Today I am working in my own real office as an assistant professor. You know, the kind with a door, an official nameplate, my own computer, desk, and chair. I don't have to share it with three to eight other people, and I can actually leave my things in it and expect everything to remain exactly as I left it.
It seems surreal to be here sitting at my desk and looking out my window at Marietta College on a Monday afternoon. Last year at this time, I was finishing up the second chapter of my dissertation and beginning to revise a rough draft of the third chapter, while at the same time preparing for the grueling rigors of the academic job market. I worked hard to earn my Ph.D. during my eight years in the department of comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, but I count myself lucky to be one of the few humanities Ph.D.'s to have landed a tenure-track position during the past job-hunting season. The experience has been overwhelmingly positive, but I admit the transition from graduate student to faculty member has been bewildering.
Getting an academic job feels like winning the lottery. Having been interviewed and asked to the campus late in the fall, the provost at Marietta called me up in early January, just before the Modern Language Association's convention, where I would interview for other positions. He left a message on my voice mail, and in the throes of the paranoia that is sometimes useful and other times detrimental in graduate school, I asked myself, "Is he calling me to reject me?" (Note: No dean or provost calls to reject you; usually e-mail or dead silence suffices.)
I called him back, and he offered me the job. I was so happy, I felt as if I were floating on air. The job market necessarily focuses us on the goal of receiving a job offer, and having someone on the other side of the line tell me that his college wanted to hire me produced an incredible sense of fulfillment. It was kind of like that Sally Field "You really like me!" Oscar moment, without the public embarrassment or the dubious frosted hair.
Achieving what I set out to do, getting a tenure-track appointment at a small liberal-arts college, came with unforeseen consequences. Namely, answering the question: "What now?" Why do knights' tales and romantic comedies end when they do—after killing the dragon and getting the lovers together, respectively? Because what comes after, rebuilding the castle and getting married, is arduous and messy.
Case in point: the dissertation. When the job-market season gets into high gear, A.B.D.'s and their advisers suspend most, if not all, dissertation activities. Even those of us who make good-faith efforts to keep working on our projects during the hiring season get sidetracked by one more application, by undergraduates clamoring for our attention, by the sheer exhaustion of waiting to hear from all those jobs and postdocs for which we've applied. Rationally, I should have been able to do other work while waiting for something to happen, but in practice, it was difficult, especially when I was monitoring the shenanigans on the Academic Jobs Wiki (the single most useful and suicide-inducing Web site out there for academics on the job market).
Getting the job means returning fully to the dissertation, though we are now fatigued from months of being on pins and needles. After all, the job can become reality only upon completion of the dissertation, which brings me back to the messiness of rebuilding freeholds and making comedic marriages work. The job celebrations in late January and February with friends, family, and advisers quickly gave way to the exigencies of writing the last chapter in March and April.
Finishing my dissertation, however, made me aware of something that, in the long run, is good but in the moment was mortifying: The dissertation is the first decent draft of a just-begun project. I was never under any delusions that my dissertation would change my field, but I had hoped for the finished product to be more of a Facebook than a Friendster. In the end, completing the dissertation for me was an internally contradictory experience. On the one hand, I was thrilled to finish it, but on the other hand, I was hyperaware of the weaknesses in its arguments. Hearing your friends' tales of how unhappy they were with their last chapters is small comfort as the dissertation in front of you shows you not only what's missing but also what's possible.
The combination of finishing my program by means of an "unfinished" work produced a deep numbness. In fact, the afternoon I submitted my approved dissertation to the university, I walked around campus in a semicatatonic state around the campus for a while. I didn't know what to do, where to go, or whom to talk to.
Why? My body kept telling me to work on my dissertation, out of habit (it still does sometimes), while my mind kept having to remind me that we were all done with that. My only way out of that two-step was graduation. At the Ph.D. level, graduation can seem silly and even oppressive if your critical or political orientation is anti-institutional. While graduation signals the end of your time at your institution, it also irrevocably cements your connection to the place. In effect, graduation makes you a part of the institution. Moving on to a faculty position means you also become institutionalized in the profession. But becoming part of the structure can feel unsettling.
Participating in commencement made me realize that the arcane ritual was not primarily for my benefit (though I do like my graduation pictures) but rather for the benefit of the community of people I brought along with me in the journey. Graduation is really about acknowledging the people who sacrificed to get you to finish your degree. Their participation in the events, moreover, had an effect on me I was not expecting in the least: The coming together of family and friends made receiving my Ph.D. and getting a job real to me in a way that I had not been able to grasp—even when I received my certificate of completion. My family and friends banished the numbness I had felt upon submitting my dissertation. They helped me get comfortable with the "Ph.D." now appended to my name.
