Monday, June 25, 2012

On the Market: A Recent Candidate's Experiences with the Academic Job Search by Courtney Watson

If I were to describe the academic job search in only one word, that word is harrowing. It's rough out there, people, especially now. Due to budget cuts, hiring freezes, the prevalence of adjuncts, and the glut of highly-qualified candidates on the job market, there aren't a lot of jobs up for grabs—but you already knew that. The job market is difficult, but it's not impossible. There are good academic jobs to be had at good schools, and I know that because I got one of them. Here's how.

Start Now (Seriously, like today.)

Like all of my friends in academia, most of the dragons that I slay are document-based: critical essays, stories, student work, letters of recommendation, etc. Procrastination is a pernicious little monster, but he's good company and he always finds stuff for us to do other than work (like go to happy hour or watch a marathon of Real Housewives of Wherever on Bravo. Those ladies are vicious. But I digress.) When it came to the job search, though, I really wish that I had locked him up and allotted even more time to work on my materials and to recognize the process as a process—a long one. 

One of the best decisions I ever made was to participate in a semester-long job workshop offered by my department at the University of Southern Mississippi, and this was invaluable when it came to producing the materials for my dossier. I didn't realize how incredibly important the academic job letter was until I was neck-deep in it. It's very, very difficult to create a sense of yourself—as a writer, a teacher, an academic, a person—in two pages, and the teaching philosophy isn't any easier. These documents, which my professors who have themselves been on search committees emphasized, must be perfect. It's a buyer's market in academia, after all, and schools have a lot of options. I went through many, many drafts of my job letter and teaching philosophy and CV, all of which were scrutinized by no fewer than six professors, as well as several friends who had been on the market in years past. It's your life on a few pieces of (very fancy) paper, and the stakes are so, so high. No pressure.

All That Other Stuff

Another thing: while the job letter and the teaching philosophy allow you to really focus on your achievements and sell yourself and talk about why you would be a great asset to a department, your CV tells the whole story of what you've been up to in graduate school. Everything that you do in grad school matters, and the best advice that I can give to people who are just starting grad school and think that they'll be pursuing an academic job is to be very proactive and to pursue opportunities.
Publishing—creative, academic, journalistic—matters. I didn't think that committees would care that I worked as a food and travel writer while getting my MFA, but they did because it was something that made me different from other candidates. It's even more important to publish academic and creative work. The reality of the job market today is that most of us, unless your field is incredibly specialized, will be looking for generalist jobs. The school that hired me was specifically looking for someone who could teach composition, creative writing, professional writing, and literature, and I appealed to them because I had taught all of those classes. 

As a grad student, my top priority for much of grad school was my course work; everything else—publishing, conference panels and presentations, departmental and university service, teaching, etc.—fell into a catch-all category of all that other stuff. As it turned out, all that other stuff was really important to the people who interviewed me. One of the committees that interviewed me wanted to know all about the TOPS creative writing summer camp classes and the community creative writing workshop that I taught while at FAU. That conversation led to another about how it would be really great to do something like that at their school, which in turn made them think about what I could offer their program.

Know Where to Look

Another vital aspect of finding an academic job that I misunderstood was knowing where to look. The MLA job list opens in early fall, and for a long time I was under the impression that it was the only place to look for an academic job. My mistake. While the MLA list shows many of the best jobs, there are certainly other sources to consider. Personally, though I did join and apply for jobs using the MLA list, I had better luck with and the Chronicle of Higher Education job list. Also, it's important to know that all hope is not lost if you don't get invited to the MLA conference. Many schools are no longer doing interviews at MLA and are instead opting for phone and Skype interviews, and I know several people who are just now going on interviews and getting hired for the fall semester.

Brace Yourself

Another thing that surprised me was the sheer volume of applications that it is standard to send out. This is time-consuming and expensive and a lot more involved than I thought it would be. My job letter and teaching philosophy needed to be customized to appeal to each school I applied to, most of which also wanted my CV and confidential letters of recommendation, which had to be sent from the Interfolio website ($6 a pop, and that's not counting the ones that had to be overnighted because I fell that far behind). This is another area where time became a real issue, because while being “on the market” is like a job in itself, I already had my normal schedule of teaching and studying for Ph.D. comprehensive exams and finishing my dissertation to deal it.

