The ritualized and routinized job market for English Ph.D.s begins with the posting of the Job Information List. Open faculty positions in modern languages for the next academic year are submitted in the early fall to the Modern Language Association (MLA), and the Association of Departments of English then posts the relevant listings on a password-protected list made available to those currently affiliated with an English Department.
In the past, I’ve drawn up a list of seventy to ninety jobs for which I’m qualified to apply. I then spend a fair amount of time organizing those job postings to highlight deadlines and the documentation required for application. It’s a fairly compressed timeframe to process applications to these posts, with most of the major research universities asking for documentation to come in by mid-October and second-tier institutions and many of the more prestigious liberal arts colleges having deadlines in November. Less competitive institutions may still have application materials coming in right up to the dates for the MLA conference that happens just after Christmas each year and where many of the interviews are done, with some continuing to interview through January and February. This year the first round of results from my search yields less than thirty job postings. There will be a smattering of positions advertised later, so I can expect to add maybe as much as a dozen to that total, but it’s still a grim sign for the profession and for my efforts to locate a better position within that profession.
Many people may see the number of posts and think, well, thirty to forty jobs to apply for: that’s pretty good in an economy where people have trouble finding one or two. But you need to keep in mind that there are thousands of English Ph.D.s out there looking for a job, with thousands newly minted every year, and each job posting draws many hundreds – and in some cases even thousands – of well qualified applicants. Each of the jobs I apply for, if past figures are any guide, will attract 400 to 800 applicants. This year it could be even more; certainly no less.
Previous job searches have found me looking for and applying for jobs only within a narrowly defined field of specialization: nineteenth-century American literature, or, when possible, postbellum to early modernist American literature. Two years of only 19th C job searches yielded me a handful of requests to see some of my writing and some letters of recommendation and only one interview. During that time I began working full-time in Writing Program administration (WPA). So at the next two years I’ve reluctantly begun to include some, mostly local WPA postings in my searches, and those have yielded a much stronger response, with interviews, sponsored visits, lectures, and the like. Still no job offer though. This year I’ve fully embraced what seems to be a tendency to define me as a composition specialist and searched for 19th C and WPA/composition instruction jobs equally, and I still find the job market significantly reduced.
Contributing to the economic reality of fewer schools advertising open positions is that my own professional niche seems to be disintegrating the longer I remain in the profession. Some of this is the accident perhaps of changes in the profession (and many of those changes are likely driven by the intense pressure the economy places on the profession), and some of it seems has to do with bad decisions I’ve made as I’ve been professionalizing myself over the past decade to be a professor of English. So in the earlier category we find the increasing dominance of rhetoric and composition programs over writing instruction, and even though many of them are willing to consider English Ph.D.s as being from a “related field,” the growing professionalization of rhetoric studies assumes that teachers of writing regardless of background are participating in the professional culture of rhetoric. I have not – I continue, whenever I can summon a little time to do so, to push forward with my scholarly pursuits and interests in American poetry, history of religion, and cultural studies.
That’s my decision, I suppose, and I can’t say I have a history of good ones, or of good advice on the matter. Nineteenth-century American literature is a fairly bastardized field to begin with, and judging from the job postings I’ve seen over the past few years, the tendency to divvy up the period and give the antebellum portion to the colonialists and the postbellum portion to the modernists seems to be increasing. That should be fine for me, as I’ve always embraced the latter category: I have little training in early American and a great deal of interest and training in modernism. The problem is my dissertation, which defines me professionally far more than I would like. It’s entirely on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, two figures that straddle the ante-/post- divide, yet both get generally get assigned to the earlier. My dissertation was supposed to begin with these figures and then look at secularization and secularism as a growing in importance in the creation and definition of modernist poetry. Except that the first couple chapters grew and grew in size and complexity until it was agreed that they were the dissertation, and I should polish them up, link them together, and end it there.
And certainly after too many years spent on it, ending the dissertation was a huge priority. Huge gulps of time had been swallowed by the ineffectiveness of my dissertation committee, my own discouragement with the profession, and – the happy side of the delays – the birth of my beautiful son.
The advice at the time I was getting was to do what I loved, and then find where in the job market I could sell that labor of my love. It was also to focus on the dissertation, and not get too distracted by side projects or even other professional endeavors like conferences: a few papers here and there was fine, but too many distractions dilutes the efforts on the dissertation, and ultimately that’s all that anyone looks at. Write a good dissertation and you’ll be guaranteed a good job. Well, this much is true: the dissertation defines your work and your interests so far as the job market is concerned, and I find myself able to apply to fewer 19th C postings because the job is either 19th C and early American, for which I’m not qualified, or its 19th C and early 20th, for which I have no scholarship to demonstrate my interest and ability.
Far more astute advice and direction would have said: define, structure, and develop the dissertation not merely according to your interests and desires, and instead give priority to how the job market classifies and defines job-types. Graduate students need to be pressured more to pay attention to trends and ensure that they can capitalize on them. Sure, at some level all of us are supposed to look dismissively at fashionable careerists who chase the latest trend rather than respect and retain deeper pursuits with fuller intellectual traditions out of their passion for the material, but at least those that pick up and embrace the newest and the hottest are defining themselves according to recognizable professional types. And I guarantee they’re getting jobs, whether or not their commitment to their scholarship thus far represents a deep and abiding interest or a superficial flirtation with an attention-getting new methodology that will be abandoned for the next one to come down the pike.
Bitter? A little, yes. It’s well earned. Wiser? Sure, to little avail. Discouraged? Not really. My life is good. The barriers to making it to where I want to better it are only that, barriers – not limitations to possibilities, just the channels by which we reach them. The next post, I promise, will be some nature writing about farm life.