Last year, as I was about to embark on the academic job market, I asked a professor “how was the market for you? You seemed to have done pretty well for yourself.” He responded something along the lines of having post-traumatic stress disorder from the process, which, even years later, he is still recovering from. In some ways, he was joking — or least his tone had a sarcastic feel. Today, as I see news about the 2013-2014 market in my field (sociology), I have been having random flashbacks of my own experience on the market.
The experience is rough for anyone, but I have little room to complain now sitting in my tenure-track job that meets many of my and my family’s needs. But, I do think that, besides providing advice (see Monday’s post), there are some questions and concerns I can relay that may resonate with others. The question that often kept me awake at night, second only to “will I get a job?”, was “where should I get a job?” I alluded to some of these concerns in my post of advice for the job market. But, I will go into more detail here.
Underlying much of the advice I provided on Monday is the suggestion to reflect: reflect on when to go on the market, what kind of job you want, and what are your must-haves (non-negotiables) and would-like-to-haves (negotiables). I emphasize this point often because I was greatly benefited in later stages of the job market by having actual written notes of reflection from earlier in the year.
On March 26, a few months before I officially “went on the market,” I wrote in a personal note:
Beyond feeling assured in my career trajectory, I need also to remember the love, pain, support, and connection I have felt in the rest of my life in the last seven months. In that time, I have lost my nineteen-year-old cousin, Danny, have fallen madly in love with my partner Eric, found spirituality, became closer with some, made new friends, and reached new levels with my parents. My health, the well-being of my friends and family, my relationships – these are just as important, if not more, than some other person’s definition of what my career should look like.
Job Wish List: No anxiety; Supports my research; Social justice or public sociology; East Coast; Marriage equality; Racial diversity; 45-ish hour workweek; Near, but not in major city; Reasonable teaching load; Women’s studies department, especially with an LGBT/sexuality focus; Small to medium class sizes; Democratic/liberal-leaning state; Near outdoor education/nature jobs; LGBT campus resource center; Collegial department; and, Clear expectations for tenure and service.
As I reread this list, I chuckle slightly because it seems I’ve described my current job, with a few exceptions. But, though this sat at the back of my brain through the summer and fall semester, other(s’) expectations and values demanded to be at the fore during my job search.
“You’re not applying to any liberal arts jobs, are you?” “Of course not!” I responded, giving what I felt is the expected answer in many graduate training programs, which are generally housed at research-instensive universities. After three years of fumbling my way through graduate school, I learned the name of the game: research. The more I became focused primarily on research — and hid community service, efforts to create change in the department and university, and passion for teaching — the more successful I became. And, relatedly (in my mind), I learned the status game. Deference to faculty — answering questions posed to me, and minimizing critical and subversive responses — helped to speed interactions along.
I became quite effective at presenting myself as an R1 (research 1 university) bound job candidate. Who would expect me to even apply to liberal arts jobs? But, I complied with the aforementioned question (which felt like a demand). I created my preliminary list of schools to which I would apply, containing R1 and a few R2 options.
Initially, I did apply to one liberal arts job — my first application — just to feel that experience of applying for an academic job. It seemed like a long shot, and did not require an extensive package initially. So, I figured I could do so without ever telling another soul. That was, until a glitch in the school’s system caused automated requests for letters of recommendation to be sent to my committee. Surprised and concerned, they contacted me, which then led to “the talk” with my chair about the schools to which I actually wanted to apply. Stubbornly holding on to the esteem that I felt came with being a R1-bound “quantoid,” I reassured him that I had no intentions of seriously applying to liberal arts colleges. Per his insistence, I finally updated my list of schools to include any and all that I would take over staying in graduate school another year (which, I felt, was any job). Still, though, I continued to be supported throughout the job-seeking process as though I would end up at an R1 school.