I ended up applying to about 30 jobs between October 2011 and January 2012. While that may seem like a lot (it still does to me), that number is actually on the low end among the people I know. The standard seems to be about 50 or 60 applications, though I know several people who have applied to over 100 jobs.

This profession maintains a certain fondness for the well-crafted, carefully-worded rejection letter, and this naturally extends to letters sent out by search committees. I know this because I received many of them. Most people do. Most of the letters say something along the lines of “We received an overwhelming number of impressive applications and yours was not among them...” Okay, they don't actually say that, but the first few times, that's what it feels like. Don't take it personally; they don't.
The Lottery

So how exactly does the job-search committee decide who to interview? Having recently been through the process and subjected to all of its curiosities, I can confidently answer that question: the truth is, I don't know. Whether there's some sort of academic algorithm or alchemy (or alcohol) at work, I have no idea. What I can tell you is this: when you get an interview, it's because something in your application caught somebody's eye; whether it was a mutual alma mater or acquaintance or shared research interest or special recognition, it's hard to say, but they saw something in that faceless sea of black-and-white paper and for that, you should be glad.

Once you've gotten the interview, you've entered a whole different minefield, one that was made navigable for me only with the help of extensive preparation. My advice: seek professional help. If professors offer to help you, by all means take them up on it. I got a lot of advice, encouragement, and practice from a few of my very generous professors, and that made all the difference in the world. I did a mock interview with them and a practice job talk and they posed questions for me to answer and then gave me feedback on my performances. They talked to me about what I should (and shouldn't) say and what to wear and what to prepare for, and it was knowing what to expect that helped me to do well in the interview.

Academic Darwinism; or, The Campus Visit

Campus visits are exhausting. It's a long day where you meet lots of people, including but not limited to faculty and students, and you have to be “on” the entire time, so make sure you bring personality to spare. By the time I got back on the plane after my first interview, I felt like there was nothing left. Though there are many other things at play, I think that one of the deciding factors of who gets the job is who survives the day with the least amount of wear and tear. Or who survives, period. I don't know where they hide the bodies of the other candidates, but I suspect that problem falls under the purview of junior faculty. I'll find out soon enough.

Courtney Watson has an M.F.A. in fiction from Florida Atlantic University and a Ph.D. in English with a focus on Modernism and Southern Literature from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, VA, and her writing has appeared in The Inquisitive Eater, Black Lantern, The Key West Citizen, and more.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Berets and Turtlenecks and Intellectuals, Oh My!

In which two intrepid MFA alumni, Courtney Watson and Gloria Panzera, recap the experience of AWP Chicago, 2012:
Courtney and I have been on the front lines at AWP for the past few years and are finally ready to report on some of our adventures.

Gloria: How would you describe AWP?

Courtney: If there is one word to describe the madness that is AWP, it is overwhelming. It is a very different experience from most other conferences for several reasons, the foremost among them being the sheer size of the gathering. The schedule is also unforgiving, so first-timers should feel free to take it slow. If you get a chance, look at the panel schedule online prior to coming to the conference and figure what you really, really want to see. If you don’t adhere to some sort of schedule, you’ll miss a lot. Also, it’s easy to forget that AWP hosts many off-site events and readings as well, and those are certainly worth checking out.

Gloria: Oh God, yes. AWP was overwhelming the first time and three years later, I still feel like an over stimulated baby who needs to just cry it out.

Courtney: As an MFA student, what made you decide to go to AWP for the first time?

 Gloria: I don’t remember why I went to AWP the first year, maybe it was to see what all the talk was about, or maybe I just needed an excuse to leave Florida for the weekend. I don’t know. I just remember the first month into my MFA I realized I wasn’t doing anything right. I wasn’t a member of any fancy shcmansy professional organization; I wasn’t writing enough; I wasn’t published. I might as well kiss that tenure track position goodbye. I would have to go back into a time machine and start my freshman year of college all over again. I think I went to AWP to get nice kick in the butt, and take a well-deserved break.

