Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Year Four

This year has been chaotic, difficult, and exciting all at the same time. I just wrapped up a four-year PhD program in English with a specialization in rhetoric and writing (and a certificate in women's, gender, and sexuality studies) and I graduated on May 17th. It still feels surreal, but you can call me Dr. LaFollette!

For the first three years of my program, I was mentored by the faculty at my university about going on the academic job market. I knew when fourth-year came around, I would spend the year looking for, applying to, and interviewing for academic positions. However, I don't think I was prepared for quite how difficult the whole process would be, or how difficult the entire year would be as a whole. I began applying for positions in July 2018. At the beginning of August, I became ill (first with strep throat, then bronchitis, then several misdiagnosed upper respiratory infections followed by a whole list of weird and concerning symptoms) and spent the entire month of August barely able to function. (I wrote a post about this ordeal here). I finally received a mono diagnosis during the second week of the semester and subsequently had to take a leave of absence from school and teaching (I was teaching poetry for the first time in my career and had to pass the course off to another instructor).

I was on medical leave for six weeks and then transitioned back to school part-time for another two weeks. At the beginning of November, I was trying to get back to my regular activities, but I didn't really start feeling like myself again until several months later. In November, I spent five days in Cincinnati helping out with a new staff assessment for Impact Campus Ministries (the organization my husband works for). It was a wonderful (and exhausting) experience, and it definitely helped me feel like I could tackle school and work again after being on leave for almost two months.

I had some setbacks with my dissertation, so over winter break, I wrote and revised as much as I could so I could send the final version to my committee when the spring semester started. Once spring semester came around, I took on another job (I was already working as a program assistant at my university and teaching online for another university) as a part-time nanny 15-20 hours per week. We were also hiring a new faculty member at my university, so I was trying to attend the candidates' research and teaching presentations since I was also on the job market. And, on top of this, I was still applying to as many jobs as possible and trying to get my dissertation ready for defense. I submitted the "final" version of my dissertation (which ended up being almost 300 pages) in January and defended my dissertation on February 18th! My husband and parents were even able to attend; it was a great day all around.

By January, I had been applying to jobs for six months and hadn't had a request for a single interview. I was becoming anxious and discouraged, but many of my other colleagues were experiencing the same thing. The academic job market wasn't strong this past year, and there weren't as many positions available. I started thinking about what I would do if the year passed and I didn't get hired. Would we stay in Ohio? What would I do? The whole process was anxiety-inducing, and it didn't help that family and friends and acquaintances were always asking if I had had interviews, found a job, etc. I didn't know what to tell them because nothing was happening.

In February, I had a phone interview with Campus #1, and I didn't hear back from them after that initial interview. A week later, I had a Skype interview with Campus #2, a very small, private liberal arts college (for a tenure-track Assistant Professor position). The following week, they invited me for a campus visit/interview. While I was preparing for that campus visit, I had a Skype interview with Campus #3 (a small, private Catholic university) and was also later invited for a campus visit/interview (it was for a one- to two-year Visiting Lecturer position). I came back early from a conference in Pittsburgh and went to my campus interview at Campus #2 the following day. A week later, I went to my campus interview with Campus #3. I didn't get the job at Campus #2, and Campus #3 canceled their search after my interview.

In late March/early April, I had a Skype interview with Campus #4 (a mid-sized public university) for a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor and Campus #5 (a small branch of a larger public university system) for a one-year Visiting Assistant Professor position. Campus #4 followed-up and asked me to come for a campus interview, and then Campus #5 asked if I could come during the same dates that Campus #4 had booked me for. When I asked Campus #5 if I could come during a different time since I already had another interview scheduled, they said they were no longer interested.

After returning home from my interview with Campus #4, I had a phone interview with Campus #6 (a small, private Catholic university) for a non-tenure track Assistant Teaching Professor position and a Skype interview with Campus #7 (a very small, private liberal arts college) for a one-year Visiting Assistant Professor position. I went for a campus visit/interview at Campus #6 and never heard back from Campus #7.

(As a side note, some of these terms/ranks might not make sense if you don't work in academia. Here's a Wikipedia article that defines some of these positions: Academic Ranks in the United States).

I tell you all this to give you an idea of how stressful the academic job market is. You invest so much time and effort into each application and interview (each takes hours of preparation as you tailor your cover letter, CV, and teaching and research materials to the job ad and research the school and the department before interviews).

If you don't know anything about academic interviews, let me tell you a bit about them. Universities will usually do initial interviews (via Skype or over the phone) with 10-20 job applicants, then they will narrow that pool down and invite 2-3 candidates for a campus visit/interview. The campus interviews can last between 2-3 days and involve meals with the search committee and meetings and presentations that last all day. I usually would have dinner with the search committee the night before my official interview and then the interview would start the next day between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. Depending on the size of the school, job candidates meet with the the president, the provost, the dean, the department chair, the search committee, human resources, etc. In between those meetings, candidates are required to give presentations on their research and facilitate a teaching demonstration (all of my teaching demonstrations were in actual classes, meaning I took over for that instructor for that class session and taught their class while the search committee and other faculty members observed). Lunch is typically with students or other faculty members, and candidates usually have dinner with the search committee after the day-long interview is over before returning to their hotel.

The process is exhausting.

While I was traveling for interviews, I was also going to conferences, submitting applications, and continuing with my work responsibilities (I was still working as a program assistant and teaching online, but had dropped the job as a nanny). My husband had also been in a workplace accident in February and injured his leg. Worker's compensation was taking forever to come through, so we were without his income for almost eight weeks, which only added to the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty we were both already feeling. On top of this, our lease was up in May, and when we asked our landlord if we could extend it until July or August (when hopefully I would have a job and we would be planning to move), she initially said "no." We spent two or three weeks trying to figure out what we were going to do about our living situation. If I did get a job offer, we would need to move in July or August, so we would have to move out of our current place and into a new place for two months just to move again. If I didn't get a job, we had no plan and didn't even know where we would live. A friend offered to let us stay with her and we could put our stuff in storage, but luckily it didn't come to that and our lease was extended until July.

May came around and I still didn't have a job offer. I was trying to come up with a plan for what I was going to do if I didn't get a position, but most days, it was too much to think about. Getting a PhD was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I kept hoping I didn't go through the whole process to come out empty-handed.

On May 6th, after applying to almost 80 jobs and having many interviews and campus visits, I got a job offer from Campus #4, a dream school and a dream job. (And, the day after, I got a job offer from Campus #6, but knew the other job was the right position for me). I accepted the offer and signed my contract; we're moving (back) to Indiana on July 27th! I'm so excited about this position and can't wait to start in August. After the year we've had, I'm looking forward to getting settled in our new place in our new city.

I'm sharing these stories on my blog for a couple reasons. One, I don't think many people knew how rough this year was on us, and announcing my new job and the move on social media was exciting, but it didn't show any of the chaos of the months leading up to it. Transparency is important, especially when we only tend to share the good things on social media. Second, if you are on the academic job market this year or will be soon, you can do this! Surround yourself with good friends and family who support you. Be patient. Don't take rejections personally - there's so much that happens behind the scenes of a job search that you just don't know about.

God is good. Here's to new adventures!

My partner in crime. After five years in Ohio, we're moving back to Indiana!