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When you stare into the abyss...

Chuck has an entry from last night that talks about his current blog block. He mentions in the comments that part of the reason for this is job-search stress, which got me to thinking...

One of the things that's really difficult to explain to those who aren't in academia (or more specifically, perhaps, the humanities) is the stress of the job search. I was lucky myself, partly because I found a position before I'd finished my dissertation, thanks to a good friend. However, because they hadn't done a full search, it was a one-year gig, during which I could apply to turn it into a full-time, tenure-track position. So far, so good.

This meant, however, that I was half a continent away from my support network, at a time when I was teaching 3 courses (2 of them over-ambitiously writing-intensive), revising my 250-page dissertation, and also embarking on a job search for the first time. Each of the three of those is really a full-time pursuit. Through a combination of hubris and compromise, I sent applications to the top 35 programs on my list, and got 2 interviews at MLA, plus a phone "interview" with my home institution. (By way of contrast, 3 years later, when I was qualified to apply to top schools, I had 5 interviews from 9 applications, and took my position at Syracuse before MLA.). MLA interviews are in December and, for the top 2-4 candidates, result in visits to the campuses. Neither of my f2f interviews bore fruit, although I was moved to the next stage at my home institution, and my "visit" took place in March, I think.

Keep in mind, though, that this process begins in the summer and can often push on until April or May. From January to March, I went to school and taught and came home almost every single night, lied in bed, and wondered about what in the world I would do if my home institution didn't pan out. Thankfully, luckily, it did. But over the space of a couple of months, every. single. night. Fear, anxiety, depression--when you've spent anywhere from 6 to 10 years preparing for a single, specialized profession, and have to face the possibility that it's all been a waste of time, that's not a happy place. The interviews, the visits--they're exceptionally high-stakes performances, a version of hazing that's only gotten harder and more cruel as the market for academics has gotten worse.

It's one of the reasons why many people will tell you that persistence is a more important factor for success in academia than intelligence. There are lots of smart people (and maybe this is evidence?) who will not be able (or choose) to put themselves through the emotionally and psychologically crushing process of the job search. When that process works best, it's a little less crushing, I suppose, but there are still too many cases where it's all but a crapshoot, where (unintentionally, I hope) it's unnecessarily hellish.

I know that Chuck doesn't want to blog about it, which is cool. I don't know what his process has been like, but I can say that job searches, particularly the ones where you're trying to "break through" to a tenure-track position, are a time of enormous anxiety and self-doubt. I wish I could say that they make us stronger, but mostly, they leave us more neurotic than we were when we started, and perhaps a little relieved if it ends well. Those of us who have done well tend to block out the pain and anxiety, and so sometimes we forget how tough it is.

All of which is simply to say that I'm pulling for you, Chuck. Good luck.

That is all.


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It's good to know I'm not just nuts. And here I decided many many years ago that I wasn't cut out for professional theatre cuz I couldn't handle the rejection. Hmmmm.

I'm with Collin. The TT assist prof gig is the stuff of ulcer's. I keep imagining that there are people out there who can handle the stress better than I, but I'd wager that they are probably fewer and farther between. I swear I've had years taken off my life.

Thanks, Collin. I've had several close friends "break through" this year, getting jobs they richly deserve, so I know that things will work out. And, yes, I'd agree that persistence is a great skill to have in this field. But you've captured a lot of what I'm experiencing (and I assume that other job candidates might feel the same way). Except instead of lying in bed, I've been watching lots of movies in the hopes of distracting myself....

A serious job search in the humanities today is a full-time job; one gets very little else done. And it is inescapably demoralizing, even when it results in one or more attractive offers. My favorite job-search anecdote comes from an MLA interview a decade ago: one member of a large group interviewing me turned to his colleagues and said, "She just isn't literary enough for us, is she?" As a result of that year's endeavors, I wound up with a great job as the WPA at TCU. But I've never forgotten that I'm just not literary enough for that guy—nor that he was crass enough to insult a job-seeker to her face. The job search requires that you find a way to keep going, past the inescapably hideous moments, and that you come out on the other end without being permanently demoralized and embittered. That's a tall order.

I certainly feel everyone's pain. I'm in the midst of a fairly complicated job search situation right now, one that I am hoping settles down in the next couple of weeks. And if it plays out the way that I want it to play out, I'll blog about it and some of my other adventures over the years in job seeking. I've got some stories, let me tell ya, but I don't want to tell them quite yet. Anyway, good luck Chuck, and everyone else, too.

To your credit, Collin, as a student of yours during that time you wrote, searched, taught, and worried: it certainly didn't affect any of your students adversely. That is, you did a good job of teaching through all the stress. Kudos.

I had no idea. I still have no idea.