

Ok, if you're in the mood for anger and bile and general job-market ranting, stop reading now. I'm going in a slightly different direction today.

The other day I went to this Thing. And at this Thing, we discussed being on the job market. As women. 'Cause it was a wimmenz-type Thing. (I was planning on not going, but Cool Scientist Friend called me up and wondered if I'd walk over with her and hang out. Between being at my least-caffeinated level of the day and wanting to support someone who really is practically the only woman in her dept., I changed my mind.)

It was great. It was actually fun, what can I say? I don't know how much it was useful, and how much it was just that I had escaped from the library and the actual process of applying for jobs and instead was socializing with real human beings, but, either way, I had fun. It was also not women-specific in a woman-ly-type way, unless you count the larger point that, hey, maybe women on the market need job advice too, and when you consider that women are socialized to not make a fuss or push hard for stuff like mentoring or advice and that there is still an "old boy's network" in many disciplines, this simple fact is extremely important.

But really, most of it was a basic overview of the process of applying and some tips. Points about how you need to be organized, how you should make specific applications tailored to specific schools (no telling little liberal arts college how much you want to teach grad students), and there were lists of potential interview questions for both you and your search committee, along with a compendium of useful websites. Maybe I'll go put some up later. But note that I am lazy and I do not personally need to check out all those women in science web sites, so I probably will not.

What I will mention here are the points that I found especially true and comforting. That's right, I only take notes on what I already know and agree with. Consider me like your undergrads.

The Presenting Prof (PP) and Visiting Prof (VP) had some great explanations of what you can and can't control in the process. You can send out a solid writing sample, finish your dissertation, bust your butt to get out another article before you send out your applications. You can't control how these materials ---- or anything about you ---- are going to be interpreted on the other side. VP stressed the point that you are not applying to a new, tabula rasa situation. That department has a history, and you are trying to insert yourself in it. But you cannot know the ins and outs of that history before you get there, so don't worry about tripping yourself up. Your candidacy can be sunk by the crazy, unpopular person championing you. Your assumptions about what and how to teach can conflict with those in that department. Your methodology or specialty can overlap too closely with someone else, or not fill a gaping hole that they really must deal with. But the important thing about this is that you are not a mind reader and will never be able to suss out every secret little detail of "fit." So this lack of fit says nothing about you and your qualities as a scholar, and everything about them and their past history.

PP added that beyond history, there can be projection. This also totally made sense to me (I take back many --- well, not all --- of the nasty things I've said about Freud in the past). Depending on the experiences of those search committee members, they may read things into your application that are not really there. To take myself as an example, because of my past history with creepy, touchy, pompous practitioners of a certain Freudian ilk, I might project those past experiences onto potential candidates, were I on a search committee, and I might toss those applications out, not because of their value, but because of my generalizing or projecting onto them. I could do the same with a name, or a university, or a word in the dissertation title. The point is, you will never know what might set off one person and what another person might love, so it's pointless to try and anticipate it. To lapse into cliche for a moment, it's better to just be yourself, and present your own work and interests as accurately and truthfully as you can.

Some people might find this extremely depressing but I found it quite calming and liberating. Can't anticipate it, can't change it; you should just deal with it. So I'm trying to be Zen about the whole thing. (You may have to remind me of this a lot later in the process. Do not be alarmed if I shower you with profanity at that point.) I will work on the things I have control over, and I will not worry about the things I have no control over ---- which includes how many jobs are out there, who else is applying to them, and whether my other committee people ever turn in their letters.

And at the risk of making a long post incredibly long, the other info I found really useful was about after the job talk. I may return to this idea in a later post. But I have never understood how to answer questions after the job talk. This is mostly because our dept. asks very strange questions ---- usually long self-absorbed monologues about their own research with seemingly no point until the tone suddenly swerves up into a question at the end. Leaving me in the audience thinking, "fuck, that's a question? How the hell is the candidate supposed to answer that?" People, I'll need more advice on how to deal with that soon.

