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At a recent conference, three colleagues asked me whether I was currently on the academic job market, and revealed their own ongoing job searches. Their questions echoed a voice in my own head that I’ve almost successfully silenced: am I supposed to go on the market now, in my third year on the tenure-track?
Initially, I felt offended that they would ask. Their questions about changing institutions were innocent enough — even based on good intentions; but, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed because my career choices have been questioned since I added my current position to the list of jobs to which I would apply. I had to push back against my grad school professors’ “encouragement” to pursue a career at a research I university. Since then, I have, on occasion, been not-so-sublty reminded that “you can always go back on the market” (to get a “better” job). As early as spring of my first year, I heard that there were rumors that I had been applying for a new position — in my first year. So, I haven’t really had a moment yet in which I wasn’t being asked (or asking myself) whether I could or should go back on the academic job market.
By the end of my first year in graduate school, I became aware of the narrative — perhaps even expectation — that professors, at some point, pursue a “better” job. In just my six years as a grad student, four professors left for new positions, typically right after earning tenure. Initially, it seemed these professors stuck it out to get tenure at that school to then move to a school or location that might be a better fit for them. I’ve never had a chance to actually ask any of these professors why they left and why, specifically, they left when they did. But, rumors among fellow grad students were that some left because their families were miserable and needed a new location, some threatened to leave to get a raise (but didn’t get it, and then had to actually leave), and some left because of the “two-body” problem. These caveats made it seem as though going back on the job market was not solely about the job or institution itself; however, these moves were not driven exclusively by personal reasons, either.
What about assistant professors who change jobs — and not to be immediately promoted to associate professor with tenure at the new institution? That never happened while I was in grad school. But, while on the job market myself, I saw what seemed to be just as many assistant professors vying for jobs as I did grad students. One speculation I commonly heard was that these were “underplaced” scholars who had to take a less-than-desirable job initially owing to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession on the academic job market. Since then, I have seen a couple of colleagues move to higher-ranking institutions, and a few others who moved to accommodate the needs of their partners or children. Generally, I’m not sure that it’s a common occurrence.
Aside from moving to advance one’s professional status (i.e., because one was “underplaced”) or because of personal or family needs, there still seems to be an expectation to move — and soon. In hopes of softening the blow that I had decided to accept a position at a liberal arts college, I offered to my advisors that it would be my mistake to make; more explicitly, I noted that I could always go back on the market, which meant staying active on the publication front (thereby exceeding my own institution’s expectations). Two of my professors told me moving happens a lot in academia. (Ironically, they have only been professors at one institution for their entire twenty-plus-year careers.) The three colleagues I mentioned at the start of this essay have their professional or personal reasons for returning to the market; but, I also sensed that they felt they needed to move just because we’re expected to move once we hit our third or fourth year on the tenure track.
The short answer to their question is no, I have no desire or plans to apply for other academic positions (or non-academic positions for that matter). But, what the heck, I’ll give the long answer, too.
Potential Drawbacks Of Applying For (And Starting) A New Job
- There is no real reason to leave. Outside of the academy, I’ve observed that friends and family begin searching for a new job for practical reasons — that is, I’ve yet to hear “should” or “supposed to” or “expected to.” They look for a new job to get promoted; that is, when one cannot move up the hierarchical ladder in one’s own workplace, one has to take a higher-level position elsewhere. They simply get sick of their current position, owing to boredom, need for change, growing hostility or bias, etc. They cite non-work-related needs like health problems, the needs of their partner/kids/parent (especially if dependent or sick), or having to or want to move to a new city. Fortunately, I accepted a position that brought me closer to my family, offers the pace and expectations I’d like at work (and that are helping me get a handle on lingering mental health problems), and supports my approach to being an academic. My partner has finally started working as a fifth-grade teacher; a move would mean asking him to pick up his life and start over again. Since work is good, why would I disrupt my (and my partner’s) life and career just because of some informal expectation to change jobs? That’s foolish and selfish.
- I like my job. Unless it’s not clear from the previous point, I actually like where I am.
- Starting a new job is hard. Starting a new job, in a new department and school, in a new city was incredibly hard. Sure, this time I wouldn’t also be new to being a professor; but, that’s still a lot of new-ness to which I’d have to adjust. I’ve finally made genuine friendships — those kind in which you hang out outside of work, and have other things besides work to talk about. It only took me two years to find them! And, I’m beginning to feel like a member of the communities in my department, university, and to a tiny extent in my local community (at least among those working for the LGBTQ community). Others may feel invigorated by the adventures of moving and starting a new chapter of their lives, but I dread the idea. The world is not filled with people willing to have genuine friendships or positive working relationships with an outspoken Black queer scholar-activist; my energy is better spent on building community where I am.
- Starting over is worse. I am too early in my career to realistically hope to take an associate professor position with tenure at a new institution. So, I’d be starting a new tenure-track elsewhere, with a different set of expectations (formal and informal, transparent and not). Worse, I may “lose” some or all of the years I’ve already completed on the tenure-track. That is, there is a good chance I would have to start over. No thanks.
