Should I Go Back On The Academic Job Market?

Photo by kate hiscock

Photo by kate hiscock

At a recent conference, three colleagues asked me whether I was currently on the academic job market, and revealed their own ongoing job searches.  Their questions echoed a voice in my own head that I’ve almost successfully silenced: am I supposed to go on the market now, in my third year on the tenure-track?

Initially, I felt offended that they would ask.  Their questions about changing institutions were innocent enough — even based on good intentions; but, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed because my career choices have been questioned since I added my current position to the list of jobs to which I would apply.  I had to push back against my grad school professors’ “encouragement” to pursue a career at a research I university.  Since then, I have, on occasion, been not-so-sublty reminded that “you can always go back on the market” (to get a “better” job).  As early as spring of my first year, I heard that there were rumors that I had been applying for a new position — in my first year.  So, I haven’t really had a moment yet in which I wasn’t being asked (or asking myself) whether I could or should go back on the academic job market.

By the end of my first year in graduate school, I became aware of the narrative — perhaps even expectation — that professors, at some point, pursue a “better” job.  In just my six years as a grad student, four professors left for new positions, typically right after earning tenure.  Initially, it seemed these professors stuck it out to get tenure at that school to then move to a school or location that might be a better fit for them.  I’ve never had a chance to actually ask any of these professors why they left and why, specifically, they left when they did.  But, rumors among fellow grad students were that some left because their families were miserable and needed a new location, some threatened to leave to get a raise (but didn’t get it, and then had to actually leave), and some left because of the “two-body” problem.  These caveats made it seem as though going back on the job market was not solely about the job or institution itself; however, these moves were not driven exclusively by personal reasons, either.

What about assistant professors who change jobs — and not to be immediately promoted to associate professor with tenure at the new institution?  That never happened while I was in grad school.  But, while on the job market myself, I saw what seemed to be just as many assistant professors vying for jobs as I did grad students.  One speculation I commonly heard was that these were “underplaced” scholars who had to take a less-than-desirable job initially owing to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession on the academic job market.  Since then, I have seen a couple of colleagues move to higher-ranking institutions, and a few others who moved to accommodate the needs of their partners or children.  Generally, I’m not sure that it’s a common occurrence.

Aside from moving to advance one’s professional status (i.e., because one was “underplaced”) or because of personal or family needs, there still seems to be an expectation to move — and soon.  In hopes of softening the blow that I had decided to accept a position at a liberal arts college, I offered to my advisors that it would be my mistake to make; more explicitly, I noted that I could always go back on the market, which meant staying active on the publication front (thereby exceeding my own institution’s expectations).  Two of my professors told me moving happens a lot in academia.  (Ironically, they have only been professors at one institution for their entire twenty-plus-year careers.)  The three colleagues I mentioned at the start of this essay have their professional or personal reasons for returning to the market; but, I also sensed that they felt they needed to move just because we’re expected to move once we hit our third or fourth year on the tenure track.

The short answer to their question is no, I have no desire or plans to apply for other academic positions (or non-academic positions for that matter). But, what the heck, I’ll give the long answer, too.

