The Postmodern Anarchist
Clay Richards
December 4, 2001

The Postmodern Anarchist Tries to Get a Job

In the first two years of my job search [in higher education] I often wondered what really went on behind the scenes as departments made their hiring decisions. Most of the time I didn't have a clue. Like all job seekers, I would try to "decode" the job ads, reading and rereading them.

And then I had the good fortune to have a friend serving on the hiring committee for a position that seemed ideal for me.

The search was actually to fill my friend's position in a performing arts department where she taught performance history and theory. She was hired even though she had little prior teaching experience and only a master's of fine arts as her terminal degree. Since this program was one of the top-ranked nationally, one would have assumed the department would prefer to hire someone with a Ph.D. Nonetheless my friend was hired with the understanding that she could learn to teach history and theory on the job as well as assorted studio courses. Although this may strike some as scandalous, my friend was as capable of rising to the challenge as many Ph.D.'s I know.

Eventually my friend -- lets call her "the insider" -- decided to move on. I knew her job would be available even before her fellow faculty members did. Once her announcement became official, she informed me that the department was thinking that it was time to hire a Ph.D., in part at her urging. She was a bit stung by recurring comments like, "We need a real scholar," but such statements seemed to indicate the faculty's commitment to hiring a trained researcher. Her belief was that I would be an ideal candidate to build upon her work, and she planned to do what she could to get me to the interview stage. After that I would be on my own.

The job was advertised during my first year out of school, a year generally marked by irregular employment in near-minimum-wage jobs. News of the opening gave me hope that there might be a place for me in academe after all. While I had spotted a variety of other interesting job and fellowship positions, I had already begun to imagine that this job was destined to be mine.

The insider helped in many ways during the initial application phase. She had previously invited me to the department as a guest lecturer and so I was familiar with the program. She gave me insights into the faculty's interests for the position that aided me as I prepared my application packet, focusing on my scholarly skills rather than my prior professional activities in the arts. As the department began sifting through applications, the insider let me know that my name was consistently raised without her prodding. The faculty members I had met on my prior visit remembered me positively and seemed interested in my mix of professional and scholarly accomplishments.

I began to closely study any information I could find online about getting a job and even to look at real-estate listings for the area. I developed ideas about future possibilities for the department that might be raised in an interview. And I learned something useful about the job-search process that had never been communicated quite so clearly: Applying prior to the deadline was very helpful for my case. The insider informed me that her own experience of reading applications eventually involved a level of burnout as further applications arrived. She noticed that her fellow faculty members also examined the early applications much more thoroughly, due in part to their initial curiosity regarding the pool of applicants.

As time dragged by, the faculty finally agreed on a shortlist of six people from which three would be chosen to interview. The insider felt that I was clearly at or near the top of the list and would make the final cut. Soon thereafter a meeting was held to finalize the procedure for choosing the final three. The faculty agreed to take the list and number each individual from one to six. Ideally this would sort out the contenders without too much debate. Unfortunately, at this meeting, a faculty member made an unexpected move, announcing that she wanted to change her teaching load to include some of the new position's responsibilities. Then another faculty member piped in that she wanted the new hire to be someone with whom to collaborate on artistic projects, inspired by her previous work with the insider.

Suddenly the game had shifted. During the course of discussion, the chairwoman suggested that perhaps additional money could be found to bring in someone to teach the applied-performing-arts courses of the professor who now wanted to shift her teaching load. Making such a hire, the chairwoman noted, would allow the department to continue on its plan to hire someone like me (she even mentioned my name) whose work had a more-scholarly focus.

The meeting adjourned with various faculty members assigned to contact the six applicants to ask them about their interest in teaching applied courses as well as to ask them to prepare an outline for a scholarly survey course on the history of the performing arts. When my friend contacted me, I was taken aback by the developments but heartened by the chairwoman's comments. We were both hopeful that she would come up with a solution that included me, since she seemed interested and usually got what she wanted. The insider also informed me that she was withdrawing from the process at this stage since she would not have to live with the outcome.

Over the next two weeks I nervously awaited word and finally received a call from the insider with the news that the faculty had restructured the position and that I now ranked fifth out of the six applicants. Apparently the chairwoman did not pursue her alternate plan and so the position was again one in which artistic credentials held greater sway than academic ones. I was no longer a competitive candidate and would not be invited to interview. In a few short weeks I had gone from frontrunner to noncontender for my best job prospect of the year.

Some three months later I was officially informed that another applicant had been hired. By then I had moved on to other concerns and what was initially a painful blow had hardened into a scar. Looking back, my expectations about landing the job may well have been heightened by having so much inside information. But even without the insider's help, I would have known that I had made the initial cut and then would have been left hanging for a few months, my anticipation gradually transformed into anxiety capped by disappointment. All in all, I'm glad I got the opportunity to peek behind the scenes.

So what did I learn? I developed a much stronger sense of the unpredictability of searches. No matter how obsessively one attends to the nuances, the search process is ultimately not about deciphering a secret code that, if broken, will result in a job. Alhough I still believe that the little things matter, I also see that the search is about so many factors beyond one's initial suitability as an applicant.

I'm entering my third year of seeking an academic position, at a time when every academic job, no matter how awful, receives way too many applicants. I know now that whatever happens is ultimately beyond my control. Yet rather than feel helpless, I feel more able to present myself strongly on my own terms and allow the process to unfold as it will.

original title: Getting an Inside View of a Search
published December 4, 2001, The Chronicle of Higher Education
(c) copyright 2001 clay richards