Why They Want to Reject You
You’re a Ph.D. student, and you dream of being a professor. You’ve written your dissertation, scheduled your defense, and you’re heading out on the market. You’ve been proactive and smart, you’ve researched the market, and you have a solid record of teaching and even a peer reviewed publication. You will surely rise to the top. Right?
Because the search committee wants to reject you. They don’t love you. They aren’t excited to see your application come in. On the contrary, they dread dealing with it. But it’s not personal. It’s not you they dread, per se. It’s the search itself. The whole exercise of sifting through applications, evaluating, discussing, interviewing, inviting, and offering in this demoralized and downsized industry.
Let me explain. As you may or may not know, the academy is in a death-spiral. Permanent tenure line jobs are almost extinct, replaced with adjunct positions. 75% of university instructors are now contingent. No, that’s not just at community college and for-profit institutions. 75% of instructors are contingent at the very best universities in the land. The ones with ivy. And those who are adjuncts are paid Walmart wages. I don’t exaggerate. 25% of adjuncts are on public assistance. That’s how bad it is.
That’s the context. Now, you probably never thought about this before, but one of the consequences of the evaporation of tenure track faculty is that the full-time faculty who remain have to do way more work. Their teaching may or may not have increased — that depends on the dependence of their department on adjunct substitutes. But aside from teaching, there are things that only full-time tenure line faculty can do, and most species of administrative service are among them. Fewer faculty are handling more administrative tasks, and teaching under worse conditions (think Wisconsin here), and seeing their incomes fall further behind the cost of living . . . and they are not a happy lot.
Here’s something else you probably never thought about. When and under what conditions do those overburdened faculty members actually read your files? Are they sipping cocktails on a breezy veranda, poring excitedly over the brilliance emanating from each and every page? Actually, no. Here is the average day of the faculty member who is reading your file:
She wakes up at seven a.m. to get two kids up and fed, teeth brushed, and out the door to school. Runs from school to the office, and preps for her large intro class (enrollment three hundred). Teaches class. Comes back to seventy-five emails from large intro class complaining about grading of recent midterm. Meets with teaching assistants who handled the grading and are now at the center of a mass undergrad class mutiny. Handles crying TA. Rushes out to lunch meeting. Rushes back for office hours. Meets with fifteen unhappy students, some of whom threaten to speak to the dean about her class. Works on paperwork for re-certification of large intro class for gen ed requirements in the college. Realizes data are needed but office administrator, now shared with two other departments, is unavailable to provide data. Walks to an office across campus to find someone who can provide data. Pores over impenetrable enrollment figures. Comes back late for faculty meeting. At faculty meeting department head explains further 18 percent budget cut to be absorbed in the coming semester, reductions in TA lines, and increasing enrollments in all courses. Leaves faculty meeting early under the judgmental glares of childless colleagues, rushes to pick up kids from after-school care. Hustles kids home for piano lessons and soccer. Throws dinner on the table at six-thirty. Cleans up kitchen. Argues with partner over unwashed dishes from breakfast. Helps kids with homework. Bathes kids and puts them to bed. Folds clean laundry left over from night before. At nine-thirty sits down to computer to log in . . . and groans to discover there are 349 viable applications. Lecture for next day’s class still not finished.
Is this search committee member excited? Eager? Enthusiastic? No, my friend. She is exhausted. Dare I say enervated. What she wants, what she wants more than anything in the world at that moment, is to be able to reject 324 of those applications so that she can get to the long short list she needs for the next day’s meeting, shut down the computer, and go to bed.
How much time is she going to give to each application in this initial rejection round review? A minute or two; five if you’re lucky. The letter gets skimmed, and the CV gets glanced at. And voilà — 93 percent of the files are summarily dispatched to the reject folder so that she does not have to look at them or think about them or worry about them for one more second.
Overwork, exhaustion, irritability, second shift, increasing service, and ballooning numbers of applications — this all comes together into that moment when your file is opened and gets its first look. It’s not pretty. They don’t love you. What they want, with all their hearts, is to reject you.
So what do you do? You deliver an undeniable record of refereed journal articles, sole-teaching experience, major grants, national conference presentations, and illustrious recommenders, along with a dissertation project that is timely, important, innovative, and above all: finished. You deliver this record in a small number of flawless pages. You give them exactly the information they need, and not one word more. A two-page job letter, a one-page teaching statement, a two-ish-page research and let’s say (just as an example, not a prescription!) a five-page CV . . . on those ten slender pages rest your hopes for permanent, secure employment, health insurance, benefits for you and your family, and the opportunity to work in your chosen profession. There are no ten pages that you’ll write that carry a greater weight, and that are worth more money. Do they guarantee you’ll get a tenure track job? Absolutely not. Not in this market. But they are the bare minimum requirement for trying.
And yet candidate after candidate throws these documents together in a day or two, believing that somehow — by magic perhaps — all the years of work will simply automatically translate into the outcomes they desire, with no sustained critical effort on their part to do the translation of it in language the search committee will respect and respond to.
Needless to say, this belief is incorrect. A set of job documents requires hours and hours of painstaking, exhausting work. This isn’t just reading for typos. This is scrutinizing each and every word, to make sure it communicates some fact of your record that advances your fit for the job. Without emotionalism, pandering, or desperation.
Some dismiss this attention to the writing as an anal, obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with meaningless detail. It isn’t. The space of translation between the record and the outcome is a space of tremendous creativity and meaning — it is a kind of self-making — and it deserves deep care and attention. You may never get a tenure track job, despite your efforts. But go into the search (and leave it) knowing you did everything possible to make the case for your record and accomplishments.
Adapted from THE PROFESSOR IS IN: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job © 2015 by Karen Kelsky. Published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC; also published in Chronicle of Higher Education Academic Workplace 2015.