Despite my committee’s apprehension about completing my graduate training early (by departmental standards), I received modest interest early in the job market cycle. I met — formally and informally — with a dozen schools, and planted seeds for subsequent conversations, at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Denver. (Job or not, one benefit of the job market is to begin to see your value broadly, rather than solely through the protective eyes of your department — somewhat akin to the relief parents feel when you demonstrate that you can live independently.) I kept an open mind — an important approach given how little control one has over the job-search — in part, to avoid disappointment. Some interviews that went swimmingly did not lead to on-campus job interviews; some interviews that teetered on hostile did lead to interviews.
That open-mindedness, coupled with anxiety about the market, turned into months of a professional existential crisis of sorts. “What kind of job do I want? What is the point to my career?”
On September 19th, I reflected in a personal note:
Now, seeking jobs upon the completion of my PhD, I am experiencing an identity crisis of sorts brewing. The stage has been set for months now for me to pursue jobs in institutions just like the one I’m currently attending for graduate school – research-oriented universities that value big, grant-funded research, places little emphasis on teaching, avoids service, and never registers community service as “service” (ironically). And, I have not enjoyed my time here. Entering my sixth year, I still feel the realities of racism, heterosexism, sexism, classism, apoliticalness and apathy, and the effects of these things on my health and well-being. It’s not just that my first year, rocked by racism I had never felt before, was challenging. Any institution like this one will present the same challenges. And, to pursue jobs in these places sets me up for the slow unfolding of an unhappy, regretful life. Why am I doing it?
And, just a few days later:
It took some time to stop intermittently crying, ruminating over all that I had been through this week, and angrily mulling over all that this job search entails. I even said to my partner that I felt it was immoral for academia to create and maintain a job market process that is so inherently threatening to the health and well-being of its job candidates. Many of us suffer from mental health problems, are stressed, are stretched thin in our social lives and family lives. Why is it that this process essentially wears further on those who are already worn down? And, above it all for me, this psychological and emotional roller coaster is a sharp reminder that the academy is not necessarily the place I want to be, that there are so many aspects of what academia is that I find irrelevant, unnecessary, immoral, hypocritical, and misused. This is not the place where I will find full support for my commitment to social justice through teaching, research, and service to the community. And, more importantly as I try to resolve an identity crisis that was sparked this week, there are some places – namely research-oriented universities – that are the absolute last places I will be able to live out my activist side openly and with support.
And, one month later, just days before my interview with University of Richmond:
But, some things remain unsettled. Assuming I take an academic position, will it be in a teaching-oriented college or research-oriented university? I have settled on the reality that I like teaching, and I love one-on-one mentoring. I don’t love research as the hegemonic force it appears to be. But, I like the excitement of a research community, and I love my research. I’m more likely to find the mentoring, research community, and support for my own research at an R1. But, I don’t care to face the expectations to place research above all else. I am an advocate first. That means teaching, research, and service – broadly defined – are of equal importance to me. If R1, or even liberal arts, will not support that, I don’t know that it is for me.
In late October, I interviewed for an assistant professor position in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at University of Richmond. The job was advertised for scholars who specialize in gender, with secondary emphasis in either health or family. I felt that I did OK on the interview, thus leaving me with great doubt about my prospects. I guessed by the tired look on the faces of the faculty that I was the last of a few interviews; and, last presumably meant I was not their top pick, because I was last to be contacted to schedule the interview. But, my sense of their feelings about me aside, I allowed myself to become excited about the potential job:
The more I assess the other possibilities, the more I am aware of how ideal Richmond is. Here is why I say ideal. Small, collegial department. Diverse faculty, diverse student body. Emphasis equally on teaching and research, with little care for where you publish your research. Resources for service-based learning courses. Lots of resources, period! Lots of new momentum around promoting diversity and inclusion, especially around LGBT issues. The university is close to my family. The city is increasingly diverse, progressive, and queer-friendly. I cannot think of a school, or even among those that obviously will not extend an invitation for an interview, that excites me in so many different was as does Richmond. Oh, and I forgot to mention the university’s openness to being a public intellectual. Hello! Could you find a more ideal fit for me? So, here is to hoping for Richmond. I said it. That is what I want.
