the job market is here to breed chaos

Lately I’ve felt horribly naïve. I suppose it started once job postings started and I began putting relevant ones into a spreadsheet, because spreadsheets calm me down. As I was making notes on teaching materials required for each application, I noticed that almost all mentioned sample syllabi explicitly. Perhaps this is because my department under-emphasizes teaching, but I’d been under the impression that syllabi were the exception, not the rule, and so I figured I’d have to make them but that I could do that last.

Nope! For multiple reasons, this was a terrible idea—not least because syllabi take a long-ass time to make regardless of when one chooses to make them. By comparison, I belabored my diversity statement for a couple of weeks. So far, only two jobs I’ve seen want one. One is a Canadian institution, and the other is…the Army War College. Opposite Land, ’tis I, your latest denizen. (I am very tired.)

We can discuss selection effects—I am most interested in liberal arts and non-U.S. jobs, so that’s my sample space—as well as the small-N problem, given how few jobs there are this cycle. (Any potential employers reading this: I promise I do critical work despite speaking fluent positivism.) And we can discuss things I “should have” known. Writing good syllabi is hard. Departments don’t actually care about diversity, or they do and realize that diversity statements are kind of performative. Even here, one can start to see the multiple logics of the market and the amount of mental chaos one can generate trying to untangle them.

Recently I engaged in some Twitter Discourse™ about PhD comprehensive exams. I stated an absolute: I had never heard of a PhD student who liked their comps experience. As tends to happen when one deals in absolutes, the outliers appeared out of the woodwork and revealed that they were not outliers at all, but rather a sizable population. And this was certainly not their intention, because it is useful to know the full range of experiences and that only comes through communicating them, but I started to doubt my own. Had I done something wrong because I felt my comps were a waste of six months of my life? (No: my takeaway is that format matters a lot, and I had no idea how many programs allow students to put together their own reading lists, or who even tailor such lists beyond coursework such that studying is not simply regurgitation of material on which I’ve already been assessed. That sounds useful. My experience was not. Even my examining committee told me it was a box-checking exercise…on which I spent six months. I digress.)

We’re entering orientation season, when thousands (eek) of new graduate students will descend virtually on campuses to start learning what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into. And so I share what feels like naïveté to me, as I enter my sixth and final year, to normalize it. I want new grad students to know that they will be constantly figuring this out, that they’re not “wrong” if they don’t know something, and that academia is structurally obtuse and maddening.

A wise friend once said to disregard all advice about graduate school except bits that click because the experience is so individualized. It is, and it isn’t. It is, insofar as what you want will be different from what each of your cohort-mates wants, and these wants are probably all fine and valid. (*checks the woodwork*) It isn’t, insofar as someone else has also experienced what you’re going through in a similar way, because they’re similar goal-wise or personality-wise or both. My best advice is to find that person, who in my case also happens to be the person who said to disregard most advice about graduate school. Untangle that logic.

To return to the job market: I’m learning the areas about which I’m not horribly naïve, or where I feel confident enough adjudicating on my own. EX: I feel as though mentioning publications in my cover letter is a good thing, despite one piece of advice I received to the contrary. I feel as though mentioning my union work in my application materials, however much it matters to me personally, is an incredibly risky move, despite only one person I asked agreeing with me on that.

Maybe this is that “expertise” thing I keep hearing about? Maybe it’s arriving. We talk a lot about being ready to go on the job market, which is usually quantified by number of publications or % of dissertation completed or something like that. I’d like to qualify it, instead, as feeling like you have a footing. Like you don’t belong everywhere in academia, but you’ve found your niche. Like you’re climbing a mountain and have unexpectedly found a particularly good hold.

I’ll end today on a note of practical advice, which is that the Interfolio help people are lovely, bless them, and it is slightly disconcerting that I’ve already had to use them (eek). I think that sentence captures the job market dynamic well: everything is unsettling, nothing works quite right, and also there is help. You know enough, now, to know when to ask and how much to listen.

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