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Friday, 07 December 2007

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tomemos

"Those of you who land interviews, campus visits and offer sheets? You are no more deserving of them than anyone else on the market."

Self-evidently false.

Jonathan Dresner

There are things you can do that will hurt your chances -- dumb mistakes in cover letters, getting drunk at "meet the candidate" events, getting recommendation letters from punitive but prominent bastards -- and things you can do that will help -- tailoring the letter/cv/materials, being honest about your record, getting letters from people you trust, doing good work, prepping the job talk/teaching demo, scheduling conference interviews early in the day -- but you're right that there is a huge element of "matching" and seemingly random elements.

Luck helps, though it favors the prepared.

Adam Kotsko

There's something wrong with this post, and I can't quite articulate it.

Mikhail Emelianov

jonathan, i think that, of course, there are things you can do to improve your chances, but they are still "chances" nonetheless, it seems (i think this comment is sufficiently "anti-intellectualist," wouldn't you say Herr Kotsko?)

tomemos

Mikhail, you can say the same thing about any accomplishment--getting any job, getting into college or grad school, getting a book published. There's no such thing as a pure meritocracy, but this post tells people not to be proud of their accomplishments at all, in fact denies that they're accomplishments at all, which is snotty and also nonsensical. This post annoyed me more than anything I've read in a long time.

SEK

Tomemos, I'm not on the market this year, so this has nothing to do with me personally -- hence, no intended and/or personal snottiness. My point is that for the most part, all the candidates out there have accomplished much the same thing. Yes, some may be more well published than others ... but we all know that publishing in academia's more about who you know than how qualified you are. And yes, some people may have attended a more prestigious institution, or won a more prestigious post-doc than others ... but we all know that where you go to grad school and what post-docs you win have more to do with who you know than how qualified you are. Look, I say this as someone who's been the beneficiary of this nominally meritocratic system: I shouldn't be here in the first place, and I recognize that. I lucked into the status I've "earned," and I'm not going to tell absolutely qualified, brilliant people that they're not getting jobs because their CV's inherently flawed.

I've had enough of praising the lucky for the luck. There's no method to the madness of the market, and once we accept that, we'll all be much happier. If we strike out our first time up, well, it's not because we 1) don't belong in academia, 2) never belonged in academia or 3) faked our way through academia ... it's because our stars didn't align. We didn't have the right committee overseeing these job searches. It's because we mistakenly tried to tackle some fashionable author when this committee wanted a traditionalist ... or that we took a traditionalist approach when this committee wanted the latest-and-greatest.

Really, I'm not telling people not to proud of their "accomplishments" ... I'm merely saying that what they accomplished was the successful completion of their Ph.D. As someone who paid his filing fee this morning and will earn his doctorate come Winter's end, I'm in total agreement with you. I busted my ass for this degree, and I'm damn proud of it.

BUT!

I don't think it entitles me to a job when the market's as random as it is. I certainly think I do good work. I'm certainly proud of my accomplishments ... but that doesn't mean I deserve a job, and I think it's healthier for everyone, those who land jobs an those who don't, to depersonalize the process, to recognize that their "qualifications" for a certain position are as random as the stars aligning this or that way.

So yes, this post should annoy you -- not because you're you, because, as you well know, I like you -- but because the system to which we entrust our future is as reliable as a roulette wheel. Don't believe me? How about Eric Rauchway? [Edited so as to not be such a brat.] Granted, I wrote this not to annoy, but to deflate those who hit LUCKY RED LUCKY RED LUCKY RED and then think they deserve their "victory" ... because they had enough cash to enter a bid. Thing is, we all have enough green to step to the table, but that doesn't mean the winner's any more deserving than the losers. That's my point.

Not sure how that's snotty ... unless I've mixed my anti-snottiness with some confidence, which means the dilithium crystals are fixing to bust ...

Stephen

Scott, your argument makes some sense in terms of a particular university's choice between the three candidates who make it to a campus visit. But in terms of the overall job search I don't think it works. The idea that the job market is entirely random is just as debilitating as the idea that it is a perfectly accurate reflection of your talents and accomplishments. While there's nothing you can do to guarantee that you will get a job, there are many things you can do to improve your chances - i.e., peer-refereed publications (which most definitely do not depend on who you know), having your dissertation in hand when you apply, the quality of your letter, your level of preparation for interviews, etc. Getting interviews is a sign that people out there think that you're a reasonable candidate. Getting no interviews is definitely not a sign that you're a bad scholar. But it is a sign that you need to beef up your qualifications before hitting the job market next year.

