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Job-Market Conspiracy Theories

A few weeks back I wrote about the experience of knowing someone in a department that was hiring in my field. I was interested in thinking through how one might make ethical use of inside information, but in the comments section the conversation widened to include all sorts of hiring conspiracies: token candidates, sham searches, etc.

Even though my own experience contradicts some of those theories (that phone interviews are never serious, for one), I can’t help but shiver at the sheer volume of corruption anecdotes I hear. After all, when you are on the job market, it is easy to feel that everything plots against you.

This is especially true when the person advancing the conspiracy theory is not a fellow job seeker (who may be tempted to use it as an excuse) but a senior professor or administrator, men and women on the other side of the ads, presumably those in the know.

One of my mentors, a particularly well informed cynic, has a knack for deflating my excitement about potential jobs: “the underqualified inside candidate at City University is a shoo-in,” “Eastern College is really only considering minority applicants,” and so on. Of course, I file those applications anyways, but not without a little cynicism of my own.

What else can one do? I don’t mean that question rhetorically.

A couple weeks ago I was asked to talk with the local chapter of Sigma Tau Delta (the English Honor Society) about graduate school and creative writing as an academic field. Halfway through I realized that in my attempt to be candid with these students I was emphasizing the professional hurdles they will need to clear, not the pleasures of the study itself.

Many of them will be applying to M.A. and M.F.A. programs in the coming months, and we finished our discussion by considering their applications. I’m glad we ended on that note because as we thought through their statements of intent, we were able to talk about why one would choose this major in the first place, why the undergraduate degree might not be enough, and why one would want to share these books and ideas with others.

I think that’s why I’m wary of the conspiracy theories. It’s too easy for the ugly sides of academic hiring to overshadow the job itself and sap our excitement for our field.

Maybe I’m missing something, though. How seriously should applicants take rumors that the fix is in at one job search or another? Is the gossip useful? Is it important that we hear these things just so we stay realistic about our chances?

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