Being on the Academic Job Market

Saint Jude Shrine Baltimore

I have a few simple thoughts about things I’d wish I’d known or remembered while I was on the academic job market. They occurred to me this morning, so here they are.

(1) So much of this is arbitrary.

I suppose that is a terrible thought, but there’s relief in it. I wish I’d understood how hard it is for a committee to make a decision once they’ve narrowed a list down to its viable candidates. It’s simple to dismiss someone who doesn’t have the skills we need; it is incredibly difficult to discern among the rest. We probably missed things, and we can’t predict the future. We definitely didn’t understand what everyone wrote. That is horrible for applicants since it means there are a million things you can’t control, and it doesn’t matter how hard you work to overcome all of them. You just can’t. It’s also important, even freeing: it’s not all on you. That’s probably the most essential thing I repeat to friends. It’s not all on you. I’m sorry, and at the same time you’re welcome.

(2) They know how to read course evaluations.

Some “bad” evaluations are really good. “This professor was really hard” usually earns poor scores, but if it’s paired with other positives (“very clear,” “tolerated other points of view,” etc.), you’re fine. It just means you’re a good teacher. Most professors that I know understand how to read comments and are not all that fooled by pure numbers. We also notice when you’re missing a year or so in there, and wonder where the hell they went. So maybe explain a bad semester rather than hiding it.

(3) Get over your dissertation.

That’s kind of a mean way to put it. Still, I have never had a colleague explain what I actually wrote about in my dissertation. Usually it’s “Balthasar and the liturgy,” which is half-true. I really don’t mind if they get it right. I understand why they don’t. They didn’t attend grad school with me, and we do different types of things together. My work these days (aside from getting that thing published) does not involve my dissertation at all. My scholarly work has referenced the areas again and also moved forward. What I’m trying to say is something I’ve mentioned before: it is time now to begin revealing an imagination for other things. Being able to indicate this in a serious way is important both for future research and for helping someone see what you can offer to the department, to the institution. Mostly, that isn’t your dissertation.

(4) The judgment of a committee is not a judgment of your career, your worth, or your life decisions.

A committee can’t possibly garner enough from your application in order to really judge your total viability in the job market. There are certain objective elements you simply must take care of (finish that dissertation, for example), but this is not an insight into your soul. It feels like that because of the amount of work you’ve put into your career, but it isn’t. Let that enormous weight be left to you, to those you love, and to the needs of your life as it stands. Don’t let a committee have that kind of power of judgment. Don’t be blind, but see a decision for what it is and what it isn’t.

(5) Where that one sentence is will not make or break you.

Seriously.

(6) Do not spell the name of the college wrong.

Seriously.

(7) Talk about yourself in more than one way.

Even now, when people ask me about my book (then: dissertation), I describe it in various ways depending on what I think my audience can resonate with and understand. I always say something true, but I almost never put it in terms that come purely from the book. Non-theologian academics (in CA) receive something like this: “It combines ancient, ‘classical’ Catholicism with modern ways of thinking.” (Oooh, modern.) Theologians not at all interested in anything I do may get something like, “I want to understand why and what Balthasar thinks beauty contributes to theology, especially in the arts.” People entirely unfamiliar with all of it will get, “I want to know why a theologian, who is interested in eternity, would rely upon beauty, which dies.” (Oooh, death.) I can connect with Thomists, Medievalists, linguists, etc, etc. All by first surfacing what someone else already knows and linking it to what I know. And it’s all true. It’s a bit easier for me because I study a theologian who demands detailed historical, philosophical, and artistic knowledge. But I could just as easily not care to find ways to connect. The principle remains the same: connect.

(8) Know who you are.

You might have to make a list of your skills, your interests, your experience. Just for yourself. You’ll need it so you can sell your skills. Yeah, that’s right. I said it. But you want to point to what a group of scholars can understand, to what in you they might want or need. Hell, convince them they need it. Try to have some trust in who you actually are as a scholar, which means knowing yourself. Only then can you connect, move on from your dissertation, and so forth.

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