- The job market takes up a lot of time. Starting the application process again would take up a great deal of time. All of my application materials would need to be revised because I can no longer sell how awesome my dissertation is (was). In my job talks, I would need to present new work that, ideally, will last me through tenure. However, I’m currently in the thick of polishing the last couple of chapters of my dissertation and sending them out for publication; I don’t have anything really “new” at the moment. And coming up with a new project and rewriting my application materials will cut into time I’m spending to finish work based on my dissertation. I just don’t have the time (or energy) to present myself as a new shiny package again.
- It’s too late. Even if I were interested in applying for other jobs, it’s already too late in this year’s job market season (in sociology). And, I think it would be foolish to devote any of my year-long research leave next year applying to jobs. By that point, I would be in my fourth year (two years shy of filing for tenure); I would start the new position in my fifth year — the year I would actually begin putting my tenure dossier together.
- I need to work on my health. I still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and recently discovered I was traumatized by graduate school. (The latter falls into the category of complex trauma, which doesn’t appear in the DSM, but its symptoms are no less real for me.) Thanks to these ongoing mental health issues, I was recently diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Wonderful, just wonderful. All of this oversharing of health problems is to highlight that taking care of myself and getting healthy is of far greater importance than worrying about and attempting to appease some informal expectation to find a “better” job. Indeed, my colleagues are aware of my ongoing health problems, and have been incredibly understanding and supportive. Again, why would I give that up? Health wise, it doesn’t make sense to reintroduce the stress of applying for jobs, going on interviews, losing sleep because of uncertainty, moving, and starting a new job into my life if it is not necessary. I’d go as far as to say moving around so easily is a luxury for those in good health.
- The job search is an awful experience. As I’ve noted above, the stress of being on the market alone is enough of a deterrent. My anxiety was at its worst while I was on the market in my final year of graduate school. I was moody and self-absorbed. It seemed every conversation I had was about how the market was going — and, if it wasn’t, I couldn’t help but bring it up. I imagine doing so with some level of secrecy at my current job would be even harder — especially because I have many more demands on me now than I did as a dissertating grad student who wasn’t teaching. My job would have to be bad enough and/or the need for change would have to be severe enough to even consider sticking my toe into the turbulent waters of the job market.
- I’ve got baggage. And, not in that romantic, magical way like Mimi and Roger in Rent. I’ve been very vocal in my criticisms of the academy, specifically sociology, and most specifically my own graduate program. Do I dare to ask my dissertation committee members for recommendation letters? Would they even say yes? Would they be positive in their letters? Do I even want their letters? With little contact in three years, would their letters even be useful or appropriate? (Baggage aside, I really don’t know to whom assistant professors turn when they go on the job market. Asking your current department colleagues seems like a risk if you’re secretly apply for jobs, are leaving on bad terms, or don’t want to disappoint or hurt them.) Besides the letters, I imagine a number of departments will want nothing to do with me because of my blogging and public presence. Staying active on the research front can only trump concerns about “fit” so much.
- There are few places that would be a good fit for me. I am of the mindset that my happiness, health, and quality of life are more important than the prestige of a school. That means I prefer to work at a school and live in a city that is safe and inclusive for gay interracial couples (my partner and me). Realistically, no place in the US deserves such a characterization, but there is variation. Since climate matters (in the department, on campus, in the city, in the state), that rules out
most (all?) places in the country. The odds of finding a good school in a hospitable city for me, an outspoken Black queer man, are too slim to waste my time even looking.
- There are no guarantees on the job market. Let’s say I went on the market next year. I would be limited to the positions that are advertised in that year. They may not fall into my areas of specialization. They may be in undesirable locations. They may include schools for which I don’t want to work. I could, in the end, not want to accept any position or, worse, I not receive any job offers. That is time, energy, and hope I can’t get back. And, what if word got out in my department or college? Unless I was dead-set on leaving because I had legitimate reasons to do so, it would be incredibly awkward to continue to show my face after the failed job search. I worry, too, other colleagues might consciously or unconsciously hold it against me. Maybe they wouldn’t invest as much in me because they assumed I’d be gone the first chance I could get, or that I was never truly invested in staying.
- Greener grass is deceptive. I’m going to quote lyrics from two songs. In the song, “Better Than” by The John Butler Trio (JBT), there is an incredible lyric: “All I know is sometimes things can be hard // But you should know by now // They come and they go // So why, oh why // Do I look to the other side // ‘Cause I know the grass is greener but // Just as hard to mow.” And, as Big Sean says in Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” “the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, it’s green where you water it.” JBT’s wisdom points out that a new job may appear better from your current location, but it won’t necessarily be easier. And, Big Sean’s career advice suggests staying where you are to make the job better, rather than jumping ship when things get tough. My current job, department, and university aren’t perfect — and, I’d be surprised if any of my colleagues are surprised to hear me say that. But, as I surmised from my campus interview when applying, and in the two-and-a-half years since, they are all willing to change and grow. I’m in a place where colleagues don’t remind me of my “place” as a junior faculty member; rather, I’m encouraged to have a voice and be an active member of the campus and department communities. (We’re simply too small to go 7 years of having any faculty members simply “seen but not heard.”) It would be naive of me to think I can just shop around for a problem-free, egalitarian, truly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-cissexist, anti-fatphobic … institution. But, it was certainly worth finding a place that is trying to become that, and working within it to make real change.
