Think this blog has been a bit quiet of late? Wondering how time consuming it can really be to look after one single baby who spends 14 hours a day asleep and most of the rest of the time busying herself with repeatedly standing up and sitting down?
Here is your explanation for my blog neglect. I have been applying for academic jobs in practically every free moment I’ve had since February. The tally for this academic year just ending is:
Jobs applied for: 8
Job offers: 0
In British academic circles, the American job search process is regarded as onerous. In American academic circles, the British process is regarded as chaotic and barbaric. On reflection I think everyone is right, and applying for jobs on both sides of the Atlantic (as we are theoretically committed to doing this coming year) gets you the worst of both worlds.
American academic jobhunting follows a strict annual cycle. One day in mid-September, the professional organisation for your field – in my case, the MLA, or Modern Languages Assocation – publishes The Job List. The website crashes. Panic fills the land. And about twenty or forty jobs in more and less appealing locations and departments, which you are more or less well suited to, are advertised, with closing dates in November. They generally demand a CV, cover letter, often a statement of teaching philosophy, sometimes a writing sample, and about three letters of recommendation upfront. They tend to want transcripts of your college grades, which is close to impossible to achieve if you were educated outside North America.
Many bottles of internet ink have been spilt considering the appropriate composition of the covering letter and teaching philosophy, and you can find lots of advice at Chronicle.com to read in early December as you agonise over why you haven’t heard back from any of the colleges you applied to. But here’s the nice thing about the American approach: it’s all done in one go. OK, you may have to tweak your teaching philosophy for each job, and of course you have to rewrite your covering letter each time. But there are efficiencies of time and energy in doing it all in one fell swoop, and if you need advice from your referees you can approach them just once.
The next step is the Convention interview. This is timed to ruin everyone’s Christmas holiday, interviewee and interviewer alike: MLA is at Boston this year, which I’m sure will be pretty in the early January snow. It is fairly common practice not to invite people to interview until the week before Christmas, just to give impoverished candidates horrible dilemmas about whether and when to buy a plane ticket as prices gradually climb. The Convention interview is a sift: they’ll see 10 or 20 candidates and decide which 3 or 4 to invite to a proper, campus interview. In other words, you may well have shelled out on your plane fare without having any real chance of getting the job.
So far I’ve never had a Convention interview. I’ve read horror stories about how they’re held in bedrooms, or in curtained cubicles like you’d find in a hospital ward, and how you might have ten in a day, so I don’t especially feel I’m missing out. Instead I’ve made it to one sift interview, which was conducted by phone. This is supposed to be the modern, humane alternative to making you buy a suit and a plane ticket. And it was cheap. But it was also pretty nasty, involving six interviewers and lasting about half an hour. The only question I now remember was: ‘Being from Britain, what do you think about class?’
If you make it through to the next stage, the campus interview is a deluxe affair, which normally takes place some time between January and March. M had one at Northwestern. It involved a teaching demonstration where he was observed teaching the second half of an eminent professor’s own class, a presentation of his research, with Q and A, a series of individual interviews with a range of people, a dinner out, a drink with graduate students and three nights in a nice hotel. Time, money and attention are lavished on you.
After all this you hear nothing for days or weeks, and then: a job offer. Maybe. Or silence. It is considered profoundly unprofessional to ask for or be offered any feedback about why you didn’t get the job, even though you may have spent several days in the company of these people, prepared some teaching, wrote a research paper, and familiarised yourself with the institution enough to ask intelligent questions on your endless round of small talk and interview situations.
Then you negotiate (from a position of ignorance and fear) a salary and working conditions, including equipment, teaching load, research expenses, adjunct teaching for your spouse… and you still have anything from three to six months to organise your move. And that is how it’s done over here.
In Britain, things are different. There is no Convention. There is no job list. There are no statements of teaching philosophy and there are no dinners. There is no negotiation. But what there is is a lot of eyeballing other candidates.
British jobs tend not to be advertised until the spring. From around March to June they appear at random on jobs.ac.uk, each with idiosyncratic application procedures, mostly with idiotic online forms that take hours to complete with such information as your GCSE results, last five employers and elaborate declarations of your ethnic and disability status, and a closing date a couple of weeks after the advertisement. Sometimes they demand that you come up with a course outline. Sometimes they want a statement of your current research interests; sometimes your future research plans; sometimes a 7,000 word published writing sample; sometimes a 10,000 word unpublished one. You never know what’s coming next and whether, if offered a job in March, you might have done better to hold out until July because something more appealing might be coming up. (Thankfully my lack of interview success has spared me this problem.)
If they decide to invite you for interview, they may give you less than a week’s notice. Less than a week to: book a flight; organise childcare and/or reschedule your teaching; get up to speed with the Department’s syllabus and research culture; write a talk about your research and/or teaching to the specifications they have just revealed; draft (in one recent case) four lecture course outlines; get over your jetlag; buy the extra outfit you suddenly realise you need because their interview process is going to run over two days…
You arrive. All the other candidates are being interviewed at the same time. You read lists of incoming guests upside down and peer around at breakfast trying to work out who your rivals are. If you know one of the other candidates (and you probably do) you can share information while awkwardly wishing one another good luck. Worst case scenario (this happened to me this year): the Department invites you to a drinks reception where the guests are the five candidates and three interviewers, and you all have to make pleasant conversation with one another while attempting to make a good first impression on your prospective employers and resisting the temptation to actually drink anything. It is reminiscent of the opening night of Big Brother. Second worst case scenario, and far more common: they plonk you all in the same waiting room so you have to spend the whole day sussing each other out and constantly recalculating your chance of getting the job. In this scenario one other candidate is generally either mad, evil or mysteriously absent, and your interview success depends on keeping your cool and, probably, leaving the waiting room and holing up in a coffee shop.
The usual thing with British job interviews is that you give a presentation in the morning, have a panel interview in the afternoon (after an awkward buffet lunch with panel and candidates), and then disappear to assurances from the chair of the panel that he will be phoning you very soon to let you know their decision. He then doesn’t phone you for several days. Then he sends you a sheepish email telling you that you will have deduced from the fact that he hasn’t phoned that you haven’t got the job, leaving you to feel rather stupid for not having given up hope two hours after you left the building.
If you get the job, you will probably have to move house, prepare your teaching and start work within the month.
And if you don’t, you go home, throw all the notes you made about existing syllabuses, potential new syllabuses, your research, the Department’s research, your potential colleagues’ research, impact strategies and fantasy house prices in the bin, pay the babysitter, reunite with your confused baby, get over your jetlag and remember that you haven’t written a blog post in weeks.