Jonathan Dresner

I was mostly with you, Scott, but I'm going to have to take exception to this comment on a couple of grounds. (with the caveat that we may be talking past each other entirely, since I'm looking at the field of history, especially Asian history, and you're looking at the field of American literature)

First, a lot of the people who get "lucky" in this business do so because they do more than the minimum, and show the committees that they have the potential to grow into the jobs (the requirements of which often have little to do with the skills we've acquired in attaining our "accomplishments"). There are differences in quality between candidates -- I've been in on a half dozen or more searches, some of which had over a hundred candidates, in both history and writing/rhetoric -- some of which are under the control of the candidates themselves.

Second, I've never gotten anywhere because of "who I know," unless the person recommending me knew that I was good at what I was proposing to do -- my recommenders and contacts know plenty of smart and productive people, and have no reason to say anything nice about me if it isn't true -- and I could actually produce what I said I would. My publications weren't referreed by friends (boy, you can say that again); my national meeting panel proposals weren't accepted by friends; none of the people who've offered me jobs are "friends of friends" (unless they're keeping it secret).

I understand that you're trying to be comforting to people who deserve comfort: there are more qualified applicants than jobs in most fields these days, and job ads never really tell you the whole story about what factors are going to go into selecting short lists. That does not mean that the people who get interviews don't deserve them, just that they don't necessarily deserve them more than some of the people who didn't get them; similarly for every stage in the process. There is always slippage, error, cronyism, system-gaming, brown-nosing. But to tar everyone with that brush is simple sour grapes.

tomemos

"Tomemos, I'm not on the market this year, so this has nothing to do with me personally…"

I know that. My assessment stands. Telling people who have just achieved success (in any field, not just the academy) that their accomplishments are no no better than anyone else's, that they lucked into their success, is snotty. Stating that new hires have nothing to be proud of aside from their Ph.D.s (you must know that some dissertations are better than others) is a petty thing to say to people who have worked hard for success and finally achieved it. Even the way you put it is snide: putting "triumph" in quotes, implying that the successful are conceited ("I know you're thrilled by the very thought of your own deservedness"). I took some time away from the keyboard, I came back, I looked at it again, and I felt the same way. It's simply an obnoxious way of making a point that isn't correct anyway.

"I'm not going to tell absolutely qualified, brilliant people that they're not getting jobs because their CV's inherently flawed."

Come on, Scott; that is such a straw man that it makes me wonder why we're having this conversation. We are not talking about the people who didn't get jobs, we're talking about those who did. It's obvious (but still worth saying, especially in this individual case) that there are not nearly enough jobs for all qualified people, and so it doesn't necessarily mean anything if you didn't get any responses. It's perfectly fine to remind the lucky ones (and yes, they are partly lucky) that there are other people who could have gotten there instead; nothing wrong with a little humility. What you're doing here is stating that merit simply makes no difference, which is hyperbolic, irrational and, as another commenter said, sour grapes (even if it's on someone else's behalf). I don't like "the system" either, but it makes no sense to distort the truth of it and denigrate those who have succeeded just to make someone feel better.

Rich Puchalsky

People are going to have a difficult time believing that merit doesn't enter into the process. First, I would guess that anyone who's observed people doing skilled jobs has probably observed that there is a wide range of ability among qualified workers in those jobs. If that's so in academia, then the hiring process has to be completely blind to it to be random. Each individual interaction with the hiring process could be almost entirely determined by random factors (or those not dependent on the applicant, actually), but with enough trials, differences in ability should become apparent.

So people don't like attempts to cheer them up in this way. I suggest that instead you give maximally evil advice, and let everyone be cheered up by getting mad at you. Something like:

If you apply for many jobs and don't get one, you suck. Do something else. If you get a job and believe you deserve it, you're a jerk and will go far, until that inevitable moment later on when you realize that you've been a jerk your entire life. If you get a job and don't believe you deserve it, you're a sad sack and you might as well quit now before you hang on by the skin of your teeth for years and then inevitably self-sabotage yourself. The only way to avoid these three possibilities is through unremitting apathy, which of course will not get you a job, but which will let you feel virtuous as you sleep in your parents' basement.

