Thursday, October 27, 2011

Academic Job Hunt Leads to Brain Depletion

Okay, so this isn't actually research-based brain depletion. This is just me talking; I was asked by a former student to give advice -- and so, having been on the market a few times, I thought I'd weigh in. (My take and my advice are only that -- some thoughts gathered together. Mainly, I wish you all good luck and Kevlar toughness.)

The academic job market is brutal -- especially right now. (What job markets aren't brutal right now? Foreclosure specialist?) The two main problems with the academic job market are
1. that it entails fully and completely re-imagining your life -- this is the true source of the brain depletion -- and
2. it's seasonal -- there's this one big hunting season. If you don't hit it, you usually have to wait until next year. (Except that you don't -- and I'll get to this!)

Unlike many other jobs -- especially entry-level -- you usually can look for positions in the place you already live. Some fields are geographically contained to one or two areas of the country. Once there, a new job doesn't have to entail a move -- as it usually does in academe.

If you send out ten applications for, say, Creative Writing jobs in academe -- a modest sum -- you're likely looking at two-to-three different geographic regions of the US. And you'll be competing with hundreds of applicants for each post -- even for posts in North Dakota.

Also, in this market in creative writing, you'll be competing with those writers who were making a living in the wilds but have since decided to try to find some shelter -- a rugged breed who rack up pubs because their lives have, in fact, depended on it.

You might think that what's leading to the brain depletion -- for surely you're exhausted in ways that surprise you -- is the incredible minutia involved in formatting your CV, detailing your entire teaching philosophy in a page or two, picking and choosing the exact right sample of your work, hitting up your recommendors (again), the uploading and uploading ...

But no. For me, it's been the effort of trying imagine myself living among mountains or in this or that city or in this or that podunk town three hours west of civilization or in the dustbowl or the swamps or suddenly near my in-laws...

And then you wait. This, too, is exhausting. You wait and wait to see if you're going to get a few big calls to attend MLA for interviews. This also is wearying (and sometimes insanely last-minute). Let's say you get one interview and have to fly across the country, pay for a hotel room ... to sit in another hotel room to talk to 3-5 strangers who may or may not despise each other and answer questions about things that are pertinent -- or not. Maybe you're lucky and get to do this a number of times during MLA.

And then ... you wait again. If you get an on-campus -- and you want to do it right -- you immerse yourself in the faculty you'll be meeting -- you get to know their work -- you get to know their university, their department, their programs and publications ... You study up, which takes a lot of time. And while they pummel you with questions, you're trying to figure out if this is a place you could live, if these are people you could work with, if you're going to get anymore on-campus interviews, if timing-wise you'll have to make a call before you even know your options ...

The imaginative effort is grueling. The amount of power it requires could fuel a couple of lengthy novels.

And then it's over. You have a job or you don't. But this ending to the hustle-bustle is hard either way. If you got a job, now you must haul yourself to it and dig in -- not only to the job but to an entire new life. (The more people you've got in tow, the harder this becomes.)

If you didn't get a job, you wonder what you did wrong. The truth is -- it's a numbers game. And the numbers right now are not good. In another market, you might have gotten a couple of offers, had your pick. You cannot let this get at you.

The main thing for creative writers is that no matter where we are and what we're doing, we should be able to find time to write. Chuck Palahniuk wrote FIGHT CLUB in part in pencil and paper, while lying on his back under cars, pretending to fix them.

Where a surgeon needs a hospital and a scientists needs a lab to do the work they're called to do, we only need our own brains -- a few simple tools. We've done this for centuries -- in prisons and trenches... We can still write.

And think of those writers who've been in the wilds again -- the ones you might be up against now for jobs -- they wrote because their lives depended on it. That's what the wilds can teach -- hunger. Writing in comfort versus writing on your back under a car ...

(Not that writing in academe is actually writing in comfort -- academe can be its own jungle. I've written some very hungry prose while supposedly writing in comfort.)

And, listen, academe isn't the only place that will have you. Sometimes I think grad students imagine that it's either academe or a cubicle in an office complex somewhere. Not true. There are really gratifying, creative jobs out there -- even some that are really gratifying (on the soul level). You have no idea how (weirdly) valuable the MFA and Ph.D. are in the wider world. The people I went to grad school with for my MFA have done the following:

editor of an outdoorsy mag, editor of weekly newspaper, communications director, director of a camp for terminally ill children, ghost writer (over a million copies sold), freelance writer, grant writer (nice income and flex hours), started own publishing press, literary agent, tennis coach, ski patrol, conference coordinator, editor at a publishing house....

There are other jobs out there. Keep a wide view. Some of these jobs don't entail re-imagining your life, uprooting everything. They aren't all soul-sucking or even require a necktie. And they aren't seasonal. You can keep looking, year-round.

But most of all, write. Always that. Write. It's what you're called to do and, in the end, it's what makes you undeniable.