Wandering thoughts on Academia and job-hunting

Although there were many straws on the camel’s back by the time it broke with regard to academia (I will not begin to list the discouraging, disrespectful, condescending, limiting, frustrating comments from more than one faculty member at UVA, including my would-be dissertation director, regarding my ideas, projects, interests, and teaching– thank god for the few faculty who thought I might be relatively intelligent and worthy of their attention), I think one of the first things that really turned me off was attending the MLA. Thus, I fiercely encourage all those in pursuit of a Ph.D. to avoid the MLA until they actually have a job interview there. If you go before your job interview, and especially if you go while your friends are interviewing, you might get a taste of how dire the academic job market actually is. And you will know that, even with publications and teaching experience and invited lectures and post-docs and interpersonal skills and awards and a good academic pedigree, your chances of getting a job of any kind are very low. Luckily, there’s always adjunct comp! — Which you will probably end up teaching even if you worked your ass off creating a beautiful and jam-packed c.v.

Along with the stressful environment of the MLA, I watched a very intelligent friend of mine– one of the smartest people in the Poetics Program, to my mind– get shuffled off to a 4-4 non-tenure-track gig, comp-based, in the middle of nowhere. Having already sacrificed one relationship to Academia, I did not like the idea of having to follow Academia around to crappy jobs in out-of-the-way places. I did not like watching this person get treated that way. I heard horror stories from everyone, though– years of applying with no results; moving cross-country every other year to follow the available jobs; never having time (with these 4-4 schedules and the plethora of committees and red tape) to finish one’s first book and thus having a bugger of a time getting promoted despite one’s intelligence and abilities. I found the idea of devoting 3-4 years of my life to researching and writing a dissertation while living on graduate student income, only to be shuttled off to East Nowhere University and get paid the same salary as an entry-level position (in a city of my choosing) to be very unappetizing. I gave up emotionally long before I physically dropped out.

Now I am applying for jobs, and although I’ve had a few medium-wage jobs since leaving UVA, it’s hard to find a salaried position at which I might be able to utilize some of my skills. I didn’t really realize that I had a skill set until I began applying for jobs. For one, I speak English. I can answer the phone, type (82 wpm!), write, edit, maintain websites (as long as they aren’t terribly advanced), serve customers, research, etc. Who knew that these qualified as “skills”? I never really thought about them. I thought skills were like, whether you’d had a book published by the time you had your Ph.D. in hand (by the age of 30). I thought “time management” meant trying to teach, fulfill degree requirements, prep papers for conferences and journals, maintain a creative career, and run a press at the same time (not to mention all the people who do these things and have families!). I don’t really know what to think about this other world. It’s kind of a culture shock.

It’s hard to find a job out here in the Real World– I mean a job that might hold my interest and pay well enough for me to stop looking for other jobs. But I don’t think it’s any harder than finding a job in Academia, and my starting salary will probably be the same or better. I might have ended up in exactly this same place 4 years from now, but with a Ph.D. and a (useless) dissertation. And with my M.A. and teaching experience, I can still get those adjunct comp jobs– in a city that I actually want to live in. I might change my mind after working in the Real World for awhile and I might choose to go back to school for a marketable degree like an MLS. But as cruel at the Real World’s job market is, it feels like a huge relief to not be facing the tortures of the Academic job market.


About Jessica Smith

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20 Responses to Wandering thoughts on Academia and job-hunting

  1. Steve S says:

    Ah, yes. I have a manuscript that will never be published because it’s too edgy for conservative presses, too conservative for edgy presses, and too much about all the different things I can do for everyone who wants their poetry books to be one thing all the way through. But I make more than 99.9% of more accomplished poets of a similar age. So there is something to not being in academia. A lot, actually…

  2. Apparently, I am a stereotype. There’s even a special barb for Comp Lit.

    (Thanks– I think– to Samantha for the link.)

    Also, I put this hastily written, unedited post through MS Word grammar check which tells me it is at a 11.5 grade reading level. This increases my level of concern about seeming overqualified for positions, when in fact I am not overqualified for anything– any job is going to be new to me.

