• April 21, 2014

I'm Perfect, So Why Won't Anyone Hire Me?

Question: I've spent literally years seeking another faculty position. I've reworked my CV and revised my references; there isn't anything I haven't done professionally, from committees to writing articles to writing books. My teaching evaluations for over a decade are completely flawless, with not one negative comment and dozens of positives. My interview presentation is flawless. I have no problems with appearance, hygiene, clothes, attitude that would make me objectionable. There literally is nothing else I can do to make myself competitive. Yet every time I'm rejected. The only places that express any interest in me are remote locations where they obviously cannot get anyone else and, in the end, they also reject me. I've done some 50 on-campus interviews, and several hundred phone interviews. Is there anything else I can do?

Answer: When Ms. Mentor receives an epistle like yours -- one with a mystery -- she is always intrigued. Should you be propitiating some gods, making an animal or vegetable sacrifice, cursing fate, changing your name? She knows that her correspondents never withhold information, but often she, with her perfect wisdom, can intuit what they cannot see. And so she struts and frets in her ivory tower, until -- "Eureka!" -- she finds clues in two of your words: "flawless" and "remote."

But first, let her note for her uninitiated readers that you have correctly described the steps in a mid-career job quest. You've accepted the challenge (written an application letter), boasted about your past glories (teaching, research, service), and made it through the gauntlet (telephone interview) to the castle (the on-campus visit). In fact, you have been astonishingly successful -- for Ms. Mentor knows of no one else who has had 50 on-campus interviews.

All your geese are in order, all your eggs are in your basket, and yet -- nothing hatches. "Surely in that time you could hoodwink somebody?" remarked one of Ms. Mentor's consultants.

But much can go awry on campus, besides the simple "we liked her better" or "he seemed smarter than the others." Ms. Mentor finds in her files tales about job candidates who've fallen asleep, or gotten rudely drunk, or fondled their hosts, or recommended that all deans should be hanged. One candidate who breast-fed during an interview was considered, well, inappropriate.

And then there are such candidates as:

  • The Velvet Fog: His PowerPoint presentation was impeccable, replete with gorgeous slides. But his voice was so soothing, and so monotonous, on a warm spring afternoon that his audience found themselves lulled to sleep ... perchance to dream. So as not to snore, many of the nappers slunk out while the room was dark -- and when lights were restored, only three people were left. Two were awake.

  • The Un-Party Animal: This candidate was sober, efficient, virtually inaudible, and thoroughly unable to make small talk. "Students would never sit still. Just too boring," the committee concluded.

  • The Hyena: She was brilliant but had a horrific laugh that drove people from the room. Her graduate-school mentor had suggested a speech coach, but Dr. Hyena indignantly refused to change anything about "my natural self. This is who I am."

  • The Motor Mouth: He monopolized conversations and could not seem to get to the point, or to the conclusion, of anything.

Ms. Mentor doubts that you see yourself in any of these. Your self-presentation, as you say, is "flawless." Yet we live in an imperfect world in which our most engaging interactions are often spontaneous, even goofy. Possibly you are focusing coldly on yourself -- on your flawlessness -- instead of reacting to the warm, living interests of your audience. Perhaps you're not making eye contact, or not listening carefully to those who speak to you. You may have a manner that discourages questions.

Your audience may want a responsive speaker with humor and information, but you're giving them a slick and well-rehearsed monologue.

Hiring committees may also fume and twitch about the geographical bias ("remote") that you cannot conceal from the all-knowing Ms. Mentor. Thanks to e-mail, phones, and airplanes, few institutions are really undesirably "remote" -- unless you are among those academics who feel that every place outside of New York, Boston, and San Francisco is peopled by peasants and savages. (See Ms. Mentor's previous column "What to Do When You Are Exiled to the Provinces.") Indeed, Ms. Mentor is still surprised by the tactless and ignorant candidates who visit universities in the Deep South and say (often in these words): "How can you stand to live ... here?"

Ultimately, all of us must live with ourselves, and constant frustration ("I'm better than this") will do little but make you feel gnawed-upon and ulcerous. You can certainly rehearse enough small talk to seem spontaneous, and you can conceal your loathing for the boondocks -- but to what end? Ms. Mentor presumes that you have tenure where you are, and she suspects that you do not sufficiently appreciate the colleagues who voted you in. Shouldn't you want to remain with people whose judgment is flawless?

Question: I have a chance to switch from being a Topnotch Medical Researcher, with grant money and prestige up the wazoo, to being a Medical School Teacher-Director, which will make me "deadwood" to my research peers, but will turn me (I hope) into a hero in my own heart. Knowing that life is finite, research is glacial, and mentoring future doctors can change the world, should I commit what some call professional suicide and follow my heart?

Answer: Yes.

SAGE READERS:: Ms. Mentor, ever the devoted public servant, is now at work on a second volume of academic advice, this one addressed to all genders, including any not yet discovered. She continues to welcome unusual questions, fulminations, and gossip for her book as well as this column. As always, anonymity is guaranteed, and details will be scrambled.

She reminds column readers that she rarely answers letters personally, she will not open attachments, and she will not be rushed. Moreover, many a smoldering question has already been answered in her column or tome, or by other learned worthies on this site. Pregnant-and-worried correspondents should also consult Constance Coiner and Diana Hume George's excellent volume, The Family Track.

Meanwhile, Ms. Mentor has been receiving the annual summer-of-our-discontent epistles from civilians (non-academics) who yearn for a job that seems to provide three months of leisure. "How can I switch from business to college teaching? And when?" they implore Ms. Mentor -- who dutifully points out that summer "vacations" are rarely free time for those who must write, research, apply, or take on extra jobs. Nor is teaching for everyone, for leading discussions, sharing ideas, and entertaining the disaffected are genuine arts. As Ms. Mentor noted in a column a year ago -- "Can Just Anyone Teach?" -- not everyone can.

Finally, Ms. Mentor has received more mail from her last column than from any other, and she certainly is not done with the topic of unconscious racism in academia. She thanks all her thoughtful correspondents, even the two snarlers who dared to question Ms. Mentor's use of the word "mentee." Ms. Mentor reminds them sternly that words mean what Ms. Mentor says they mean.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com

Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.

Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, by Emily Toth, can be ordered from the University of Pennsylvania Press by calling (800) 445-9880 or from either of the on-line booksellers below.

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