But what happened in my real, day-to-day life while I was feeling happy, worn, and crazy? When I couldn't tell whether I was exploding or imploding?
I don't know. Don't recall. Have no idea. Fugue state. During those months before graduation, my partner, Micah, afforded me the luxury of not having to think about anything but finishing my dissertation. Having taken the year off in order to decompress from being an assistant principal at an area charter school while simultaneously completing a rigorous master's program, he took on the very real and very necessary work of investigating the Ohio city we eventually moved to in late July.
During the months of March, April, and May, Micah looked into local culture, amenities, restaurants, state parks, you name it. He did research on possible employment options for himself, and most important, he scoured the housing available for our dog and us. At the same time, he planned our driving route across country, complete with pet-friendly hotels, and contacted moving companies and got quotes for our move from Oakland, Calif., to Marietta. There's nothing quite like getting moving quotes to make a move feel real, especially when you start to realize that your moving allowance will in no way cover all of the expenses.
The costs of starting a new job in any employment sector are high, but the abject poverty of graduate-student life makes the shift to being a faculty member—a professional with a real salary—extremely fraught. The first shock, emotional and financial, for us was the cost of the move. In the world out there, where real, nonacademic people live, moving across the country can easily cost $10,000 or more.
Well, nobody tells you that when you're a graduate student. The information isn't being kept from you; it's just that, both in college and in graduate school, either my moves were subsidized by family or friends (read: they carried my stuff while I "supervised"), or everything I owned could fit into the trunk of my car. When you start to accumulate stuff (a bed, a pot, a wine opener) as a graduate student, moving entails renting a cheap truck and getting any friend you have who is not worried about wrenching his or her back to help you in exchange for beer and pizza. You start to accumulate a lot more stuff, however, once you have a partner and you have lived in the same place for eight years.
The college was kind enough to raise my allowance to cover the moving-company costs, though it was under no obligation to do so. But there have been other expenses for which we did not and could not plan—like staying at a hotel for more than a week while we found suitable housing, and having to eat out every day for two weeks. One of the realities of moving from a large metropolitan area (in this case, San Francisco) to a small city in a largely rural setting is that there is a dearth of rental properties. At least in this part of the country, people tend to own their houses, and the rental market has very little inventory.
Add to that the fact that we have a very sweet but anxious dog, and whatever rental opportunities Micah found quickly evaporated. For about a week, specifically the week that it took us to drive from California to Ohio, we thought we had secured housing. And we had. But when we got to town, after driving through 100-degree days and administering doggy Xanax more often than I care to admit (not a joke), we went to see the house we had tentatively agreed to take before we left California and discovered that our furniture wouldn't comfortably fit in the place.
Although we had seen pictures, we had failed to take into account the dimensions of the rooms. Had we taken the house, we would have had to put a good deal of our furniture in storage for the duration of the lease and probably buy some new items, a costly proposition even in this relatively inexpensive part of the country.
So we hit the streets looking for a place to live; we drove up and down the streets of the town looking for "for rent" signs. Luckily, a local rental company that Micah had contacted a few weeks back (research, kids, it's important) got in touch with us at around the same time, and it had a suitable house for us. One. We took it.
As we deal with all these welcome, but stressful, disruptions to our lives, I remind myself that I was more than fortunate to arrive at last January's MLA convention with a job offer in hand, and two conference interviews. Many good friends and brilliant scholars with academic pedigrees similar to my own (Columbia undergrad, Berkeley grad) weren't invited to any initial interviews, whether at the MLA, on the phone, or on Skype.
The odds of getting anything, never mind a tenure-track position, were and continue to be rather dismal. Whatever guilt I may have for “surviving” the job market, I know, is a “first-world problem,” but that doesn’t mean I don’t marvel at the fact that I have gotten exactly what I wanted: a Ph.D. from a great university and a tenure-track job at a small liberal-arts college.
As the dust settles, and regular, everyday life begins to take hold again, I get to have the privilege of coming to my office and putting my feet up on my desk while I prepare for class. Course preparation has involved a great deal of work, not to mention the many campus meetings to set curricular and organizational goals for the academic year. And now the real work begins: The students are here.