  3. I think it really does take at least six months to get a non-academic job. So I mean at least six months of endless, active searching and interviewing like you’ve been doing, and six months of temporary etc jobs. But six months in academia=a decade or more in the rest of the world. At least you can interview anywhere and at any time of year for non-academic jobs, not just at one specific conference.

    The problem with jobs is that there’s endless jobs, just none that one can really like or live off of.

  4. Steve S says:

    Posted this earlier and it vanished–

    Yeah, I know these feelings. I have a manuscript that will never be published because it’s too edgy for conservative presses and too conservative for edgy presses and too eclectic for everyone who wants a poetry collection to be one thing. On the other hand, I make more than 99% of more accomplished poets in my age range. Being outside of academia has its benefits. A lot of them, in fact…

  5. Mark L. says:

    Yes, the profession involving so many armchair revolutionaries needs to have an *actual* revolution. But it will never happen. Not when bread and butter is on the line, not since at some point (probably during their adjuncting gigs at community colleges) they realize that they are, in fact, The Man. Or I should say, it will not change until EVERYTHING changes when this society falls apart. Which shouldn’t be too much longer now.

  6. Susana says:

    that is a funny site, but I would say for sure this is not most white people, just the word-press type of white people…lalala

  7. Mark says:

    The sad thing, I’ve come to realize lately, is that the whole “job market” rhetoric in academia has become nothing more than a shell game, a lottery by which a rather small proportion of terminal degree holders will get the sort of job (tenure track, etc.) that they think they’re being trained or apprenticed for. Instead, the increasingly business-model corporatized university ends up producing cohort after cohort of temp workers (grad students, adjuncts, instructors) who teach for five, ten, fifteen years and then wander off to be replaced by another set of bright young people with grand ideas of their future. Bravo for you for getting out now, rather than perhaps prolonging the agony for a decade or more.

    (Which doesn’t imply, needless to say, that you aren’t academia poet-scholar material, or that you wouldn’t be a wonderful, inspiring teacher & colleague — but that those qualities don’t really make that much difference in outcome anymore, now that universities are delivering 75% of their courses thru GAs, adjuncts, & non-tenure-track instructors.)

  8. @Lorraine, I know, you gave me the 6 mo warning long ago, but I am trying to beat it.

    There are jobs you can live off of. But as for jobs you can like, I don’t know. Everyone complains about their job, so I guess it’s impossible to find a job you like. One of the reasons people go into Academia is so that they can really love their job, but then they find out that their job entails all these crappy things they hate (paperwork, committees, and some people hate teaching).

    @Steve re:money, I know, I wish i could get into the job you’re doing. I keep looking at it and thinking “gosh this would make things so easy.” Not sure what happens after that, except that I never complete PP2. re: books, I felt that OFC would never find an american publisher– that it would be better in canadian pociety. But hey, self-publishing does, to some extent, work.

    @Mark, there are things academia never escapes from…

    (aside: the website I pointed to seems often to be unwittingly sexist?)

  9. Matt says:

    I only type 55 wpm, and I strongly dislike talking on the phone. Do you think there’s still hope for me? Seriously though, good luck.

  10. A good argument against working in academia. I like school, and I think that’s the main reason I ended up with some “extra degrees” – ie my MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. I don’t think – for the reasons you describe above – I’m ever going to throw myself wholeheartedly into academic job searching. I don’t want to teach comp for the same amount of money I could make selling cosmetics at a counter (and even then, free stuff gives that job an edge.) I like freelance writing, although it doesn’t always bring in enough money, and waiting for paychecks is always exciting. You’d probably be good at it – send a couple of pitches out, see what comes in! At least on top on your other jobs, this might be a good way to establish yourself as a journalist in one of the best towns in the world for journalists. Think about subjects you like writing about – like health, or relationships. Women’s magazines pay a lot. Newspapers, etc, often let freelancers in to build clips, even though they don’t pay very much.
    Anyway, good post.

