Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Too little, too late?

phoenixcomplex, who is a grad student at a different university, left a comment on my earlier grumpy post about being rejected, a comment that took too much effort to respond to right away, but that I will contemplate now:
surely this was indeed one of those jobs where your life would become a cosmic battle with That One Guy in the department and hidden dysfunctions would surface as soon as you locked yourself in, and you have dodged a bullet. surely.

but reading these posts, and recalling last year's posts, and the previous year's posts, i keep wondering: how do you feel about the support you've gotten from your advisors on the job market? don't they have some responsibility to help you do this? do you have any information about their advisee-placement records, or anecdotes from others who work with them? i remember your post about the advisor who had to be *reminded* that you filed your dissertation... i hope these people are advocating for you like they should be, and giving you the good advice you deserve. because clearly you deserve it. do you think they are?

obviously you're under enough pressure, so no pressure to write about this. i don't know. maybe it does just take 7 years. (seven years! your life as written by thomas mann...)
What is your take on this, oh readers?

So reading this comment made me think, what could my advisors do for me that they aren't doing already? Apart from that first year where they were very sloppy and late getting my letters written on time for me to apply for things, which I do think was a major problem, I'm not sure there is much more they could do that would help me actually land a job. How much of this is that I'm not getting something right in the job search process and how much of it is traceable to the fact that grad schools still produce about three PhDs for every tenure-track job slot? I don't know.

My dissertation advisor at one point told me that the nice thing about this horrible process was that you really were judged on your work and not on who you know ---- that of course she would make calls for me and advocate for me in every way, but that these types of nudges had carried very little weight in our own department's searches and had done nothing to override faculty concerns with research quality or fit. I'm still not sure whether believing this --- and thus tying my work even more closely to my worth and making subsequent rejections even more painful --- or thinking the whole idea of an academic meritocracy is a sham is the more upsetting route to take.

I do know that both my advisor and Not My Advisor, who actually isn't in my field even, repeatedly pressed me for lists of "everywhere" I applied to last year, so they could make calls and work their networks on my behalf. I did some sleuthing and ran some names by them and then gave them lists of everywhere I knew they knew someone, which was nowhere near "everywhere" I applied (the whole thing about places I am "too good for" can wait for another post). It worked to an extent as I think my writing sample requests came out of this networking. Unfortunately every single place that asked for a writing sample last year then froze the search, and they haven't reposted the job this year. Ha! The Vegas casinos should hire me to stand next to their lucky customers.

So my advisor tries to work the backstage connections wherever she can. Trouble is, if the department is at all small, and my advisor knows someone on the department, they do not want to hire me because that someone is basically the person who covers my field. You know? I figured this out, that networking at field conferences actually doesn't help with the job-getting part of academia, either. Maybe I should start trolling conferences on either century around my field.

Some of the other stuff I could have done to be more "marketable," like "pick a different field," "publish something right after going ABD," or "get real comp experience," would involve me using a time machine or starting everything over, so I kinda look at it as I've done all I could for this moment, and they've done what they could for this moment, and I should just soldier on.

The one good thing about being unemployed right now is that I have lots of time to devote to a really intense and quick job search, and I've sent out a shitload of apps much earlier than their required deadlines, as opposed to last year, when despite being as organized as possible, I missed some deadlines and ran quite a few others right up to the fedex overnighter deadlines, mainly because I was learning how to teach weird classes at the same time and was overwhelmed. (Reapplying is way easier than applying, too, since a lot of my materials didn't change or just needed a little updating like my cv.) Doing it all in one big damn lump means that I'm almost done and haven't had to go back to deal with my advisors at all, once they approved this year's drafts of my letter.


You know, at this point, I don't want advice, I don't want help, I just want to be left alone. If you can hand me a job or make connections that will get me some sort of wonderful something, contact me, otherwise, I just want to shoot all these apps out and move on.

That is not what is currently happening.

I have an outside committee member --- who I will now name Left Fielder as this person is wayyyyyyy out in left field on multiple levels --- who has been less connected to my dissertation project than some of the others. That is totally fine. Left Fielder also has been the most busy, most forgetful, and slowest to update my letter every year. That is not fine. I have emailed Left Fielder, who is off being philosophical, at a couple points over the summer and mid-August, just saying, hey, what's up, I'm still doing the market again this fall, here's what I have been writing this summer, how are you. That sort of thing. Left Fielder usually responds with a hurried oh yes we must talk soon how are you and of course I will get to the letter of yours shortly we must meet at some point when I am back in the country and plan the best way for you to venture out on the job market yrs truly lf. And that's fine.

