Peace on Earth! Or, the Christmas that job wiki rage went viral.

Read thisThen this.  Then read this, and finally, this post.  This last post is like a personalized rant from the job wikis, in which everyone with a job is a defender of the oppressive status quo, no one with tenure deserved it, and everyone on a search committee is making decisions with the specific intent to hassle, rip off, or shame the job candidates.

As to the original topic of this flamewar:  I think most of us here can agree that it’s pretty abusive to give people less than a month’s notice, let alone less than a week’s notice that they’ll need to buy a plane ticket etc. for a mere first-round interview.  Regular readers will remember that I am in principle against the convention interview, and urge committees either to use Skype or to dispense with the semifinalist interviews all together and just bring people straight to campus.  It seems to work in other nations and in other fields, but historians and lit perfessers tend to resort to the “but that’s the way we’ve always done it!” excuse.

This is irritating, if unsurprising.  Our professional customs and hiring procedures deserve the kind of scrutiny we apply to historical systems of credentialing professionals and managing labor.  I should know–I started a blog because I was dissatisfied with the rules and traditions of academia, which seemed to me to work against intellectual diversity and innovation.  Tenured Radical also started her blog to do just that, and has over the years offered lots of advice and ideas for graduate students and junior scholars to help them on their intellectual and professional journeys.

Take a look at her archives–it’s all there.  You don’t have to like or take her advice, but her blog has served as a constructive space in which people might work out their frustrations with and/or share some of the joys of intellectual life in the modern university.

Who is Tenured Radical?  Some of us–many of us–know her in person.  Most of us really like and respect her, because she is the gold standard for collegiality, fair play, and intellectual engagement, not to mention her service as a public intellectual and radical feminist.  Furthermore, she doesn’t just play this role online, but in real life too.  She has been an academic fairy godmother to me over the past twenty years.  I first met her as a graduate student when she taught at Penn in a one-year position.  I met her again when we (totally randomly) shared a cab from the Atlanta airport to the AHA in January of 1996, when I was a grad student giving the job market my second (and ultimately unsuccessful) try.  She paid the entire cab fare, plus tip, because I was an underemployed graduate student who didn’t have institutional funding for my travel, whereas she did as an Assistant Professor.  The next time I communicated with her was six years ago this winter, immediately after starting this blog.  I wanted to let her know that I shared her blogging ethic and some of her ideas about academia, and she very generously linked to my blog and recommended it to her readers.

“What a smarmy defense of a friend,” some of you might say.  I like TR personally and consider her a good friend now, but she wasn’t when she generously shared her cab and her readers with me.  Who was I in 1996 or 2007?  Nobody much.  I didn’t (and don’t) have a prestigious job at a name-brand rich university, so I couldn’t invite her to give a talk or pay her back in any way that would matter to her.  I’m not an heir to a fortune.  I’m not even in her period or field.  I was just another grad student, another junior colleague that she helped out because she’s a stand-up guy and a thoroughly decent person who cares to cultivate the kind of work environment and collegial connections that we’d all like to work in.

And I know I’m not alone.  Peace on Earth, goodwill to all.


66 thoughts on “Peace on Earth! Or, the Christmas that job wiki rage went viral.

  1. While I think that UCR has behaved badly in terms of how it is treating their potential conference interviewees, it might not entirely be their fault. It might be some deadbeat colleagues, or it might be a dean or academic VP or the affirmative action officer holding things up because they were not satisfied with the interview questions, the candidate list, or some other aspect of the application process.

    When I was a grad student and on fixed term contracts going to the AHA interviews with hat in hand, I would have felt more sympathy with the rant and rage. I had this sense that the hiring committee was all powerful

    Now that I have been on several hiring committees, I realize that the committee is usually pretty constrained by how it writes the notice of vacancy, the screening forms and interview questions. The administrative process in getting the search approved by the Dean, Academic VP and President add another set of constraints. They can hold up the search for any reason until you make the changes they want to see. Or they can just sit on the paperwork because they have another beef with the department and want to make you wait.

    We do phone interviews and then bring three finalists to campus. We didn’t always interview or hire the people with the most publications or the most prestigious degrees. We had to stick to our mandate as laid out by the NOV, the screening form and the interview questions. By the time that is all done, you end up with a pool of candidates, most of them really great, and you can only hire one person. And at our school the committee does not make the offer, its in the hands of the dean! They can either take the suggestion of the committee or pick their own from the list of finalists.

    Finally, no matter how well the committee does its job, only one person will be happy and everyone else in the pool will be upset. Its easy to understand where that rage comes from, but its also important to remember, that both inside and outside academia, most of the time, we won’t get hired for every job we applied for. We only get lucky once in a while. The good news is once is all it takes.


  2. Old-timer ranting: luck has a lot to do with what happens on the job market, yes, and search committees really are swayed most by good letters from candidate, yes.

    Also: in my experience only about 20% of applications really fit the job description completely. The long short list is always easy to make for that reason, and then some of those turn out not to be right for quite objective reasons, and then after that it’s a crap shoot. There’s a lot of luck and irrationality at play in that crap shoot, but otherwise search committees are really quite logical, I’ve found.


