Academic “Job”

by Editors

ACADEMIC “JOB” — A Bread and Circus Column

Edited by the Staff

This column chronicles the perspective of intrepid, underemployed academics as a springboard for open discussion. Perhaps Alcofribas Nasier described this endeavor best: ‘However important it may be for all men to know the Truth, very few, nevertheless, are acquainted with it, because the majority are incapable of searching it themselves, or perhaps, do not wish the trouble.” De Tribus Impostoribus (Ch.1).

The Secret to Selling Yourself: Advertising Meets Academe

A mutual friend has sent us the following —

I live in a “mixed marriage” of sorts. At least, it became one after our move from grad school to our current locale and my partner’s segue into the corporate world.

Before that time—about eight years ago—we were both grad students, finishing up terminal degrees and considering our career options. We knew that living apart for the sake of academic postings was out of the question; it’s not us. We also knew how hard it would be to settle down and start a family on one academic salary. So, my partner made the move into the world of web-advertising and I decided to stick with academe. Surely I would get a full-time position before my student loans began to outpace my income. That’s why the loan companies create those schedules. How long could it take?

A house, his and hers Ph.D.’s, two kids and almost a decade later, my part-time adjuncting has both been a blessing and a burden. Blissfully, I have passed those years spending priceless time with my kids as they crawled, toddled and began their own school careers. And, with control of my own part-time schedule, I have been able to independently write and research.

Without a doubt the last sentence sticks a lump in the throats of all hopeful, yet currently underemployed scholars. We live each day making peace with the “publish or perish” conundrum of higher education: to get the full-time job you have to be published, yet, (as some of you may be aware) publishing can be fraught with great monetary output. Adjunct teaching on a contract-by-contract basis—however well it provides flexibility—does not pay well. Thus, time may be cheap, but money is still at a premium.

Luckily, my longstanding “temporary” college-home graciously supports me the best it can monetarily—and definitely with moral support. Thus, for each of my five “on-the-road” public lectures, and my online and traditional articles, I kept telling hubby (and myself!) that I was on the right path, inching closer and closer to the full-time finish line.

Unfortunately, I guess, eventually all dreams must come to an end. Or, at least, I might have to admit that my original bargain with the “adjunct-devil” is coming due. Every year my loan payments have increased on-schedule, and my commuting-, daycare- and living costs have risen without a significant pay raise. And, all this without that ever-elusive, crowning achievement of a full-time posting with its benefits and pay. My spouse has become less well-able to maintain a Zen attitude about my quest. He is woefully aware that he’s carrying us; I make a tenth of his salary.

My family has tried to understand my position. But, because I am the first academic in my family of business-people (my dad’s an MBA, my mom’s an Executive Assistant), I suspect that deep-down they think I’m absolutely crazy. Scratch that; I think they know it. They’ve seen my incredible outlay of “sweat equity” and resources without a tangible dividend.

Our conversations on the subject often sound like this:

“How much are they paying you to give that speech?”

“It doesn’t work like that. I’m traveling there on my own. I’m paying for it out-of-pocket.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know, but if I meet people, and/or get published I will probably get a job at…[fill-in the blank with imagined job offers at the countless schools I’ve unsuccessfully applied to- and interviewed for in the past ten years.]”

“You’re wasting your time.”

“I know it seems like that…”

So, here I am. Still trying. Still crazy for academe, still clinging to the dream. It’s become a Patsy Kline love song between me and my discipline. And, this torch song metaphor brings me to the most recent domestic clash between Advertising and Academe, when my spouse came close to demanding I end the affair.

Yesterday I went on a job interview at a VERY PRESTIGIOUS university, albeit for yet another adjunct position with—you guessed it—no hope of becoming a full-time job.

As I was parting with my delightful, engaging host, for some reason I felt compelled to be frank about my prospects for the fall: including a temporary one-year full-time position that I’ve been pursuing since November of last year. To me, laying my cards on the table was the opposite of leading these people on. I was at once telling them that I am extremely excited about the possibility of working there, while making it clear that things are still “in-play”. I knew I didn’t want to disappoint them, and inconvenience them in the event of “if and when…” I felt using candor was taking responsibility.

I hopped in the car, excited about how well things went and celled my better half. My elation quickly died, however, as I explained the end of the interview to my partner’s chagrin. He was utterly flabbergasted at my unflinching honesty, which he sees as a character-flaw at best, the ultimate in career naïveté at worst.

He blurted out: “When you’re closing the deal, you NEVER give them a reason to not hire you. ‘A bird in the hand…’ You know what I mean?”

“I don’t get it. I was trying to be polite.” (Confession: Over the years, it’s somehow been ingrained in me to treat colleagues as (formal) social contacts. Perhaps this is a relic of my particular discipline’s Old World, aristocratic roots.)

My courtesy was—to hubby the advertiser—a deal-breaker. Ouch.

And now, I feel totally confused.

For my partner, the corporate manager, the interview process is a nuanced, personal commercial where you hold back your true hand. To me, it is a High Tea predicated upon witty repartee and a hope of a court appointment.

But, why the psychological warfare angle? Is that chess-component as important in academe as the corporate world? When I think high-stakes chess, I think of a world-weary crusader and Death in plague-ridden Sweden—but I never think of academe.

So, my end of the semester question to you readers is: why is it that one has to be cagey about personal reality in a job interview? Aren’t we all adults? Isn’t it common courtesy to make the situation as transparent as possible?

I’m stumped and would love some feedback about your experiences with job interviews, career advice and strategy.

This will help me in answering that difficult decision, whether it’s time to cut the cord with academe—watching it drift off towards the horizon without me—or to keep on fighting for the brass ring.

Perhaps with my training and temperament, the conclusion is inevitable.