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Radical But Not Tenured: Reflections from an Unemployed ABD

February 29, 2012, 1:24 pm

By “Sam Concord”

Today’s guest blogger is a pseudonymous graduate student from a major research university and a future tenured radical. Super-qualified, unemployed, and nearly finished with his degree,  Sam reflects on his six years in graduate school and how he has practiced the art of failure.

I am crawling to the finish line of graduate school with six publications, one mostly-finished dissertation, two major teaching awards, and no job. As I wait to go on the market again next year, I’m doing my best to embrace what Jack Halberstam calls the new ways of being opened up by failure. These benefits include the time and space to figure out what I’ve been doing for the past six years.

In this spirit, I offer you four versions of this story: Superhero Sam, Naked Sam, Terrorist Sam, and CV Sam.

Superhero Sam. One highlight of graduate school was not dying when a driver lost control of her Prius and hit me as I was minding my business on the sidewalk. I actually was very lucky—no broken bones, just bruising and abrasions. The impact tossed me over a short metal fence, which contained most of the blow while I was coming to my senses in the snow on the other side. In subsequent tellings, I’ve become more and more of a badass, using the hood of the car to vault over the ever-taller fence before the SUV Prius could crush me.

Another true story: I was a teaching assistant for a lecturer who fainted at the podium and almost hit her head on the ground before I dove across the room and caught her, tearing my pants in the process. I later learned that the instructor had lost her job due to budget cuts the previous year, and was then re-hired when a senior faculty member left. As a result she was afraid to call in sick and wanted to push forward with the lecture even after collapsing.

Naked Sam. A large part of my graduate education has been shaped by my failure to find the right clothes. For one thing I have never been prepared for winter—thus far I’ve caught pneumonia twice. I also lost an entire suitcase of clothes when someone broke into my car as I was returning from a summer of research. My twin brother—who some might say has made better career decisions—mailed me two large boxes with replacement clothes as soon as he heard the news. Then this past fall I splurged on professional clothes before realizing that I didn’t get any interviews. Hard to explain this strand of my life as anything but a major fail.

Terrorist Sam. My partner’s parents were concerned that graduate school would turn her into a communist. It was actually worse than they imagined: we became Obama supporters and spent much of our spare time in 2008 working on the campaign.

That summer we took a road trip with my best friend from high school, Harpreet, stopping along the way at a federal building in Topeka, Kansas, to mail a Netflix envelope. One month later, a detective dropped off a business card at my front door wanting to speak with me. When I called him back, he asked whether I had been in Topeka, and whether I could give them the contact information for my friend. Apparently Harpreet’s turban had made him look too much like a terrorist, and the FBI used surveillance footage to trace the plates to me. Shouting ensued, and eventually they figured out that it was a mistake. It did make me realize, however, that graduate school in the humanities is one of the few places in American life where shouting at an FBI agent over racial profiling is considered a badge of honor.

CV Sam. Like most academics I’m a little too proud of my CV—I even have one line with a “declined” tag to advertise a redundant fellowship offer. The CV does, however, mark a range of things I’ve been able to do while in graduate school—conferences, guest lectures, research, writing, and teaching, as well as organizing and collaborating. All of these things are reminders of the growing community of colleagues and friends who have challenged my work and changed my way of thinking about the world. It is this community that keeps me inspired in my work despite all the challenges of the job market.

What does not show up on my CV are the rejections. My “declined” fellowship is a glimmer of agency (Look! I’m the one rejecting!) carefully salvaged from countless applications for funding that didn’t come through, including three years in a row of research grant rejections from the AHA. This year I applied to thirty-five jobs and postdocs, and only eight of the schools actually sent back a rejection notice. From the rest I heard nothing.

The other thing left off my CV is the texture of life outside graduate school. Since arriving in a place with actual winters, I’ve become an avid curler, watched my niece and nephew grow into amazing kids, and re-discovered reality television, particularly RuPaul’s Drag Race and Work of Art (I desperately want to hire Simon de Pury as a dissertation coach: “Be bold! Be brave! Be amazing!”). With my partner’s blessing, Harpreet and I have decided to apply for CBS’s The Amazing Race, which is perhaps a more realistic avenue to financial security than trying to land a tenure-track job.

I actually do think graduate school is great training for The Amazing Race—solving puzzles, eating terrible and unnatural foods, coping with frustration, and improvising with limited resources—but I will save that argument for our application.

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