The wait to hear back from a hiring committee after a campus interview is one of the most stressful points of a job search. The worst part is knowing that you may have to do it all over again next year after coming so close to getting a job.
During my first year on the market, my wait ended with a telephone call from a university in the Southwest offering me a tenure-track job in the humanities. The department head mentioned salary, resources, and other benefits, but my intense relief at receiving an actual offer made it difficult to hear the details. Instead I was already thinking ahead to the celebration -- to be paid for, of course, by the income being described on the phone.
As I was not awaiting word from any other hiring committees, I spent the rest of that day sharing the good news with supervisors and fellow graduate students. Few of them knew anything about the university, though everyone finished off their remarks with the same comment: "A job's a job."
And so I thought my dilemma was over.
Imagine my surprise upon finding an express envelope waiting for me at home that same day. Inside, the letterhead of a prestigious Ivy League university named me the recipient of a yearlong postdoctoral fellowship. That opportunity had slipped my mind since there had been no contact about my application and certainly no interview.
Where I had been jobless just that morning, in the space of a few hours, I had two offers.
Let me reassure readers that this is not a memoir about one student's charmed life. Rather, it concerns a decision faced by many graduate students in the humanities about whether to pursue postdoctoral work before a permanent position. It is a decision to which I had given little thought in my throw-stuff-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to the job hunt. However, as I now know, the decision can have far-reaching consequences for your career.
Not all of my peers bothered to apply for postdoctoral positions. Some of those positions were sponsored by prestigious societies of fellows into which it was next to impossible to be admitted and, on top of that, they charged an application fee. Other postdocs involved one-year positions that did not justify the relocation.
I knew many students who, rather than seek a fellowship, resolved to find an acceptable teaching job or remain at their current institution as an adjunct lecturer for another year. After all, the goal of every doctoral student is to find a potentially permanent job, not a temporary one.
In my case, the two institutions making me offers had little in common. One was an Ivy League university on the East Coast. The other was a university little known outside the Southwest. However, the terms of employment -- money, rank, and duties -- were fairly similar, except one position was temporary and the other on the tenure track.
After hearing the comparison, people I knew outside of academe would inevitably ask, "Why on earth wouldn't you take the Ivy League job?"
Their response was revealing if only because it was so at odds with that of my faculty mentors, who urged me to accept the tenure-track offer. "A job's a job," they reminded me. Their counsel came from years of experience as mentors whose most talented students struggled to gain a foothold in academe and as members of hiring committees who had rejected countless overqualified candidates.
Getting that first job, my mentors told me, was, by far, the hardest step in entering the profession. They warned that my first offer might also be my last. A permanent job, paradoxically, makes you more mobile than postdoctoral work does when it comes to reapplying because it serves as a stamp of institutional approval and removes the potential risk universities face when investing in a relatively untested applicant. Finally, my mentors said, a job has a range of benefits not offered by a postdoc, from institutional security to a pension plan. I would come to appreciate those benefits in the long run, they assured me.
Their arguments against the postdoc were just as pragmatic: It was just adjunct teaching in disguise; it was merely limbo for candidates unable to find jobs; and it would put me in competition with all of the other postdoctoral recipients during the next round of interviews, which would approach sooner than I expected. They even warned of a stigma attached to candidates who perform too much research, based on the dubious logic that any candidate who looks too good to be true probably is.
The most frightening prospect they presented was that, if I took the postdoc and succeeded in using it to produce published research, when I went on the market again for a real job, hiring committees would judge me based on the published results of that research rather than merely on my potential. The stakes would be a lot higher than I had realized.
All of that is important for prospective applicants to know since it is the complete opposite of the way most graduate students perceive a postdoc. In my eyes, it was a continuation of my comfortable lifestyle as a Ph.D. student, with the bonus of a higher salary. With a postdoc, I thought, the drawbacks of a tenure-track appointment -- the heavy teaching load, the start of the tenure clock -- would agreeably be postponed for at least another year. In other words, it would help ease my transition from student to professional.
Predictably enough, those who knew me on a personal basis offered contrary advice to that given to me by faculty members. Applying vastly different criteria, my friends, family, and even peers unanimously voted in favor of the postdoc.
They simply felt that taking the risky position would make me "happy." That is a fuzzy word that my supervisors, for good reason, had never mentioned, but it should be considered by any Ph.D.'s making a choice about their future. To put it another way, would one choice make me unhappy?
For the first time since beginning the Ph.D. program, I found myself agreeing with those who knew little about the profession over those to whose judgment I had submitted during the last six years of my education. It was alarming to make the decision on my own after years of relying on the advice of my supervisors. Yet here was a case in which, I felt, they did not know what was best for me. That realization made me recognize that I was no longer a student, more so than being offered a job did.
Before I turned down the tenure-track job and took the postdoc, my supervisors reminded me, one last time, of the risk I was taking. But it was my nature to prefer the consequences of a bold decision over possible regret. Besides, if I was capable of making sensible decisions about my career, I would never have enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the humanities in the first place.
Fortunately, the decision worked out for me. My fellowship gave me additional time to revise my book manuscript for publication as well as additional teaching experience. My postdoctoral work did help me land more interviews the following year, although that did not translate into more job offers. But one offer from a major research university close to my partner's family was all it took. This time I accepted because I wanted that particular job rather than any job at all. In this case, a job wasn't just a job.
Now that I am safely on the other side of the fence, I can look back on my decision with very different eyes. The risk I took stands out in retrospect. Already I have served on search committees that have turned away overqualified candidates, many of whom were conducting impressive postdoctoral work. We have even rejected applicants completing a second or third postdoctoral fellowship.
Jobs are so scarce that even the best candidates are not guaranteed a position. Knowing what I know now, I would advise my students to take the tenure-track job, too. But would they listen?