Potential Drawbacks Of Staying (And My Responses)
- Don’t settle. I can already hear concerned voices shouting at their laptops/mobile devices, “NOOO, ERIC – WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” I’ve heard the advice to treat the tenure-track like dating. There’s no ring on this finger (for now), so perhaps I’m naive to settle in this position and, worse, to publicly declare that I’ve settled. (I mean “settle” in the sense of getting comfortable, not as in lowering your standards.) I agree that it’s healthy to know that there are other options and, more importantly, to keep oneself competitive (to an extent) in case the time ever comes to apply for a new job. But, I have learned from experience that a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude in a relationship takes a toll. It makes others resentful, just waiting for the day that you finally leave or quit; and, you don’t fully reap the rewards of being committed to something/someone, even through the tough or uneventful times. So long as my institution is committed to me, I will commit to it. I sense that we both share the goal of making it a lifelong commitment.
- Being taken for granted. I suspect the underlying concern with the previous point is that your colleagues or institution will take you for granted. The best way for them to bow to your feet is keep them guessing whether you plan to stay. If more is desired, you can actually actively seek out a new job — thus, the threat of leaving. Fortunately, I’m in a place that respects and values me because I’m here and committed; I don’t need to play psychological or emotional warfare to demand respect and attention. (Frankly, that seems really unhealthy to me. Imagine if I had to threaten to dump my partner every time I wanted him to buy me flowers.)
- Know my value. I’ve heard, on occasion, it’s good to toss an application or two (or 20) out just to see your value (presuming your department or university isn’t valuing you at your actual worth). You can get a self-esteem boost from getting interviews, or even offers. Nah, I’m good. I’m working to get to a place where I don’t derive any of my self-worth from an institution. That means not suffering six months of depression if I were denied tenure, nor throwing myself a party because another school said they like me. I do not intend to criticize those who use this as a power-play or even a self-esteem boost. I just feel I have better ways to use my time, like pursuing the things I value, rather than playing games at work.
- Increasing my status. Related to the previous point, I never set out to land at the “best” (i.e., highest ranking based on some convoluted way of placing schools in a hierarchy) school. I don’t want others to give a damn about me because I’m at Harvard or Wisconsin or UT Austin. I prefer to be recognized on my own merits, for the specific kind of work I do. At conferences, when eyes gloss over “University of Richm…” on my name tag, and then dart to find another, more worthy person to talk to, they’ve saved me 15 minutes of meaningless conversation. I’ve always been skeptical of academic fame because it seems we go out of our way to make ourselves feel important because, at some level, we realize we’re not seen as important in the rest of the world. Being a “somebody” to other (elitist) academics seems at odds with making a recognizable contribution to the community. With few exceptions, the more popular you are among academics, I assume the less you and your work matter to the world outside of the academy; the more involved you are in your community, the less other status-obsessed academics care about you.
“Okay, so you’re not leaving,” you might say. “Why write a blog post about it,” you might even be asking. My intention here is to highlight the unspoken (though sometimes explicitly stated) expectation that, on top of trying to earn tenure at one institution, junior professors should also be looking to start a “better” (i.e., higher-status) job. The question, “are you on the market,” doesn’t come from prior knowledge that I’m unhappy, that the job is a bad fit for me, or that I or my partner need to move. It doesn’t suggest that applying for a better job is the only way to get promoted because I’m already working my butt off to get promoted in my current position; leaving could actually set me back and introduce new challenges. Rather, at the root of it, the question just reflects pressure to advance one’s professional status (even if it’s at odds with your personal needs).
In the spirit of promoting self-care in academia, I ask that others rethink this mindset of going after “better” jobs purely to advance your status. Specifically, I mean not relying heavily on your institution to signal your worth to other academics. You can do so by publishing another great article, or winning a teaching award, or being awarded a fancy grant, or putting research into action (either in the classroom or in the community), etc. I think a healthier approach is to 1) think long-term to advance professionally and 2) place your professional status in the broader context of your life. On point number two, I worry, for example, about those who neglect their health or continue to be single and miserable as they jump to a better job; I doubt there is any direct (positive) relationship between the status of one’s institution and one’s own happiness/health/self-esteem/purpose. But, I’m aware this all depends on your values and goals, particularly as it relates to your career. I just don’t see the point of being at an Ivy, for example, if I don’t have a community, am miserably single, in therapy, and am far away from family; the status alone isn’t enough to sustain me.
