I enjoyed Phil’s recent post about being on the academic job market, and the comments it engendered. My own experience is different, and I have never missed job-hunting or being in that liminal state or cogitating on the myriad possibilities of the future: I loathed being buffeted and disrespected by a process that seemed stacked against me at all times. Now that I am on the other side of the mailbox—the gaping maw possibility, so to speak—and have chaired searches, it seems a good time to reflect on the very different perspective it provides.
Reading files is always a sobering process. Any large pool of applicants cannot fail to have some real wrong numbers in it, people who decide “Oh, well, why not apply anyway, who knows what they want, or (worse) people who are explicitly counseled this way. Call me old school, analog in a digital world or whatever, but it really helps if the applicant is a good match for the position. It goes without saying that in a wide variety of situations, palpable desperation is not a desirable characteristic. It follows that a newly minted Master of Music in Percussion might well wonder how his or her application to a doctorate-only musicology position will look. Similarly, a probably-retired person with a long record of musical accomplishment on the school and community performance levels should reflect on how beneficial a chatty four-page single-spaced application letter for a heavy-duty academic-type position will actually be. (Satirical, but not by much, example: “Why should you hire someone like me? True, accordion and Turkish shawm are not high on the list of your august institution’s needs, or so you might assume. Allow me to explain. My philosophy of music, ever since my youthful experiences in Grandfather’s chant choir in Kziixlwwstan, has always been…”)
[Those of you gearing up to get offended: save it. This is not lordly disdain of the less-fortunate people who need employment. There was very real discrimination on my (early 1990s) job market and the scars from that circumstance are, for me, psychologically permanent. I was told openly, “Well, maybe if you had a different last name…” which I took not to be anti-Semitic but rather indicative of Affirmative Action, because the search chair continued apologetically, “we’re hearing a lot about that nowadays…” I was once told that I didn’t make a short list for a musicology position because I had too much piano on my CV—“No, your publications were great, but our piano department is weak and we didn’t want to have to share you, so…” My doctoral institution probably scared off some—“Look where he’s from; he’ll never want to stay here”—and my DMA degree damned me with others—“Never mind where he’s from; he’s a DMA! That’s the wrong degree!” And this is excluding my previous life as a ballet pianist, where straight males were really persona non grata oddities and that counted against me. So I do know a little about discrimination and the harsh realities of the job search, and am entitled to a bit of frustration with people who either cannot actually read job listings or assume that the committee will not have read them themselves.]
The sense of responsibility in reading application files is tremendous. Because one is judging human beings (hopes, aspirations, etc.) on the basis of their paperwork, the necessity of reading between the lines—always an inexact science—is pressing. It is every bit as pressing as your necessity of making the right decision in presenting yourself to me: is it worth risking a little joke, or ironic remark? Are all your accomplishments so important that you should allow your application letter to be more than a page? No right answer on this one; maybe they are, particularly if the position lists a wide variety of responsibilities. What is the correct balance between putting your best foot forward and sounding just a tad too shrill and insistent? Search committee members have to read with a cold, analytical, but also humane eye, but we’ve never been trained to so.
Is the applicant really interested in coming here or is s/he interested in negotiating a better salary, or just landing a “first job”? My belief is that you should never apply to an institution where you’re unwilling to live for any length of time, for the simple reason that you have no way of knowing if you’ll ever get another interview, if you’ll meet someone and decide to settle, if the professional opportunities a school provides might make it disadvantageous to return to where you really thought “home” was, etc. You are also cheating the institution of good-faith long-range planning if you’re looking to move up as soon as you arrive. If you take the gig and the salary, be a grown-up and contribute rather than constantly jockeying. Searches are not time- and expense-neutral processes; the people involved make a major commitment to them, all for the betterment of their institution, and so deserve not to be jerked around.
It is a high-stakes business, and for the institutional Body looking for a new Vital Organ it is no less high-stakes than for the Organ looking for blood flow and sustenance. These are the things I always tell myself as I wearily pick up another file: best game on, Bellman, mind sharp, brain focused. This may be The One!
So understand: there is trepidation on this side of the mailbox too. You seal your application with a “here goes nothing” sigh and prayer; I open each new file with a sense of risk, and real gravity. I’m quite happy where I am, and need to help find people who will be happy here also. Unfortunately, that’s not a measurable question.
Strength and clear judgment to all of us!