Post Academic

While you’re waiting for that call/email…

"Autoanswer-1" by Kitsya (Creative Commons license)

If you’re not holding on until the last possible minute to mail out your job application packets, you should pat yourself on the back.  And if you are procrastinating, you have about a week to get those November 1 applications in, so get cracking.  Anyway, those of you  more or less done with your end of the bargain are entering various stages of waiting, depending on how much you were asked to send in for a given call.  We already addressed what you should be doing to be prepared for a secondary request for materials, but there are those ads that ask you for everything at once, leaving you hanging until you get the call–or not–for a MLA interview.  And since MLA is in January 2011 this go-around, I’m not sure if that also means you’ll find out news–or hold onto to false hope–later than ever.  Though knowing that university bureaucracy will dilly-dally as long as possible, I hope they either put the candidates out of their misery for the holidays or let them use the time to prepare.

I know, I know, you should use your time productively–like getting ready in advance for possible interviews or working on your diss to knock out two birds with one stone–but it’s much easier to fritter hours away online, which you are, of course, welcome to do so here.  Below are some of the not-so-productive activities I found myself engaging in while playing the waiting game.

Cybersnooping: I know I shouldn’t and I know it’s undignified, but I have become quite a good cybersnoop, starting from MLA season to campus visits to finding out who landed the positions I applied for.  The academic jobs wiki makes this way too easy to do; once the first notifications for interviews are posted, the dang site becomes pretty much like crack, which gets all the more addictive once the x2 (by phone) and x3 (via email) notes pop up, while you’re making sure your cellphone voicemail works and checking that there’s nothing in your spam folder.

More on cybersnooping, below the fold…


The MLA JIL Cottage Industry

Posted in Absurdities,The Education Industry by Arnold Pan on September 23, 2010
Tags: , , , ,

I promise that this is the last post you’ll see from me about the MLA Job Information List — at least until I actually log on to it, either through buying my own affiliate account or poaching off the UCI English dept whenever it decides to renew its account.  But you’d be surprised by all the stuff you can find online typing in “MLA JIL” or “JIL MLA” or “ADE JIL” (which includes one of our very own posts near the top of the Google search list).  So here’s what I found searching for the JIL and trying to backdoor it and not being able to do so.

"Cottage Industry!" by Colin Smith (Creative Commons license)

The mlaconvention Twitter account: This is where all the action is if you want to find out all the JIL news, even if you’re not actually able to get on it.  We’ve linked to and been linked by the MLA’s Exec Director Rosemary Feal’s Twitter before responding to a call about reforming the dissertation, but who knew she would give a play-by-play on the status of the JIL while hosting and responding to comments by MLA members?  If you dig a little into the older Tweets, you’ll notice that the JIL had a very shaky and frustrating launch.  We’ve dogged the MLA quite a bit on this blog, but you can’t beat their customer service when the Exec Director responds to pretty much anyone who Tweets @ ’em.

MLA JIL LOLCAT: And to keep the restless natives entertained while they’re in the virtual line trying to get onto the JIL on the geeks’ equivalent to day-after-Thanksgiving shopping, the MLA has created its own gallery of…LOLCATs: “This #MLALOLCat is for all you patient #mlajoblist users!“.  You gotta give the MLA credit for trying to amuse the unamused masses, though isn’t “I Can Has Cheezburger?” so 2008 — which is also around the time the job market plunged and we probably needed the humor the most.

The Academic Job Wiki’s Una74: One of the best things about the Academic Job Wiki was the virtual community aspect of it, where people shared job info, advice, and a feeling of doom.  Those of you who are on the wiki might have noticed that many of the early listings have been put up by a user named Una74, who describes her/himself as a “Professional Lurker, Part-time Administrator of Academic Jobs Wiki.”  On the one hand, you wanna thank Una74 for the thankless job of posting all the job listings as they come up, especially when you, ahem, don’t have access to the JIL.  On the other, you wanna ask who made Una74 the boss of the Job Wiki–I mean, could we have applied for this position and can Una74 put it on a CV?  Considering that the Wiki has always been a communal effort, we’ll see if the presence of Una74 as a shadowy majordomo will change the dynamic of how folks contribute when we really, really need to find out about interviews, campus visits, gossip, and job offers.  (Seriously, I’ve been thinking about that!)  I imagine probably not, if some of the frustrated jobseeker posts already up on the Wiki are any indication: As one Wiki commenter noted, once the JIL technical problems were resolved, “yeah, now all we gotta deal with is how sh*tty the list is so far. at least in my field”.

