When I decided to take a year away from academia, one of my goals was to avoid the job market. For six years, fall was a time of anticipation and dread as I waited to see what jobs would be available. How many jobs this year? How many could I apply for? What were the application requirements? How would I balance teaching, research, and job applications? How much would I despise myself after I had all the rejections in hand?
I hated job season, but I couldn’t really hate it either. The drudgery of compiling applications, and the critical self-scrutiny that accompanied it, were tiresome, but applying was the only way to get an elusive tenure-track job. Thus, I prepared for the market by crafting (and recrafting) research and teaching statements, updating my CV, and writing letters for each position. These tasks took much time and effort.
Yet the most painful part of the process was asking recommenders for letters year after year. I tried to act confident and self-assured when I politely requested letters again and graciously accepted their assurances that this year (unlike other years) would be my year. I even garnered enough optimism to halfway believe them. That optimism required equal parts hope and delusion, and to muster those simultaneously took exhaustive amounts of mental and physical energy, without which I might not have applied to any jobs. With them, I faced sleepless nights and gut-wrenching anxiety. Hope and delusion pulled me through multiple job cycles. This cycle, however, was different because I was not “on the market.” I’d opted out.
When this fall rolled around, I felt no trepidation. I had no need to gird my optimism and stave off my anxiety. I did not have to look obsessively at the American Academy of Religion’s jobs site to see which new jobs were posted. I did not frantically search the H-Net job guide for some position that might be a good fit. I did not need to strategize with mentors about how best to showcase my talents to search committees.
More importantly, I did not have to talk about the market and why I still hadn’t secured a tenure-track job. In previous years, discussions about why I had not been placed were always torturous. The blame generally fell on me as an individual, as if I were somehow in control of my destiny. These discussions often skirted the structural constraints of modern universities and the whims of search committees.
This year, I knew that I could avoid all of that because I was avoiding the job market. Out of sight, out of mind. Or so I thought. The funny thing, of course, is that the beast we call the job market does not care about my grievances or my attempts to ignore it. It carries on without me and claims other victims. I soon realized the naïveté in my strategy: You can’t expect everyone to go along with you.
My first brush with the job market came on Twitter. Colleagues tweeted about jobs at their institutions, with links to the postings and fun commentary about joining their departments. I clicked the links. Some of these jobs seemed like a good fit. If only this job had been available last year, I thought. Maybe I would have had a chance. Doubts claimed me. Should I apply? These moments of weakness led me to panic. What if one of these jobs was the job? What if I tanked my own career by sitting out this job cycle?
My panic turned to terror as I questioned my decision to take a year off. What if I was making an irreparable mistake? The “what ifs” plagued me.
Then I started receiving emails asking me to forward job announcements to whomever might be interested. And then my Facebook friends started posting about jobs they were applying for, and about the stress of completing applications. Everywhere I turned, the market was present. It was stalking me on social media and in conversations with friends. It was haunting me in every tweet, status update, and coffee date.
So I decided to fight back. I tweeted about my anxiety and my fear, and I messaged friends who’d made similar decisions. The support I received was overwhelming. Colleagues and friends in both academic and alt-ac careers encouraged me to stick to my original plan of not applying. They shared stories about their own decisions to opt out of the market and affirmed the difficulty of those decisions. They told me why they chose the paths they did, and what those paths had cost. Their honesty reaffirmed my desire to take the year to figure things out.
Crucially, this made me confront my true fears: that I was relinquishing my academic career and abandoning my optimism. This choice to opt out suggested that I was no longer a researcher and a teacher. Sometimes I feel like I am giving up an important part of myself. My anxiety about the job market was my anxiety about who I wanted to be slammed up against the realities of who I could be.
What I realize now is that my expectations about whom I want to be have shifted. The market no longer has me in its grip because I am unsure whether I want what it has to offer. It can’t haunt me anymore, but I must reckon with its presence. Avoidance hasn’t worked, because now I have to confront a different truth. I no longer want a tenure-track job, so where do I go from here?
Kelly J. Baker has a Ph.D. in religion from Florida State University and is the author of Gospel According to the Klan (Kansas, 2011) and The Zombies Are Coming! (Bondfire Books, 2013). She will be chronicling her year away from academe in a series of columns.