Three Things I Wish I Knew When I Went on the Academic Job Market

by Rachel Neff, author of Chasing Chickens: When Life after Higher Education Doesn’t Go the Way You Planned

I started preparing for the academic job market in the summer of 2012. Using my temporary title of instructor, I requested review copies of as many books as I thought I might end up using to teach. If I was going to spend the time to design a course for a committee, I wanted to use what I created when I walked into the classroom – a sort of measure twice, cut once sort of approach.

Spoiler alert: all the hours poured into job application packets resulted in no interviews, which translated into zero job offers. Back then, the Modern Language Association (MLA) had recently moved their annual conference from December to January, so I spent my winter holiday break with the sinking feeling that all I was going to get in the new year was the professional equivalent of a giant lump of coal in my stocking.

It’s January again. I’m here to tell you it’s time to stop refreshing the job wiki every five minutes. Don’t fret about rumors (or facts) of inside candidates and the heartbreak of canceled searches. You’re going to need to get pragmatic. This might sound harsh, but your advisors and your peers in the academy have little to no clue on how the wider working world works. You can chase the diminishing hope of a full-time, tenure track position, but know that there’s an entire world outside of academia.

I have friends in my cohort who graduated and got the academic jobs. They’ve called me, some crying, to say they wish they had my life – the one outside of academia. As someone who made the transition from academic to “other” in the checkbox of post-grad life, here are the three things I wish I had known in December 2012 that will still serve you in December 2019.

1. The Academic Job Market Can Feel Fickle

Perhaps one of the most comforting things that was said to me during the academic job application process was from my advisor, who said, “I don’t know why some people get jobs and others don’t. Your application packet was very strong.”

Looking back at my graduate career, I had tried everything to position myself for the job market. I started by attending conferences all over the United States. I’d organized several workshops and conferences. I served on committees. At the end of the day, that undercompensated labor meant nothing. Those activities don’t even get a mention on my current resume.

Thus, when facing complete silence or outright rejection from the academic job market, it is really hard not to blame yourself. I spent a lot of time wondering if I would have gotten a shot if I had “just attended that one summer conference” or if I had “only served on a few more committees.” The reality is that you can do everything right during your graduate studies and still end up with no job interviews or offers. That doesn’t make you a bad person or an inferior scholar. It means you were unlucky. You bought a lottery ticket to become a professor and your numbers weren’t called.

2. Counseling is One of the Best Investments in Yourself

The academic job market is emotionally draining. Again, you can do everything right. Have a beautiful CV and amazing job application packet. You can still end up with no interviews or no job offers.

Counseling is a great space to find support outside of your advisor and peers. There is something to be said about the confidential space that is created in therapy. Kvetching about a peer who is getting interviewed at a top tier school who you felt wasn’t the best won’t get back to them. You get a safe space to vent.

Access to mental health care in the United States can be difficult, but reach out to your campus mental or health services to see what options are available. Some schools offer emergency or crisis counseling for five to ten appointments. Some of these appointments can be free. Many campus services can help refer you to practitioners who offer sliding scale rates.

The job market can bring about an identity crisis. You’ve spent years preparing for a career and identity that may or may not be going forward. This can be a huge blow. Getting support during this time can really help your mental health. I certainly spent a lot of time bawling in a private office about how unfair things were and how unhappy I felt my last year of my PhD. I started out with weekly appointments, moved to biweekly, then went to once a month.

If the pain and overwhelming disappointment of not getting interviews or not getting a job becomes too much, please remember the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. While this is often a taboo or hush-hush topic, it is important to note that there are services available and you are not alone. The feelings of failure and despair are temporary. It sucks. It hurts. But you are not only your dissertation and job title. You are a wonderful, inquisitive human being who can and will find purpose and happiness, even if it’s not as a professor.

3. Life Outside of Academia is Rewarding

I’m here to tell you that life outside of the academy is surprisingly wonderful. Work is a job and life goes on. Do I still feel a twinge of sadness when my friends talk about teaching and grading and conferences? Sure. I’m human. That’s the life I thought I’d have.

But, for the most part, I’m making as much as most assistant to associate professors. I have health care. I bought a house. I run a side gig. I write fiction and poetry. I knit. I live near my family and I have a job I enjoy. Is it a bit perfunctory box checking? Probably. But I’m happy. I leave work at work.

There’s money to be made. Careers to be found. All outside of the university system. Choosing not to chase a tenure track position by doing visiting assistant professor gigs for years at a time doesn’t make you less of anything. Again, I’ve got friends from my cohort who call and say they wish they had my life. Most days, I’m happy with how things turned out.

You’re Going to be OK

You might not believe me right now. That’s fine. But you’re going to be OK if you don’t get an academic job. You’re going to land on your feet. Might not be a graceful landing, but you probably won’t crash. If you’re wondering what my journey was like, then please check out my book, Chasing Chickens: When Life after Higher Education Doesn’t Go the Way You Planned. Why yes, the chicken chasing is literal – and hilarious in hindsight.

For more advice on transitioning to the non-academic world, please check out the collection Succeeding Outside the Academy, edited by Kelly J. Baker and Joseph Fruscione. My chapter is titled, “How to Eat an Elephant; or, There’s Life Outside Academia.” (Do we see a theme?)

My poetry has been published in several journals. I have a chapbook published and work in three anthologies (Bearing the Mask and Weaving the Terrain from Dos Gatos press and They Said from Black Lawrence Press). I doubt I would have had the time and energy to devote to creative writing had I stayed in my PhD field of Spanish literature.

There are many possibilities out there for you, and you can and will find happiness and purpose in other places.

Rachel Neff, the owner of Exceptional Editorial in Portland, Oregon, has worked as a digital strategist, a copy editor, an adjunct instructor, and a tutor. She is the author of The Haywire Heart and Other Musings on Love and has published in numerous anthologies and magazines.