So Court, why did you start going to AWP?

Courtney:  I remember thinking that it just sounded like the most awesome thing, and it was in New York City the first year that I went. I remember being so excited. I got to see John Irving and Joyce Carol Oates and Billy Collins and Frank McCourt, and that experience sort of cemented my devotion. It was the first time that I realized that there’s a community of writers.

Gloria: What do you remember about your first time at AWP?

Courtney: I remember being completely overwhelmed, and feeling like I needed to see everything. Like, look! there’s Joyce Carol Oates. Or, over there! Steve Almond’s in line at Starbucks. I also saw four panels a day, and I remember being completely exhausted. I think I went through the bookfair four or five times.

Gloria: The only thing I remember about the first time was that the bookfair blew my mind. I loved the panels I observed and I remembered feeling that I had chosen the right profession. There was something awesome about being around so many people who loved writing, literature, and were nerds just like me. I felt this all while feeling like a loser who wasn’t good enough at writing. Oh, and that I finally had an excuse to travel somewhere pretty cool once a year.

Courtney: The opportunity for travel is one of my favorite things about AWP. It’s always awesome to get to hang out in a city for a few days, and for some reason the conference format seems to lend itself to being in a city.

Gloria: As my AWP buddy, you know I love to sightsee. Where should you go when you’re at AWP?

Courtney: If you’re like us, the answer is everywhere. One of the best things about AWP is that it is usually (sorry, Minneapolis, but I have my doubts) hosted by an awesome city with a lot to offer. Be sure to take full advantage of the host city, and don’t feel guilty for skipping panels. The host city is always replete with great shopping and amazing bookstores like Powell’s and the Tattered Cover, and it would be a shame to miss them. AWP is also a great opportunity to buy books from small or independent presses, and it’s great to support them. You come home with all of this great stuff, and I find that having that experience really kick-starts my own work.

Courtney: What about you, Gloria? How does AWP effect the way that you view your work once you get home?

Gloria: I truly love going to AWP. When I get home, I am so energized and excited to get my writing in order. My somewhat lackadaisical writing schedule is tightened. I’m back on track. It’s great. Although at times, it seems as if all the energy that is being put forth at the conference makes me think it’s time to go dig myself a hole, and reconsider the profession that I’ve chosen. Maybe I’m not worthy of the people that are panelists and attendees. You meet grad students whose mentors are top notch writers and you think, why?

Courtney:  AWP gets under your skin. Being around so many people who love what you love and dream what you dream (and some of them are really good at it) is overwhelming, exhilarating, validating, and sometimes really annoying. Seeing so many accomplished writers who possess careers we would all kill for, getting close enough to your idols to touch them, is a strange experience. The worst part of it is feeling like you’ll never be good enough. The best part is the creative energy that you absorb and take home with you, the burning desire to get back home and throw yourself into the frustrating, impossible thing that is so easy to forget you love.

Gloria: So this is the first year we’ve ever come to AWP together and while we were adventuring I would say we saw quite a few characters and overheard some ridiculous conversations. It was pretty much an ego-fest and a smorgasbord of hair and fashion styles. While I know we were there to conference, it is hard not to notice a woman old enough to be my grandmother rocking out with a tri-color hair coloring and the absurdist hats and tights that were running around the Hilton were hard to miss.

Courtney: Never is the diversity of our literary community more apparent than on the floor of AWP. A few years ago, in Denver, I participated in one of the oddest conversations of my life. It took place in a nearly-full panel about haunting in literature.  A young woman squeezed down the aisle and into the seat next to me a few minutes before the panel started. Observing the excited din of nerd-on-nerd conversation that spreads like wildfire at AWP, she turned to me and said, “I just love the energy of AWP.”
            “I know, me too,” I said, “It’s awesome to be around so many people who love this kind of stuff as much as I do.”
            She shivered. “It’s irresistible. I really can’t get enough of this great energy.”
            “Right, yeah, me too.”
            “No, really. I come from a long line of psychic vampires. We thrive on this. We need it to survive.”
            “Really. How about that.”

