Going on the Job Market? Pick up Fifty Shades of Grey or a Ukulele!

3 March 2013, 1448 EST

Traveling home today from a great conference with some awesome Ducks and non-Ducks. The conference, hosted by Debbi Avant (U of Denver) and Oliver Westerwinter (EUI) at the University of Denver, was on the topic of networks, governance, and security.  I learned a lot and will hopefully write a nice, normal research -related post sometime soon.

At the conference, one of the dinner conversations that kept popping up was the academic job market.  In general, the consensus – across age and rank divides – was that the job market is a very difficult, dehumanizing experience for the candidate.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, there are much, much, more difficult situations one can go through.[1]  However, it’s the rare person that goes through the experience without much internal insecurity and stress.

I’ve been on the market twice (once in fall of 2008 and then again in 2011).  Although I thought it would be much easier to be on the market once I had a job, I found that the stress didn’t diminish the second time.   Both times, I’d spend an unhealthy portion of my day hitting “re-fresh” on my email inbox.  Both times, I would check my phone for messages any time it hadn’t been attached to me at the hip.   The experience was punctuated by two periods of stress: (1) the stress that occurs before any calls, where you wonder if hiring committees just laughed at your vita and tossed it in the trash, and (2) the stress that occurs after the call and continues through the interview until you know the actual outcome of the search.  In my experience, the stress can’t be overcome by working on your own research projects; these projects are too intimately related to the whole job market experience (ie it’s probably your job talk, on your vita, etc) to really be relief.

One thing I found that really helped me through the process (and didn’t involve a run to the liquor store) was reading.  Now, to be fair, we all read a lot for our jobs – articles, books, newspapers, and research-related blogs.  This isn’t what I’m talking about:  starting while on the job market in 2008, I picked up trashy romance novels.   You know, the stuff that you put on an e-reader because you don’t want anyone to see the title or bodice-ripping cover.  The first time I was on the market, I got into the Dark Hunter series and then the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series (I read all of them in the month I had three interviews– stress was high).  The second time on the market, I read that set of novels that rhymes with “bifty bades of bay” and then turned to 1980s Harlequin Romance novels.  I would read whenever the uncertainty of the situation got to be too much in the period before the interview calls.  And, after the calls, I would read on the trip to the interview and, thanks to the advent of the iPad, I would even read the trash books on the interview.  I read while waiting for a dean, waiting for dinner, and even while I pretended to be taking notes after someone on an interview commented that my background signified I wasn’t “cultured” enough for their job.[2]

My point of this post is not to advocate that everyone takes up reading trash novels.  Instead, my point is to advocate that to-be job candidates take up something – anything! – that can occupy their minds during the job season.[3] One of my friends said she is going to take up the ukulele.  Another friend said he is taking up cage fighting (but he is a little concerned about hiding the bruises and black-eyes if he gets a quick interview).    The job market process is difficult.  In my limited experience on the other side of things, interview decisions have a lot of “groupthink” and network pathologies involved that have nothing to do with the candidate or the strength of the file.  And, regardless of whether you agree with Dan or not as to the utility of a job talk, there is no other time in our lives where our fate will be decided in quite the same way.[4] In short, it is a uniquely stressful experience in most academic careers.  Finding other interests while on the job market is essential for personal well-being.

[1] We aren’t in a gulag, for example.

[2] I think my reading here was a form of nonviolent protest.  And, the person was right: I’m a proud blue-collared academic.

[3]  This is part of a series of academic-related posts I’ve been making here that can be best entitled “Unsolicited Advice from a Mediocre Assistant Professor in Flyover Country.”

[4] Unless you decide to participate in The Bachelor/Bachelorette, perhaps.