Can a Ph.D. who wears perfume made by an obscure order of French monks find happiness working in a town where everyone buys their clothes at the Farm King?
That is the kind of question job seekers need to ask themselves, even in a market that mainly favors the employers.
The struggle to find a full-time academic position in a limited job market can bring about many professional and personal crises, including an identity crisis. In the midst of all the work involved in writing application letters, submitting CVs, preparing writing samples, and going to interviews, there hardly seems time to really consider just exactly what you are looking for in a job. We are so focused on the need for a job that all we think about is how to fit the hiring committee's criteria. We seldom think about whether the job would be fulfilling not just professionally but also personally.
And yet, it is absolutely crucial for candidates to put their own needs under the microscope and seriously consider what would be best for departments, students, and themselves. If you don't, you're likely to waste a lot of time and energy applying for a position you don't truly want, only to end up with a rejection letter. And that could be the best outcome for everyone.
I learned that the hard way several years ago when I traveled to a far-off part of the country for an interview. The campus was in such a remote location that I had to travel by plane, train, and automobile to get to a tiny town in which there was a large state university and ... nothing else.
I had been full of high hopes for the interview because the representatives who had first interviewed me at a national meeting were pleasant and enthusiastic, and their undergraduate program was thorough and interesting. But as soon as I transferred from plane to train, I knew that I would have a difficult time reconciling my professional goals with my personal ones.
On the train, I was first struck by the differences between what I had been told about the train ride and its reality. The department chair had assured me that the train would be a great experience, with a lovely dining car, reminiscent of the old days of railroad travel when shiny-uniformed porters brought out plates of chicken cordon bleu and rice pilaf to suave and sophisticated world travelers. That, he claimed, made the four-hour train ride bearable. But I don't remember Cary Grant ever having to choose between a microwaved hot dog or hamburger, begrudgingly handed over by a miserable guy complaining behind a stainless-steel counter.
The people on the train, with the exception of the hot-dog guy, were friendly and open. But they did make me doubt all the criticisms I have had of the way rural Americans are depicted in culturally elitist Hollywood movies. Turns out those movies have often done a fairly accurate job. I overheard the sad story of how one young man's dreams of pop stardom were dashed when he failed to break the top 23 in the "American Idol" tryouts and was now on his way home to live the rest of his life in frustrated obscurity. I also listened to a chat about how much better life was in the town I was traveling to now that the new Walmart had opened.
It's not pleasant to feel like one of those cultural elitists, but the truth is, I do not share the love of farming, "American Idol," and Walmart that many Americans value. I'm certain those things have their charms, but they are not interesting to me, and are a fair bit of distance away from the kinds of cultural expressions that I want to experience in my life.
Something told me that there was little chance of a world-class orchestra or art museum being even within driving distance of the town. I started to get depressed on the train, because then I had to really think about whether or not the job was right for me. I had been so busy pursuing the interview that I had failed to take into consideration the one thing that would have saved me and everyone else a whole lot of time: Did I really want the job? Was it right for me?
I arrived in the small town in the late evening and was greeted at the station by the department chair and the chair of the search committee. They drove me four minutes to the campus. It took only 10 minutes to get from one end of town to the other. The campus was very impressive. But it was the only thing in sight for miles and miles and miles.
Did I mention all the miles?
When I got to my room at the student union I looked out the window, started to cry, and called my mother. There was no way I could ever live there, I told her, and expect to (a) continue being a historian of contemporary culture, because there was no access to culture here; (b) fulfill my long-cherished dreams of living a sophisticated, urban life; and (c) keep my sanity.
Upon waking up with the alarm, I got into my snazzy, hotshot professor gear while watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on TV, a story of another dreamer caught in an unexpectedly disappointing situation. My first meeting was an 8 a.m. breakfast with members of the department's faculty. After a few pleasantries, one of the faculty members turned to me and asked, "Tell me, why didn't the Nazis destroy the Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in Krakow?"
And we were off! The interview had begun. It was clear to me that those people were really isolated from civilization out there, because no civilized people I knew asked questions about genocide before 9 a.m.—over bacon, no less.
A bit later, in my interview with the department chair, we had a pleasant conversation until I found out that the impression he had given me at the first interview about the diversity of courses I would teach was about as inaccurate as his description of the train ride. Suddenly I realized: If I came there, I would teach general-education survey courses for the rest of my life. At that point, I'd already done that for about 10 years. The department really did not offer the kinds of courses I wanted. I knew I would get bored there fast.
I was then whisked off for a tour of the town by a department member who also dabbled in real estate. He told me all the dirt—literally. It was only in the past 10 years that the town had gotten rid of its last house with dirt floors. He also pointed out the vacant lot where the town had to seal and burn a house because the people living in it had let it go for so long that when the building inspector finally came, he found that the occupants, without plumbing, had been using litter boxes for years.
I almost jumped out of the car, plotting to find my way back to the train station, hitch a ride, or drown myself in the bathtub of my hotel room. The "fight-or-flight" response had kicked in.
During my professional lecture about my research, the questions were, as is usually the case in job interviews, more about the work of the questioner than about my scholarship: "Why didn't you write about labor union activity in public?" Well, I didn't write about labor unions because the book is about hippies and festivity, not labor unions. It's a monograph, not an encyclopedia. "How did the theories of Bakhtin influence the hippies?" Most 17-year-old hippies had never even heard of Bakhtin, let alone read his theories. Come on, people. This is my research—not yours. Stop trying to show off to your colleagues.
Then I was taken to dinner, where everyone was tired, and the conversation felt very insidery—jokes between friends, etc. I felt isolated and awkward, and couldn't wait to get back to my room. Actually, I couldn't wait to get back home. The next morning, my alarm failed to go off, and I was left with six minutes to get dressed and out the door for the train. I made it, got through the airport and to the plane, and as soon as I touched ground I raced toward civilization for some sushi—the cultural version of electroshock therapy.
What can I say? I hated the place with a passion born from a desire to live above the minimal standard of living.
I went to graduate school to enhance my life, develop my intellect, and share a larger part of the world. I did not go to graduate school to end up teaching the same four courses for 30 years, trapped in a dead-end job in a town I did not like.
It's weird: I never thought I would be in a position in which I actually hoped I did not get a job offer. Getting a job offer would have meant I was complicit in my own destruction, either by accepting a job that would put my life on a path even more limiting than the one I was on, or by rejecting possibly the only job offer I would get.
Why had I been so focused on snagging the job that I didn't think about whether I actually wanted it in the first place?
In my desperation to secure employment, to position myself and my work in such a way that the hiring committee would see me as a "good fit" for the department, I had failed to take into consideration the one factor that should have been the most important: Was the university a good fit for me?
I had failed to consider that elusive and ambiguous factor of any job: something we call "quality of life." That must be decided by every individual, and for me, quality of life boiled down to two simple questions: Was life on the remote edges of American society something I could handle without major psychological intervention? Could I really start buying my underwear at the Farm King?
The answer was no, and I planned to turn down the offer if I got it. But I did not get the offer. It is possible that my culture shock, which some may have read as elitism, was evident. It is also possible that my research was too radical for them. Whatever the reason, they knew as well as I did that their university and I were not a good fit.
That rejection was the best decision the committee made, for both of us.