Sunday, September 6, 2009

Job Market Prep 1: Asking for Help

Bleah, I hate asking for help. I'm sure I have issues around asking for help that go way deeper than the usual classing and gendering of feeling entitled to help and that only a therapist could clear up, but then again, I don't do therapy. Why give them any more ammunition than they already have, is my philosophy. But anyway, now comes the time to ask my recommenders to update their letters, and to check on my letters, and to find someone willing to look over my material and work with me on how to update it all to reflect my status as someone who has been a finished PhD for almost exactly one year (yay!) --- for example, I have a perfectly good dissertation abstract that reflects what is actually in the finished dissertation. Do I update it as a "book manuscript abstract" and just toss it in all the envelopes regardless? Bleah.

So I'm blogging this with the expectation that it will function as a to-do list, or pact with the blogosphere, or some other such spur that will help me do what I need to do right now, which is to open the email account and send courteous, deferential emails to people. Bleah! It just feels so wrong. I mean, not only is it a particularly sharp reminder of the fact that I haven't gotten a job over multiple years of trying, but I have barely talked to these people lately --- some of them not at all since last year when I asked them about the letter --- and I feel as if I have long ago used up whatever obligation I once had. Seriously, this whole being on someone's committee is a commitment! I'm looking ahead to being a professor with not a little trepidation: you mean I'm going to have people coming at me for years after graduation asking for letters of rec? Whoah.

I think it is also partly about being worried about rejection. That is, rejection from people I know and like, as opposed to the fairly anonymous job market rejection, which for the most part is pretty easy to get used to, unless you start thinking too deeply of the implications of the SCUM letter pile when it starts mounting up. I'm the same way about phones. The rejection thing, I mean. I hate calling people and will often sit there and let the phone go to voicemail even when I know it's somebody I want to talk to very much, because of this irrational fear that they are calling to tell me something mean and horrible. Sounds crazy, maybe, but it was reinforced by first doing telemaretking work as an undergrad and more recently doing union and political phonebanking ---- which, since nowadays that involves everyone PBing from their cell phone and leaving messages, has often meant that I'll get someone checking their missed calls and contacting me hours after the PB is over, only to go ballistic and apeshit and ream me out for daring to think I would expect them to a) vote Democratic, b) go precinct walking, c) go out on strike, or whatever. I swear. Phones can bring out the nastiest shit. I don't know why people would go off on a political volunteer like that, unless they are like that all the time, in which case America is more fucked than my level of fixing will do any good.

Anyway, I'm rambling.

Another fear with the asking people for help/letter is that they will get mad, or point out without getting mad, that I don't have anything different on my cv from last year, and they hardly need to update the letter besides change the date as I am clearly a lazy slob. (On the other hand, that should make me feel better about being an imposition, right?) And they would be right --- I still have no publications; I have revised stuff and sent it out again but really that's no different from last year, just that I've put in different names on the cv. Stupid academia and its insanely slow publication schedule. And no new conferences this year because I wanted to really throw myself into revising my stuff for publication. I still think that was a good idea, as I have managed to not distract myself and really get a lot of work done. And I think I will continue to get good work done during the fall, but not necessarily in time to have stuff ready for the deadlines. Ah well. Absent a time machine I can't do much to control this besides keep working. (Although a time spinner like Hermione's --- now that would be great! And totally more achievable than a time machine. Perfect!)

Ok, I must do the emails tonight and figure out who's around campus right now to look at my stuff. (mmm, the quarter system sucks especially in relation to the job market timing. Fun!) If I do those things, I can go amuse myself. I do not have to go do the next annoying thing on my job market list: read my past year of student evaluations. That will wait.


waterkant said...

I would not worry that much about asking them. If the feeling of liking is mutual I am sure they will be happy to help you. And that finding a job in academia is tough is common knowledge.

Have you considered working abroad for a while? During the last year I have seen many job openings at universities in China and in Arabian countries, but they were from various fields so I have no idea what the situation in your field might be like.

vaginaphilosophy said...


I know exactly how you feel. I mean, I have all these same fears--especially the phone fear.

Also, YOU HAVE been doing stuff since last year. I mean, your CV may not reflect that yet, but perhaps one thing to say when you send out those e-mails is to let them know what you have been working on and what you've sent out for publication. It will show, unlike me, that you are remaining an active and engaged scholar.

