Rebecca Schuman

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Market Crash Course: Job Ad Deconstructionism 101

Full 12092013 deconstruction

It should be clear from my acidic evaluation of the dossier process that I am not here to help anyone secure a tenure-track academic position. On the contrary, I’m here to help you assuage the emotional devastation of the academic job search by demonstrating that the process as it now stands does not deserve to be taken seriously.

If you follow the various tips for “success” here and elsewhere, your chances of securing a tenure-track job may increase from, say, 1 percent to 3 percent (provided you never have a single typo, of course). But no amount of advice can mask the incontrovertible fact that failure to secure tenure-track employ is the likely outcome of the academic market, and thus the normal one. I am here to normalize what is actually normal already. Academic job seekers! Stop feeling ashamed, helpless, and freaked out, and start feeling normal—because you are.

One way to maintain your dignity during the job search is to recognize that the ads you have just spent two months prostrating yourself before are mere texts ripe for deconstruction. In this spirit, I recently decided to “grade” this year’s MLA Jobs Information List in my discipline, German. I do this on my personal blog, so that nobody can confuse it for anything serious. But even in its satire, “Rate My JIL” has helped puncture the overblown egos of a few search committees already—and, more importantly, allowed the poor suckers fighting it out for my discipline’s twenty total jobs a few minutes of rueful laughter.

My reasons for doing this are part schadenfreude, of course—what kind of Germanist would I be otherwise? But I am also trying to hold search committees accountable for writing verkocteh ads that often bear little resemblance to the hires that come out of them.

It is never too soon for a marketer to learn to “read” ads. So here I’m going to share a few general translations, all of which I would have enjoyed being aware four years ago. Given that academic job ads are as idiosyncratic as the people who write them (that is, they vary), exceptions exist for everything I am about to say. Furthermore, I am sure the Tenured Professionalism Police will object vociferously to everything that follows, using anecdotal evidence of how great things worked out for them. Regardless of all this, though, the wily marketer must learn to read ads for what they really say, and this is, I believe, an adequate primer.

The word “interdisciplinary” is a complete fabrication put there to appease a dean.

An emphasis on “service opportunities” means this department makes the junior faculty do everything.

Anything resembling “contemporary pedagogical theory and delivery models” means that in three years’ time, all of your courses will be online.

An ad that calls for a clearly unrelated list of potential areas of expertise means one of two things: Either the search committee can’t agree on anything, or it legitimately has needs in all of those areas, in which case one hire will not begin to fix what ails that department. So which do you prefer, a department where everyone hates each other, or one on the verge of being shut down?

An ad that has appeared more than once in four years means one of three things, from least probable and best, to most probable and worst: 1) The department is growing! 2) The department aimed too high, and its new star immediately absconded for a better opportunity. 3) This search has run multiple times and been cancelled (cf. a certain full-of-itself flagship’s German/comp lit search, which has run, and been killed, every few years for the last decade).

Beware any department that has recently conducted an outside search for a chair. Again, two options here. Could be that nobody wants to be chair because their colleagues are difficult and ungovernable. Or, alternately, nobody wants anyone else to be chair, because of some highly tortured factions and vendettas. If you manage to get hired there, do not form any friendships until you know exactly who hates whom.

A small liberal arts college that insists on its new hire having an “aggressive research agenda” doesn’t mean it. If you have a CV that seems to be aiming for an R1 (publications in top journals, a book under contract), search-committee members will either read you for an immediate ditcher, or they will be resentful of your productivity and fearful that you will make them look bad.

A flagship R1 university that also demands an “aggressive research agenda” wants one of two things: an established professor already on the tenure track with a book in print, or the favorite pet of an Ivy League eminence one or more members of the search committee wants in with.

By this time, most of your applications are probably in, so it may be too late to apply any of your newfound knowledge. But don’t worry. You have a 200-to-one chance of putting all of this to use next year, and the one after that, and the one after that, too. Just remember, though, that this is normal, that these search committees are all just people, some of whom may be even more miserable than you! As such, it is simply impossible to figure out what they really want. So don’t even try.

What really matters on the job market is not its career outcome. It’s your psychological health and the inherent dignity and worth that you possess as a human being. The job market does not deserve the privilege of taking that away from you. So don’t let it. Of course, this is easier said than done—and that, my friends, is why I’m here.

Next time on Market Crash Course: The godforsaken Wiki. Step away from the Wiki!

Rebecca Schuman is a freelance writer and adjunct at the Pierre Laclede Honors College of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Market Crash Course is your existential companion during the the academic hiring cycle, bringing you gallows humor, brutal honesty, and practical advice for keeping your spirit intact regardless of your search outcome.

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  • I understand the sarcastic lens being used here. However, I don't understand why this piece is being published in the chronicle. Promoting the academic industry is an important role, this does just the opposite and speaks to the kind of attitude that hurts the field, demoralizes our scholars unnecessarily, and fails to offer any real advice....rather than help. Shame on you CHE.

    victoria blodgett
    victoria blodgett
  • Even granting that the author is correct in all this triumphant self-declared 'wily' analysis, I see little evidence of 'overblown egos' on the part of the search committees and their job descriptions. Nor, with the exception of not stressing one's research too much for any liberal arts position, do I see much utility for those prospective job-seekers unable to deconstruct official rhetoric for themselves. Yes, perhaps one can read evidence of a dysfunctional department or a place that has a history of assistant prof flight, but how does that help one in preparing a cover letter and dossier? A prof who leaves a less desirable job for a more desirable one is in a different situation from someone who has no job but wishes one. A bad job is a lot better than no job and the competition remains fierce for each position, irrespective of how the author might 'grade' the search description.

