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

by on 2013-03-03 in Duck- 14 Comments

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.

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  • http://howlatpluto.blogspot.com/ LFC

    Every post I can recall reading at Duck of Minerva about the academic job market has been written by someone who was successful on the market, i.e., who got interviews and found a job. Might be interesting, for possible contrast, to read a post by someone whose search was unsuccessful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amanda.murdie Amanda Murdie

    Hi – I really like that idea a lot! Do you know someone who would be willing to give an insider’s look at the market from that perspective? I would love to interview them. Please have them contact me (amandamurdie@gmail.com or murdiea@missouri.edu).

  • http://howlatpluto.blogspot.com/ LFC

    In terms of someone very recently on the market (i.e., in the last few years), which would probably be the most interesting case for readers, no I don’t. But maybe someone will see this exchange and send you an e-mail to volunteer. If the person in question wanted anonymity or pseudonymity, presumably that could be arranged (?).

  • ejg

    Great post. Might I just add that the stress of this profession is not time-bound to the process of finding a job. As an assistant prof at a good university, my own experience of writing and revising articles for publication in order to get tenure, while also creating and teaching new courses, while also managing family life, has been joy-killing. Totally stressful! Solution: I don’t like to read trash … but I do love to watch it on TV. Currently I’m into season 2 of Glee, the fun break on isolating writing days. The point is: escapism works, whether you are reading 50 shades/Harlequin (not my cup of tea) or tuning in to marathon sessions of (you name your favorite series) on netflix. I wish more academics would be open about the various frivolous ways they spend their down time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amanda.murdie Amanda Murdie

    Yup, that could definitely be arranged.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amanda.murdie Amanda Murdie

    Yup, that could definitely be arranged.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kindredwinecoff W. K. Winecoff

    I still haven’t written about my job market experience, and maybe won’t. The gist is that I was lucky enough that it wasn’t very stressful for me despite illness while on interviews.

    I wonder, however, whether the academic job market is more/less stressful than the non-academic job market. That’s no picnic either, and while there’s no job talk there are often multiple rounds of interviews with different sets of people featuring progressively-weird thought experiments, examinations, drug tests, background checks, etc. To get those interviews folks often have to apply for exponentially more positions than academics do, which is a stressful and time-consuming process on its own, and which can drag out indefinitely. (For better or worse, the academic job market season is relatively short by comparison.) As a ratio of jobs offered to jobs applied for, the “fail rate” is almost certainly higher for non-academics, which could increase stress as well.

    Plus, PhDs generally have *some* professional employment opportunity available to them, even if it’s not the R1 TT academic position they’ve desired. I believe only 3% of folks with PhDs are unemployed in the US, the lowest of any group. Non-academics would certainly look at that with envy.

    So at the end of the day I don’t know if academics have it any worse than others, although I could certainly be wrong.

    Does anyone know of any research on this?

  • http://twitter.com/WolfieTheWolf Matt

    I can provide a little anecdotal evidence on my behalf. I’ve been on the market for about 4 months now and I while I only have a BA, I can say its awfully rough as well. What it seems like to me is that while there are jobs available in my field of interest, there are also exponentially more applicants for each of these positions. And that people with more education and experience than me are applying for these positions, so I’ve started applying to positions where they only require a high school/associates degree, just to get something going on.

    And in regards to the original post, its been stressful for me living at home with my parents. I’m constantly running into old classmates, teachers, coaches who all ask what I’m doing and its difficult to say I’m unemployed and looking for work, as I’m a pretty accomplished student with a fair amount of work experience, yet still jobless.

    Alas, I try occupy my free time playing video games, making sure to get out and socialize with friends and taking some free MOOCs for fun.

  • http://twitter.com/ronanfitz22 Ronan

    On this note, I’ve been in and out of work, on and off the
    dole for 2/3 years now. 80% of my friends are either on the dole/emigrated,
    (from Ireland – although I’d classify 35% of that emigration as moving for jobs
    they would have moved for even without the downturn) The idea of moving into a
    field of interest is NOT a realistic aspiration within the next number of
    years, and I’ve lost count of the amount of rejection emails I’ve had. (This
    week! No I kid, although I have had one or two this week already.) That being said, it’s
    not really that bad. You should enjoy these days living in your parent’s house,
    especially if you’ve only just finished your undergraduate degree. Read everything
    you want, go drinking during the week etc It can actually be a blessing in disguise.
    And in the short medium term don’t beat yourself up too much.

    On the academic job market thing, I’ve never understood this
    complaint. Surely if you make it through a US grad program you’re going to be
    trained to a pretty high level in statistics/modelling etc, and/or a second
    language? You’re going to walk into a decent paying job I’d imagine? Or is this
    a case of the disappointment of not being able to do what you’ve always wanted and
    dedicated 5-8 years of your life to? I’ve a lot of sympathy for that, but if
    there are numerous opportunities post grad school, just not in academia, then
    that complicates the arguments for or against the usefulness of going to grad
    school, if you see what I’m saying.

  • http://howlatpluto.blogspot.com/ LFC

    “I believe only 3% of folks w PhDs are unemployed in the US”

    Of course one is only counted as unemployed if actively looking for employment; also, one is counted as employed even if, say, not working full-time. So the 3% figure, if accurate, shd be viewed with these qualifications in mind. There’s probably been research on academic v. nonacademic job markets but I don’t know of it offhand.

    In May of last yr the NPR program ‘Tell Me More’ aired a segment called “Why so many PhDs are on food stamps.” Link below. I just remembered hearing a teaser/preview for it but I haven’t listened to it.


  • Comradde PhysioProffe

    This blogger has posted about his failed academic jobbe search:


  • http://howlatpluto.blogspot.com/ LFC

    That’s a post by a scientist (i.e. a natural scientist) who had held a prestigious (by his own account, which I’m sure is accurate) postdoc. He doesn’t go into details about his ac. job search, but it’s still interesting.

  • http://howlatpluto.blogspot.com/ LFC

    So I meant to add: thanks for the link.

  • DuckPM

    Having done both, I can assure you: The Ph.D. market is much more stressful. As one would expect: The non-academic market isn’t hiring for 6 years-to-life, so they can afford a failed search.