So when I finally get my very busy advisor and my totally insane committee member to update their letters and the very early apps and postdoc-type-things are due, I send a little reminder email to Left Fielder, just to nudge this person along, and to remind this person of the job deadline timelines for the various disciplines I am applying to and when the MLA is and all that sort of thing. And I get a very flustered and contrite email that of course LF will write the letter right away and get it in ASAP and in no way does this person want to put me out of the running for any jobs by not having all my letters in on time. Which is fine.


Today, now I get another email --- lf here will be swinging back through country next week between prestigious opportunity and wonderful project abroad stop still working on letter but thought of ways you cd improve yr candidacy stop want to meet with you to go over your job ltr and other materials stop think you shd develop a teaching philosophy statement tho I am personally not in favor of them stop also a next book project will work with you on that also stop send drafts of all three immediately and clear sched for next week will meet extensively w you at that time stop yrs lf

Sigh. Please tell me this person is not going to hold my letter hostage while making me extensively revise materials that I have sent to 90% of my job places already? I know, I know, I am picky and ungrateful, but I don't want any fucking help right now! I want all my advisor people to leave me completely alone while I send off all my applications in a big blorp! I am picky and want my help at a particular time ---- to wit, before job deadline season begins.

Excuse me now while I go bang my head repeatedly on my desk.


Sapience said...

Am I right in understanding that your department doesn't have a dedicated job placement committee? In my program, there's a committee of three faculty members who, in addition to your committee, is supposed to look at your job materials and help you with getting them all done--as well as to help with leveraging against advisors like the one you describe who seems to be holding your letter hostage. And this committee holds meetings with everyone on the market beginning in September, so no last-minute sorts of things.

Bardiac said...

Wow, my school had nothing like a placement committee. Sounds like it could be helpful.

But your lf is way out of line, and really needs to get his/her head out of his/her ass.

I don't know if calls matter much; I'm willing to guess they might at the sorts of schools where the old boy network reigns supreme. They supposedly worked in the old days.

I've never gotten a call about a candidate from an advisor or whatever, and I've been on search committees a-plenty. But I'm also not at the sort of school with lots of social prominence, nor do I have connections with anyone who is. Most of my grad school friends who got tt jobs are at SLACs or regional universities rather than R1s. And none is at an ivy type place, so maybe I just don't know the right people to even get those calls? I've never heard of any of my colleagues on searches getting those calls either.

Good luck. My fingers are crossed for you.

Susan said...

Well, I'd be happy to meet with LF, take advice, and then ignore it if I so desired. And if it was good, the last 10% of letters will be even better than the rest. In other words, humor LF, but don't feel compelled to do what ze suggests.

As for connections: remember many of us have friends in lots of different ways -- we may have taught at a variety of places before we arrived at Fancy U; we may be active in a regional or topical organization that gives us connections outside the R1s; etc. And, of course, grad school friends may have landed at all sorts of places. (I go back to the market crash of the early 80s).

As a member of a search committee, getting a message from a friend would mean that I'd probably look more carefully at your packet; it would probably get a request for a writing sample.... but yes, it's pretty much merit. (Except when there are weird interdepartmental politics involved, which happens more often than we'd care to admit :)

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I had to email my adviser twice to get him to update his letter. Fortunately, I live 2000 miles away from my degree-granting institution, so I can't meet with anyone. Unfortunately, they tend to forget about me.

One person at the school where I now teach knows a couple of people in one of the departments where I'm applying. She said, "want me to email them?" I said, "YES!" But I seriously have no idea if it will do any good at all. Who knows?

Sisyphus said...

Ah, but Susan, the email is pretty much saying that Left Fielder is not going to finish writing the letter of rec until after we meet! Which will be sometime after the first ... which is when the majority of English applications are due ...:(

medieval woman said...