    Hal Frankie
    Hal Frankie
  • Perhaps I didn't learn anything "useful" here, but this did help me feel more normal, that I'm not alone in clinging to my sense of dignity by my fingernails through yet another job search season. Thank you!

    Cristy Bruns
    Cristy Bruns
  • In response to Victoria Blodgett: An article with a little humor and pokes fun at the things we all know are true, as opposed to all the insipid articles published in CHE that do little but continue to promote the industry's party line, while failing to offer any real advice? Shame on you Victoria.

    For Hal Frankie: You've obviously never had a bad job, one where going to work every day ties your stomach into knots and gives you headaches - just driving into work. One where you lie awake at night running over the incidents that happened all through the day or week and worrying about what might happen the next day. A job where you take your anger out on the people you love and your friends, because you can't take it out on the real causes of your anger, the people you work with and for. A job where you see no end in sight; where it looks like you're never going to be able to escape; where your entire life seems captured by a black hole, slowly sucking you into it with a force greater than you've ever experienced. A bad job is not always better than no job. Learning how to read things into job advertisements can be very important!

    I appreciate Rebecca injecting a little humor, along with a little realism, into her look at job ads. Thank you!

    David Hatfield
    David Hatfield
  • Delightful.

    William Harrison
    William Harrison
  • This is a remarkably honest assessment. The author does not say it out load but it clearly implies that the majority of jobs are only advertised to fulfil a legal requirement. My estimate is that about 75% of jobs advertised fall into the "just for legal requirement" category. It is very difficult to find out if an ad is merely a sham but if you can find out that they have an internal candidate it is a fairly good bet it is only a formality. An impossibly improbable combination of experience and skills usually indicates the ad is written with only one person in mind.
    One is 200 is about right. I have applied for about 300 academic positions in about 8 countries. I got interviewed face to face 3 times - I got one miserable 3 year contract lectureship out of it and 2 farcial telephone interviews - never accept a telephone interview.
    I got my first "permanent" appointment last month at the tender age of 59 y 5 months. It is in Thailand and I got the job here because I visited the country on an Australian fellowship for 4 months and at the end of it they offered me a job without me asking. I behaved myself for 2 years and then they offered a permanent position - again without me asking. Appointment by nomination appears to be the norm in SE Asia.
    In Australia I beavered away on job applications for over 20 years before the penny dropped that most appointments were being made by nomination. I felt like a complete fool that I had not realised. People had been appearing as if beamed down from the Enterprise for years but I had never seen the jobs advertised. Finally someone was appointed right under my nose (lab next door) in a closely related field to my own and when I commented that I had not seen the job advertised I was told he had been appointed by nomination. Nomination!? I thought that went out with buying commissions in the army in Queen Victoria's day. Soon I found out that most recent appointments were by nomination. The penalty for being an unworldly NERD. I then took up the job I had been offered in Thailand and ran away.

    Raymond Ritchie
    Raymond Ritchie
  • We need more humor like this. I've worked in employment since the late 90's. This poke at faculty hiring processes could easily be modified to skewer most other processes across industries. An 8 1/2 x 11 written note and a series of highly structured questions is supposed to identify the best person? We would not purposefully put these practices into place today if we had the choice. Keep telling this story.

    Larry Burns
    Larry Burns
  • Larry Burns - I think you are being a bit too flippant. Too many people do not understand what is going on mainly because of the mental block that arises from trying to not upset people with uncomfortable truths. It is better to be told if you are wasting your time.
    Victoria Blodgett - you really need to be told the realities of academia, otherwise you will be asking for a lot of disappointment. The author is trying to tell you something. OK I concede it does not look good but there is a lot of ugliness in life and it is better to know about it so you can make allowances for it.
    If you do not understand that at least 75% of job advertisements are only fulfilling a legal requirement you are asking for a lot of disappointment and misunderstanding. A so-called tenure track position where an adjunct is already in place doing the job is not an "open" position.
    How to avoid an open advertisement that attracts an adminstratively troubling 400 applicants? Advertising in obscure but legally allowed places where few suitably qualified people would come across it is a time-honoured neat trick. Another perfectly legal method is where a university has a must first advertise internally rule to "save money" and tenure track positions are advertised internally and only advertised externally if no "suitable" internal candidate applies.
    It is important to understand that the legal requirement to externally advertise tenure-track positions is rarely written down in university guidelines (certainly not for old sandstones) but I, like many others, thought it was written in stone somewhere. Some type of internal appointment is becoming the norm. What a fool I was! It took me 20+ years to find out.
    I had been chasing shadows for most of my adult life: the advertised jobs I spent so much time and money applying for were not actually available.

    Raymond Ritchie
    Raymond Ritchie
  • "An ad that calls for a clearly unrelated list of potential areas of expertise" may also mean that the department has an inside applicant who just happens to fit all those areas. Or, if one of those areas is some form of ethnic studies, they want to hire a member of that ethnic group.

    By the way, when my career began I was told "the job market is about to open up" and "there is always room at the top." Now that I am retired, I think the only thing that has changed is that now no one expects anything to get better and no one bothers to predict the "return to normal" that will happen once the economy improves, once the baby-boomers retire, once . . . .

    Brian Ragen
    Brian Ragen