Sunday, January 6, 2008

For only three payments of 19.95, you too can be rejected

I still haven't gotten around to making my new year's resolution or picking a theme for the year (suggestions welcome) or finishing the post I started writing about my plans and goals, but I have read a bunch more chapters in the book I'm working my way through this morning, and now I am making preliminary moves into Job Market Part Two: The Post-MLA Season.

One alternative to tenure-track jobs would be the postdoc track, which I contemplated a while back in this post. Many of the big and prestigious postdocs have early fall due dates; in fact the due dates are obnoxiously, obstreperously, inconveniently early as they fall right about the time when you are pushing to get all your material polished off and looked at by people in your institution, immediately before all the t-t applications are due. Since they also require statements of research plans and often extensive tailoring (or fudging) to meet a "theme" of whatever center is hosting them that year, I decided that they were too much effort and too competitive to deal with. (Ok, I applied to one. There are many reasons why I know I am not really in the running for that one, but I had reasons to apply.)

However, there is a second wave of postdocs, with deadlines to hit soon. And if now I'm desperate enough to hunger after the postings of teaching-heavy rural religious schools founded by the Branch Davidians and the adjunct postings for CCs near my parents' house ("maybe I could just move back home ... how deadly allergic to cats could my dad really be?"), then suddenly the requirements for postdoc apps don't seem so onerous. Well, all except one part.

Now, I don't know much about postdocs, but there are apparently "good postdocs" and "bad postdocs," otherwise known as postdocs that fund you like a fellowship or perhaps make you teach one class, and postdocs that are really adjuncting under a more prestigious name. Did you know that there are huge differences in funding and workload between various fancy-sounding postdocs? Because the average search committee member does not, and seems to think that the phrase "three-year-postdoc" on the CV should also come with some fancy publications dating from that time period. I know this because one of our grads had a hell of a time going back out on the market from a very teaching heavy postdoc (that sounded really fucking exploitative, but I won't give details here), and this person was constantly getting interviews at top places and then grilled about not being able to hack it, publication-wise, on a "cushy postdoc," and now, is currently working at --- wait for it --- yet another postdoc. With a shit teaching load, although not quite as bad as Postdoc Number One.

On the other hand, the big-name postdocs with little or no teaching have a bit of a wrinkle to them as well: consider, for example, the Harvard Humanities Center postdoc, which charges you $60 to apply. Yeah, you heard that right. Sixty bucks for the chance to compete against every fucking poor, desperate and unemployed grad student in every fucking glutted humanities field. Couldn't you ask for my dissertation abstract to be translated into rhyming iambic pentameter epic poetry instead? I've got the time; money is the reason I'm applying to your stupid club.

I'm not the only one grumbling: here's what the people posting on the job wiki are saying over on the postdoc page (each star is a new person chiming in):
Columbia University Society of Fellows in the Humanities

(Deadline: 10/8/2007)


* Sooo... since Columbia charges a $30 "application fee," AND requires that you make and send them 5 copies of your application, what do you think they're doing with the money? Going out and drinking $24,000 worth of appletinis?
* I LOOOOVE the fact that you did the math!

* now if the $30 (for Columbia) wasn't bad enough, Harvard has the chutzpah to charge $60 to apply to their postdoc!! The program is great... but I mean really.... $60 for the honor of being rejected by Harvard??!
* I couldn't agree with you more. I think we should bring it up at the MLA delegate assembly that these fees (especially if you apply, say, four years in a row) become ridiculous.
* I, for one, have given up applying just because of the ridiculous $60 fee.
* Q. Was this discussed at the MLA delegate assembly as suggested?
Sounds like the sheer number of us fools who apply pay for the postdoc itself, no? Or at least the staff member responsible for handling the paperwork for it. (And really, Harvard? Columbia? Don't they have endowments so friggen big that they don't know how to spend it all on their own? Or was that Princeton? Anyway, rich universities taking big fees from grad students who are generally at less prestigious universities seems pretty cold. You couldn't do something a bit more helpful and useful for the profession than that? (now I'm on the idea of the massive endowments) I mean, yeah, I'd be happy if you tied the money to some sort of local teaching support at the CC or high school level, which would mean I would not be eligible for it, but it would be doing a hell of a lot more good for people at that level.)

But I digress. (Which is the point of a blog, but anyway.)

Really, this whole "the applicants will subsidize the winner" thing sounds a lot like a perverse form of the mutualista, or mutual aid society, that various oppressed groups have formed for themselves. Think of those Langston Hughes poems or movies about Harlem where the "insurance man" shows up demanding his dime for the week. Without any governmental safety net, communities would band together and form their own mutual aid societies, where everyone would pay in, knowing that their burial or their widow would be taken care of when they kicked the bucket. (Ok, so it's only uplifting in a very depressing sense.) Why do I mention this?

Well, there's pretty much no way that Harvard would pick me for that postdoc ---- now I'm wishing I'd had this idea back the first year of grad school, to form a school-specific mutualista of our own. We must have, what, 60 or 70 grad students in our dept. at any one time? If we'd each put aside 20 bucks a month (shorting the beer budget but not truly breaking us), we'd have a pool to support one of our own who'd graduated --- and really, I'm not necessarily gonna win the hard-luck story competition in my department, but I'd be much happier about losing out to one of my friends and supporting him/her than tossing my money, and application, out into a void.

So, sum up, I'm applying out for postdocs again now. But only the ones where it's free to apply. I get enough rejection in this profession that I don't need to pay for it.


heu mihi said...

I especially like it when the Big Expensive Postdocs don't even send you a confirmation that your application was received, let alone a rejection.

Oh, and the one that I applied to last year--with a $20 fee--that ended up not selecting anyone! Hooray! What glorious, glorious fun!

--Just to add my own two snarks. I guess Harvard's Fee of Outrageosity is serving its purpose, though, by discouraging applications?

Bardiac said...

Do those post-docs say where there most recent (say the last ten years) folks have come from? My impression of lots of those thing was that they really only accept folks with ivy in their pedigree. (Lots of fellowships seem that way, too.)

~profgrrrrl~ said...

Wow. Paying to apply for postdocs???? That's just ... ummm ... wow. And not a good wow.

gwoertendyke said...

hee hee. yes, do not pay i would say. even in darkness you make me laugh.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Charging people to apply to postdocs!?

That is just . . . unbelievable. Honestly, every time I think I'm as disillusioned about academia as possible, I find out I'm wrong.

dance said...

Story from a friend--a collection of women grad students had a sort of mutual aid society. It was more a pay-it-forward type thing--eg, a recent hire with a hotel room at the conference shared it with the upcoming candidate for free. Another new professor sent money to pay for a suit. The understanding was that when the candidate had a job, she would do the same for the women coming after her, so it just kept perpetuating. A great idea.

Belle said...

Paying to apply for anything is absurd; this takes it to new levels. If you are accepted, do they refund your application fee?

Sisyphus said...

belle, they would pay me 50 grand to sit around at Harvard and talk to smart people. If it were guaranteed I'd easily give up the 60. It's the paying and also losing that I don't appreciate.

Dance, I like your story, and want it to be even bigger! But, it's a bit too late for me to institute anything big. I do have friends who pass along successful fellowship apps, though.

Yeah, bardiac, I applied to a postdoc at my advisor's alma mater last year (she knows people on the application committee very well so it seemed like a good shot) and someone accidentally sent the requests for more materials email out without blocking all the other names and emails. Me and my colleague were the only people at public Us, although there were a couple big fancy non Ivies listed.

Let's just hope no one gets the bright idea to charge people to apply for tenure-track jobs.