Potential Drawbacks Of Applying For (And Starting) A New Job

  • There is no real reason to leave.  Outside of the academy, I’ve observed that friends and family begin searching for a new job for practical reasons — that is, I’ve yet to hear “should” or “supposed to” or “expected to.”  They look for a new job to get promoted; that is, when one cannot move up the hierarchical ladder in one’s own workplace, one has to take a higher-level position elsewhere.  They simply get sick of their current position, owing to boredom, need for change, growing hostility or bias, etc.  They cite non-work-related needs like health problems, the needs of their partner/kids/parent (especially if dependent or sick), or having to or want to move to a new city.  Fortunately, I accepted a position that brought me closer to my family, offers the pace and expectations I’d like at work (and that are helping me get a handle on lingering mental health problems), and supports my approach to being an academic.  My partner has finally started working as a fifth-grade teacher; a move would mean asking him to pick up his life and start over again.  Since work is good, why would I disrupt my (and my partner’s) life and career just because of some informal expectation to change jobs?  That’s foolish and selfish.
  • I like my job.  Unless it’s not clear from the previous point, I actually like where I am.
  • Starting a new job is hard.  Starting a new job, in a new department and school, in a new city was incredibly hard.  Sure, this time I wouldn’t also be new to being a professor; but, that’s still a lot of new-ness to which I’d have to adjust.  I’ve finally made genuine friendships — those kind in which you hang out outside of work, and have other things besides work to talk about.  It only took me two years to find them!  And, I’m beginning to feel like a member of the communities in my department, university, and to a tiny extent in my local community (at least among those working for the LGBTQ community).  Others may feel invigorated by the adventures of moving and starting a new chapter of their lives, but I dread the idea.  The world is not filled with people willing to have genuine friendships or positive working relationships with an outspoken Black queer scholar-activist; my energy is better spent on building community where I am.
  • Starting over is worse.  I am too early in my career to realistically hope to take an associate professor position with tenure at a new institution.  So, I’d be starting a new tenure-track elsewhere, with a different set of expectations (formal and informal, transparent and not).  Worse, I may “lose” some or all of the years I’ve already completed on the tenure-track.  That is, there is a good chance I would have to start over.  No thanks.
  • The job market takes up a lot of time.  Starting the application process again would take up a great deal of time.  All of my application materials would need to be revised because I can no longer sell how awesome my dissertation is (was).  In my job talks, I would need to present new work that, ideally, will last me through tenure.  However, I’m currently in the thick of polishing the last couple of chapters of my dissertation and sending them out for publication; I don’t have anything really “new” at the moment.  And coming up with a new project and rewriting my application materials will cut into time I’m spending to finish work based on my dissertation.  I just don’t have the time (or energy) to present myself as a new shiny package again.
  • It’s too late.  Even if I were interested in applying for other jobs, it’s already too late in this year’s job market season (in sociology).  And, I think it would be foolish to devote any of my year-long research leave next year applying to jobs. By that point, I would be in my fourth year (two years shy of filing for tenure); I would start the new position in my fifth year — the year I would actually begin putting my tenure dossier together.
  • I need to work on my health.  I still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and recently discovered I was traumatized by graduate school.  (The latter falls into the category of complex trauma, which doesn’t appear in the DSM, but its symptoms are no less real for me.)  Thanks to these ongoing mental health issues, I was recently diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  Wonderful, just wonderful.  All of this oversharing of health problems is to highlight that taking care of myself and getting healthy is of far greater importance than worrying about and attempting to appease some informal expectation to find a “better” job.  Indeed, my colleagues are aware of my ongoing health problems, and have been incredibly understanding and supportive.  Again, why would I give that up?  Health wise, it doesn’t make sense to reintroduce the stress of applying for jobs, going on interviews, losing sleep because of uncertainty, moving, and starting a new job into my life if it is not necessary.  I’d go as far as to say moving around so easily is a luxury for those in good health.
  • The job search is an awful experience.  As I’ve noted above, the stress of being on the market alone is enough of a deterrent.  My anxiety was at its worst while I was on the market in my final year of graduate school.  I was moody and self-absorbed.  It seemed every conversation I had was about how the market was going — and, if it wasn’t, I couldn’t help but bring it up.  I imagine doing so with some level of secrecy at my current job would be even harder — especially because I have many more demands on me now than I did as a dissertating grad student who wasn’t teaching.  My job would have to be bad enough and/or the need for change would have to be severe enough to even consider sticking my toe into the turbulent waters of the job market.
  • I’ve got baggage.  And, not in that romantic, magical way like Mimi and Roger in Rent.  I’ve been very vocal in my criticisms of the academy, specifically sociology, and most specifically my own graduate program.  Do I dare to ask my dissertation committee members for recommendation letters?  Would they even say yes?  Would they be positive in their letters?  Do I even want their letters?  With little contact in three years, would their letters even be useful or appropriate?  (Baggage aside, I really don’t know to whom assistant professors turn when they go on the job market.  Asking your current department colleagues seems like a risk if you’re secretly apply for jobs, are leaving on bad terms, or don’t want to disappoint or hurt them.)  Besides the letters, I imagine a number of departments will want nothing to do with me because of my blogging and public presence.  Staying active on the research front can only trump concerns about “fit” so much.
  • There are few places that would be a good fit for me.  I am of the mindset that my happiness, health, and quality of life are more important than the prestige of a school.  That means I prefer to work at a school and live in a city that is safe and inclusive for gay interracial couples (my partner and me).  Realistically, no place in the US deserves such a characterization, but there is variation.  Since climate matters (in the department, on campus, in the city, in the state), that rules out most (all?) places in the country.  The odds of finding a good school in a hospitable city for me, an outspoken Black queer man, are too slim to waste my time even looking.
  • There are no guarantees on the job market.  Let’s say I went on the market next year.  I would be limited to the positions that are advertised in that year.  They may not fall into my areas of specialization.  They may be in undesirable locations.  They may include schools for which I don’t want to work.  I could, in the end, not want to accept any position or, worse, I not receive any job offers.  That is time, energy, and hope I can’t get back.  And, what if word got out in my department or college?  Unless I was dead-set on leaving because I had legitimate reasons to do so, it would be incredibly awkward to continue to show my face after the failed job search.  I worry, too, other colleagues might consciously or unconsciously hold it against me.  Maybe they wouldn’t invest as much in me because they assumed I’d be gone the first chance I could get, or that I was never truly invested in staying.
  • Greener grass is deceptive.  I’m going to quote lyrics from two songs.  In the song, “Better Than” by The John Butler Trio (JBT), there is an incredible lyric: “All I know is sometimes things can be hard // But you should know by now // They come and they go // So why, oh why // Do I look to the other side // ‘Cause I know the grass is greener but // Just as hard to mow.”  And, as Big Sean says in Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” “the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, it’s green where you water it.”  JBT’s wisdom points out that a new job may appear better from your current location, but it won’t necessarily be easier.  And, Big Sean’s career advice suggests staying where you are to make the job better, rather than jumping ship when things get tough.  My current job, department, and university aren’t perfect — and, I’d be surprised if any of my colleagues are surprised to hear me say that.  But, as I surmised from my campus interview when applying, and in the two-and-a-half years since, they are all willing to change and grow.  I’m in a place where colleagues don’t remind me of my “place” as a junior faculty member; rather, I’m encouraged to have a voice and be an active member of the campus and department communities.  (We’re simply too small to go 7 years of having any faculty members simply “seen but not heard.”)  It would be naive of me to think I can just shop around for a problem-free, egalitarian, truly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-cissexist, anti-fatphobic … institution.  But, it was certainly worth finding a place that is trying to become that, and working within it to make real change.

Potential Drawbacks Of Staying (And My Responses)