  11. Oh, you’ll totally have a good job soon! But when are we counting the six months from? ; )

    Some people like their jobs, I suppose. No, I know. Some people like some of their job most of the time, which is pretty good. And even if all jobs are to a certain extent awful, some are a lot more awful than others.

    By now you know that I like to say pessimistic, curmudgeonly things about employment whenever the topic comes up, here or anywhere.

  12. Steve S says:

    I understand. It’s not for everyone. 🙂

  13. @Matt, I don’t think you have to like talking on the phone, you just have to be polite when people call. And I think 55 wpm is kind of the low-end of the possible standard typing speed. Luckily, you probably have skills you didn’t even know you had. Do you know the alphabet? Turns out, that’s a skill. You can get a job filing documents or organizing books.

    @Lorraine, I really don’t think anyone liked their job. Or you know, maybe they like it better than other jobs. But have you ever met anyone who didn’t complain about their job? People would rather not work. Or if they did work, half of them would rather do something else. We should have like a Job Swap Day, like Take Your Daughter to Work Day, where everyone who hates their job just doesn’t go, and goes to the office or store or whatever where they’d rather be working and see how that is. Whereupon they will either run screaming back to their real job, or there will be a lot of job openings the next day and people can take those jobs. Also, on that day there will be flowers and cupcakes and cute little bunnies, and a parade.

  14. @ Jeannine Freelance writing always sounds romantic to me, and I know some people who’ve done that and similar freelance projects, but I don’t think I have the self-discipline necessary to do it. I feel like I need to go to an office, do a job (a set of tasks), and go home. Get my paycheck reliably, leave the job at the workplace, and entirely separate my work life from my creative life. I think actually this was one of the problems between me and Academia. Academia takes so much creative energy, and for a poet to be a successful scholar the two things have to be adequately merged. This was possible at Buffalo, where one is formed as a “poet-scholar,” but seemed impossible to me at UVA where I felt almost like I was hiding my creative endeavors (or at least that they were of no interest to anyone but me and a few classmates), despite my arguments that maintaining my creative life was essential if I was to be eligible for the “poet-scholar” jobs. … I think at this point I’d just rather have a job. The place I’m interviewing at on Tuesday hires “other agenda” candidates, that is, they hire intelligent people whose real energies are directed toward the arts, since they only want to use them during the day for rote tasks. I’m not entirely sure why they’ve designed their firm this way, but god how I want in on it.

  15. Yes, let’s declare job swap day sometime soon! I was trying to be optimistic about employment–guess you saw through that one : )

  16. eliza says:

    found your site while bumbling around stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com. i hope things turn out well for you. i’ve read some of the poems you’ve posted here, and i love them very much, especially daughter =) i’m from the philippines, see, so it’s just impossible for me to find your chapbook in our bookstores. =)

  17. I think we should have Job Swap Day the day after Easter, since there will still be bunnies and flowers leftover and possibly even parade floats. I bet the Job Swap mantra has something to do with recycling.

    Aside: I’m not used to living in a Catholic neighborhood. The prelude to Easter is so exciting and aesthetically interesting.

    And yeah. I don’t think it’s necessary to be optimistic about jobs. Jobs are often difficult and depressing. One hopes that they won’t be soul-crushing or lead one to form drug habits or anything that indicates that one’s life is suffering unduly. Maybe we could be optimistic about having a job where one’s “real life” is made, on the whole, easier rather than harder (money does make things easier); where one’s intellect is employed but one’s creative life doesn’t suffer; and where one feels that one’s making a positive impact on the world. Personally, I think that having a job that pays pretty well and requires me to separate work from home more (an 8-5 job in an office) might be useful to my creative work. I need discipline, schedules, lists, Excel files…

  18. sf says:

    The Alan Watts book on Easter is a good one, regarding the symbolism of the holiday

  19. nyorker says:

    Jessica, Jessica… so intelligent (so we’ve heard) and so so so sad

  20. Hey, if you don’t like me, you don’t have to read the blog.

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