Karl Steel

I don't mind being denigrated if that's indeed what's happening. I'm looking out from within the first semester of a new TT job, and a PhD that I received about 6 weeks ago, and I know that I'm here in part because of who I know (it's unlikely I would have advanced from my MA at WWU to my PhD at Columbia without careful networking in my WWU department), I know that at least one of my forthcoming pubs is due to talking to the right people, and I know that what I attention I've received is in part because I deliberately chose a diss topic on a hot new subfield. These are the elements that aren't chance. Certainly if I stress chance too much I'm engaging in a bit of impostor syndrome, and certainly I can't disentangle perfectly the relationship between chance and merit (knowing to seize opportunity by the forelock and all that), but with all that firmly in mind, I also know that chance matters a great deal in my getting the job I have (and in not getting the other jobs I didn't get (being a goldang fool and being simply unqualified at times also plays a role there)).

For instance: after determining who would be interviewing me at Brooklyn College, I looked everyone up. I learned that the medievalist, my now colleague and friend Nicola Masciandaro, is a big metalhead. I'm a fan of metal, too (among other things), so I made a point of working Bolt Thrower into conversation at one point. This might have sealed the deal. Who knows?

I'm remembering, by the way, what Scott wrote when it was announced on my blog purlieu that I got a job:
Karl Steel said...

and I should say vis-a-vis "deserving": no more than others. I'm happy to be where I am, but I've no illusions about having won the position through my superior, haha, medieval skills. It saddens me to have won because the market wrecks so many equally (at least!) deserving scholars. More luck to them!
5:58 PM
Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Bah, revel in the deservedness now, fret about the others later. The whole process is a crap shoot, yes -- a friend of mine with three major publications (American Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, PMLA), excellent evaluations, and who just so happens to be a charming individual got eight interviews but no bites -- but the thing of it is, it's not as if the people who got the jobs he interviewed for aren't deserving. Pity not the (present and, in my own case, likely future) wanderers, as they'll land somewhere someday; instead, revel in the fact that you had capital enough to step to the table, and that you earned yourself a job.
....
Karl Steel said...


SEK: I also had 8 MLA interviews, only one call back, which (to borrow a metaphor from ALK) came up stillborn. Then the Brooklyn job announcement popped up in Jan and the job itself more or less sprang itself on me during a few weeks of grimness. If I needed a reminder of the randomness of this process, that was it.

Pity not the...wanderers, as they'll land somewhere someday

Not pity. I'm just worried about them. CU had 3 medievalists go out this year, and the best one, so far as I'm concerned, didn't get a job. Bizarre. But good lord: a PMLA article + 2 more isn't enough? It's just so distressing. And the certainty that quality will win out: sounds a bit libertarian to me, or, at least, sounds like a sensible world, and I don't truck with any such system.


Adam Kotsko

I've had several articles make it through peer review, and I'm not a great networker. Indeed, even if I were, the copy of the paper that they send to the reviewer doesn't have my name or institutional affiliation on it.

And lest we think that the journal editors "know who I am," it is almost uniformly the case that they address me as "Dr. Kotsko" in correspondance -- a key indicator that they are not fully apprised of my status, which makes sense given that they don't require you to send in a CV.

Also, at the one journal where I do know the editors, I've had stuff turned down.

The statistical chance of my publishing multiple articles in the absolutely corrupt system you describe is approximately zero. Hence I conclude that perhaps the system you describe doesn't exist.

Aaron

It seems like there’s a problem here stemming from the unqualified use of the word “random.” A good chaos theoretician (if such a thing exists) might have something to say about the difference between “random” and “so incredibly over determined as to defy either explanation or rational planning,” which is precisely not random. Saying that we don’t have the ability to really control whether we get call backs, because there are simply too many factors to track, is not the same thing as assuming the result is really random (if we could know all the data, like the metal-preference example, then we might actually be able to control the result). Just because we can’t doesn’t mean the result is really random, any more than a hurricane is vis the proverbial butterfly wing. But good luck trying to predict one!

hylonome

To say the system is human is not the same thing as saying the system is absolutely corrupt. I think it was a mistake to lump publishing in the same category with the job market, for the simple reason that journals vary widely in their acceptance policies. Lots of highly respected journals don't have blind submission which means, indeed, that who you are and where you're from can matter a great deal.

By definition, however, the search process is precisely about these particulars that some journals bracket. And, again by definition, this means that searches are flawed and human and arbitrary. I think it's useful to remind both the distraught and the triumphant that this is the case. Perhaps you need to be excellent to get on the playing field, to move from a single interview to a dozen, but after that, who knows? For what it's worth, I think the only way to get through it all is with kindness, but then again I didn't get the job everyone thought I was *supposed* to get.

JPool

My problem with this post is more basic.