  • Don’t settle.  I can already hear concerned voices shouting at their laptops/mobile devices, “NOOO, ERIC – WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”  I’ve heard the advice to treat the tenure-track like dating.  There’s no ring on this finger (for now), so perhaps I’m naive to settle in this position and, worse, to publicly declare that I’ve settled.  (I mean “settle” in the sense of getting comfortable, not as in lowering your standards.)  I agree that it’s healthy to know that there are other options and, more importantly, to keep oneself competitive (to an extent) in case the time ever comes to apply for a new job.  But, I have learned from experience that a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude in a relationship takes a toll.  It makes others resentful, just waiting for the day that you finally leave or quit; and, you don’t fully reap the rewards of being committed to something/someone, even through the tough or uneventful times.  So long as my institution is committed to me, I will commit to it.  I sense that we both share the goal of making it a lifelong commitment.
  • Being taken for granted.  I suspect the underlying concern with the previous point is that your colleagues or institution will take you for granted.  The best way for them to bow to your feet is keep them guessing whether you plan to stay.  If more is desired, you can actually actively seek out a new job — thus, the threat of leaving.  Fortunately, I’m in a place that respects and values me because I’m here and committed; I don’t need to play psychological or emotional warfare to demand respect and attention.  (Frankly, that seems really unhealthy to me.  Imagine if I had to threaten to dump my partner every time I wanted him to buy me flowers.)
  • Know my value.  I’ve heard, on occasion, it’s good to toss an application or two (or 20) out just to see your value (presuming your department or university isn’t valuing you at your actual worth).  You can get a self-esteem boost from getting interviews, or even offers.  Nah, I’m good.  I’m working to get to a place where I don’t derive any of my self-worth from an institution.  That means not suffering six months of depression if I were denied tenure, nor throwing myself a party because another school said they like me.  I do not intend to criticize those who use this as a power-play or even a self-esteem boost.  I just feel I have better ways to use my time, like pursuing the things I value, rather than playing games at work.
  • Increasing my status.  Related to the previous point, I never set out to land at the “best” (i.e., highest ranking based on some convoluted way of placing schools in a hierarchy) school.  I don’t want others to give a damn about me because I’m at Harvard or Wisconsin or UT Austin.  I prefer to be recognized on my own merits, for the specific kind of work I do.  At conferences, when eyes gloss over “University of Richm…” on my name tag, and then dart to find another, more worthy person to talk to, they’ve saved me 15 minutes of meaningless conversation.  I’ve always been skeptical of academic fame because it seems we go out of our way to make ourselves feel important because, at some level, we realize we’re not seen as important in the rest of the world.  Being a “somebody” to other (elitist) academics seems at odds with making a recognizable contribution to the community.  With few exceptions, the more popular you are among academics, I assume the less you and your work matter to the world outside of the academy; the more involved you are in your community, the less other status-obsessed academics care about you.

Closing Thoughts

“Okay, so you’re not leaving,” you might say.  “Why write a blog post about it,” you might even be asking.  My intention here is to highlight the unspoken (though sometimes explicitly stated) expectation that, on top of trying to earn tenure at one institution, junior professors should also be looking to start a “better” (i.e., higher-status) job.  The question, “are you on the market,” doesn’t come from prior knowledge that I’m unhappy, that the job is a bad fit for me, or that I or my partner need to move.  It doesn’t suggest that applying for a better job is the only way to get promoted because I’m already working my butt off to get promoted in my current position; leaving could actually set me back and introduce new challenges.  Rather, at the root of it, the question just reflects pressure to advance one’s professional status (even if it’s at odds with your personal needs).

In the spirit of promoting self-care in academia, I ask that others rethink this mindset of going after “better” jobs purely to advance your status. Specifically, I mean not relying heavily on your institution to signal your worth to other academics.  You can do so by publishing another great article, or winning a teaching award, or being awarded a fancy grant, or putting research into action (either in the classroom or in the community), etc.  I think a healthier approach is to 1) think long-term to advance professionally and 2) place your professional status in the broader context of your life.  On point number two, I worry, for example, about those who neglect their health or continue to be single and miserable as they jump to a better job; I doubt there is any direct (positive) relationship between the status of one’s institution and one’s own happiness/health/self-esteem/purpose.  But, I’m aware this all depends on your values and goals, particularly as it relates to your career.  I just don’t see the point of being at an Ivy, for example, if I don’t have a community, am miserably single, in therapy, and am far away from family; the status alone isn’t enough to sustain me.

I can’t help but think about a romantic relationship as a parallel here in my suggestion to consider staying — or, at least consider not automatically leaving when the getting isn’t necessarily good.  If we constantly look for a “better” romantic partner, then we are taking energy and investment away from our current relationship.  We’re not fully committed, and thus our partner may not fully commit to us because they can sense we’ve got our eye on the door.  (I know this from a past failed relationship, unfortunately.)

I should note that I’m not naive enough to ask that others commit to a department or institution while they are on the tenure-track; don’t commit to an institution that hasn’t fully committed to you (yet).  But, by hiring you, they’ve made some level of a commitment; your colleagues are “dating” you and, in places that aren’t sink-or-swim or practice academic hazing, they actually hope dating becomes marriage for life.  You can, however, make a commitment to make your job more satisfying for yourself.  To the extent that you can without jeopardizing tenure, take on fun projects, teach fun classes (or at least a few lectures within a class), make at least one friend on campus (there are faculty in other departments and, gasp, there are staff members, too!), or volunteer for a community organization.  Outside of work, join a club, take a class, make an effort to find community, get an account with MeetUp/OkCupid/Tinder (whatever other apps kids are using these days), go to a community event, etc.  Even if you one day leave, at least you’ll have made an effort to make your present situation harder to leave without saying goodbye or shedding a few tears.

Additional Resources

If you are considering going back on the job market, or at least open to the possibility, check out what others have had to say about it.

Figuring Out Where You Want To Land After Graduate School

Note: this blog post was originally published on Vitae.

If you’re in a doctoral program, you’re supposed to want to work at a research university. But when I was mulling my career options in graduate school, what I mostly felt was uncertain. In fact, the only thing I knew I didn’t want was a job at a research university.

My secret desire was to teach at a liberal-arts college, but I had plenty of doubts about that, fueled by my advisers’ antipathy toward the idea. Ultimately, I did “come out” of the liberal-arts closet. But it was only when I asked my professors — “How did you know where you wanted to work?” — that I realized how few of them could answer that question with certainty.