I was on the job market three years before I landed this one. I met people at MLA last year who had been on the market 7 years before landing a job. Not that I'm saying it's going to take you 7 years, I'm just saying that I'm coming to view the job market a little bit like the diss--it's horrible and demoralizing for some and it might come down to just being persistent, which you have been with the market, so you are due! Not that that helps when you need a paycheck or a job, but we're all rooting for you. Rah-Rah-Rah!!

And if you need a fresh pair of eyes for anything, let me know. You don't have to worry about asking me for help! It's freely offered, and since I have lots of the same hangups as you do about help/asking for help/rejection, just think of it like asking yourself to look something over! (that's a bit creepy sorry, but you know what I mean, right?)

Good luck!!

Rohan Maitzen said...

you mean I'm going to have people coming at me for years after graduation asking for letters of rec?

Yes, you will, but it's one of our professional obligations, not a favour we do for preferred students or something. I think the only awkwardness enters in when it has been several years out without much (or any) personal contact and as a referee, you aren't sure you can be altogether convincing anymore. But even then, people who worked closely with you (e.g. dissertation committee) should still be ready to help, and of course you need to make sure everyone knows what you have been up to. I just updated a letter for a Ph.D. who graduated in 2002. Though I couldn't speak to first-hand knowledge of her teaching etc. since then, I can say a lot about how she has built on what she did when she worked with me, about her publications (out and forthcoming and in progress), etc.

I have once or twice advised former students to be sure they also have letters from people who have worked with them more recently, if at all possible, so that the recommendation comes across as fresh and relevant. If this isn't possible, then your committee members should just do their best to talk about you in the freshest way they can, e.g. not just "she was a student of mine back in the day" but "since that time, she has continued to develop in these ways and accomplished these things." Again, it's part of the job. I hope everyone you work with responds in that spirit.

There's another phase of this awkwardness if you ever think of moving from one job to another. There comes a point when your dissertation committee is pretty clearly an inappropriate source of letters (e.g. your degree is, say, a decade behind you), but it is actually rare that anyone else pays that kind of attention to your work once you move into the TT world. The exceptions are the people who review your tenure file, but since you aren't supposed to know who they are, or at least who said what, it's hard to ask them for letters! Add in the difficulty of asking people in your current department to help you get a job somewhere else, and it's amazing anyone manages to put a set of letters together at that point.

Bardiac said...

Wishing you all good things for a great job this year.

Susan said...

When you ask for letters, I'd say, "while it doesn't look different on the CV, over the past year I have done X, Y, and Z on various articles etc. If you'd like to read Y, I'd love to have your comments"
Or some such. THen you engage them as colleagues as well as mentors.. .

pocha23 said...

Don't worry about asking. It's part of their job (and they know this). Sadly, you're putting far more thought into it than they will on their end (although, they'll still write strong letters, of course).

And, a few years on the market does not a long time make -- not in this era. Also, do you have anything in submission (an essay you have already sent out but have yet to hear anything?) If so, you can put that on your CV and list as "in submission." If you have something almost ready to go out, can you send it out before you start filling out applications? Then you can, in good faith, put "in submission" on your CV. May seem like a tall order, but it's what I did. When I started sending out requests for letters, I mentioned that I was about to send out essay X to Journal Y. And then, a couple of months later (when application deadlines started to pop up) I had already sent out the article and so I updated my CV so that I had something "in submission."

Good luck! Looking forward to the updates. Here's to hoping you can stay sane (and relaxed) from now until early Spring.

Ink said...

I have a category on my CV called "Current Projects," which includes things in draft and revision form. You might think about something like that?

In any case, best of luck. They would be lucky to hire you!

Flavia said...

I hear you on all of this--I always have to overcome tremendous resistance to emailing people for help. But everyone here is right that it's not an imposition; indeed, I think the people on your committee feel better knowing how to help rather than just feeling bad that the market hasn't worked out for you so far.

So think of it this way: by asking them for letters (and narrating what you've done over the past year on your own behalf, as Maude and Susan suggest), you're giving your recommenders the gift of believing that they can be helpful and useful; that as committee members they can materially improve the chances of someone they believe in getting a job.

