Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

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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