A couple of weeks later, the Dean called to offer the position. As she spoke, I wished the conversation would end quickly so that I could let the building emotions I felt out. After we concluded the call, I burst into tears, paced the apartment chanting, “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” I felt relief that I had been offered the position I would have taken on the spot, and relief that I had a job (in light of having to push to go on the market in the first place).
I still had another interview lined up — one at a mid-tier R1 in the Midwest. I knew, no matter my feelings about Richmond, that I should check out at least one other school to compare. So, I went on the interview, which was fine; but, it became clear that an R1 job was not what I was after, and I felt more confident in the potential of accepting with UR.
While I was on the interview, I received a call for an invite to interview with another R1 university — highly-ranked, characterized as supportive (in general, but specifically for people of color and LGBT people), and a dream for the R1 part of my brain. The temptation was strong, but I did not have the luxury of time to go on yet another interview. Once again in my life (and the second time in that year), I had to have an honest conversation about my needs. I told the search committee chair — someone I respect and admire deeply — that I had to decline the invitation, and would respond to University of Richmond to accept its job offer. Having internalized (some) of the values of the research-obsessed environment of my graduate training, it felt as though I responded to an offer of $1 million with, “no, thanks; I’ve got inner peace.”
Finally, relief. I had accepted a job that suited my needs and those of my family. But, the decision was not without conflict and tension. I had to return to my pre-market reflections to remind myself of my priorities and values. “My health, the well-being of my friends and family, my relationships – these are just as important, if not more, than some other person’s definition of what my career should look like.” I had to force myself to disentangle what my heart was telling me from others’ values that I had internalized. My partner was in full support of my decision. (Each time I asked, “how do you feel about X R1 university?”, he rebuffed that it seemed silly to ask because I was already miserably at an R1.) My parents were supportive, with only a little concern that taking a “less prestigious” job might hurt my career prospects in the future.
My department… well. All R1s tend to have a bias for reproducing themselves. As I noted earlier, I had become effective in convincing others (and, often, myself) that I was R1 bound. One trusted professor named it explicitly: “but, they have invested so much in you!” And, taking a job at a liberal arts college would be a waste of that investment. (And, by that logic, R1 departments don’t invest [as much] in liberal arts-bound graduate students?) I heard a range of concerns, and was asked that I meet with each member of my committee to hear their perspectives in particular. “You’ll become irrelevant.” “You may adjust to the calmer work culture.” “You may experience a disadvantage in being selected as a reviewer for journals, grants, leadership positions in the discipline.” “I would decline the offer and hope for one from an R1.”
I do not share this to demonize my committee, my department, or R1 institutions. Certainly, I have kept silent about this for fear of burning bridges, or being stigmatized in my field. This part of the process felt as though I was being shouted at from dozens of people, forcing me to cover my ears and curl into a ball so that I could hear my own thoughts. Though I felt relief upon accepting the job, I felt compelled to “explain myself” to every colleague who asked where I had taken a position. “Oh, well it has a 3-2 teaching load (where the 3 is two of the same class, and new course preps are minimized), my salary is comparable (and better than) many R1 jobs…” Why not simply say, “Oh, University of Richmond. It’s a great fit for me!” I did usually mention fit and happiness, but as the last items on a long list of perks that made it seem like a decent excuse to leave R1 land. (And, I will add that those perks often surprised colleagues who expected I’d have a 4-4 load and be paid just a bit more than I was as a graduate student.)
Relief turned to guilt and doubt (am I wasting my skills? will I miss the incessant pressure to publish?). I compromised my excitement with my fear by planning to remain as productive and visible as possible. In essence, I had decided to work like I was at an R1 in case I ever decided to move back to the R1 world. (Maybe that possibility would satisfy the R1 bias enough.) But, per my partner’s reminders, and in talking to some very productive (and happy) people in liberal arts jobs, I eventually accepted that I was headed to Richmond based on my own enthusiasm about the job, as it satisfies many of my needs. Of course, I will be productive and visible — that’s just my style as an academic. But, I can relinquish the excessive internal pressure to do so now that I have removed myself from the excessive pressure of “publish or perish” at insane R1 levels.