I can’t help but think about a romantic relationship as a parallel here in my suggestion to consider staying — or, at least consider not automatically leaving when the getting isn’t necessarily good. If we constantly look for a “better” romantic partner, then we are taking energy and investment away from our current relationship. We’re not fully committed, and thus our partner may not fully commit to us because they can sense we’ve got our eye on the door. (I know this from a past failed relationship, unfortunately.)
I should note that I’m not naive enough to ask that others commit to a department or institution while they are on the tenure-track; don’t commit to an institution that hasn’t fully committed to you (yet). But, by hiring you, they’ve made some level of a commitment; your colleagues are “dating” you and, in places that aren’t sink-or-swim or practice academic hazing, they actually hope dating becomes marriage for life. You can, however, make a commitment to make your job more satisfying for yourself. To the extent that you can without jeopardizing tenure, take on fun projects, teach fun classes (or at least a few lectures within a class), make at least one friend on campus (there are faculty in other departments and, gasp, there are staff members, too!), or volunteer for a community organization. Outside of work, join a club, take a class, make an effort to find community, get an account with MeetUp/OkCupid/Tinder (whatever other apps kids are using these days), go to a community event, etc. Even if you one day leave, at least you’ll have made an effort to make your present situation harder to leave without saying goodbye or shedding a few tears.
If you are considering going back on the job market, or at least open to the possibility, check out what others have had to say about it.
- “How To Apply for Your Second Job” by Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In
- “Switching Institutions? Here’s What Your Progress Toward Tenure is Worth” by Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) on Chronicle Vitae
- “How to Hop From One Tenure-Track Job to Another” by Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) on Chronicle Vitae
- “Should You Switch Tenure Tracks?” by on Chronicle of Higher Education
- “Faculty Movers” by Female Science Professor (summary: moving jobs is controversial)
- “Academic Shopping Around” by Female Science Professor
- “Starting over on the tenure-track” by sciwo on Tenure, She Wrote
Note: this blog post was originally published on Vitae.
If you’re in a doctoral program, you’re supposed to want to work at a research university. But when I was mulling my career options in graduate school, what I mostly felt was uncertain. In fact, the only thing I knew I didn’t want was a job at a research university.
My secret desire was to teach at a liberal-arts college, but I had plenty of doubts about that, fueled by my advisers’ antipathy toward the idea. Ultimately, I did “come out” of the liberal-arts closet. But it was only when I asked my professors — “How did you know where you wanted to work?” — that I realized how few of them could answer that question with certainty.
The (Myth of the) R1-Liberal Arts Dichotomy
A few years ago, when I was plotting my own future, I spent some time asking Ph.D.s what motivated them to pursue one career over others. Many fellow students, and even some of my professors, said they pursued a job at a research-intensive university (especially an R1) simply because it was the expected path, and the most valued. Sure, you might apply for positions at liberal-arts colleges — just to be safe — but that was merely a backup plan. Even if you accepted a position at a liberal-arts college, you only kept that job long enough to get the kind you really wanted (meaning one at an R1 university).
I also noticed that the distinctions people made between R1 universities and liberal-arts colleges seemed based more on limited knowledge, or even stereotypes, than on actual knowledge and experience. Many seemed to think in black-and-white terms: If you want to do research, take an R1 position; if you like teaching, work at a liberal-arts college. Indeed, when I mentioned my plan to accept the tenure-track job I’d been offered at the University of Richmond, one of my advisers responded, “But you’re good at research!”
It’s worth stating what should be obvious: Faculty at both types of institutions do research and teach classes, albeit to varying degrees. Too many academics erase the variation among Research I universities and among liberal-arts colleges — not to mention the similarities between those types of institutions. For example, research expectations have grown for faculty at liberal-arts colleges (too). However, you may face less pressure to secure a research grant if you teach at a private liberal-arts college with a sizeable endowment than if you are at a public institution strapped for funds.
Another example: While it’s true that liberal-arts faculty teach more classes than R1 faculty, we don’t necessarily teach more students. For example, I teach five classes a year, with enrollment in each course capped at about 15, 20, or 24 students. Even if I taught five classes at the cap of 24 students each, I would still only have a maximum of 120 students. Meanwhile my counterparts at a large research university — teaching three classes with at least 70 students in each — would have 210 students. Since my institution is exclusively undergraduate, I also have the good fortune (in my opinion) of not having to serve on master’s theses and dissertation committees (or help those students navigate the academic job market) but, I do serve as an honors thesis adviser for one or two undergraduates each year.
Of course faculty advisers often ignore all the other options for a faculty career, too, including community colleges, historically Black and Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges — not to mention careers outside of academia.
What If You Don’t Have A Clue?
