Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Sob Market

Transitional stages in life are often the toughest. After being safely ensconced in a particular way of life for a period of time, it is often depressing and anxiety-inducing to be faced with a major change. For me, these periods of time mostly have to do with finishing a degree of some kind and embarking on the next challenge.
            In the past, the “next challenge” was fairly predictable. When I finished high school, I knew I was heading to college. When I finished my Master’s, I was already accepted in a PhD program. The end of my BA was a little different, in that I had no schooling or employment immediately lined up. This problem fixed itself fairly quickly, however, once I decided I would go to Europe to teach English abroad. Not that that was a simple time, as moving to another country, doing an intense certification program, and finding housing and work were not easy tasks, either. Those moments of uncertainty were ones that I thought of frequently in this last year, while I was on the academic job market.
            What’s different about finishing a PhD, however, is that for most of us, this is the terminal degree. There are some crazy people out there with multiple PhDs—this is not in reference to them. For many of us, the end of the PhD is the end of our formal education. From now on, we will no longer pay tuition, no longer have student ID cards, no longer attend classes as students. In English, the aim is to become the teacher—the professor at the head of the class. Even when I was finishing my BA and wondering what the heck was next, I knew that somewhere in the offing was a grad school degree I would return to do. I wasn’t sure yet what it would be, but I knew it was there. The end of the PhD and the looming student loan payments meant that it was time to seek gainful employment. After 12 years of post-secondary education, you might say, it’s about time!
            Even before I started a PhD, even before I applied to PhD programs, I knew that the academic job market was…ahem…not great, to say the least. There is an entire long-winded debate about this problem and how we should deal with it (discourage people from applying in the first place? cut PhD programs? change tenure policies? figure out a way to train PhDs for work outside academia?). This post is not about that. It’s about the reality of finishing a monumental challenge—a doctoral degree—of which you and your loved ones are immensely proud, and then feeling immediately devalued by the dearth of job offers that follow. I knew that it would be tough, but nothing could prepare me for the months of feeling rejected, hopeless and rather terrified that I would never…ever…get a job in my field of expertise.
            Our nation has been in a recession almost since I started my PhD. I started in the fall of 2007 and the big crash that marks the official start of the recession was in the fall of 2008. Almost immediately my institution—like many others—instituted a hiring freeze. All of a sudden, I and many of my peers felt very grateful to be in grad school and not out on the streets, looking for jobs. I had various friends and even family members who had tough times finding full-time jobs, and I sympathized. In the last year, however, that sympathy turned to empathy. It seemed there was nothing worse than sending out application after application (the drafting of an individual cover letter and preparation of secondary required documents could take anywhere from half an hour to two hours per application) and getting absolutely no feedback.
            In the fall, it was disappointing. I mean, I knew my chances had been pretty low given that the jobs advertised in the fall for full-time positions were extremely competitive. So I tried to give it a pass. I redrafted letters for the spring and focused on a wider variety of jobs ranging from temporary, visiting, and tenure-track appointments. And still, until March, there was nothing but silence. One phone interview in March improved morale briefly, until it became obvious that there was going to be no call-back. I defended my dissertation at the end of March but felt that there wasn’t much to celebrate if I had a PhD but no job. The only thing to do, however, was to keep trying.
            Every once in a while I would get an actual rejection letter, but most of the time my applications were met with silence. In the silence, you start to wonder: what did I do wrong? Do I have some glaring typos in my cover letter or CV? Is it because I didn’t go to an Ivy? Is it because I’m not local to the job? I had no idea. Getting a job started to feel a little like winning the lottery.
           I felt adrift on a sea of uncertainty, one storm away from getting smashed against the rocks hidden under the waves. I started to wonder if I should consider other careers. Could I use my language skills to work for the Government? Would I make a good school teacher? Maybe I should use my party planning skills at be a wedding or party planner? I had to keep reminding myself that it was normal now to have to work part-time after a PhD and to apply for two or three years after the degree to find a permanent job. This wasn’t the end of the line, even if it felt like it.
           Finally in June things started to pick up. I had an article accepted by a journal and another article sent to a peer review.
          And I got an interview. It went extremely well.
             I finally got a job offer.
             Relief….so much relief. It seemed that with one phone call, with one interview, I could forget all the worry, heartache, depression of the application process, the 100 jobs I applied to and all the rejection that they entailed.

            I think, however, it’s important to remember that sense of being unmoored, rudderless, lost. Many of us tend to think of our lives as a straight line, an arrow beaming into the future, always advancing, always improving. We are supposed to be wiser, smarter, and more cautious as we age, moving swiftly past the mistakes, the foot-in-mouth moments, the disappointments. We want to believe that our identity is something tangible, inalienable, defining. This, not that. But the moments of transition reveal the ludicrousness of these beliefs. The start of a new adventure is the start of new joys, but also new mistakes and new frustrations. Similarly, the sense of being directionless or adrift reminds us that there are many possibilities for ourselves and our future, and that we must be prepared to makes changes and be flexible if things don’t turn out as we planned. It’s not necessary a bad thing, though I certainly don’t advocate jumping ship as soon as you lose sight of land, either. There can be satisfaction in seeing the uncertainties through and come out on the other side.

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