Exposing The Cult
Why was this process so hard? And, specifically, for me? Before graduate school, I twice made major, difficult decisions to choose authenticity and happiness over status: I came out at age 17 and I relinquished a full scholarship in math in hopes of a generic one. I struggled for some time to attempt to go with tradition, status, popularity, and “safety.” By the time I declared these decisions to my parents, my mind had already been made up; their efforts to encourage me to choose the safer routes were futile.
In declaring that I would finish graduate school at the close of my sixth year, and then accepting the position at Richmond, I once again felt as though I was coming out to my parents. In this case, my committee, had concerns that I would be giving up a happier, more successful life. But, I had to remind them that success has never been a primary source of happiness for me; I cannot be happy if I am censored, constrained, or inauthentic. Ultimately, I could see that they knew I would stick firmly to my decision (apparently, I had a reputation for being stubborn, though even that level of stubbornness took great constraint, censoring, and deference). As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I figured it was my decision to make and (possibly) regret. I would rather be proven wrong than have to live with the consequences of following someone else’s advice.
So far, I see nothing that would lead me to feel regret. I have plenty of resources at my finger tips, will feel just enough pressure to publish to hold me accountable (but not hostage), and have room to pursue meaningful service. And, who could pass up on a lake on campus?!
I have decided to publicly broadcast this story because it does resonate with others’. As I interviewed and then made a decision about accepting a job, a good friend went through a nearly identical experience — groomed for R1, and then broke a lot of hearts by taking a liberal arts job. And, even today, as I wrote this post, I received a message from a friend who is feeling some of the same doubt and guilt about taking a job other than a tenure-track position at an R1 institution. In some ways, academe — particularly R1 land — is a cult. Through the professional socialization of graduate training, the academy becomes our lives. So quitting or failing (or choosing) to land a certain job after graduation can lead to feelings of failure.
It crossed my mind a few times that I might be disowned by my graduate institution. Or, maybe that I would be quietly erased from the department’s history to prevent younger and future students from “getting any bright ideas.” Since I went to a mid-sized state school for college, and then an R1 for graduate school, I had little to go on about whether I would thrive at a liberal arts institution. When I asked alums who had taken liberal arts jobs — “but, why? but, how?” — I was feeling both that they owed a justification for not “going R1” and to give others hope that happiness exists outside of R1s, too. So, I am doing my part by sharing my story. I know I am not alone in being uncertain about the “where” question, and in answering that question with “not R1!” I hope that sharing my experience will help future PhDs in this difficult process. And, as a colleague at Richmond noted to me yesterday (as did my graduate department), this isn’t necessarily for life! So, I say choose happiness and authenticity and health, and the success will follow!
Other Perspectives And Resources
To counter the one-sidedness of much of the “go R1” advice I received while on the job market (well, throughout graduate school, really), I had to do my homework for voices that spoke to life at liberal arts colleges. (As I noted above, I had little exposure to them, besides campus visits to prospective colleges as an 18-year-old.) So, here are some resources that may help others, as well.
- Memoirs of a SLACer – a pseudonymous blog by a sociologist at a small, liberal arts college. “John” has many honest, reflective posts and advice about working at a liberal arts college. Start with the heart of the dilemma: “Are You A SLACer?” There are some key differences in publication, research culture, expectations, and prestige. But, some things are similar to R1 institutions.
- Various blog posts and articles at the Chronicle for Higher Education: “How to Land a Job at a Small College“; “A Research Career at a Liberal Arts College“; and, “How To Get A Teaching Job At A Liberal Arts College.”
- “So You Want to be a Liberal Arts College Professor” by Jon Western.
- “Juggling Teaching And Research At A Small Liberal Arts College” by Steven Swoap
- “Liberal Arts College Faculty: Finding the Sweet Spot” by Sarah A. Webb.