Monday, March 7, 2011

Academic Job Search VI - Rejections :-(

For other posts in this series:
Beginning a search  Networking    First Interview      On Campus Interview     Contract

I realized after I supposedly finished my series on the job search that there was still one more piece to consider: rejections.  There are a ton of them on the academic job search.  Philosophy PhD Husband annoyingly joked that I couldn't say much about rejections since I have a job.  I reminded him I had my fair share of rejections on the job market, to say nothing of all the other ways academics get rejected - publications, grant apps, fellowships, ultra-cool university committees (wait, are faculty ON any ultra-cool university committees???)

But obviously the subject is a sore one and a tough one to think about.  Philosophy PhD Husband is someone whose intelligence I respect a great deal, who has published in top philosophy journals, who has developed his teaching a lot over the years and who yet has never landed full time tenure track job.  Sigh.  It is the dark side of academia.  So here, sadly, are some thoughts on rejections.

Generally, academic culture pushes the view that the further out you are on the job market, the worse you must be as a candidate.  This is a kind of yard sale mentality - that if you arrive early, at 7 am, all the good stuff is there, but don't bother going at 3pm because the steals will be gone.  That kind of mentality is quite illogical.  Academics know, first of all, that there are more PhDs granted than there are jobs in most fields and unless we want to cast our own degrees in doubt,  we should not presume that unqualified people are somehow getting degrees and thereby deserve to be passed over again and again if they didn't get a job in the first go-round. Second, the yard sale mentality presumes that everyone is going to want the same things and so everyone's fighting for the same stuff available at 7 am.  But as a collector of fine china (not something that goes quickly off the shelves these days), arriving at 3 pm is perfectly fine.  Sure, if I want the Wii that is going, I'd better be in line before 7am.  But are we in academic only about the latest new thing?  I hope not.

Corollary to above - the ABD/PhD Problem: There's a weird kind of gap in academia - being ABD makes it difficult to get a job because schools want to know that you'll have your dissertation done and will, in fact, have a PhD.  So having the PhD is better because you clearly have done the work.  Except that then it starts you down the "yard sale" path mentioned above.  So being ABD is better.  Except that....

Generally, academic culture does not promote even the tiniest courtesy of sending notification letters to people that they are no longer being considered for the job.   Of all the job applications I've ever sent, I have only received one - that's ONE - letter informing me I was no longer being considered.  Now, part of this is, I am to understand, a legal thing: that until the search is closed, such letters cannot be sent.  What is interesting though is that the legal aspect translate into never ever sending such a letter.  I think we all collectively could do better here. 

So, if you are on the job market and do not hear from the school, do not consider that it is about you.  Quite the contrary.  The question of when to consider that the job opportunity has been lost is a tough one.  Some schools dawdle a bit about applications and won't contact applicants until even three or four months past the deadline.  Those schools tend to eschew the first round interviews and head right to the on campus interviews.  Other schools make determinations within days of the closing of the applications.

Things to Do After a Rejection:

Call the School or Not?  I'm up in the air on this one, truly.   I have heard of people calling and asking for advice on what they could have done better or differently.  I'm not sure they got satisfactory replies.  This is partly because, remember, the person on the hiring committee is a full time faculty member who has teaching and research responsibilities and who, having just finished conducting a search which has made his/her days at least 12-13 hours long, is now relieved to have found a candidate who signed on the dotted line and wants to return to some normalcy.

If you were never in the interview stage at all, I'd say probably don't call and instead, get to the career center and make sure your cover letter and CV are up to snuff.  But if you were in the interview stage, you could probably call.  Thoughts about this from others?

Indulge in a *little* self reflection, but then press on -  One of the best pieces of advice I ever had about submitting articles to journals is to make several copies of the essay and put them in envelopes addressed to several journals.  Send one; if it comes back as a rejection, immediately send out the next envelope and so on.  Don't even bother looking at the suggested comments for improvement because should the next journal accept it for publication, the suggestions for revision will invariably be different. This is with the caveat that the so-called mechanical aspects of writing - the grammar, the "flow" etc are in place.

I think this is good advice for the job search, too.  Remember that so much of the job search is NOT about you.  The things one school will determine not to make you a "fit" for them will be exactly what another school believes it needs.  But it is worthwhile to double check and practice the "mechanics" of the job search - have your CV and letters double checked and to do some practice interviewing, for example.

 Another thing that is well worth reflecting on is whether to get into the "whole academic gig" in the first place.  Are you trying for an academic job because everyone else in your program is, too?  Are you not sure you want to be dealing with teaching intro college courses forever, or constantly worrying about publishing, et cetera?  It's worth thinking about.

Don't Despair - It CAN happen, even years out from graduation.

Further Possibilities for Those Who Want Tenure Track Jobs But Don't Yet Have Them:
  • Adjunct work - this has the advantage of keeping you in the teaching loop, but is distinctly disadvantageous because it is hard to have enough adjuncting work to make ends meet, you often end up having 7-10 "jobs" in a semester, and it doesn't pay benefits. Grrrr.  Talk about collective bargaining - I think adjuncts of the world ought to unite.
  •  Online work - these days, adjuncting work can be done online, which can make life a bit simpler, at least in that you're not putting mileage on the car.  I enjoy teaching online classes myself, but many others don't.  It's worth a look, though...
  • Publishing/editing - a great option, especially since you've undoubtedly honed editing skills while working toward that PhD.  It takes you a bit further afield but it is sometimes possible to get back into academia from publishing.
  • Stay on as a graduate student for a bit longer...but see above corollary for the nifty little conundrum this brings.
Possibilities that Sometimes Merely Masquerade as Possibilities:
  • Library Science degree
  • Law degree 
 Everyone and their brother will suggest that you MAKE USE of your PhD by getting a degree in Library Science or going to law school.  I'm definitely not opposed to the idea of going back to school to get an MLS or a JD.  On the other hand, the whole "make use of your PhD" mentality is a red flag for me, not only because I believe that education and and developing thoughtfulness is good for humanity as a whole, quite apart from jobs, but ALSO because if you've gotten to the point where you think you want to go back to school anyway - why limit yourself to an MLS or a JD just because it helps you USE your Phd???


  1. It seems to me that the only good reason for someone considering getting out of the tenure track job search rat race to get a library or law degree is that they actually WANT to be a librarian or a lawyer. Now, many people who have PhDs will indeed be attracted to such vocations, not so much because they allow them to "make use" of their previous degree (whatever that means), but because they can imagine themselves continuing to engage in the kind of things that they loved about academe in a different context. But I agree with you that it's wise to pause before throwing more years and money into more schooling in an effort to "redeem" the years and money you've *already* spent on schooling by suiting yourself for a job that you imagine will "make use" of that previous degree.

    Recommended reading for both grad students and disgruntled academic job searchers: "So What Are You Going to Do with That?" by Susan Basalla and and Maggie Debelius. It discusses both the library and law school options, as well as strategies for identifying other vocational possibilities beyond the tenure track, most of which do NOT require additional schooling. It's a quick read, and a hopeful one: the bottom line Basalla and Debelius emphasize is that there are many ways to create a career for yourself that allows you to keep doing the kinds of things that you most loved about academe. (And without grading! And quite possibly better pay!) Even if you're not ready to throw in the towel on the academic dream job yet, I think this book would be encouraging, because it equips you to think of the academic job search as something you are CHOOSING to continue, not something you MUST do because you have no other options.

  2. Rachel - Yes! Exactly! Thanks for the book recommendation - I am now curious about it myself. I think it's the "land of no options" thing that many people feel - at least the ones in my acquaintance; they're on to something good.