They're now beautiful and unique snowflakes whose true value has been finally been recognized!

I don't know these people. Everyone I know who's landed a job, or for that matter an on-campus interview their first time out, has been exceedingly humble about their accomplishments, no matter how power-of-positive-thinking they've been about the job search up to then.

Karl Steel

“so incredibly over determined as to defy either explanation or rational planning,” which is precisely not random.

thanks, good point

SEK

I should begin at the end, with JPool's comment:

Everyone I know who's landed a job, or for that matter an on-campus interview their first time out, has been exceedingly humble about their accomplishments, no matter how power-of-positive-thinking they've been about the job search up to then.

This response was only partly to Sisyphus -- it's also the result of weeks of annoyance with people on a particular listserv who have been announcing their interviews as they get them, keeping a tally of them in their autosigs, &c. These aren't genuinely bad people; they're desperate, insecure people misplacing their enthusiasm and making other desperate, insecure people feel even more desperate and insecure.

Aaron:

Saying that we don’t have the ability to really control whether we get call backs, because there are simply too many factors to track, is not the same thing as assuming the result is really random (if we could know all the data, like the metal-preference example, then we might actually be able to control the result).

Beautifully put, and absolutely correct. The process is overdetermined, not underdetermined. From the ground, the situations seem the same. This is why the idea that's cropped up a few times -- that while you can't control your chances, you can increase the odds of a good roll -- deserves more attention than I paid it. Yes, the more publications you have, and the better the venue, the more likely you are to land an interview. Goes without saying. But then there are all the stories you hear about the person with no publications who landed a sweet job through what seems to be a random alignment of the stars -- something certainly happened behind the scenes, but we can't be sure what it was, and we certainly shouldn't attempt and/or think we can replicate it.

(I'll note here that a few of the big blogger academics have admitted as much, i.e. that they were shocked that they landed one interview, that it went poorly, that they were brought for a campus visit and, againt all odds, won the position they shouldn't have even been in the running for.)

This (not the parenthetical part, but the previous paragraph) speaks to Jonathan's point above:

a lot of the people who get "lucky" in this business do so because they do more than the minimum, and show the committees that they have the potential to grow into the jobs

I wholeheartedly agree: to the extent that you control anything, you make your own luck. The thing is, there's quite a bit of luck out there being made -- nay, being mass-produced by the hundreds of people vying for those fifteen TT jobs. Even if you limit the pool of qualified applicants to those who've made their own luck, you still leave a lot of talented, hard-working people in the cold.

I've never gotten anywhere because of "who I know," unless the person recommending me knew that I was good at what I was proposing to do -- my recommenders and contacts know plenty of smart and productive people, and have no reason to say anything nice about me if it isn't true -- and I could actually produce what I said I would.

Certainly, certainly true -- your connections come with the luck you make. But the cultivation of those connections -- the production of the work they said you could produce -- doesn't mitigate the fact that you still have them. Another way of putting it: earning your way into Harvard still puts you at Harvard, and as Karl's admitted concerning his time at Columbia, connections worked to put him into that particular Ivy network. He earned his luck too -- though where he found the music tastes of his potential colleague intrigues me -- but being at Columbia in the first place, having that particular back-channel, not to mention that imprimatur, helped grease the wheel of chance.

And before anyone asks, I'm not denigrating those who have or earned connections. It took connections to get me into UCI -- Pat McGee's behind-the-scenes aid was invaluable -- and I'll be leaving with some nice connections, some of which I've earned through merit, others through blogging.

Adam and Hylonome:

You're right, I shouldn't have lumped publication in with job market stuff. The two obviously aren't unrelated (inasmuch as one undergirds the other), but the process of acceptance isn't comparable.

Rich:

People are going to have a difficult time believing that merit doesn't enter into the process.

It certainly does, but not nearly so much as people think. We can all rattle off a list of candidates who would, were merit a serious deciding factor, have 20 interviews and have to choose between available jobs. (The first person on my list is up there disagreeing with me.)

adjunct whore

this has been a really interesting thread to read--i guess my only question is why undermine those people who by some miracle squeak through? why not, rather, focus on trying to explain the conditions in the academy (ala mark bousquet's astute analysis of the system working perfectly) that have led to so many underemployed or unemployed ph.d.'s in the humanities?

it does seem strange to feed the collective neuroses by suggesting that a)your accomplishments matter little; b) cronyism is more responsible than not; c)any decent intellectual would feel awful for having a job when so many do not.

