Monday, September 13, 2004


Do I "Deserve" to be a Tenure-Track Professor?

Am I proof that “life ain’t fair”? Am I an idiot, who proves the point that those who get tenure-track jobs in this market are merely “perky” or “cute”? I can’t answer these questions directly (partly because they are utterly insulting).

Maybe I am proof of the inequality inherent in academic hiring practices. I’m female. I’m young. I went to a good graduate school in the Northeast. I got a job on my first try on the job market (against all odds, as all of my mentors told me from the start not to hope for such a thing). Did I get a tenure-track job precisely because I did not deserve one, which so many, including friends, bitter from this job market, imply?

[Aside: The above link refers you to one of my first posts on this blog, which addresses my thoughts on this very issue. It's the post "Redundant?"]

The only way to begin to address these questions is to relate the story of my first job search. I went on the job market (in the humanities) as I was finishing my dissertation. I had two publications (neither a book, and neither in a top journal). I had given many papers at conferences, but the bulk of those were given at smaller conferences (the best for networking, as far as I’m concerned), and I had not given a paper at the major meeting in my discipline. I had taught and TA-ed throughout graduate school. I also had some minimal service stuff on my CV. I was an ok candidate, for an ABD, but I was not, by any means, a superstar. I do think that I showed a great deal of potential, but that and two dollars won’t even get you a hot lunch in this economy. So why did I get a job, when so many don’t get jobs?

I submitted somewhere between 50 and 60 applications, most for tenure-track jobs but some for fellowships. I was lucky to be able to submit that many. It was a particularly good year for T-T job-postings in my field that year. The year before, I would have been lucky to apply for 20 positions for which I would be qualified. The point is this: I only applied for those jobs that I really believed fit my proficiencies, even though it meant that I applied for far fewer jobs than many people in my discipline commonly do. Also, it’s important to note that I was in no way place-bound: I applied for jobs all over the country, no matter how unappealing the location. From my applications, I ended up with 4 convention interviews and a phone interview. I had the most interviews of anyone who was on the market that year in my program, but four of the five interviews were at universities with 4/4 loads - it's not like fancy schools were banging down my door. From those, I ended up with one campus visit. At the school where I was brought for a campus visit, I got my one and only job offer.

As you all know, this job offer came from the place that I lovingly call Regional Crap University. I’ve tried to analyze why I was offered this job, especially because there was an inside candidate for whom the job ad was designed. (That person was also offered a T-T contract, so don’t go thinking that I stole some exploited person’s job.) At any rate, here are the objective reasons that I’ve come up with for my success in my first academic job search:

  1. I am, in spite of the tone of this blog and the inferences one might make from the colloquial writing style, an excellent writer, and my application materials were impeccably edited.
  2. I am (in spite of my paranoid fears to the contrary) doing interesting scholarly work.
  3. I had excellent letters of recommendation, and excellent mentorship regarding marketing my abilities. (As far as mentorship goes, I think as important to my success as getting good advice about job materials was my adviser's advice two years before I went on the market about choosing my dissertation topic. He was very clear that this was a document that would be pivotal in my obtaining academic employment, and he didn't let me blindly follow my "passion" without thinking about the practical purpose that this document would serve.)
  4. I am personable and collegial.

The ugly truth, however, is that most candidates probably could say the same of themselves. One doesn’t get a job because of these objective criteria. Getting a T-T job is a crapshoot. It is a gamble. It has, I think, less to do with the objective than with the subjective. It is the luck of the draw. Do you want to know the deciding factors in why I think I was offered this job? Well, here they are:

  1. I wore a really great suit to my convention interview.
  2. I just so happened to know one of the people on my search committee.
  3. I ordered a real drink at my campus visit. This goes against all advice about what to do at the dinner, but I went with my gut and followed the lead of the two ancient dudes on the search committee.
  4. I found a way to relate my very theoretical dissertation to teaching undergraduates, particularly freshmen, in my job talk. I knew to do this because I emailed the search committee chair a couple of times to ask for specific directions, and I followed them.
  5. I am in the first generation in my family to attend college, and most of the students at RCU are in the first generation of their family to attend college. I happened to mention this, and it explained why I would want to work at a place like RCU.
  6. I happened to mention that RCU was the closest job that I interviewed at to the place where I grew up, and where most of my family continues to live, another thing that explained why I would seriously consider taking the job if it was offered.

When I’ve discussed this issue – the random reasons for getting a job – with friends who have gotten T-T jobs, they also mention subjective things as the deciding factors. Random things. Things that you just can’t plan. Is that fair? No. It’s not. We’ve all jumped through the hoops of graduate school and publication and teaching. But when it comes to the job market, those things are expected. It’s personality and luck that gets the job. The illusive thing of “fit.” It’s random shit like what you were wearing or the thing you mentioned by accident that caught somebody’s attention. And it’s attitude: nobody wants to offer a job to an arrogant motherfucker who thinks that s/he’s better than everybody else in the department or that s/he's entitled to the job. In some ways, I had to explain away my top-notch Ph.D. and my ambitions for research in order to get my job at RCU. Part of getting a T-T job is being a good ass-kisser – being charming and seeming sincere.

But. I refuse to believe that being “perky” or “cute” – or even, dare I say, both – would have gotten me my job if that were all I had to offer.

[An aside: I think that academic women have to rail against is the idea that being energetic and attractive in some way makes one stupid or less scholarly. That being said, I don't think anyone would really describe me as perky or cute in my day-to-day life - I'm tall, and I'm not peppy or perky or any of those diminutive p-words, to be honest. Puppies and cheerleaders are cute and perky, and I'm like neither puppies nor cheerleaders.)

To continue: I refuse to have some sort of survivor’s guilt for getting a job that I fucking won, fair and square. I recognize that the academic job search is unfair and that many brilliant, brilliant people get lost in the shuffle. This is a systemic, structural problem that only the systematic restructuring of academic culture and institutions can solve, and this is a restructuring that needs to happen.

But you know what? It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault that I got a job and somebody else didn’t. And I will not change the tone of this blog – eliminating anything that reads like the musings of a teenager – in order to give myself authority or to prove myself "worthy" of a T-T job. I am both a good academic and a ridiculous fool in my non-academic life. Deal with it.

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