VP made the point that you are supposed to engage with the question in a serious way, and to think along with them, regardless of whether you "know" the answer or disagree with their point. It's about showing you are a colleague, she said, and not a graduate student any more who will need to be taught by them. You should never be dismissive of their point, but not be bullied by them, either. "That basically means" I whispered to Cool Scientist Friend, "you have to stand your ground but not be an asshole." "Mmm --- that is way harder than it may seem" she responded.

So, tips, advice? How does one walk the fine line between standing one's ground and not being an asshole? Because unlike the Zen, this is not going to come easy for me.


squadratomagico said...

This all sounds like excellent advice.

As for the long-winded monologue with a half-heaerted question at the end: it's called grandstanding, and there's a few of this ilk in almost every dep't. I think the best way to deal with them is: (a) thank them for their provocative question -- this type usually enjoys flattery. (b) If there really is a question in there somewhere, answer it; (c) if there really isn't a question in there, say something like, "That's really interesting -- are you saying that [rephrase his/her insight as best as possible]? Then add to, extend it, or modify it in some way with reference to your own material. (d) Flatter again in closing: "Did that answer your question? I hope it does a little, but you've given me so much to think about! Thanks -- now I have some new directions I want to think through in regard to [chapter, idea, quote, whatever]."

I also think it's ok to ask for clarification if a question is particularly muddy, so long as you do it in a collegial way.

Maude Lebowski said...

i agree with squadratomagico. we have one of these in our department (i believe i've referred to him as Doktor Herr Guber) and he pretty much just loves it when people respond to him in the above fashion. unfortunately, his ego carries a lot of weight, so to respond to him in the manner squadramatomagico suggests makes him think that you're on his level, and to be presumed to be on DHG's level at GCU goes a long way.

grandstanding mutherfuckers.

that being said, i admire your zen approach. i may try to take a page out of your book. i don't know, we'll see how successful i can be. :-)

Archambeau said...

You're dead right about how you won't really be able to know how you'll fit into a department, or how your vita will play with any given audience. But one thing you can do in a job interview is ask the hiring committee how they would see you fitting into their department. I mean, they're interested in you, or you wouldn't be there in the interview room, so they -do- see way you'd fit.

Watching a committee answer this question can give you a good sense of the department's inner dynamics, and what they're looking for. You'll be able to see more clearly whether this is a job you want, whether its a job you can succeed at and be happy in, and you can see how to present yourself (what to play up, what to play down) if the job sounds good.

There's another advantage to asking about this, too: I've been on many hiring committees, and on both of the occasions when a candidate asked how we'd see him fitting in, we found ourselves making a case for the fit. That is, we ended up selling ourselves on the candidate. So there's that angle to think of as well.

undine said...

Both the post and these comments are dead on. Every department has one of those people: the question-that-doesn't-seem-to-be-one is often more an expression of something like "no one has heard my brilliance for at least 40 minutes while the candidate has been talking, so I must speak up NOW" than a genuine question. The suggestions here for handling that are great.

Belle said...

Yep, yep, yep. It's hard to stay Zen, but do remember than most rejections aren't about you as you, but you as they perceive you. (Go ahead, shout the profanities and remind me of my own post-rejection blues...). One of the best pieces of advice I got from my committee: they want colleagues and potential friends; they don't want problems. Don't promise to rock the boat.

If they perceive you as a boat-rocker or sinker, you're sunk, no matter how brilliant your research or teaching skills are. And since you only have some much control over their problems...

Breathe. Ask the questions you can. Breathe. We out here in blogland think you're fab.

Marcelle Proust said...

I once enjoyed seeing what I now call the Derridean response to a not-quite-but-almost-as-famous grandstander: "Yes. Next question?"

If you're not Derrida, it might be modified to "Oh, yes, absolutely, what a great suggestion!"