The (Myth of the) R1-Liberal Arts Dichotomy

A few years ago, when I was plotting my own future, I spent some time asking Ph.D.s what motivated them to pursue one career over others. Many fellow students, and even some of my professors, said they pursued a job at a research-intensive university (especially an R1) simply because it was the expected path, and the most valued. Sure, you might apply for positions at liberal-arts colleges — just to be safe — but that was merely a backup plan. Even if you accepted a position at a liberal-arts college, you only kept that job long enough to get the kind you really wanted (meaning one at an R1 university).

I also noticed that the distinctions people made between R1 universities and liberal-arts colleges seemed based more on limited knowledge, or even stereotypes, than on actual knowledge and experience. Many seemed to think in black-and-white terms: If you want to do research, take an R1 position; if you like teaching, work at a liberal-arts college. Indeed, when I mentioned my plan to accept the tenure-track job I’d been offered at the University of Richmond, one of my advisers responded, “But you’re good at research!”

It’s worth stating what should be obvious: Faculty at both types of institutions do research and teach classes, albeit to varying degrees. Too many academics erase the variation among Research I universities and among liberal-arts colleges — not to mention the similarities between those types of institutions. For example, research expectations have grown for faculty at liberal-arts colleges (too). However, you may face less pressure to secure a research grant if you teach at a private liberal-arts college with a sizeable endowment than if you are at a public institution strapped for funds.

Another example: While it’s true that liberal-arts faculty teach more classes than R1 faculty, we don’t necessarily teach more students. For example, I teach five classes a year, with enrollment in each course capped at about 15, 20, or 24 students. Even if I taught five classes at the cap of 24 students each, I would still only have a maximum of 120 students. Meanwhile my counterparts at a large research university — teaching three classes with at least 70 students in each — would have 210 students. Since my institution is exclusively undergraduate, I also have the good fortune (in my opinion) of not having to serve on master’s theses and dissertation committees (or help those students navigate the academic job market) but, I do serve as an honors thesis adviser for one or two undergraduates each year.

Of course faculty advisers often ignore all the other options for a faculty career, too, including community colleges, historically Black and Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges — not to mention careers outside of academia.

What If You Don’t Have A Clue?

In the spirit of sharing advice that I had to learn the hard way, I’d like to offer some tips for finding the career path that feels right to you. If you’re 100 percent certain of the path you wish to pursue, good for you! But if you’re conflicted, as I was, then testing out other options along the way is a must, and will make you a more well-rounded academic. How else are you going to make an informed decision?

During grad school — no matter what your advisers are telling you — try to pursue a variety of opportunities to gain training in research, teaching, and applied work. Serve as a research assistant and a teaching assistant (and teach your own classes if possible), but also seek out internships and opportunities to gain experience outside of your university. Take advantage of whatever pedagogical and teaching training your department and university has to offer; attend pedagogical workshops at professional meetings or other universities. While you’re at it, consider which aspects of academic work you excel at and like best. Don’t wait until you finish grad school to discover that you loathe teaching or that spending time alone in an archive gives you hives.

I highly recommend doing a research and/or teaching fellowship at an institution that is different from the one where you’re earning your Ph.D. Having that experience not only makes you a better candidate, but it’s one of the best ways to get a sense of what life’s actually like at other types of institutions.

Short of that, look for opportunities to visit different institutions — attend talks, stay with friends, or, better yet, shadow a faculty member at another campus for at least a few days. If your program or university does not have a formal shadowing program, make your own arrangements to do so.

And don’t limit your forays to academic institutions. Consider doing a summer research internship for a nonprofit or think tank.

My brief stint working at a nonprofit agency during college turned out to be less enjoyable than I’d hoped. I hated doing anything that felt like busy work (e.g., filing, copying), and I hated having a boss even more. Worse yet, the office attempted to maintain a politics-free environment, despite advocating on behalf of LGBTQ professionals. Yet that internship experience reinforced my desire to work in academia, so even a bad experience can lead to something good.

Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to work or observe faculty at a liberal-arts college before I accepted my current position at the University of Richmond. But working as a diversity fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee the summer after my third year in grad school gave me a taste of faculty life at an urban research university and a chance to teach students with different backgrounds than those at my graduate school.

Make connections with Ph.D.s on various career paths. Get to know people at academic conferences, and ask them what life is like at their institution. Talk to recent alumni of your program about their jobs and ask how they came to the path they’re on. The danger of relying exclusively on the advice of professors and students currently in your Ph.D. program is that they’re unlikely to know much about life outside a research-intensive university. (And, no, studying at a liberal-arts college is not the same as working at one.)

Do your homework. After finding that people in my Ph.D program had little useful advice about life at a liberal-arts college, I turned to the Internet for others’ reflections on careers in the liberal arts. (Later, I added my own post— along with a link to this handy chart by Terry McGlynn— to the small chorus of voices on the subject.) I also took time to read some stories of Ph.D.s who had pursued alternative careers (#altac). It was reassuring to know that the choice to work at a liberal-arts college, or a research university, or outside of academia wasn’t so obvious, and it was extremely helpful to find others had talked about it publicly.

Finally, before the time comes to apply for jobs, assess your personal needs and those of your family. If you are pursuing a faculty career, identify which attributes of a job, department, campus culture, and community you care about most — and worry about institution type later. Remember that within each of the Carnegie Classification categories, institutional culture will vary greatly. You might find a Research I university where faculty members genuinely value and reward good teaching and where the work environment is comparable to that of a liberal-arts college. Likewise, some liberal-arts colleges place a premium on strong research and scholarly productivity and will offer resources akin to those of a research university. Treat each campus visit as an opportunity to investigate if the department, institution, and city would be a good fit for you. Interview them.

And if you wind up in a position that’s not your ideal fit, remember, it’s not the end of the world. Treat it like what it is — a learning experience and a temporary chapter in your life.

How I Came Out Of The “Liberal Arts Closet”

Note: this blog post was originally published on the Vitae.

Two years ago, I accidentally outed myself when I quietly applied for a teaching job at a small liberal-arts college. I thought my secret was safe, since the search committee hadn’t yet asked for recommendation letters. But thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a glitch in the system, my references were automatically alerted when I submitted my application online. One of my mentors emailed me about it almost immediately.

