The Media Studies Job Market, 1: Intro & A Warning

Jonathan Gray's picture

So, I’ve decided to write a series of posts with advice and comments on the whole process of the media studies job market. Sorry to any non-academic readers, but since I don’t think I have any readers anyways, I’m not too concerned!

Why? Well, there’s a dearth of good advice out there (for a major, lovely exception, see Jonathan Sterne’s site here). The main site seems to be the job search wiki, which while an at-times great source for updates, can also be populated by some bad eggs who post misinformation or speculation on how search committees work, masked as authoritative. Understandably, too, a lot of the posting on the wiki is motivated by fear, anxiety, and anger, and hence doesn’t always see the forest through the trees.

I’m also feeling the job season right now. I finished my Ph.D. in 2003, and almost every year since 2002 until last year, August meant one thing – pouring over Chronicle job listings, white with fear that it’d be another bad year, and playing a stressful game of alternate worlds in which I imagine what my life would be like in a variety of different university towns and cities. But here I am in my second year at Wisconsin, and since I love it here, I ain’t applying for anything. It’s so blissfully wonderful to be off the market … and yet since it’s that time of the year, and the fear and stress is emblazoned upon me by now, I find myself thinking about the market a lot.

Pardon the long intro, but before I begin, let me fill in some background, so you know where I’m coming from. I’ve probably applied for 40 jobs in total over the years (20 when I was a PhD student, and I’m guessing 20 since). I’ve had 7 on-campus interviews, with 3 job offers, 3 rejections, and 1 case in which I accepted another job before the decision was made. I’ve also served on 3 search committees officially, and “advised” in 2 other cases. I write from the experience of someone who has had some interviews, some good, some obviously not so much, and I’ve done some interviewing. But I’m not claiming to be an expert. These are simply my opinions, and I sincerely hope that others who’ve applied for jobs and who’ve been on search committees will chime in with their own opinions, even if and especially when they differ from my own. Don’t take anything I say as gospel – it’s just me pontificating.

Three more opening disclaimers and requests, then down to business after the fold:

First, as said, these are my opinions. I will no doubt be on search committees in the future. These posts should not be regarded as the strategic dispersal of information by those committees. Nor should anyone make the mistake of thinking that simply because I feel this way that the committee on which I sit agrees. This ain’t MCS at Wisconsin speaking, in other words.

Second, there is already a site for nasty recriminations and venting and anger – the venting page on the wiki. I don’t want the comments section here to turn into the same, and if they do, I will shamelessly delete or block responses. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that I agree with how things are, either. I’m trying to give advice, which means dealing with the system as it is, not envisioning how it could improve or change.

Third, by all means ask questions. Or answer them. Especially for those attempting the latter, if possible do post with your real name – anonymity may be required in some instances, but your name could also help readers contextualize what’s being said.

Thus, without further ado, I’ll begin with this:

1) A Warning to Those New to the Market

If you don’t know already, being on the market sucks. There are some fun and exciting parts to it, namely the rush of seeing postings in your precise area, learning that cool schools want people, hopefully meeting other people, finally getting a chance to think beyond your current project and tell people about your next one, the anticipation of getting a real salary or a better one and/or a better living situation, and joining the fraternity of fellow applicants. But it’s also very hard.

It’s really hard on your self-esteem. It’s very common for universities to not even bother to let you know you didn’t get a job. Some will do so even when you’ve been shortlisted and had a campus interview (and some don’t even tell those who they invite for interviews. Dante’s Hell wouldn’t even allow them, they’re such vile creatures). You’ll see postings from universities that you think are bad, but you’ll suck it up and apply, only to never hear from them, leading to the inevitable neurotic thought, “I’m not even good enough for Big Dave’s State University?” You’ll wonder if what you’re working on is stupid, as a result, if you’re just not doing work that matters, and if your cover letter somehow shows you up as an ass.

