I recently received this piece from a tenure-track history professor at a liberal arts college. It provides a sobering and true perspective on the academic job market. –JF
Time and Chance
By An Historian
In ancient Israel, the Preacher, the Quoholeth of Ecclesiastes declared:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all. (9:11)
I’ve thought much about this passage in light of the Way of Improvement Leads Home’s series of posts about interviewing for history jobs. With the annual meeting of the American Historical Association coming up later this week, it seemed valuable to offer a contrasting view, so thanks to John for the opportunity.
In the History blogosphere, hints and tips for interviewing have become pretty commonplace. You can find them at places like Edge of the West, Tenured Radical, and some universities’ career development pages.
On one hand, these tips are necessary. There have been enough job candidates over the years who have been unprepared or unprofessional. Every search committee has at least one horror story. So, if you are going to the AHA, let me urge you to read them and to prepare accordingly. If you aren’t willing to put the time and effort of a professional into preparing for an interview, I guarantee you there are others willing to take your place.
On the other hand, I wonder if the production of these advice columns helps to perpetuate the myths of the profession. Historians (and most academics, I’d wager) like to think of themselves as rational individuals and the job search as a straight-forward process. Having succeeded, historians want to portray their success as a meritocratic tale of worth. It feeds professional pride. They have worked the best and found their place. “Follow these tips,” these columns suggest, “and you–the best of the best, the creme de la creme–can succeed in the same way.” In this story, success is proof of merit, and not landing that coveted tenure track job is proof of personal failure.
This story also carries with it a tale of the job search process as part of the Modern outlook: the job search is a mechanistic process that can be predicted, planned, and controlled. Thus, more knowledge and preparation can lead to scientific success. The job candidate is encouraged to prepare and shape her own future through self-mastery and planning. “The job search is your oyster,” this narrative suggests, “good preparation will lead to a satisfying and ideal fit for you to launch your stellar career.”
But–what if this story weren’t the complete story? What if other factors were operating? Again, when historians are honest, they’ll acknowledge that job searches aren’t straight forward but open to all kinds of other forces. Examples could be multiplied, but consider unexpected events that happen in job searches:
•Personal connections. One applicant is good friends with a member of the search committee.
•The dreaded “inside hire” really does exist.
•How far down the list a department goes varies widely. Often the department will get their first choice, but sometimes they will be forced to go down to a fifth or even sixth choice. Is the second place candidate in one search who doesn’t get the job so much worse than the fourth choice candidate who does?
•The personal animosity of a single search committee member could block a strong candidate.
•A department could bring in three candidates to campus, but a divided committee means the two strongest applicants are passed over in favor of the third compromise candidate who may not be as strong but is at least inoffensive.
•The committee is looking for a secret subfield that they never spell out during the process. You may be a great candidate, but you don’t have the exact specialty the committee wants.
•You may be of the wrong gender.
These are factors out of the control of even the most well-prepared job seeker.
And this brings us back to Ecclesiastes. In the midst of triumphalist job search narratives, the profession might do well to acknowledge that there is something tragic in the job search process, especially given the current economic environment and the forces that are reshaping higher education. There will be many good candidates who won’t find jobs. On the other hand, good but undistinguished candidates might work their way into undeserved positions. There is an unpredictability in the job search, as in life, that ought to temper how we talk about it. Job candidates can do everything “right”—they can prepare intensively and do everything suggested in these blog posts—and still not get an on-campus interview or the job offer. Time and chance disrupt our best plans.
How then might this reality shape how we historians talk about the job search? First, it might lead to more humility among those with jobs. Yes, they were earned, but they were also the results of forces beyond the applicant’s control. Second, it might encourage those doing good work yet who don’t get the follow-up call. This might not lessen the pain of rejection much, but the results are not entirely the effect of what one has done or not done. Ultimately, these circumstances point us to the reality that chance, even Providence, might be involved in career developments. The world is not open to our complete control. We must acknowledge the mystery of life even as we seek to move forward. We are not the center of the world; we do not create our own reality. Time and chance happen to us all.
Still, I do wish good success for all those in the job search process this year.
Thank you, historian. There is one job I totally have my heart on and hope that God will answer my prayer through opening the door. But over the last several days many of the things I hoped that job would offer me have become available to me by other means. (Other colleagues have offered to collaborate with me on the subjects I had thought I'd start there,… and I was offered an opportunity to teach the class I wanted to there.) I oftentimes find that God answers my prayer but not in the way I ask, or in the way I expect. I am trying to keep this in mind as I go onto the market thinking that there are the jobs I “want” and the jobs that “want me.” I think a lot of this is more complicated and misleading than it seems.
I like this post. http://www.intervarsity.org/gfm/well/resource/spiritual-difficulties-on-the-job-market