• October 23, 2014

It's Not Like They Say It Will Be

In the spring of 2000, I began to read the Career Network religiously in preparation for my job search. Ms. Mentor told me how to behave in an interview, the Career Talk columnists explained how to write winning cover letters and stellar C.V.'s, and the first-person columnists related the ups and downs of the job market.

After months of reading those columns, I felt prepared. Campus interviews would be stressful but they would also be opportunities for me to show off my research and teaching skills. I would meet interesting people, go out for a meal or two, interact with new students, and if all went well, be offered the job of my dreams. The trouble is that I, like all job candidates, found that reading and research couldn't fully prepare me for the challenges of my own job search.

My Ph.D. is in the fine arts, and while I have practical experience in the discipline, I think of myself as a scholar first and a practitioner second. My first interview was for a job that focused on artistic practice over scholarship. During the phone interview, I said several times that I didn't have the background necessary to teach the practical classes the job required. Although I was enthusiastic about some aspects of the job and the university, I was careful to be honest about my background and interests. I hung up the phone and assumed I wouldn't hear from the search committee again.

I was wrong. A few weeks later, they invited me to campus. I still worried I wasn't a good fit for the position, but I gratefully accepted the interview. I checked the school's Web site, practiced sample interview questions, and began preparing syllabi, a job talk, and a sample class. Whether I got the job or not, I was thrilled to have made it that far.

My meeting with the dean, which had loomed as the scariest part of the process, went smoothly. The students were enthusiastic, the search committee asked me great questions about my research and teaching, the salary and benefits were competitive. I was wined and dined at the best restaurants in town, and the university picked up the tab for everything. I did have some nagging doubts, however. It was a teaching load of four courses a semester, and I would be expected to do production work on top of that. The faculty was obviously overworked and the department underfinanced. If I accepted the job, I would be the only female faculty member and the only professor under 50. Finally, I would be asked to teach more practical courses than I was comfortable with. Still, I decided I would seriously consider an offer if one were made -- after all, it was a tenure-track job in a state university system. It certainly wasn't my dream job, but it seemed pretty good.

And then I had my exit interview. The chairman of the department invited me for coffee the morning before I left. He explained that he was out of cash, and so I offered to buy. He insisted it be his treat, and asked that I follow him to the campus bookstore so he could cash a check. I spent about 10 minutes looking aimlessly at shot glasses, sweatshirts, and beanie babies emblazoned with the university logo until he reappeared, obviously flustered. He explained that the bookstore wouldn't take his checks anymore. I repeated my offer to buy coffee -- I was more than a little uncomfortable -- but he promised that the student union would allow him to charge it to the department.

As we walked through a cold drizzle, the chairman told me the department probably wouldn't make me an offer. It had two other candidates still to interview, a woman he wasn't very enthusiastic about, and a man: "He's our ace in the hole, so I don't want to jinx it by saying too much." He complimented me -- I was "smart and gracious," and shouldn't feel bad. Indeed, what female academic wouldn't be cheered by the knowledge that she presented herself as smart and gracious? Now, my vague feelings of discomfort moved from the back of my mind to the pit of my stomach. How do you respond when your interviewer tells you his department doesn't want you?

Ms. Mentor suggests grace under pressure in all situations, so I thanked him and the department for their hospitality, and expressed my gratitude for the opportunity to interview for the position. I mentioned my appreciation for one member of the department who had been especially helpful showing me the campus and the town. The chairman disabused me of my apparently hasty goodwill toward his colleague. He told me that my friendly guide was going through a hard time -- a divorce, well not really a divorce, a separation. The chairman remarked that his colleague should just leave his wife; after all, he'd been divorced twice himself and easily found a new wife both times. Further, my friendly guide was a difficult man and a terrible communicator.

The chairman asked if I had any more questions. I was reeling, so I just smiled, and said I felt like I had had all my questions answered.

Then the chairman explained that he was new to the position; the former department head had resigned the post and left my interviewer with piles of confusing paperwork. "Just between you and me," the chairman said, smiling conspiratorially, "his health isn't so good. I don't know how much longer he'll be here." Grace under pressure is hard to maintain when you're sitting across the table from a person who trashes his colleagues and divulges personal information while sipping dubiously purchased coffee and eating muffins.

The rest of the "interview" is a blur to me. I do know I kept smiling and nodding as the chairman continued to ramble on about the personal lives of various faculty members, much of which I'm sure they didn't want divulged so freely and casually. I can definitely remember the sick panic that grew as I imagined having to work in this environment. If he behaved like this in a job interview, how awful would he be in day-to-day interactions? And while I'm certainly aware that no department is peopled only by smiling, happy, discreet faculty and staff members, I was shocked by his level of unprofessionalism. I wanted to leave, but he just kept talking. Finally, I mumbled something about wanting to visit the library again before my flight (Career Talk says to show interest in the campus facilities!), thanked him (Ms. Mentor says to be gracious!), and left.

Back home, I resolved to turn down that tenure-track job if it were offered, but prayed that they wouldn't call and test my resolve. As weeks stretched into months, I hadn't received any firm offers, despite several more telephone and campus interviews. With graduation only a few weeks away, I was panicking as I imagined a future flipping burgers or processing data in my doctoral robes. I wondered if I'd have the strength to turn down even a terrible job so late in the season. I waited by the phone for someone, somewhere, to call with a good job in a good department.

Finally, the phone started ringing. The last week of the semester, I got two more phone interviews and I stopped imagining my life as a "temp slave." Both jobs were non-tenure track, but they seemed perfect for me: The classes, salary, and teaching load all seemed reasonable, and the faculty members were generous and enthusiastic. After nearly giving up on an academic job, I began to see light at the end of the tunnel. Ultimately, I accepted a non-tenure-track job in a well-respected department at a research university.

And then the phone rang again. The department chairman from Unprofessional U. called. "Hello," he said. "I bet you don't remember who I am." When I correctly identified him and his institution, he complimented my memory. "Well," he said, in a laconic monotone, "we're hoping three's the charm. The other two candidates have turned us down, so the job's yours if you want it."

"Thank you," I said, mustering graciousness against shock one last time. "So we can count on you for fall?" "Oh, no," I said. "I've made other plans."

Carrie Hollingsdale is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in the fine arts from a Midwestern university. In the fall she will begin a one-year appointment at a state university in the West.

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