I spent nearly four years—beginning in November or December of 2014 and ending in August of 2018—on the academic job market. It’s numbing, and soul-sucking, and hugely time-consuming, a full-time job for which one gets no money and nothing but existential despair and criticism. (And I’m not talking about the rejections.)
Back in 2014, around the time I was starting my own search, Slate published an article about the Hunger Games known as the academic job search. It was really good then, and it’s really good now, although it’s probably gotten even worse in the ensuing four years—and my country‘s rampant anti–intellectualism certainly doesn’t help. I also still believed advice, back in 2014—though that has, in the end, gone the same way as any vestiges of optimism I may have had. My Master’s of Library and Information Science comes from what is consistently the top-ranked program in the country; my Master’s in Spanish comes from an excellent school as well. None of that, in the end, seems to matter at all—though I would argue that both make me better at my job.
Over four years of searching, I’ve been on the receiving end of a great deal of remarkably poor advice. Some of it came from professors, who meant the best but whose advice did not, in the end, stack up all that well against the realities of our brave new job market. We were told never to apply for part-time work, yet for many of us, part-time work enabled us to break into the field, and to make at least something while we hunted. (And that, in case you’re wondering, is itself an abusive system.) Hell, we’ve been being told for years that pretty soon librarians are going to retire in droves (don’t believe it!), and that demand for our profession will increase over the years—and, I mean, my God, there is a huge, glaring need for libraries, and for librarianship, but from what I’ve seen, a lot of those jobs will continue to be part-time or adjunct positions, and almost none will pay well enough to support a family, or buy a house and support a bunch of cats.
Not all the bad advice comes from our advisors. A lot of it—usually, in fact, the hardest to bear, and the most mean-spirited—comes from friends and family. Librarianship—both public and academic—is pretty highly stratified; a cataloguer, for instance, usually does not work public services, and a programmer probably isn’t cataloging. Similarly, my Master’s in Spanish focuses upon literature—to be specific, upon colonial Latin American and Siglo de Oro Peninsular works. It is not Latin American Studies, though certainly it has elements thereof. It is not strictly a language degree, nor even strictly a literary one. I never thought it was particularly confusing—I thought I was pretty good at explaining it—but I’ve learned that people rarely understand what the hell I got my degree in. (I suppose this is compounded by my own research tendencies: I studied, and study, gender, but my research area of preference is masculinity.)
So, no one knows what the hell our degrees mean. Some people know they don’t know. Others assume that anyone with a library science degree (or a Spanish degree) must be automatically qualified for every single facet of the field, despite its rigorous stratifications. I got endless advice to apply for everything, and then was endlessly told I was stupid (or didn’t understand the Real World) when I said I wasn’t qualified for cataloging, or children’s librarianship, or school librarianship (for which, in most states, one needs a teaching degree), but thank you anyway. When I worried about unsecured applications demanding social security numbers, I was told that one did what The Man wanted or one became a homeless loser. This is, obviously, wrong on about a thousand different levels, and something I can dissect now—but, when it gets said to someone on the job hunt, well, it’s a great way to make that person want to give up for good.
I’d like to say that particular gem was the only such “advice” I got, but it was not. I discovered quickly that I would also come in for constant criticism for failing to apply for positions for which I was wildly unqualified—a cataloging position, for instance, or a children’s librarian with an emphasis on story time, or a school librarian position that required a degree in education. It was wearisome, though I knew I was doing the right thing by holding out for the broad spectrum of public service positions for which I am more than qualified. Do you have some public services position for adults? With reference or readers’ advisory? Would my community informatics certificate—from back in the day when UIUC’s library school was GSLIS and they did certificates—come in handy? I’m on it!
My job hunt was incredibly destructive—of both mental and physical health, of prospects, of relationships. See, I’m not a forgiving sort of person. I’ve never been a forgiving sort of person, and maybe that’s because of the Machiavellanism, or maybe it’s the pseudoscientific INTJ thing, or the Slytherin housing, or those family stories about the English, coming to finish us off (which, evidently, they’re once again planning to do), but it doesn’t much matter either way. I’ll never forget those comments about being a homeless loser, or about not understanding my field, or the competitive job market. I’ve spent a lot of my life being underestimated—because of my build, maybe, or because I’m a woman with a cute, Puckish face, or just because it’s easier to underestimate than to give the benefit of the doubt. Whatever the reason, it’s made the condescension and the (often not exactly) veiled insults of the job hunt even harder to bear—or forgive.
Academia is hardly the only field to have increasingly horrific job hunts (hell, I hunted—and worked—in public libraries, too), and it’s increasingly difficult for anyone, regardless of field, to find a full-time position, especially one with benefits. My generation will live with student debt for a hell of a long time—maybe almost forever! and boy does it mess with the pursuit of happiness!—and most of us know that the situation will be even worse for the generations on our heels. Now, to make our precarious situation ever more fun, our stock market is headed to hell: we’re in the midst of the worst December for the stock market since 1931, which is hardly a comforting fact.
Despite the overwhelming awfulness of job hunting across fields, however, academic hunts remain their own special range of hell and hazing ritual—enjoy your job interview, all eight to twelve hours of it!—and the unrelenting assistance of the gleefully patronizing, and the snidely cutting, and the more openly insulting, make the process even worse. If I were as decent a person as my mother, I’d say I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy—but let’s face it, that’s probably not true. (I do, however, make an effort not to snap or snark when people complain about being on the hunt for a year.) It’s a hard, strange field, and a hard, strange hunt, and, maybe worst of all, there are no lessons to be learned, or ways in which to improve: it simply is, horrible and cruel and filled with hazing rituals. Unless, of course, one counts the depths of one’s despair, and anger, and inability to forgive, as things to learn. And I was intimately acquainted with most of those already.
Now, of course, it’s time put it behind me, at least for now, and to push myself towards publication.