In the spirit of sharing advice that I had to learn the hard way, I’d like to offer some tips for finding the career path that feels right to you. If you’re 100 percent certain of the path you wish to pursue, good for you! But if you’re conflicted, as I was, then testing out other options along the way is a must, and will make you a more well-rounded academic. How else are you going to make an informed decision?
During grad school — no matter what your advisers are telling you — try to pursue a variety of opportunities to gain training in research, teaching, and applied work. Serve as a research assistant and a teaching assistant (and teach your own classes if possible), but also seek out internships and opportunities to gain experience outside of your university. Take advantage of whatever pedagogical and teaching training your department and university has to offer; attend pedagogical workshops at professional meetings or other universities. While you’re at it, consider which aspects of academic work you excel at and like best. Don’t wait until you finish grad school to discover that you loathe teaching or that spending time alone in an archive gives you hives.
I highly recommend doing a research and/or teaching fellowship at an institution that is different from the one where you’re earning your Ph.D. Having that experience not only makes you a better candidate, but it’s one of the best ways to get a sense of what life’s actually like at other types of institutions.
Short of that, look for opportunities to visit different institutions — attend talks, stay with friends, or, better yet, shadow a faculty member at another campus for at least a few days. If your program or university does not have a formal shadowing program, make your own arrangements to do so.
And don’t limit your forays to academic institutions. Consider doing a summer research internship for a nonprofit or think tank.
My brief stint working at a nonprofit agency during college turned out to be less enjoyable than I’d hoped. I hated doing anything that felt like busy work (e.g., filing, copying), and I hated having a boss even more. Worse yet, the office attempted to maintain a politics-free environment, despite advocating on behalf of LGBTQ professionals. Yet that internship experience reinforced my desire to work in academia, so even a bad experience can lead to something good.
Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to work or observe faculty at a liberal-arts college before I accepted my current position at the University of Richmond. But working as a diversity fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee the summer after my third year in grad school gave me a taste of faculty life at an urban research university and a chance to teach students with different backgrounds than those at my graduate school.
Make connections with Ph.D.s on various career paths. Get to know people at academic conferences, and ask them what life is like at their institution. Talk to recent alumni of your program about their jobs and ask how they came to the path they’re on. The danger of relying exclusively on the advice of professors and students currently in your Ph.D. program is that they’re unlikely to know much about life outside a research-intensive university. (And, no, studying at a liberal-arts college is not the same as working at one.)
Do your homework. After finding that people in my Ph.D program had little useful advice about life at a liberal-arts college, I turned to the Internet for others’ reflections on careers in the liberal arts. (Later, I added my own post— along with a link to this handy chart by Terry McGlynn— to the small chorus of voices on the subject.) I also took time to read some stories of Ph.D.s who had pursued alternative careers (#altac). It was reassuring to know that the choice to work at a liberal-arts college, or a research university, or outside of academia wasn’t so obvious, and it was extremely helpful to find others had talked about it publicly.
Finally, before the time comes to apply for jobs, assess your personal needs and those of your family. If you are pursuing a faculty career, identify which attributes of a job, department, campus culture, and community you care about most — and worry about institution type later. Remember that within each of the Carnegie Classification categories, institutional culture will vary greatly. You might find a Research I university where faculty members genuinely value and reward good teaching and where the work environment is comparable to that of a liberal-arts college. Likewise, some liberal-arts colleges place a premium on strong research and scholarly productivity and will offer resources akin to those of a research university. Treat each campus visit as an opportunity to investigate if the department, institution, and city would be a good fit for you. Interview them.
And if you wind up in a position that’s not your ideal fit, remember, it’s not the end of the world. Treat it like what it is — a learning experience and a temporary chapter in your life.
Note: this blog post was originally published on the Vitae.
Two years ago, I accidentally outed myself when I quietly applied for a teaching job at a small liberal-arts college. I thought my secret was safe, since the search committee hadn’t yet asked for recommendation letters. But thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a glitch in the system, my references were automatically alerted when I submitted my application online. One of my mentors emailed me about it almost immediately.
It was time to come clean. No, not about being queer — I’d gone public with that 10 years earlier — but about my ambivalence toward the R1 track and my openness toward “going liberal arts.” You’d think my previous experience in coming out as gay would have made this new revelation easier. But I was surprised by how hard it was, and by the odd parallels between outing myself as queer and coming out as a liberal-arts professor-to-be.
Let me explain.
In both situations, I knew that hiding my true identity and desires meant safety and inclusion, but at the cost of authenticity and happiness. Just as society presumes that most of its members are heterosexual, and socializes and educates its youth accordingly, most graduate programs still presume that their students will land jobs at Research I’s and train Ph.D.’s primarily for those jobs.
The unfortunate result in both cases is that people who deviate from the norm are often castigated. LGBTQ youth are excluded, or worse. While I would never suggest that Ph.D. students who want to work at liberal-arts, regional, or community colleges, or outside of academia, are victims of discrimination and violence, such students may receive more subtle punishment, like less intense and more “hands off” training, particularly when it comes to research.