It was time to come clean. No, not about being queer — I’d gone public with that 10 years earlier — but about my ambivalence toward the R1 track and my openness toward “going liberal arts.” You’d think my previous experience in coming out as gay would have made this new revelation easier. But I was surprised by how hard it was, and by the odd parallels between outing myself as queer and coming out as a liberal-arts professor-to-be.

Let me explain.

In both situations, I knew that hiding my true identity and desires meant safety and inclusion, but at the cost of authenticity and happiness. Just as society presumes that most of its members are heterosexual, and socializes and educates its youth accordingly, most graduate programs still presume that their students will land jobs at Research I’s and train Ph.D.’s primarily for those jobs.

The unfortunate result in both cases is that people who deviate from the norm are often castigated. LGBTQ youth are excluded, or worse. While I would never suggest that Ph.D. students who want to work at liberal-arts, regional, or community colleges, or outside of academia, are victims of discrimination and violence, such students may receive more subtle punishment, like less intense and more “hands off” training, particularly when it comes to research.

I quickly noticed in my first year of graduate school that Ph.D. students were tracked based upon their post-graduation career plans. As a naïve 22-year-old, I knew that I wanted to teach and do research. What I didn’t know was that the expectations that faculty face vary depending on the type of institution for which they work. I wanted to become a professor at a small liberal-arts college. When I shared that dream with a professor, he discouraged me from narrowing my career options so soon in graduate school. He said that I should “aim for R1’s” because those jobs would be the hardest to obtain; and if I changed my mind later, jobs at other institutions (e.g., liberal-arts colleges) would be automatically open to me.

Since I was miserable in my first two years of grad school, and unsure whether I’d even make it to the Ph.D., I didn’t take his advice too seriously. But I did stop telling people that I wanted to work at a liberal-arts college. I also started to observe that students who were open about their intentions to “go liberal arts” were treated differently from other students. They weren’t pushed as hard on their research. They weren’t regularly selected for research assistantships, awards, and other research-based opportunities. I even suspected that certain professors declined to mentor such students at all. In general, they weren’t as visible in the department, and they never reached “rockstar” status.

The message was clear: Stay in the closet if you want the best, most rigorous graduate training possible.

In my third year, I decided to pursue our department’s Preparing Future Faculty certificate – a three-course sequence focused on teaching and pedagogy. Unfortunately, my proposed project for the third course fell through, so I gave up on completing the certificate. When I shared the news, one professor said, “That’s fine. I don’t see that career path for you anyway.” I knew then that I was passing as “R1-bound.” But I was secretly disappointed that no one encouraged me to finish the certificate, since every future faculty member could benefit from training in teaching and pedagogy.

Before long, I felt “trapped” by everyone else’s R1 plans for me. I was fortunate to receive the Ford Foundation predoctoral award – a three-year research fellowship for graduate students of color. It was mostly a blessing as it allowed me to work on projects other than my master’s thesis, and to publish and graduate early. But the exclusive focus on research, and the pressure to publish, took a toll on me; I developed Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I asked two professors about taking a one-year break from the fellowship to teach, specifically citing concerns about my mental health. Both professors said it would be foolish to “give up” precious time and money for research just to take time to teach.

I decided to make my fifth year my last in graduate school before going on the academic job market. My committee strongly opposed my plan to write and defend my dissertation, and start searching for jobs in a little over a year. I sensed that underneath their concerns about timing was actually a fear that I was jeopardizing my presumed R1-bound future. Staying in graduate school for seven, eight, or more years wouldn’t necessarily offer me more training, just more time to publish and make myself marketable for top research universities. I could barely stomach the idea of a sixth year, so I pressed on anyway. I reminded my committee that it was my future (to waste).

They begrudgingly allowed me to apply for jobs at the start of my sixth year. One committee member asked me, “You’re not applying for liberal-arts jobs – are you?”

“Of course not,” I answered automatically, despite knowing that I had no desire to pursue an R1 career path. But having never attended a liberal-arts college, and with only one year of teaching experience under my belt, I also wasn’t absolutely certain that I would be a good candidate for a liberal-arts job, either. I feared limiting my job search, but dreaded losing my committee’s support even more if I came out as liberal arts-bound.

That’s when I quietly (or, so I thought) applied for that opening at a small liberal-arts institution and was outed by its online application system. The jig was up. So I revealed my ambivalence about the R1 track and came clean. In an attempt to soften the blow, I lied to my committee about being willing to go either R1 or liberal arts, just as I’d once lied to my parents about being bisexual, rather than “fully gay” (my mother’s words). One committee member asked me for a list of the liberal-arts colleges to which I was thinking of applying, only to regale me with reasons why each of them would be a poor fit for me.

My first invitation for a campus interview came from the small liberal-arts university where I now teach. I was relieved and excited but my department was less enthusiastic. “Oh,” was the usual response when I told my professors where I was interviewing. But I loved the campus and the department, and was ready to accept an offer as soon as it came.

When I returned from my interview, however, only my friends wanted to know how it had gone. In contrast, when I returned from an interview at a research university – a place that I’d dreaded visiting and realized at once I’d never be happy at – my professors were eager to hear all about it. (At least that interview gave me confirmation that I was not R1 material.)

When the liberal-arts university offered me the job, I shed tears of joy, but the good news was not celebrated by my department. Instead, I was instructed to meet with my committee members so they could try to talk me out of taking the position. Their anxiety was fueled further by an impending campus invitation I was expecting from a top-30 research university. In the end, I declined that invitation — literally moments before I called to accept my current position.

After the dust settled, I compared notes with a friend who was also on the job market. I learned that she’d had similar experiences with her department. In fact, hers was explicit about their expectations that she would “go R1” and that taking a liberal-arts position was, in essence, a waste of the time and resources devoted to her training. Clearly this kind of tracking was not unique to my graduate program, but it seems no one is willing to name this practice.