maybe i'm not as connected as you are, maybe many are not, but these things don't seem to come into play in my world all that much. and by my world, i include quite a number of people without ivy degrees, mostly public university degrees and jobs.

i appreciate the gesture in pointing out the many conditions of hiring/interview committees invisible to those not sitting on them; i'm just not sure blaming the lucky is prodcutive or even accurate.

tomemos

It's the absolutism that make this fall apart, Scott. You didn't say that applications are largely about luck--which would be hard to dispute--but rather than it's wholly a matter of luck: "a game of chance," "roulette." (At first I thought you might be hyperbolizing, but you repeated the roulette reference in comments.) If this were really true, then people would be wasting their time trying to improve their dissertations; they should instead be writing cover letters, applying to as many places as possible because statistically they'll make it eventually. Or they should be out schmoozing: the more contacts they make, the better the odds that one will come through for them on the market. Actually perfecting your academic work would make no difference in getting an academic job.

Of course, just because what I've just described is unpleasant to contemplate, doesn't mean it's not true. But an extreme claim like that requires pretty strong evidence. The people I know who have gotten jobs (admittedly, a small sample) have generally been among the hardest-working grads I've known, the ones who I strongly suspected would succeed. For the most part, the inverse isn't true of those who haven't yet gotten jobs, but again, that's different from what you said, which is that those who have gotten jobs aren't at all distinguished from any of their fellow applicants.

SEK

adjunct whore:

i guess my only question is why undermine those people who by some miracle squeak through?

I'm not undermining them so much as reminding them of the equally qualified candidates who weren't as lucky. (I mean, I don't think Karl felt like I attacked him, nor should he.)

it does seem strange to feed the collective neuroses by suggesting that a) your accomplishments matter little; b) cronyism is more responsible than not; c) any decent intellectual would feel awful for having a job when so many do not.

The impression I've gotten from people who've landed jobs is that all of this stuff is visible from the other side. It's not cronyism per se, but I know that emails of support for a particular candidate are launched through back-channels, and I know those emails significantly alter the market. Obviously, you want to produce the strongest work possible, but the strength of your work only matters if it's read closely and carefully, and if a committee member's predisposed to read it charitably, &c.

Tomemos:

You didn't say that applications are largely about luck--which would be hard to dispute--but rather than it's wholly a matter of luck: "a game of chance," "roulette." (At first I thought you might be hyperbolizing, but you repeated the roulette reference in comments.)

And then I revoked it after Adam's comment: it's not random, it's overdetermined in unknowable ways.

Actually perfecting your academic work would make no difference in getting an academic job.

I'm not saying it makes no difference, only that it might not make as much of a difference as we like to think. Many factors intrude here -- from the fact that our published material might not represent our best work, or may have edited poorly by the journal post-acceptance, &c. -- but I don't think you can say that the person with the best dissertation gets the best job. Strength of work is but another unknowable factor in our fate -- and this assumes that there's some sort of consensus for what qualifies as "strong work." A Lacanian would find my work weak, inasmuch as I don't mention Lacan or venture readings under the aegis of Lacanian thought. I can easily imagine a situation in which two psychoanalytic-inclined/historicists/&c. critics end up on a search committee. With such variable definitions of strength, there's room for impressive confusion as to what constitutes quality.

If this were really true, then people would be wasting their time trying to improve their dissertations; they should instead be writing cover letters, applying to as many places as possible because statistically they'll make it eventually. Or they should be out schmoozing: the more contacts they make, the better the odds that one will come through for them on the market.

Rauchway's "Do Thy Homework" post addresses this wonderfully: yes, you should be endlessly revising your cover letter; yes, you should familiarize yourself with the members of the department you're applying to so that you might better schmooze during the interview; &c. All of these things are essential to getting a job, and none of them has anything to do with the quality of your work. (Although your ability to research what you need to know to properly schmooze certainly indicates something about your commitment, scholarly and otherwise.)

All of which is only to say: yes, I obviously pushed the counter-intuitive position as hard as I possibly could. I did so on purpose, but not merely for rhetorical effect: I sincerely believe that the quality of your work doesn't correlate with your success/failure on the job market. I've seen too many truly talented people turn adjuncts, and too many marginal talents land jobs their first time out. I don't begrudge them -- I fall on the hard-worker/marginal-talent side of the spectrum -- but it's important to remember that factors beyond your control are equally responsible for "your" success on the market. You do what you can to stack the deck, but in the end, you don't know the house rules, or even what game you're playing ...

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