I quickly noticed in my first year of graduate school that Ph.D. students were tracked based upon their post-graduation career plans. As a naïve 22-year-old, I knew that I wanted to teach and do research. What I didn’t know was that the expectations that faculty face vary depending on the type of institution for which they work. I wanted to become a professor at a small liberal-arts college. When I shared that dream with a professor, he discouraged me from narrowing my career options so soon in graduate school. He said that I should “aim for R1’s” because those jobs would be the hardest to obtain; and if I changed my mind later, jobs at other institutions (e.g., liberal-arts colleges) would be automatically open to me.
Since I was miserable in my first two years of grad school, and unsure whether I’d even make it to the Ph.D., I didn’t take his advice too seriously. But I did stop telling people that I wanted to work at a liberal-arts college. I also started to observe that students who were open about their intentions to “go liberal arts” were treated differently from other students. They weren’t pushed as hard on their research. They weren’t regularly selected for research assistantships, awards, and other research-based opportunities. I even suspected that certain professors declined to mentor such students at all. In general, they weren’t as visible in the department, and they never reached “rockstar” status.
The message was clear: Stay in the closet if you want the best, most rigorous graduate training possible.
In my third year, I decided to pursue our department’s Preparing Future Faculty certificate – a three-course sequence focused on teaching and pedagogy. Unfortunately, my proposed project for the third course fell through, so I gave up on completing the certificate. When I shared the news, one professor said, “That’s fine. I don’t see that career path for you anyway.” I knew then that I was passing as “R1-bound.” But I was secretly disappointed that no one encouraged me to finish the certificate, since every future faculty member could benefit from training in teaching and pedagogy.
Before long, I felt “trapped” by everyone else’s R1 plans for me. I was fortunate to receive the Ford Foundation predoctoral award – a three-year research fellowship for graduate students of color. It was mostly a blessing as it allowed me to work on projects other than my master’s thesis, and to publish and graduate early. But the exclusive focus on research, and the pressure to publish, took a toll on me; I developed Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I asked two professors about taking a one-year break from the fellowship to teach, specifically citing concerns about my mental health. Both professors said it would be foolish to “give up” precious time and money for research just to take time to teach.
I decided to make my fifth year my last in graduate school before going on the academic job market. My committee strongly opposed my plan to write and defend my dissertation, and start searching for jobs in a little over a year. I sensed that underneath their concerns about timing was actually a fear that I was jeopardizing my presumed R1-bound future. Staying in graduate school for seven, eight, or more years wouldn’t necessarily offer me more training, just more time to publish and make myself marketable for top research universities. I could barely stomach the idea of a sixth year, so I pressed on anyway. I reminded my committee that it was my future (to waste).
They begrudgingly allowed me to apply for jobs at the start of my sixth year. One committee member asked me, “You’re not applying for liberal-arts jobs – are you?”
“Of course not,” I answered automatically, despite knowing that I had no desire to pursue an R1 career path. But having never attended a liberal-arts college, and with only one year of teaching experience under my belt, I also wasn’t absolutely certain that I would be a good candidate for a liberal-arts job, either. I feared limiting my job search, but dreaded losing my committee’s support even more if I came out as liberal arts-bound.
That’s when I quietly (or, so I thought) applied for that opening at a small liberal-arts institution and was outed by its online application system. The jig was up. So I revealed my ambivalence about the R1 track and came clean. In an attempt to soften the blow, I lied to my committee about being willing to go either R1 or liberal arts, just as I’d once lied to my parents about being bisexual, rather than “fully gay” (my mother’s words). One committee member asked me for a list of the liberal-arts colleges to which I was thinking of applying, only to regale me with reasons why each of them would be a poor fit for me.
My first invitation for a campus interview came from the small liberal-arts university where I now teach. I was relieved and excited but my department was less enthusiastic. “Oh,” was the usual response when I told my professors where I was interviewing. But I loved the campus and the department, and was ready to accept an offer as soon as it came.
When I returned from my interview, however, only my friends wanted to know how it had gone. In contrast, when I returned from an interview at a research university – a place that I’d dreaded visiting and realized at once I’d never be happy at – my professors were eager to hear all about it. (At least that interview gave me confirmation that I was not R1 material.)
When the liberal-arts university offered me the job, I shed tears of joy, but the good news was not celebrated by my department. Instead, I was instructed to meet with my committee members so they could try to talk me out of taking the position. Their anxiety was fueled further by an impending campus invitation I was expecting from a top-30 research university. In the end, I declined that invitation — literally moments before I called to accept my current position.
After the dust settled, I compared notes with a friend who was also on the job market. I learned that she’d had similar experiences with her department. In fact, hers was explicit about their expectations that she would “go R1” and that taking a liberal-arts position was, in essence, a waste of the time and resources devoted to her training. Clearly this kind of tracking was not unique to my graduate program, but it seems no one is willing to name this practice.