It’s really hard on your nerves. Very few other jobs are so patently absurd in delaying and drawing out decisions, meaning that you may well be waiting multiple months to hear even a hint of where your application stands at any given place. Most jobs happen at different speeds, too, meaning that if you’re lucky enough to get traction somewhere, you’ll agonize over the likelihood that you’ll need to make a decision before all your options are clear. And worst of all, you’ll spend weeks imagining what life would be like in an assortment of different places, enough to become emotionally attached to some of those possible lives of yours, only for many of them to be killed on the vine. This latter process is all the worse if you’re not single, since some places will be ideal for your partner or kids, some horrible, and you’ll curse your selfishness for applying to some places, and/or your inability to seal the deal with those ones that would’ve been ideal.

It’s really hard on productivity. Don’t think that you’re going to be productive while on the market, since the angst will likely drag you down. You’ll spend your days waiting for news, clicking refresh on the wiki and various job search sites, agonizing, etc. When I was finishing my Ph.D. in the UK and applying to jobs in the US, I did my best work before 2pm, since that was 9am Eastern Time, after which I’d be waiting for phones to ring. Even when you do sit down to work, the self-esteem issues brought on by the market could make you second guess what you’re writing.

So how to cope?

First, don’t go to the dark side. You’ll need to vent to someone, but limit the list of people to whom you vent, so that you don’t become Mr. or Mrs. Poopy Pants. Depts like to hire upbeat, energetic people, not downtrodden, nasty trolls, and ours is a small enough field that word of your attitude may travel far and wide without you knowing it, so you might as well benefit from good word of mouth.

Second, don’t isolate yourself. Keeping your self-esteem up is important. Going to conferences when you’re in your final year is said to be important for networking, and it is, but that networking may occur less at the level of you meeting Dr. I Have a Job For You, and more at the level of meeting Dr. Wow I Love Your Work, or Your Work Sounds Awesome, ABD, both of whom may be instrumental in keeping your spirits up. But be sure to talk to others, too, not just endlessly about how the market sucks this year, but also about what you do, what your diss. is about, etc., so that you retain perspective on why you’re going through all this, and what it is about academia that you love.

Third, think of it like dating. Because at root, the market is a lot like dating. Sometimes you think someone else is awesome, but they don’t even know you exist. Sometimes people dump you and you don’t know why. Sometimes the dumping will make you pine and howl and feel crappy. You may even want to call the person up and ask what you did wrong and how you can change. But it’s likely just a chemistry thing. You might even think the other person just doesn’t see the chemistry that you do. That may be true. But you have to move on. Don’t dwell. Find a way to pick yourself up and get ready for the next one. And keep sight of who you are – some ex’s may hate that you do X, but your eventual lifelong partner may love it, so while of course you should be self-aware (“hmmmm … I wonder if constantly telling my date I think they’re really ugly has something to do with them not wanting to go out again?”), don’t overdo the “what did I do wrong?” latenight thoughts, since many decisions have nothing to do with you.

Indeed, and fourth, this is the key point. Let’s repeat it. Many decisions have nothing to do with you. Some committees have unspoken mandates. Some have inside candidates (though, as we’ll discuss later, not as many as you may think). Some are stupid, don’t know what’s good for them, and are bound to pick a loser, or simply at random. Some committee members are too busy to bother looking at your file. Maybe they didn’t like that font you used. Maybe they had a bad day when they picked your file up, and so all of that day’s batch suffered. Maybe they’re in love with their alma mater and automatically pick someone from there to endorse their petty concerns about whether they chose the right school themselves. Or maybe there are just many other good people in the stack. Or just one. Perhaps that person’s font choice was brilliant. Perhaps s/he opened with a witty line that the committee just loved. Perhaps s/he has secondary skills the department needs. Perhaps they finished their PhD a while back, and are trying to move to a better school, with a lot more experience, publications, etc. under their belt. Don’t self-flagellate and automatically assume that you did something “wrong,” since it may just be that the committee did something wrong, or that someone else did more right, or right for the committee.

What a cheerful start, eh? I promise to be more upbeat with some more specific tips. Next time, I’ll discuss the hiring timeline. For now, I invite anyone who has been on the market to share their own tips for keeping sane.

Jonathan Gray

Publication date (from feed): 

Fri, 27 Aug 2010 04:02:57 +0000