We all hate job searches, but they make for good stories if you do them with reckless abandon. For example, try running a job hunt from Europe. That’s my advice. I’ll spare you the usual complaints about academic job season. Yes, it’s cruel. I applied for 60 or so jobs all over the world. New York, Wisconsin, Iraq, Lebanon, China. Even North Dakota. For some reason, I decided to travel through Spain for a month right in the middle of my job search. I drank cafe solo every morning while scrolling through my emails, praying for an interview. I also stopped off at more McDonald’s locations than I care to admit, because they always had the best wifi.
My trip began in late November. Stupid. Somehow I managed to cancel the last week of my classes without getting fired from my TAship. My dissertation was drafted but not revised. I didn’t take any of my books with me on the plane. Instead of writing or doing job prep, I went running along the Mediterranean coast every afternoon and went to flamenco concerts and drank with undergraduates every night. I partied with people who would’ve been my students under normal circumstances. I toured ancient palaces and fortresses. My professors thought I’d lost my mind. One of my committee members emailed me as much:
You’re in Spain??? What the fuck are you doing there???? I just read chapter four of your dissertation, and it needs serious work. And your final grades are late. Honestly, I don’t think you’re going to finish this year. You need to think about taking out some more loans.
So I dragged myself to an Internet cafe and entered my grades over a spotty wifi connection, then took a bus downtown to hang out with my new friends. I had four besties: all 19-21 years old: German, British, Polish, Japanese. They accepted me as their older sister.
Why had I put everything on the line for a month bumming around Europe? Part of me knew it would be my last shot. I’d never gone outside the continental U.S. Once I finished my PhD, I knew Sallie Mae would come knocking and all my disposable income would vanish. (Assuming I got a job.) I had a bunch of extra cash from a plush teaching coordinator job for European exchange students that summer. They’d filled my head with desires for one last adventure before…whatever… So instead of spending the money responsibly, I threw it at a plane ticket and a study abroad program.
Live big, they say. I think I was right. In the end, I finished my PhD and wound up publishing two articles from my dissertation. I got a job. You know the only thing I regret? All the worrying I did. At least I had fun despite myself.
I flew back to the states a couple of days before the MLA Job Convention. I was the only girl there with a tan.
If you’re not an academic, you’re in for a treat when I describe the MLA Convention. Basically, everyone acts constipated. You can spot other job seekers on the plane. They’re the ones wearing all black and eye-glasses. They probably have their face buried in index cards. Those cards have practice interview questions scribbled on them. They’ll shuffle through their cards and mumble to themselves the whole flight.
Correction, they’ll do that unless they sniff out another job seeker. If that happens, they’ll take occasional pauses to ferret out if you’re in their field or not, how many interviews you have, and how nervous you are. There’s a sweet spot with MLA interviews. You want a respectable five. More than that, and you’ll have a breakdown. Less, and people wonder why you bothered coming at all. Indeed, the convention site brims with little hipster vampires in black suits who feed off your nervous energy. What they secretly hope is that you’re a total wreck, or a hopeless loser. It helps them feel better, even if you’re not competing for the same jobs. I know this because those thoughts scrolled through my head all day. When I wasn’t buried in my notes, I was watching people at hotel cafes over the brim of my mug, trying to decide if they looked more or less prepared than me.
There was good news, though. I knew about a dozen people at the convention, some from my current school and some from my MFA. We crashed in each others hotel rooms and comforted each other between interviews. Emotions run high. Hooking up isn’t entirely inconceivable if you’re discrete and wait until the end of your trip.
My interviews all took place in cramped hotel rooms. Three or professors surrounded me in swivel chairs. They asked questions like:
- Let’s play a thought game. If I told you that your research was completely irrelevant, how would you respond?
- Isn’t the main argument in your dissertation taking our field backwards by about 40 years?
- What’s your research agenda after you publish your second monograph? In other words, what do you think you’d write about for your third book?
- Do you think there’s any room for creative writing or blogging in this position, or are you just wasting your time?
- I just want to be up front. We’re probably not going to hire an ABD (all but dissertation). But you’re pretty. Wanna grab a drink?
My last interview ended on a dismal note. As soon as the door closed, I heard the committee burst out laughing. Could they at least wait until I made it to the elevator? On my way down the hall, I passed a dapper blond in a killer outfit. It made me feel pretty bad about my pantsuit from Target. But I rejoiced nonetheless, because now I could drink. But not downtown. Too risky. You don’t want a search committee to spot you with drunk-eye. So we took ubers to some dive bars on the outskirts of the city. We dragged some textbook reps from Oxford University press with us, and they taught us some British drinking games. British academics can drink like nothing I’ve ever seen. I don’t even know how I got back to my hotel. One guy from our group blacked out and woke up in a threesome.
The MLA interview isn’t the end. If you succeed, you have to visit their campus and give a job talk. You basically spend 12 hours on your feet, then have to stay awake during a long dinner. You’re supposed to have just enough wine at the dinner to look like a regular human being. All day, professors you barely know look at you and say, “You must be so exhausted.” They touch your arm with a sympathetic smile.
Don’t say yes and gush about how exhausted you are. It’s a fucking trick. You’re supposed to smile brightly and say, “Oh, not at all! I love being here!!” That makes them like you more.
You can’t let your guard down for a minute. I know because I’ve also served on two search committees since joining the ranks of tenure-track faculty. One person didn’t get a job because he “turned his back” on a professor during a dinner. Another guy lost a job because everyone suspected he’d gone to a strip club in town after his interview. What else? Yes, you get driven and escorted around campus. That might seem like downtime to be yourself. It’s not. If you can’t keep up a witty facade, the escorts talk about you during the department meeting. “She didn’t really say anything on the car ride back to the hotel.” Yeah, because it was the end of a 15-hour day of constant talking.
Here’s some advice: Run a double half-marathon before your campus visit. Yeah, I ran back-to-back half marathons the weekend before mine. I hobbled around campus. It seemed like a bad decision at the time. But here’s what the faculty said about me later: Wow, she’s a go-getter. They either felt sorry for me, or seemed impressed. The weariness of my physical exertions also drained all the nervous energy from my brain. I expected to be anxious the whole time. Thanks to my running, I spent the whole visit in a sort of dreamy fog. I didn’t overthink my presentations, or any of the interview questions. I had also stayed up until about 2 am watching porn the night before as well, only to wake up at 7 am for a hotel breakfast with faculty. In conclusion, I guess my advice for a job search is this: do it wild.