An attitude adjustment in graduate training is long overdue. My career choice upset members of my graduate department because they had invested in me. By pursuing a different path, I had squandered their investment. Or so they believed. But at a time when few Ph.D.’s can bank on landing a tenure-track position at an R1, why wouldn’t doctoral programs want students to apply for jobs at liberal-arts and community colleges? And why wouldn’t we want excellent researchers working at those colleges? After all, strong researchers can make for better teachers. All students deserve equal access to training for research, teaching, and applied careers. What’s more, graduate departments would better serve their students by asking about their goals, dreams, strengths, and worries, rather than making assumptions or pushing a certain path.

More Than R1, One Year Later

Lake at University of Richmond

University of Richmond lake.

Last year, I wrote blog posts recounting my experiences on the academic job market and the ultimate decision to accept my current position. The job search was tough, as it is for any job candidate. But, I had the added stress of being pressured to pursue jobs at research-intensive universities or, more colloquially, to “go R1.” Now, one year later, I am content with my decision, and am optimistic that I will love my job once the adjustment period has ended. But, it has not been a “happily ever after” fairytale (yet).

The Job Search

As a rising high school senior, I had my heart set on attending a small liberal arts college (SLAC) within my home state. On a tour of one campus, my mother teased me about wanting to be a “big fish in a little pond.” But, as she saw the small scholarships that these expensive schools offered, she began encouraging me to look at state schools. I resisted initially, but fell in love with UMBC and the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which offered a full scholarship. I decided to attend UMBC, becoming a medium-size fish in a medium-size pond (or, so it seemed from my perspective). I tucked away my liberal arts dreams for future chapter of my life.

As an eager, yet naïve first-year graduate student, I announced my plan to become a professor at a liberal arts college to an advisor. I was encouraged to “aim for R1” instead because that career path would be the hardest to obtain; if I changed my mind, other paths would be easily pursued. After a couple of years in grad school, I learned such a strategy was not enough; one also had to keep liberal arts dreams secret, for some advisors might invest less time and energy into your training. The more I opened myself up to research-intensive training, the more I felt favored by the faculty, and the more doors opened to me in the department and beyond. At times, I was convinced an R1 job was best for me, even if it meant being miserable, unhealthy, overworked, and devoting my energy on research at the expense of teaching and advocacy.

When I successfully pushed to go on the job market, I was asked, “you’re not applying to liberal arts jobs, right?” The possibility seemed quickly and offhandedly dismissed. By that point in my training, I had become so successful at conforming that I meekly responded, “right.” But, when I secretly applied to a liberal arts job, which erroneously automatically sent requests to my advisors for recommendation letters, my interest in liberal arts schools was outed (again). I was hesitantly allowed to apply to liberal arts schools, then to interview with them.

By November 2012, the call with the offer for my current position came. Once I was off of the phone with the dean, I paced around my apartment, crying happy tears, tears of relief, and chanting, “omigod omigod omigod.” This was my first job interview, and I fell in love with it on the campus visit. But, the celebration would have to wait. I was encouraged to meet with each of my four advisors about taking the job. Their advice ranged from “do what you want, it’s your damn life!” to “decline the offer” in hopes of something better (i.e., an R1 job). I had to go to family and friends if I wanted to share my excitement about landing the job that I wanted.

Am I A SLACer?

In addition to the pressure from my department to continue my search in hopes of an R1 position, I found little help in assessing if a liberal arts position would be a good fit for me. It seemed no one could tell me what working at a liberal arts college would entail, except the potential risks: becoming irrelevant in the profession; slowing down on research; and, being at a disadvantage if I applied for an R1 job later on. I struggled to find role models and stories of sociologists who worked at liberal arts colleges, particularly those who remained productive as researchers and visible in the discipline. How could I justify accepting my current position without having attended or worked at a liberal arts college in the past? What made me think I was a SLACer at heart besides my college dreams as a naïve 18 year old?

Fortunately, I found a few blog posts that helped me to make my decision. I found that research actually does occur at liberal arts colleges! But, many of these stories and essays hinted that some scholars know deep down in their heart/soul/mind that they are a SLACer. I have to admit, I did not feel naturally inclined toward any particular career path, whether R1, liberal arts, or maybe even applied jobs. I applied to both liberal arts colleges and research-intensive universities, as I assumed most candidates did in this tough job market, and entertained the possibility of shifting to applied jobs if tenure-track positions did not pan out. It seemed that so much stock has been placed in a R1/liberal arts dichotomy, but I could not find a professor who was truly an R1er at heart.  Maybe most people follow the expected R1 path without questioning it, or accept other positions if an R1 job does not come along?

Personally, the R1/liberal arts distinction was an inaccurate way of categorizing job possibilities. I was pretty damn sure that working at an R1 meant continued mental health problems, feeling disconnected from the community and advocacy, and working in a cut-throat and competitive climate. But, I was open to an R1 job that would afford a sense of synergy between my teaching, research, and advocacy – the qualities that attracted me to my current position. And, I needed to be in a place that, at a minimum, would not force me to hide that I am a blogger. I doubt I would ever find a fitting R1 job, but I am also aware that not ever liberal arts job would be a good fit either. In other words, there are so many other factors that make up “fit” other than, or maybe even instead of, the R1/SLAC distinction. Ultimately, I made a relatively blind leap of faith, resigning myself to the possibility that this would be my mistake to make, if it were a mistake.

One Year Later

One year into my position, I am definitely content, and optimistic that I will love this job once the adjustment period ends. And, I lived happily ever after…

Well, not quite. The conciliation prize from my graduate department that, “ultimately it is your life,” has arrived. No one has questioned my decision to accept my current position since I began. Well, no one except for me. Every once in a while, I hear my advisors’ voices in my head (which, I heard jokingly stated as a goal of graduate training) saying, “you know, you could still ‘go R1.’” And, when the spring semester ended, and I turned my attention (almost) exclusively to research, those voices grew louder. That is, along side amplified anxiety about tenure expectations and fears that I would not maximize my first summer on the tenure-track.