Chronicle MLA JIL sites: I didn’t want to link this Chronicle message board, since we’re going head-to-head with it to see who’s higher on the “MLA JIL” Google search, but to heck with it.  All these message boards and Wikis do serve the function of being online support groups for those who need the support, even if you’re just lurking.  The we’re-all-in-the-same-boat gallows humor does help, like the shared experience of not being able to explain how the profession works to people outside it, as in this case:

A couple of years ago I was visiting my mother and told her there were only X number of jobs out there in French and she didn’t believe me. I popped open the laptop and went through the MLA JIL with her.  When she saw how many Francophone jobs there were she said, “Well, you must be wrong about what ‘Francophone’ means.”

Right mom. I was totally mistaken and am indeed a Francophone specialist without my knowing it. Thanks.

There’s also a breakout message board about “Predictions for 2010-2011 job season”, which is good vicarious viewing for those without proper JIL access.  While the numbers seem *relatively* encouraging — how could they not be after the worst market ever? — the comments are still caustic: When someone queried what the growth fields might be, the two sad-but-true replies were “adjunct studies” and “administration”.  Just because it’s depressingly true doesn’t mean it isn’t still kinda funny…

To whom it may concern: Rejection letter do’s and don’t’s, Part 1

So, for whatever reason, I’ve received a whole batch of rejection emails in my inbox the last few days, for jobs that had long been filled (thanks, Wiki!) and for some applications that were still open (boo-hoo!).  This is probably a total breach of protocol, but here’s some of what has come through my inbox in the last 48 hours:

The Good

Dear Candidate:

I am writing to thank you for your interest in the Americanist position at [school name redacted]. We received an extraordinarily high number of applications for this position and choosing among them was particularly difficult. We have now concluded our search and regret that we had to turn away candidates who had so much to offer. We wish you success in your job search and appreciate your taking the time to prepare materials for [redacted].


“Search Committee Chair”

The lame:

Dear Arnold;

Thank you for your interest in the Assistant Professor of English position at [school name redacted]. The search committee recently ended the search process; this letter is to notify you that we have selected another candidate.

Best wishes for continued success in your professional endeavors.


“Human Resources Person”

Unfortunately, I have enough experience with this subject to offer some “insight” into what makes a good rejection letter and a bad rejection letter, if search committees want input from the rejected.  (The answer is, probably not.)  It really is a reflection on how bad the academic job market has become, when one’s pride and dignity depend on how s/he is rejected and when a little professional courtesy has become an exception rather than the rule.  There may be no vested interest in being courteous, but every job search committee member has been this position before (though perhaps at a time that wasn’t so dire) and has students who are encountering this crumminess right now.

While, of course, what I’m discussing doesn’t apply to all departments, it probably applies to all-too-many, at least if my experience is any measure.  In fact, there’s a whole Academic Jobs Wiki section addressed to hypothetical search committees, as well as some discussion on the Modern Brit lit list over good and bad rejection letters (scroll to the bottom of the page to find it).  In particular, there’s an interesting exchange on the Wiki American Lit page (scroll down to the Case Western Reserve section to find it), where a search committee member asked applicants what they found wrong with a particularly cold rejection (which I received too!) that picks up on a lot of the issues I address below the fold.  Today, I’ll cover the basics and I’ll address some personal pet peeves and pats on backs later.


Hamster World or Hamster Wheel?

