Getting a Job in Academia: Year -1

The MLA Job Information List (hereafter referred to as “JIL”) will be released today. Though one can find academic job postings for elsewhere, such as the Chronicle for Higher Education, the JIL is the granddaddy of professorial openings for students wanting to become a literature and language professor.

Let me give a brief rundown of the process for getting a job in academia. I have explained this process countless times to Husband and friends, but unless you’re living it, the experience can seem very counterintuitive, bizarre, and beside-the-point. Oh wait, it is.

When a department decides it needs to hire a new faculty member and the position is not an endowed chair, the faculty must first take their request to the Administration, who (hopefully) will give their blessing to the faculty. The department will draft a statement (“job posting”) stating the types of things they are looking for in a new hire. These postings are usually organized by field, which in turn are usually historically or geographically situated: British Romanticism, for example, or 20th century American lit. Such and such.

They post the job opening to the JIL, which runs from Sept 15 through sometime in June. Newly minted PhDs, grad students on the cusp of receiving their PhD, and assistant professors unhappy with their current position or salary flock to the website only to find a disappointingly small amount of jobs listed.

Job applications consist of a CV, writing sample, dissertation or book project abstract, letters of recommendation, and teaching statement. As I mentioned, the jobs are posted Sept 15; applications are usually due between Oct 15 and Nov 15. The hiring committee, usually three tenured professors, will whittle anywhere from 100 to 400 applications down to a choice 10 to 12, who will then be invited to interview at MLA, the giant magaconference in our profession. From these 12 lucky applicants (only in academia are you considered lucky even to be offered an interview), 3 will be chosen to participate in a campus visit.

Oh, the campus visit.

Over the course of two weeks or so in February or March, the applicants will be trotted one at a time through the campus, meeting other faculty, grad students, and the administration for what must be an excruciatingly long two-day visit. At some point they will give a public lecture, a 45 minute reading from their book project, followed by a 15-30 minute torture-fest wherein we learn more about the faculty of the hiring school than about the applicant. Q&A sessions are just bizarre. Assuming the candidate is still standing, he or she will be sent home to wait. And wait. And wait.

The faculty will meet in small, closed-door meetings to decide who to hire. Battle lines will be drawn. Longtime rivals will resume their passive-aggressive hostility. A candidate will be chosen.

Phone calls will be made to the victorious party. While contracts are being negotiated, the other two candidates will be left in limbo. If, for some reason, the first candidate has taken a position elsewhere, the committee will call No. 2, but of course pretend like No. 2 was really No. 1. Woe be you to be No. 3. Not until the ink is dry will they call the candidates who made a campus visit but did not make the cut to tell them the bad news.

Nobody seems to like this process. Not the faculty, not the hiring committee, certainly not the applicants. It’s like applying to college or grad school, taken to the nth degree.

I will not be on the job market this year, but I attended the job meeting our university held for students on the market. Everyone in the room had their game-face on, but as the meeting wore on, faces started turning green. The process sucks. It sucks even more that the people who haven’t been able to get a job since Lehman Bros collapsed (aka my first year in the program) are still going on the job market, year after year, waiting. Just waiting.

That smell in the air on campus? That’s not the beginning of fall. That’s desperation.

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4 thoughts on “Getting a Job in Academia: Year -1

  1. Neurotic Workaholic says:

    I'm not going on the job market this year, but I probably will be either next year or the year after that. It all depends on the dreaded dissertation. I've been in school for so long that I can't even picture not being a student anymore, even though I really want to be done with school. The job market for English Ph.D.s is very tough, especially because like you said, there aren't enough jobs to go around. At this point, as long as I find a full-time job at a good school, I'll be happy. It doesn't have to be a tenure-track position; it doesn't have to be a Top 10 school. As long as I don't have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and I like the school, I'll be satisfied.

  2. Libby says:

    Yes. Yes that does sound like a headache. I was listening to a lecture the other day and the professor said, "I always tell my students that after studying for four years (undergrad) they will want to find some sort of work. I then encourage them to stop studying Greek and Roman history and move to accounting."

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