Unlearning the R1 bias has been a slow process. That question, “are you sureeeeee????” has prevented me from fully appreciated my current position. I am at the start of what ideally will become a very productive research career – shouldn’t I be at an R1, then? Did I take the easy route? What will I miss out on from the R1 world? I hate it, and I am disappointed in myself for letting questions that are no longer asked externally to continue to bounce around in my head one year later.

One mid-summer day, I went for a hike alone. My partner and I had a silly fight; rather than resolving it, I fled to clear my head. I stopped to sit on a rock, either to pray or meditate or some combination of the two. The first thought that popped into my head was to resolve things with my partner. I was being silly and stubborn, wasting time away from rather than with him. Then, I asked, “please, once and for all, let me have some sort of sign that I am on the right (career) path.”

Since I have been so critical of my graduate school experience, am I a coward for choosing against an R1 career, in which I would mentor future scholars? Uh, I have had it with this doubt, and guilt, and bitterness! I opened my eyes, and decided to call my partner to reconcile things.

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

On my phone, I saw that I had an email from a grad student thanking me for my post, “More than R1,” and being a role model for her and other grad students who hope to pursue liberal arts careers. Wow. I had my answer. I can mentor grad students from anywhere; and, the bonus for me is being able to do so without the departmental constraints, norms, and traditions of a graduate training program. More importantly, if I finally conceded to the pressure to “go R1,” even if only self-imposed nowadays, I would be asking my partner to move and start his career over again. Since he is returning to school this fall, it would be incredibly selfish of me to interrupt his life (again) to appease the internalized R1 bias. There really are more important matters in life. I have a job that I like, in a place that I like.  Why the hell would I walk away from that, especially for a job that I already know will make me sick, dispassionate, and cranky?

So, I do not regret my decision. Unfortunately, I still carry some resentment that my search had to proceed as it did. But, I am working on relinquishing that resentment, and all of my bitterness from graduate school in general, to focus fully on appreciating this chapter of my life. I am fortunate to have a job, a good job, a job that I like. And, I do recognize that I received great training overall, which opened multiple doors to me. I hope, though, that graduate students are no longer pressured to pursue one career path over others, or feel that information about alternative paths is not available to them. We are overdue for becoming realistic about (and better prepare students for) the current job market, anyhow.

On Choosing The Right Job

Yes, you read that appropriately.  This post is about the process of choosing a job once one has finished graduate school.

In the years leading up to my job search, I heard all sorts of warnings about how difficult the job market would be.  The scariest, yet most sound advice was to acknowledge that at least 80 percent of what occurs during one’s job search is beyond one’s control.  At the start, even deciding to go on the market is a negotiation with one’s committee and department.  But, I stress that this, and subsequent decisions, should also involve the other committee members in one’s life: family and one’s gut.  And, ultimately, where you take a position should be an informed choice.

Number Of Offers ≠ Number Of Options

Once you are on the market, securing one job offer is a major feat; landing multiple offers is described by many is “luck.”

Say you only land one job offer, and it is something short of perfect or your dream job.  You can choose not to accept it.  Sure, others will probably say you are foolish to give up a job “in this market!?!”  If you have any reason to hesitate in accepting a job at that institution, it is worth really asking yourself — is there a chance you will need to look for a new job within a few years, or even immediately?  I know of some folks who have chosen this route, but I cannot fathom taking a position knowing I will need to go through the stress of a job search again.

So, what other options are there?  There are a number of good reasons not to accept a visiting position.  But, the alternative may be staying in graduate school another year, maybe even two or more if subsequent job searches do not go well.  With another year in hell grad school as an option, I went on the job market with fairly open preferences for a job; you couldn’t pay me (ha!) enough to stay longer than I did.

To be completely honest, the “oh no, I’ll never get a tenure-track job!” fear stayed at a tolerable level because I eventually decided that academic jobs were just one type of job.  Yes, I am make the blasphemous statement that there are jobs outside of academia, as well as some within it other than faculty positions.  I told myself that if I received no offers, I would continue my job search but in applied and non-profit positions.  I know that leaving academia immediately after graduate school would come with the possible feeling that I am better off, but also with other academics’ assumptions that I was less committed.  (Oh, there are so many ways we jump from life decision — get married, have a baby, take something other than an R1 job — to assumptions about one’s commitment to the academy.)  Though I have seen some return to academia after some years working outside of it, the myth is that one will never be able to return (probably because of the aforementioned assumptions about commitment).

All of this is to say that I am troubled by the pressure to accept the sole tenure-track job offer one receives.  It is a job then, but it may mean a few unhappy years.  It is important to think about the long-term consequences of something that seems “better” today.

What if you have two or more offers?  Good for you!  Having one, or even none, is still no signal that one is not competent, or ready, or worthy of a job.  But, for the job search itself, it is nice to have two or more to choose from.  The aforementioned advice about considering alternative careers, or not even accepting a job, still apply here — even if you have 10 offers.  If/when you accept an academic position, it should be because you are absolutely certain that you want it, not because it is the expected outcome of graduate school.

A Few Things To Consider

Below, I offer some tips that may be useful as you weigh your options — even if you only have one offer.

Do Some Soul-Searching

If you have yet to sit down with yourself to make a job wish list — what are your wants and what are your must-haves in a job — do so before you accept an offer.  And, even if you have at earlier stages in the job search, I would encourage doing so again.