Otherwise, they'd just feel horrible about benefitting from such a shitty and unfair system, where nothing they do matters. ONLY YOU, Sisyphus, can save them from such despair! ONLY YOU can help your committee members feel good about themselves, by preserving their illusions a little while longer. It's your professional, nay, humanitarian duty to LET THEM WRITE YOU LETTERS!

Lucky Jane said...

First, I wish you persistent courage and—perhaps the most important thing in the job lottery—luck this season.

I also echo what Rohan Maitzen and others have written: writing references is part of your mentors' job. Though I bet they do luv you, professional references are just that. If your committee members are sitting by their computers moaning about how Sisyphus hasn't emailed them in ten whole months, then they're doing that advising thing wrong. Moreover, once they've signed off on your dissertation, they have a huge stake in your success. I graduated from a huge program, in which I was no star, but everyone even remotely involved in my grad career moved what mountains they could to get me employed. I can only imagine that the same would be truer of you: everyone wants to be able to say they knew that kickass scholar Sisyphus back when.

Like Ink and Pocha, I also have, and heartily recommend, the "Work in Progress" section of the CV: it helps to emphasize what you are working on now, and it is important in every step of this process (and indeed the career, for you will spend the rest of it writing about YOU YOU YOU every year on your annual self-evaluations, every time you apply for a grant, and to a lesser extent every time you send out a cover letter with a manuscript) to take control of the narrative about What I Do. Even if you have no publications, you have publicized your scholarship via conferences, not all of which will be relevant to your current research.

Of course (as Flavia and Susan point out), spelling out what you've been doing also helps your recommenders to say what you want and need them to say. Also, and not least, doing so will remind you of what Vaginaphilosophy is telling you: you have been productive. Your recommenders very likely have firsthand experience of the purgatorial timelines of humanistic publishing enough to make your case for you.

Go forth and rock this job search. In this market, you'll have to be stronger than most of your employed commenters, I suspect, but I am convinced you can do it.

squadratomagico said...

I haven't much to add except this: not only is it your recommenders' job to assist you, but they all benefited from similar letters in the past. Your profs. would not be where they are but for the letters of their own mentors.
Indeed, even after landing a job, profs. still have to ask for letters from mentors, peers, and more senior scholars for grants, tenure advancement, etc. The need for letters NEVER goes away -- I ask for them still, regularly, and I'm "mid-career." But the good part about this is, once you realize that everybody in the academic biz, at all ranks, is constantly asking for letters, you feel a little less like a bother. Letter-circulation is just part of the academic economy.

Shane in Utah said...

Your commenters have left lots of good advice; I don't have much to add except my own reassurance that you shouldn't sweat asking your committee for updated letters. And I wouldn't worry too much about this, either:

you mean I'm going to have people coming at me for years after graduation asking for letters of rec?

This is mostly an issue for people who teach in departments with doctoral programs, which is a tiny fraction of the number of colleges and universities in North America (I would guess that out of over 3000 institutions in the US, fewer than 200 or 300 have doctoral programs in English literature). So, statistically speaking, you're likely to teach in a department that awards only MAs at the highest, and where the rec letter pressure is much lower...

Sisyphus said...

Ooh I was just over in the "applying to grad school" forum over on livejournal watching the kids freak out --- it's really those letters, which seem to be getting more and more insane in wanting tailored stuff hand-uploaded by the professors themselves, that give me the heebie jeebies.

Earnest English said...

Sis, I totally agree with the Works in Progress CV section as well as updating your recommenders about the scholarship revisions and teaching you've done in the last year. I know that updating my recommenders helped me land this job.

By the way, my perspective on overseas jobs is that they aren't really easier to get necessarily than other ones, since they're often tenure-track and everything, but fewer people do apply. But like every job, they have what they're looking for too.

I'd be happy to look at your materials; since what you do is so far from what I do in this job, it would be fun. Don't think of it as asking for help; rather think of it as helping me feel useful, a la Flavia.

Renaissance Girl said...

Word. Every time I have to ask anyone for a letter, which I do cringingly and with copious apologetics, I also have to remind myself that I never feel put upon by MY students when THEY ask for letters. I have to repeat that to myself many times.

I love the In Progress section, too.