I started applying for tenure-track academic jobs the year I thought I would finish my dissertation. So, you know, a little over a year before I actually finished my dissertation. I looked and applied for jobs from July 2016 through January 2018. Part of what attracted me to academia originally was the idea of a stable, middle-class life. As a first-generation, working-class student the idea that I could provide for my family while also pursuing the life of the mind was amazing.
My longings for financial stability were inseparably intertwined with my desire to be in academia. Because of this, I made myself a promise when I started my PhD program: I would spend two years on the academic job market. If there weren’t promising results then I would move on and do something else.
I wasn’t one of those people who applied for every conceivable job. I didn’t apply in places I didn’t want to live. I only applied to jobs I thought I would like at places I thought I could like. This may seem revolutionary in a culture where a lot of academic job advice is to apply for everything but choosing quality of life should be the norm, not the exception. That aside, I applied, over the course of eighteen months, for about 30 jobs. I got one conference interview. I did not get a campus visit.
I had a ritual for putting together my materials for an application. I would open all the tabs for the various websites I needed (e.g. faculty page, department page, course offerings page, etcetera), open my Word documents, and start an episode of Project Runway on Hulu.
I would listen to the episode in the background while editing my documents. When the runway show started I would take a break from working on my documents and watch. Maybe I would stretch a bit. Then, after the elimination, I would Google the person who was eliminated.
And you know what?
In every single case, from every single episode, in over a dozen seasons of Project Runway available on Hulu at the time Every. Eliminated. Designer. Was. Doing. Fine.
In some cases, my favorites, who were eliminated wound up doing better than the folks who won their seasons. (For example, Michael Costello.) In all cases, though, the folks who got eliminated were doing just fine.
I once heard someone say that Tim Gunn was the perfect PhD advisor.
It’s true. Gunn is always supportive but also honest. He always believes in the potential of the designers. He wants to support you as you, “make it work.”
The metaphor can be extended though.
If Gunn is the perfect advisor then the Judges are the academic job market.
They don’t care about the backstory that goes into your piece. Their criteria doesn’t always make sense and are overwhelmingly subjective. It’s the Judges job to winnow through way too many talented, qualified folks and pick the person they think is the best.
That person may or may not be the best.
But everyone comes out okay.
I’m telling you this today because today was my first day as an academic advisor.
Washington state has a program that allows qualifying high school students to attend college classes in their Junior and Senior years. I was in this program when I was in high school. It shaped a lot of my life. Now I’m the academic advisor for students going through this program.
I’m using the skills I honed during my PhD. I’m working with students, particularly first-generation students who tend to take advantage of this program. I’m getting paid a salary equivalent to many first-year assistant professors. I have benefits. I have kind co-workers.
I’m also working on an exciting book project on a freelance basis and I may start writing for some other outlets soon.
I’m happy and I’m excited.
I didn’t get the job I thought I wanted, but I’m doing just fine.
In fact, I’m better than fine.
So, why am I telling you this?
Because, dear reader, I know how difficult it can be to write or dissertate when you’re worried about what will happen after you graduate.
I can’t promise you that you will get an academic job. I can’t promise that tomorrow’s midterm elections will improve US politics, or make the US less volatile on the world stage. I can’t make any guarantees.
What I can tell you, however, is that sometimes your old way of life is ending so that your new life can begin. I believe in us and I believe that we can make a life and make a world that’s better than fine.