So as I start to looking into what Caroline calls the Hamster World for gainful employment, I somehow end up back on the Hamster Wheel of the academic job market.  Last week, I wrote a post about the temptations of continuing to apply to academic jobs, even when the writing is on the wall (and has been on the wall for a while now).  While I haven’t applied for THAT job that I was mulling over (and still mulling over), I discovered a postdoc to apply to as I scoured over the Academic Job Wiki postdoc page to find out the results of another search.  Even as I learned that yet another opportunity was biting the dust–one I thought that I had as good a shot as any, since it was a diversity postdoc–I found a late postdoc posting just in time, a few days before the application deadline.

I didn’t dither about going for one more last application, since postdocs are a lot more open-ended and less restrictive than a field and period specific tenure-track position.  (Then again, that’s why there are also at least 3 times more people applying to any given postdoc!)  The reason I decided to quickly put together an application for the postdoc is that I already have a project ready to go, as opposed to the finetuning and tweaking that applying for a job that doesn’t quite fit my profile would take.  Yet just when I was notified by my dossier service that my confidential recommendations had been sent, I started having second thoughts, mostly because I was lazy.  I didn’t want to have to do the following:


The odds of academic employment

Aside from March Madness, there’s nothing more exciting–and anxiety inducing–this time of year than waiting for admissions decisions to roll in, whether it’s for college or graduate school.  Over at the very interesting LiveJournal community group So you want to go to grad school?, there have been some posts recently that addressing just how hard it is to gain acceptance into a graduate program these days, with pools of 500+ applicants.  It seems that it has gotten a lot harder to get into grad school these days, compounded by the likelihood that the admitted classes are smaller and the funding packages maybe not be as lucrative, due to bad economic circumstances.  I don’t know so much about college, but I expect that it is harder to get into college, too, not to mention to pay for it.

For those interested in a full-time academic career at the end of many, many years of schooling, whether you’re at the end of the Ph.D., the beginning of it, or thinking about it, here are some of the odds of getting a job in academia.  I perused the results of some searches compiled over at the Academic Jobs Wiki for postdocs and American literature (the latter is my area of specialization), piecing together the following information:

American literature

Case Western Reserve, Asst or Assoc Prof, 20th c. US lit: 1 position, 500+ applicants

Coastal Carolina, 6 positions in various fields: 6 positions, 800 applicants (the odds aren’t so long here?)

Dickinson College, Asst Prof, Contemporary lit: 1 position, 650+ applicants

Macalester College, Open Rank, Literary Theory: 1 position, 400 applicants

Miami U of Ohio, Asst Prof, Modernist lit: 1 position, 380 applicants

U of Maine, Farmington, Asst Prof, 20th c. US lit: 1 position, 400 applicants


Harvard Preceptors: 5-10 positions, 300+ applicants

Johns Hopkins Mellon Postdoc on diaspora: a few positions, 450+ applicants

Rice U, Mellon Postdoc: 2-3 positions (usually), 1000+ applicants weeded down to 150 semifinalists(!)

Stanford Mellon Postdoc (limited to a few fields like Comp Lit and Asian Studies): a few positions, 600+ applicants

Temple U, Center for Humanities Postdoc: 3 times more applicants than previous years

Tufts U, Center for Humanities Postdoc: a few positions, 350 applicants (up from 60 last year)

UC President’s Postdoc, Diversity postdoc: 5 or so positions (usually), 500+ applicants

U Michigan Society of Fellows Postdoc: a few positions, 860 applicants weeded down to 180 semifinalists. (Keep in mind, too, that UM required a $30 application fee, and still got 860 applicants!)

UNC Chapel Hill, Diversity postdoc: a few positions, 400+ applicants

Washington U in St. Louis, Mellon Postdoc: a few positions, 500+ applicants

Bear in mind that the “real” odds are probably a little bit better, since not everyone who applies is either 1)qualified/ready to apply for tenure-track jobs and postdocs; or 2)a good fit for the stated position–I speak from experience on this.  But even being generous by cutting the competitive pool in, say, half, the best you can say is that maybe you have almost a 1% chance at getting a tenure-track position and around a 10+% chance of getting a convention interview out of a given application.  I know I’m playing amateur statistician and demographer here, but I imagine the longer odds and larger applicant pools have to do with fewer scholars having secure tenure-track positions.