Another beauty, this one overheard at the book fair, by two people discussing the AWP dance party:

“Do you want to go?”
“An AWP dance party? Is that really a good idea? Will there be enough shadows and dark corners for everyone?”

Gloria: I wish I could make a Tag Cloud for the top words you hear at AWP. The few off the top my head are: publish, book, professor, tenure-track, coffee, and mentor. Are there any you can think of?

Courtney: Process, exercise, write

 Gloria: We also overheard some ridiculous conversations. Here’s where it gets interesting. From elevator chats to rants broadcast from makeshift soapboxes, we’ve been listening and we’ve heard it all.

“Do you know so-and-so?”
“Why yes, we published a book together last year.”
“Why yes, we share a publisher.”
“Why yes, he blurbed my book.”
And on and on.

Gloria: Oh sweet lord. We had a ridiculous amount of conversations with our eyes in Chicago. Some of our good-ole fashion talk, especially in Little Italy, included how we had finally dodged the AWP crowd. As wonderful as the experience is, it can really exhausting.

Courtney: This brings us to the downside of AWP. As great as the conference is, there are definite drawbacks. Gloria, what are some things that you wish you had known prior to attending your first AWP conference?

Gloria: I think AWP is one of those events that every professional writer should experience, but I do wish I had gotten some advice before I went.  So for those of you interested, a word of warning: Do NOT go to any panel with the words first, novel, publishing, and agent. They always put these panels in the smallest rooms and there are tons of obnoxious people standing outside of the door. They listen, sure that they too can have the same luck as the panelists. Move on, spend that time writing.

The first time you go you will attend a ridiculous amount of panels. You might take notes. You’ll be exhausted and God-willing you’ll process some of it. You might get lucky and find a panel that inspires you. You’ll be reminded why you are torturing yourself as a Grad student grading lame sauce comp-rhet papers and working on that collection of short stories.

Any advice Court?

Courtney: The crowds: As you cruise the floors of the AWP conference, prepare to duck and cover when panels end and a stampede of people pour from the ballrooms, racing to hit the bookfair, the bar, and the bathroom before their next panel. Ladies, a word to the wise: the day is short and the lines are long, so pace yourselves with your beverage intake.

No matter how well-organized a conference is, any event catering to 10,000 people is bound for pandemonium, even amongst our generally well-behaved tribe.

Gloria: I’m glad you brought up the Bookfair. This year I found it especially overwhelming. Every time we stopped by there were so many people. I did think we handled it well, and I would recommend doing as we did. We looked in the AWP conference guide and picked out the tables we were interested in and went directly to those tables. While we did want to adventure and check it all out, I do think next year we’ll have to try a new method. Also, be warned, the popular magazines sell out, so if you’re interested don’t wait until the last day, go early on. We totally scored on the fairytale cookbooks! They only brought two. What were they thinking?

Courtney: The crowds are definitely a pain, though there are other, far more egregious things that can potentially sour your AWP experience. There’s one panel in particular that comes to mind. Take it away, G.

Gloria: This year we went to several “privileged” panels. The Marilynne Robinson panel about representations of evil in literature was one of those panels we were so pumped about but the moderator was the epitome of AWP elitism. I think we should have known we were doomed when she said the idea for the panel came when she’d stayed awake watching French philosophers on Youtube until three AM. That was a red flag.

Courtney: It only got worse from there. The moderator had these fantastic authors, and she didn’t let them speak! The conversation always came back to her. When Marilynne Robinson and Ha Jin want to talk, let them. The audience is there for them, not a stuffy moderator who laughs at her own jokes. It was appalling. People were falling asleep.

So there you have it. We’re home, we’re surrounded by all of the fabulous books and free literary journals that somehow found their way into our carry-ons, and while we may be physically exhausted, our muses are ready to get back to work. Next up, Boston 2013. See you there!! 

Gloria Panzera currently lives in Charlotte with her husband. Her writing has appeared in The Inquisitive Eater, Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles.    
Courtney Watson received her MFA in Fiction at FAU in 2009, and her Ph.D. from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi in May 2012. She loves to travel, and her writing has appeared in Black Lantern, The Key West Citizen and more.