An attitude adjustment in graduate training is long overdue. My career choice upset members of my graduate department because they had invested in me. By pursuing a different path, I had squandered their investment. Or so they believed. But at a time when few Ph.D.’s can bank on landing a tenure-track position at an R1, why wouldn’t doctoral programs want students to apply for jobs at liberal-arts and community colleges? And why wouldn’t we want excellent researchers working at those colleges? After all, strong researchers can make for better teachers. All students deserve equal access to training for research, teaching, and applied careers. What’s more, graduate departments would better serve their students by asking about their goals, dreams, strengths, and worries, rather than making assumptions or pushing a certain path.
Yes, you read that appropriately. This post is about the process of choosing a job once one has finished graduate school.
In the years leading up to my job search, I heard all sorts of warnings about how difficult the job market would be. The scariest, yet most sound advice was to acknowledge that at least 80 percent of what occurs during one’s job search is beyond one’s control. At the start, even deciding to go on the market is a negotiation with one’s committee and department. But, I stress that this, and subsequent decisions, should also involve the other committee members in one’s life: family and one’s gut. And, ultimately, where you take a position should be an informed choice.
Number Of Offers ≠ Number Of Options
Once you are on the market, securing one job offer is a major feat; landing multiple offers is described by many is “luck.”
Say you only land one job offer, and it is something short of perfect or your dream job. You can choose not to accept it. Sure, others will probably say you are foolish to give up a job “in this market!?!” If you have any reason to hesitate in accepting a job at that institution, it is worth really asking yourself — is there a chance you will need to look for a new job within a few years, or even immediately? I know of some folks who have chosen this route, but I cannot fathom taking a position knowing I will need to go through the stress of a job search again.
So, what other options are there? There are a number of good reasons not to accept a visiting position. But, the alternative may be staying in graduate school another year, maybe even two or more if subsequent job searches do not go well. With another year in
hell grad school as an option, I went on the job market with fairly open preferences for a job; you couldn’t pay me (ha!) enough to stay longer than I did.
To be completely honest, the “oh no, I’ll never get a tenure-track job!” fear stayed at a tolerable level because I eventually decided that academic jobs were just one type of job. Yes, I am make the blasphemous statement that there are jobs outside of academia, as well as some within it other than faculty positions. I told myself that if I received no offers, I would continue my job search but in applied and non-profit positions. I know that leaving academia immediately after graduate school would come with the possible feeling that I am better off, but also with other academics’ assumptions that I was less committed. (Oh, there are so many ways we jump from life decision — get married, have a baby, take something other than an R1 job — to assumptions about one’s commitment to the academy.) Though I have seen some return to academia after some years working outside of it, the myth is that one will never be able to return (probably because of the aforementioned assumptions about commitment).
All of this is to say that I am troubled by the pressure to accept the sole tenure-track job offer one receives. It is a job then, but it may mean a few unhappy years. It is important to think about the long-term consequences of something that seems “better” today.
What if you have two or more offers? Good for you! Having one, or even none, is still no signal that one is not competent, or ready, or worthy of a job. But, for the job search itself, it is nice to have two or more to choose from. The aforementioned advice about considering alternative careers, or not even accepting a job, still apply here — even if you have 10 offers. If/when you accept an academic position, it should be because you are absolutely certain that you want it, not because it is the expected outcome of graduate school.
A Few Things To Consider
Below, I offer some tips that may be useful as you weigh your options — even if you only have one offer.
Do Some Soul-Searching
If you have yet to sit down with yourself to make a job wish list — what are your wants and what are your must-haves in a job — do so before you accept an offer. And, even if you have at earlier stages in the job search, I would encourage doing so again.
During my job search, I experienced great pressure to follow the path that was
chosen assumed for me. During the window I was given to accept the offer with University of Richmond, I went on an interview at a research-intensive university in the Midwest and was called with another interview invitation for a top-ranked program in the South. I knew in my gut that UR would be a great place for me. It was an offer I would accept if it was the lone job offer or one of many. But, I had to revisit the wish list and some personal journaling to ignore all of the external (and internalized) pressure to “go R1.”
When I began receiving advice that was so far afield of my interests, passions, and personal needs, I felt as though I wanted to shut my eyes and close my ears to concentrate on what my internal adviser was telling me. This is not to say that others’ advice was bad or even malicious. But, I had to remind myself that much of it was based either on an inaccurate or incomplete picture of who I am, and some is either standard advice (“go R1!”) or self-centered advice.
Unfortunately, so much advice presumes a certain commitment to academia, one that is uncomplicated when you are not disadvantaged in some way. For example, telling people to take a job in North Dakota, either because it is a great school or one’s only offer, ignores that some people — especially queer people, people of color — may be miserable in such a place.