Ugh - then you should tell LF that you need the letter sooner than you could meet - just tell them about the deadlines. If they'd wanted to meet earlier (or gotten you their comments earlier) then that would be one thing. What kind of idiot is so removed form the job market that they don't understand that Nov. 1 is just TOO DAMNED LATE? I'm very pissed on your behalf and I hate to see how everyone has advisors or members that have to be herded like cats. A friend of mine missed out on a full-year prestigious fellowship because one of her former advisors who had agreed to write her a rec. failed to send it in, even after repeated reminders from both my friend and the fellowship committee who were expecting the letter. When she didn't get it, she just assumed that it was because they'd selected someone they liked better. But then the committee chair informed her that she was their top candidate but that they'd never received Dr. X's letter and had to disqualify her! When she confronted her advisor, they were like, "Oopsy! Sorry about that!" and laughed and walked off.

This digression is to say that advisors are always so flaky and alternately involved and disinterested - although none of these vacillations are more important than during the job market.

I do hope that this year will be the year - I'm sending you lots of good mojo and cheeto dust. The gnomes will arrive shortly by cargo plane.


Phul Devi said...

It sounds as if left-fielder is someone who has a lot going on -- you describe hir as traveling a lot, for instance. It sounds to me as if the person is pretty disconnected from the whole job cycle, the typical image of the "absent-minded professor." What I'd suggest, in this instance, is to send an older letter of left-fielder's from your letter-services, along with a note stating that zie has been traveling for research or on a fellowship, and that you therefore are sending a letter from a previous year that may not reflect the current state of your cv. But that way, you at least have something in at the jobs, a letter that addresses your diss. and other major qualifications. If and when LF then updates hir letter, send the new one along with a request that this be substituted for the original.

In other words: try to figure out a way to fulfill the app requirements without having to rely on this person very much.

P said...

I definitely like squadratomagico's suggestion. I also am pissed off on your behalf.

Myself, I would hesitate to tell LF that deadlines are deadlines and had "you sent this request earlier I could do this, but I just need the letter now etc." I agree with the point of this (read: LF's fault, not yours, for the rushed process and LF is a bit out of touch with market deadlines etc.). But, ultimately, you want the best letter possible, so if you can oblige LF (without driving yourself insane), then do that. In the meantime, though, I like the idea of sending last year's LF letter with a note etc.

I'm sure SC's see older letters often, because LF isn't the only "too busy" letter writer out there (I would imagine).

All of this is icky and I can't wait for it to be over for you.

Bardiac said...

Does LF have a letter on file in your dossier already from last year? If so, I'd try not to fret. Yes, meet, get whatever suggestions look useful, but I doubt most search committees are 1) looking that carefully at dates from secondary or tertiary references, or 2) not pretty aware of how flaky some letter writers are about doing updates.

I know it's stressful, and it's totally ethically wrong for him/her to pull this. Ugh. And my saying not to worry doesn't actually help you not to worry, and probably sounds callous, which I don't mean it to. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

i'm glad to hear that, other than this charming LF, your advisors sound as involved as they need to be (and maybe more). where i am, i sometimes feel like they want you to be surgically attached to your advisor, or at least that some kind of dante-virgil relationship is the established norm, and there is great variation in individual tolerance for this. as for whether that means your advisor is right or wrong about nepotism and merit -- i truly don't know, but a lot of students seem to act as much like nephews as possible, and the advisor-uncles encourage it, so to speak: i don't know what operative role it plays in placement.

i hope the obnoxiousness with LF does not cost you much more than it has already, and i agree that squadratomagico's suggestion sounds wise.

reply late because a) the rain brought the ants and b) i discovered an urgent fellowship deadline -- so i've mostly been running around the house swearing for the past 48 hours. i'm sorry to report that it doesn't help. maybe if i knew more and better profanities...

Sisyphus said...

Yeah, part of the problem is LF is not in an MLA field, so what this person does for other grad students is nothing like what English profs do for their grad students. Another black mark against trying to be interdisciplinary as a grad student!

Phoenixcomplex, I hope you won your battles against the ants! And the fellowships! My suspicions are that the lamprey-like relationships your place cultivates are all about interpersonal, psychological needs rather than job market benefits, although, this may not be how it is sold to the grad students. And I also think there is a "type" who needs to be in that kind of relationship, on either end of it, and that type tends to gravitate to these types of jobs and positions.