Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Academic Job Search

There are so many books on the Internet about how to handle every single aspect of the incredibly painful and absolutely interminable process of looking for an academic position. Some of them offer extremely detailed accounts of everything you should or should not do to succeed in the search. They provide lists of hundreds of questions that you might be asked and give suggestions about what you should answer. They tell you how to dress, how to act, what questions to ask, what information to provide, and so on.

Even though the desperate candidates love acquiring these books for the sense of psychological comfort they offer, the only good advice I can give is: Forget about it! Studying these publications and following their advice offers us a false sense of having some degree of control over the process. It is very comforting on the emotional level but it is based on an illusion. Remember one thing: we have no control whatsoever over the job search. None. The candidate selection is neither reasonable nor logical. It cannot be understood on a rational level. Any attempt to analyze how it actually works will leave you frustrated and doubting your own mental capacities.

So these are some of the things that I have experienced personally in the job search process:

1. There was a position that I was absolutely perfect for, even to the point of specializing in all 6 precisely defined narrow areas of expertise specified in the job posting. I was not contacted for that position, not even for a preliminary interview. Then I saw an opening in an area completely different from mine and applied for it out of sheer desperation. The next time I heard from the university in question was when I received a contract ready for me to sign. I had not spoken to anybody from that school prior to receiving the job offer.

2. Phone interviews: You might prepare for a phone interview for weeks, read the books and articles of people who will interview you, do brilliantly at an interview and get rejected. You might forget who the interview is supposed to be with and fail to answer most of the questions - and end up being asked for a campus visit.

3. As for the campus visits, as we all know, the amount of stress, hard work and sacrifice that normally goes into them is immense. We kill ourselves to prepare the perfect class and the perfect job talk. We buy clothes we cannot afford to make a good impression on the prospective employers. The results, however, are absolutely unpredictable.

There was a campus visit that I thought went perfectly. I did all I could to impress the people at the department in question. And I thought that I succeeded. Then, they chose someone else for the job and rejected me in a pretty rude fashion.

My next campus visit was a disaster. The class I had to teach was the worst I have ever done. I basically ended up teaching (or, rather, trying to teach) some material that I had never seen before. I ran out of exercises 40 minutes before the end of class. The job talk was miserable. Nobody in the audience had the slightest idea what I was talking about. The question and answer session that I had with members of the department was even worse. I was tired and indifferent and basically refused to answer the last portion of the questions. The concluding part of the visit consisted of me responding to everybody's comments with grunts or monosyllabic answers. The result? They decided that I was perfect for them.

The only conclusion I can draw after going on the job market for two consecutive years is: relax, don't try too hard, and it is entirely possible that your worst effort will provide you with your best result.

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