Do Your Research
While most who will offer advice have good intentions, the onus to make an informed decision falls on you. The most work I had to do was to figure out what the heck liberal arts jobs really were. Funny, most of the people telling me to “go R1!” have only been at research-intensive universities. Thus, they are not really in a position to tell me what liberal arts jobs would be like. I had to contact friends and colleagues who were actually in faculty positions at liberal arts colleges, and scour the internet for information and personal reflections on the differences from positions at research universities. One of the most helpful reflections I read was “Are You A SLACer?” over at Memoirs of a SLACer.
On my interview with UR, my future colleagues were honest, yet positive about faculty life. But, I supplemented those conversations with some investigative work. I looked through the student newspaper, documented history of the university, and students’ personal reflections and ratings on the university (e.g., U.S. News & World Report). I looked for specific things — the campus climate and institutional support for people of color and queer people. Like any place, I saw a few concerning events in the not-so-distant past, and grumblings about the historical lack of racial and ethnic diversity. But, I was impressed by the recent, intense shift toward greater inclusion. For my other options, I saw enough of a concern that I had major reservations about accepting a position there.
It is crucially important in assessing whether a job is right for you that you treat a job interview as as though you are a potential buyer. As I said, even if you receive one offer, you should think long-term about how the university fits in your life and career. It is a potential employer’s job to sell the job to you, too. A place that does not attempt to sell itself is either riding on its prestige (“you know you want me”) and/or may not be a place worth considering. (Personal aside: I don’t care how big your di… *ahem* I am not status-obsessed enough to be impressed by prestige alone.)
I was particularly impressed with UR because parts of the visit were clearly tailored to my interests — namely meeting with staff/faculty involved with diversity programming on campus, and community-based research and teaching. Not only were my future colleagues showing me that I could fit (resources, initiatives, climate), but that they also cared and celebrated the unique aspects of my scholarship. Once I started, and slowly let down my guard, I have found they think quite highly of my blogging. Hello, perfect job!
Observe And Take Notes
As an academic, you have skills to observe, critique, listen, connect dots, etc. In your hunger for a job, do not turn off these skills during the interview and negotiation phases. Observe interactions among faculty, especially across power lines: senior to junior faculty, privileged faculty to marginalized faculty (e.g., whites to colleagues of color), and vice versa. Observe how faculty and administrators interact, or at least how they seem to talk about one another. Observe how faculty interact with staff, especially the department’s administrative staff. Observe how faculty interact, or talk about one another, across departments and colleges. And, observe student-faculty interaction.
Of course, try to treat how students, staff, faculty, and administrators interact with you as participant observation. Do not rush to either demonize or justify unusual interactions — at least until once you have enough information to assess the whole university and department.
Red Flags: On one campus interview, there were several red flags for me. A few off-handed remarks were made by faculty that suggested they thought little of their students. And, I was told outright community service was for post-tenure. But, the sirens really went off when faculty either noted first-hand experience, or hearing about others’ experiences, with discrimination and exclusion. I do not know if they assumed they were doing what is right by being completely honest, or maybe figured I could understand given my own research on discrimination.
In interactions with another school, faculty stressed so hard how diverse and accepting the college is — but it felt as though they were trying to convince themselves more than me. Via a phone interview for a joint position, it was quite obvious the two departments had different visions of what the job entailed, and there seemed to be little connection across departmental lines. Whether the departments themselves saw these as problems is important, too; but, that these problems exist was enough for me to be wary of taking job in these departments.
Personal Fit: I also noticed varying levels of closeness among faculty. On one visit, there were strong friendships among the faculty, but mostly among junior faculty; it seemed the senior faculty were on the margins of the department. Ironically, the appeal for UR was that faculty have strong professional relationships, but have their independent lives after hours. As the chair described it, the department is more like family than friends. I was surprised that this was appealing to me, but now realize it was the promise of not having colleagues in my personal business. I am free to make personal connections as I wish, and share the personal aspects of my life I feel comfortable sharing at work. The supposed collegial, yet high-school-like microcosm that was graduate school has led me to appreciate leaving work at work and home at home.
Also, I took note of how relaxed or stressed faculty seemed. Some of the most wound-up academics I know can easily dissolve into a monologue rant about all of their upcoming deadlines. The flip-side is being carefree because one is working at a leisurely pace. The strength for UR over my other options was that my future colleagues appeared to work hard, but at a pace and within a climate that did not mandate 24/7 stress and anxiety.
Remember, this is just a job. You should chose one that serves your goals. I am well aware that this is simply my perspective and experience speaking, so you may find others’ advice useful, too.
- See my post on advice for preparing for the job market, and the additional sources of advice at the end
- “Tips for a Massive Job Search” from Ellen Spertus
- “On the Ethics of Juggling Job Offers” by Terry McGlynn
- “What to Ask During an Academic Job Interview” by Tara Kuther
- “Warning Signs and Red Flags That Academic Job Hunters Should Know” via Notes from the Ironbound
- Advice for preparing for the campus visit via Inside Higher Ed
- Tips for the negotiation process via Inside Higher Ed
- Six Steps to Finding a Job via Inside Higher Ed