During my job search, I experienced great pressure to follow the path that was chosen assumed for me.  During the window I was given to accept the offer with University of Richmond, I went on an interview at a research-intensive university in the Midwest and was called with another interview invitation for a top-ranked program in the South.  I knew in my gut that UR would be a great place for me.  It was an offer I would accept if it was the lone job offer or one of many.  But, I had to revisit the wish list and some personal journaling to ignore all of the external (and internalized) pressure to “go R1.”

Contextualize Advice

When I began receiving advice that was so far afield of my interests, passions, and personal needs, I felt as though I wanted to shut my eyes and close my ears to concentrate on what my internal adviser was telling me.  This is not to say that others’ advice was bad or even malicious.  But, I had to remind myself that much of it was based either on an inaccurate or incomplete picture of who I am, and some is either standard advice (“go R1!”) or self-centered advice.

Unfortunately, so much advice presumes a certain commitment to academia, one that is uncomplicated when you are not disadvantaged in some way.  For example, telling people to take a job in North Dakota, either because it is a great school or one’s only offer, ignores that some people — especially queer people, people of color — may be miserable in such a place.

Do Your Research

While most who will offer advice have good intentions, the onus to make an informed decision falls on you.  The most work I had to do was to figure out what the heck liberal arts jobs really were.  Funny, most of the people telling me to “go R1!” have only been at research-intensive universities.  Thus, they are not really in a position to tell me what liberal arts jobs would be like.  I had to contact friends and colleagues who were actually in faculty positions at liberal arts colleges, and scour the internet for information and personal reflections on the differences from positions at research universities.  One of the most helpful reflections I read was “Are You A SLACer?” over at Memoirs of a SLACer.

On my interview with UR, my future colleagues were honest, yet positive about faculty life.  But, I supplemented those conversations with some investigative work.  I looked through the student newspaper, documented history of the university, and students’ personal reflections and ratings on the university (e.g., U.S. News & World Report).  I looked for specific things — the campus climate and institutional support for people of color and queer people.  Like any place, I saw a few concerning events in the not-so-distant past, and grumblings about the historical lack of racial and ethnic diversity.  But, I was impressed by the recent, intense shift toward greater inclusion.  For my other options, I saw enough of a concern that I had major reservations about accepting a position there.

Interview Them

It is crucially important in assessing whether a job is right for you that you treat a job interview as as though you are a potential buyer.  As I said, even if you receive one offer, you should think long-term about how the university fits in your life and career.  It is a potential employer’s job to sell the job to you, too.  A place that does not attempt to sell itself is either riding on its prestige (“you know you want me”) and/or may not be a place worth considering.  (Personal aside: I don’t care how big your di… *ahem* I am not status-obsessed enough to be impressed by prestige alone.)

I was particularly impressed with UR because parts of the visit were clearly tailored to my interests — namely meeting with staff/faculty involved with diversity programming on campus, and community-based research and teaching.  Not only were my future colleagues showing me that I could fit (resources, initiatives, climate), but that they also cared and celebrated the unique aspects of my scholarship.  Once I started, and slowly let down my guard, I have found they think quite highly of my blogging.  Hello, perfect job!

Observe And Take Notes

As an academic, you have skills to observe, critique, listen, connect dots, etc.  In your hunger for a job, do not turn off these skills during the interview and negotiation phases.  Observe interactions among faculty, especially across power lines: senior to junior faculty, privileged faculty to marginalized faculty (e.g., whites to colleagues of color), and vice versa.  Observe how faculty and administrators interact, or at least how they seem to talk about one another.  Observe how faculty interact with staff, especially the department’s administrative staff.  Observe how faculty interact, or talk about one another, across departments and colleges.  And, observe student-faculty interaction.

Of course, try to treat how students, staff, faculty, and administrators interact with you as participant observation.  Do not rush to either demonize or justify unusual interactions — at least until once you have enough information to assess the whole university and department.

Red Flags: On one campus interview, there were several red flags for me.  A few off-handed remarks were made by faculty that suggested they thought little of their students.  And, I was told outright community service was for post-tenure.  But, the sirens really went off when faculty either noted first-hand experience, or hearing about others’ experiences, with discrimination and exclusion.  I do not know if they assumed they were doing what is right by being completely honest, or maybe figured I could understand given my own research on discrimination.

In interactions with another school, faculty stressed so hard how diverse and accepting the college is — but it felt as though they were trying to convince themselves more than me.  Via a phone interview for a joint position, it was quite obvious the two departments had different visions of what the job entailed, and there seemed to be little connection across departmental lines.  Whether the departments themselves saw these as problems is important, too; but, that these problems exist was enough for me to be wary of taking job in these departments.

Personal Fit:  I also noticed varying levels of closeness among faculty.  On one visit, there were strong friendships among the faculty, but mostly among junior faculty; it seemed the senior faculty were on the margins of the department.  Ironically, the appeal for UR was that faculty have strong professional relationships, but have their independent lives after hours.  As the chair described it, the department is more like family than friends.  I was surprised that this was appealing to me, but now realize it was the promise of not having colleagues in my personal business.  I am free to make personal connections as I wish, and share the personal aspects of my life I feel comfortable sharing at work.  The supposed collegial, yet high-school-like microcosm that was graduate school has led me to appreciate leaving work at work and home at home.

Also, I took note of how relaxed or stressed faculty seemed.  Some of the most wound-up academics I know can easily dissolve into a monologue rant about all of their upcoming deadlines.  The flip-side is being carefree because one is working at a leisurely pace.  The strength for UR over my other options was that my future colleagues appeared to work hard, but at a pace and within a climate that did not mandate 24/7 stress and anxiety.

Others’ Advice

Remember, this is just a job.  You should chose one that serves your goals.  I am well aware that this is simply my perspective and experience speaking, so you may find others’ advice useful, too.

More Than R1: Why I Chose A Liberal Arts Job

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.

Pre-Market Reflection

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.

Diving In

“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.

Preliminary Interviews

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.

On-Campus Interviews

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.”

The Aftermath

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?!

Lake

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.