  3. What Z said.

    Late to the discussion here, but I have been troubled, for many years, by a sort of “consumerist” wish-fulfillment attitude of my graduate students on the academic market. I’ve experienced countless conversations with and messages from students in which the first sentence is some version of “This is the perfect job for me.” It’s as if wishing and desire have trumped the reality of the job search, including the important realization that the search committee holds much, if not all, the power. My first questions to these students usually are “How do you know this job is perfect? Do you know anyone in the department? What is the teaching load? What is expected of your research? What are the students like? Does the institution have a good record of supporting and tenuring faculty members, etc.?”

    I’m also amazed at how much time job seekers will spend not on their applications but on seemingly gaming the system: working networks to find out competitors, for example, or feverishly researching a topic beyond his/her field(s) because maybe, maybe it’s what the search committee IS REALLY LOOKING FOR. False control, indeed. I stopped reading the academic job wiki after the second year of its existence: I found the messages of folks complaining (and, in some cases, raging)about NEVER having been told about the bad job market too much to take. And it reminded me too, too much of what I, as an advisor, could and could not do to be heard by some of my students.


  4. “I’m also amazed at how much time job seekers will spend not on their applications but on seemingly gaming the system: working networks to find out competitors, for example, or feverishly researching a topic beyond his/her field(s) because maybe, maybe it’s what the search committee IS REALLY LOOKING FOR.”

    Yes. I have students who do this, and who try to engage me in helping them do it. At the same time, I read applications with grammatical errors in them or other basic oversights.


  5. Casualty of the early 2000s market speaking here. I can’t help wondering what a friend of mine, a veteran journalist of 20+ years who lost his job in the recession and has had to turn to freelance work, would think about statements about journalism allowing you to say “whatever the f*ck you want.” Academia isn’t the only field experiencing employment/legitimacy crises.


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  7. After getting my PhD I had a one year VAP, but I’m now halfway through my 2nd year in a TT position (and served on a (failed) search committee my first year) – so I don’t know which group I’m supposed to “fit” into. I empathize with those who are hurting but I too (like someone upthread) went into my job-market years with a plan for how long I was willing to give it a go before I got out, and I had some fairly detailed plans for steps to take at certain points were that to happen. I love what I do and I love my job, but it’s not the only thing that I could have possibly done in my working life. Maybe this attitude also came from growing up in a family that moved a lot because my parents had to change jobs frequently (not necessarily between industries but we were moving every 3-4 years), so the idea of picking up and trying something new is pretty familiar to me.

    I’ll also echo what Z said about the qualifications of applicants – we really struggled with our pool because we’re in a not-immediately-desirable location (though we love it) with a low cost of living which also translates into salaries that look low compared to other regions – even though they’re within the norm where we live (which doesn’t mean we as a faculty don’t work to get all of us – tenure-stream, instructor, lecturer, adjunct – paid more!). We also have some pretty unique institutional qualities that may have scared off a number of qualified candidates. From conversations with my more senior colleagues the pool we got for the search I was on was pretty typical for our institution – we get a lot of people who don’t come anywhere close to meeting the minimum qualifications (like people applying for a required-PhD position with only a BA or MA, not even ABD). 20% meeting the requirements would be optimistic for us.

    We *want* to hire a new colleague – and selfishly I’d love to not be the only junior faculty member in my department!


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  10. This comment thread may actually have the only glints of positivity in this whole kerfuffle.

    First of all, thanks to Loumac for saying that the candidate’s letter matters so much in hiring. Also being “raised by wolves,” I get most of my info on the job market from the internet, which is indeed full of speculation. Hearing that something so simple, straightforward, and in the candidate’s control actually is important is pretty encouraging.

    Also, thanks to Historiann for saying that things do get better! I’m 28, in a cheap top floor apartment, and wistfully dreaming of jobs and an end to laundromat trips myself, so it’s really nice to hear someone say they too felt stuck at the same point but moved on. Not everyone’s paths are the same, of course, but it’s nice nevertheless.


  11. Hey, a.g.: I should also have added my agreement about loumac’s point about the letter of application. I would say don’t worry about length (within reason; more than three pages is maybe a problem). What I look for is a convincing narrative explaining your choices and intellectual interests to date, and why taking at job at my university is clearly the most logical next step in your career because you can bring us X and Y, and we can offer you Z and Q, etc. It’s always disconcerting when a person’s advisor appears to have a better and clearer articulation of the applicant’s research and its significance than the applicant herself!

    If you have a senior friend or colleague you can consult, ask him or her to look at your CV and letter. I do this for my adjunct and VAP colleagues all of the time, and I think it’s been helpful to them.

    That said: who knows what will happen to you. Academia may not work out for you, but have confidence that you have picked up some knowledge and skills that will be more generously rewarded if you’re willing to think about alternatives to academic work.


  12. Free advice and perspectives from the hiring end are always appreciated! Thank you.

    I’m not sure what the path will be, but it is clear that seeking alternatives is really important. I’ve recently seen several friends who’d aimed for non-academic employment post-PhD jump back into the academic job market, stressing the need to be open to everything. I think linear, predictable white collar careers are becoming a thing of the past in general, not just in academia.


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