Even a senior scholar I talked to seemed genuinely flabbergasted at the current situation and described this year’s market as pretty much a crapshoot.  So when someone wishes you good luck on the academic job market, it’s no formality–s/he probably means it literally.

Academia, I wish I knew how to quit you!

Or perhaps the better overused, overwrought movie quote to describe my situation would be: “Just when I thought I was out…you pull me back in!”  Or, more accurately, “Just when I thought I was out…I pull myself back in!”

Here’s a real-time example of just how easy it is for me to talk myself into keeping on holding on to academia, despite what my experience and better judgment tell me: A few days ago, I spied a plum job opening that’s kinda-sorta in my field, which is a big shock and a really pleasant surprise because postings for the tenure-track run mostly dry after the Fall and Winter.  This position would be one of the better jobs I’d have applied for this year (or really, any year), at a top-notch R1 public university with a strong graduate program.  And then, maybe my chances for the position would be better than they normally would be, since the applicant pool should be smaller due to the late date, compounded by the possibility that the job might not be so widely advertised and fewer folks will be on the look out for it.  And maybe the most attractive candidates–even though I do regard myself as a strong candidate!–have all been placed in tenure-track jobs or postdocs from earlier in the cycle.  I start to think about going for it, since, as my friends who are gainfully employed in the academic world like to tell me, it only takes one application and what do I have to lose anyway, except maybe a few bucks in postage and couple of hours of my time?

The problem is, I’ve been on this hamster wheel before and before that, and a few hours putting together an application can end up being a few more months waiting to hear from someone, obsessively checking the wiki, and investing some psychic energy that could be better used elsewhere.  The reality of the situation is that it would still be quite a stretch to make myself appear like a good fit, no matter how well I can sell it in my cover letter.  Plus, I whiffed on a postdoc at the same institution (which probably passed my application on to the department in which the tenure-track position is housed), so maybe that should be a big red flag.  And the job ad is written in such a way–it asks for two not-necessarily connected specializations in a sneaky “and/or” way–that suggests this could be an inside hire, which might also help to explain the late posting and the relatively short period to turn around the application.  There are some obvious warning signs to foreshadow where this story is going, and I think I’ve seen this movie enough times to know that I don’t like the way it ends.

So should I apply?

Resources: The Academic Jobs Wiki

Posted in Process Stories,Surviving Grad School by Arnold Pan on March 10, 2010
Tags: ,

Any (hypothetical) reader of this blog is likely familiar with the Wikia-hosted Academic Job Wiki site, but I might as well link it on Post Academic and give it a tout.  If, somehow, you are not, commit what’s below to memory or bookmark:

From September to the end of the annual job market around now (at least for literature types), the job wiki is pretty much indispensable, whether you’re looking for info on a job you just applied for, finding job postings you missed, getting ready to be bummed when someone else gets a convention interview/a campus visit/an offer, or if you’re just a voyeuristic lurker.  Though I can really only vouch for the literature and postdoc offerings, the list seems pretty comprehensive, covering disciplines ranging from the sciences to the humanities, including archives going back a few years.

Aside the raw data, what also makes people like me go back and back and back to the job wiki day after day after day is the virtual community it produces.  So maybe there is some mischief making and some folks who get so many interviews/visits/offers that you can’t help but be enviously annoyed by them, but there’s a spirit of sharing on the wiki that actually goes beyond the camaraderie of real, live friends.  Friends, don’t take this the wrong way, cause you’re great and all, but comparing notes about the job market–for all parties, including myself–is the most awkward, teeth-pulling thing there is among people who know each other well and fondly in every other way.  With a few exceptions, applying for jobs has just led to a lot of weirdness between me and many of my closest friends and colleagues.  Perhaps it’s the anonymity or the strength in numbers that the wiki format offers, but there’s just some things–like gallows humor, the anticipation of bad news, virtual congrats–that are better shared among IP addresses and cryptic user IDs.

So if the coming end of this year’s job market is making you feel bored or lonely, check it out before it goes into hibernation for the spring and summer.