Monday, September 26, 2011

What to Say? A Job Seeker Thirsty from Old Oscar from Osceola.

I consider myself an old hand at the job wars, having held 7 positions in 15 years.

I've been a happily trailing spouse (my wife works in the railroad industry), but it's made my C.V. a bloody mess.

I've had VAP spots and some adjunct spots, and even - gloriously - one job until tenure.

But when my wife's business took here elsewhere, away we went. I've had campus visits where people have said to me, "Why would you leave a tenured spot?"

And I just say, "Well, my wife makes 3 times my salary, and we have to feed the kids, the hamsters, the dog, and ourselves."

But life has changed. My wife has left her field because she's grown disenchanted with her role and the changing industry. And now I want to wade back into the job search. (And yes, poor me, I'm in English.)

Q: But what do I do about my traveling history? I've left a tenured job. I have great references, but I've moved around. I've taught community college part-time, and was a VAP at a top tier R1. But I LOOK weird on the CV. Do I fess up about my trailing spouse situation in my opening letter, or do I wait for phone/conference interviews? How would you react to someone like me asking you for a job in your department?


  1. Say it like that. You provide a valid explanation for your having moved about. And then you assure the hiring manager that that won't be happening anymore because your wife is leaving the field because she's disenchanted with it.

    But have you considered calling your old department chairman where you had tenure? Maybe you could chat with hir and/or even get hir to recommend you to someone. If you left on good terms and for legitimate reasons....

  2. Because if you send that application to me, I'll probably find a way to investigate why you actually left the tenure gig. I will want to know why you left, and I probably won't just take your word for it.

  3. I'm with Bubba on this one, having been on hiring committees (in English), I too would have questions. However, I would totally understand leaving a tenured position, because it's likely to happen to me within the next 6 months when my OH's new position is nailed down--in a different state.

    So, in your cover letter, acknowledge your weird history but give the hiring committee a good reason to get past it.

  4. Trent from Tallahassee sends this:

    Oscar, you are in for a world of hurt. As a Humanities department chair for quite a few years, I've been a part of many English searches. Your story, though no doubt true, would not interest us if your dossier came across our desks - which it very well might.

    There is such a surfeit of well credentialed candidates that a shot in the dark prospect like you won't get much of a look. Your history is your history, regardless of whether your wife was the conductor of the damn railroad.

    You have paved a path in the employment underworld, and without a sea change in the academy, you'll have to continue working in the positions you've found so far.

  5. Bubba,

    I welcome folks to check my record with all of my employers. The chair and dean at my formerly tenured position are both on my CV and both have letters of support in my dossier.

    My leaving that position is exactly what I said it was. My wife got transferred to another part of the country, and we decided to stay together - for the children, hamsters, and dog.

    And the old push and pull, of course.

  6. But I'm disenchanted with the changes in this industry! At one third of the salary natch! So what am I missing here?

    Hate to be a downer, but this sounds like a case of frying pans and fires.

  7. What does the "publications" section of your CV look like? That would be the only thing that mattered to us. If you've had an eccentric history but still published at a respectable rate in respectable venues, the rest can be overlooked. If not, that's another story.

  8. I think it really does depend on where you are trying to get a job, and how shiny your vita is. Archie is right--if you're looking to get a tt at an R-1, and you have a stellar publishing history, if you finesse it they will probably overlook the zig-zagging around.

    But like Trent, I've been on many search committees. I don't know where he teaches but at a smallish liberal arts college where you have only a handful of colleagues and a search is a major time-suck, many committee members would drop your vita like it was covered with anthrax, because no one wants to search again in two years when you fly off somewhere else.

    Any explanation you give, unless you actually know the people involved, is going to be taken with a very big grain of salt. Unless you have something else going on that makes you a weightier candidate, you're going into the discard pile.

    Now I for one value experience, and will always go for the more experienced candidate. We've had the opportunity to hire people that have come to the area because of spouses, and left tt jobs for that, but they hadn't been doing that for fifteen years.

    But as for maximizing your chances...honestly? I'd get a little out of the box with regard to your work experience. Instead of listing your seven jobs in reverse chronological order on your vita, I would write up a narrative instead, reworded and re-emphasized from your letter, where you can compress and expand your history and can perhaps gloss over some of the less noteworthy experiences. If you're applying at a teaching college, something like, "Over the past fourteen years I've had valued and varied experiences in many different teaching situations, from part-time at a community college to a VAP at Top Tier to a tenure-line position at Insert School Here. In all cases I have achieved excellent evaluations both from students and colleagues, as my recommendations attest. Much of the meandering was a result of trying to negotiate a family with two careers, but this is no longer an issue and I am looking forward to sharing that varied experience in a place where I can establish myself as a more permanent resident." Blah blah blah.

    If you're looking to highlight your publishing history for an R-1, punch that up as the constant that never wavered despite all sorts of different assignments.

    I can tell you that if I were looking at applications, and I saw a list of places you'd bounced around, I'd probably just ignore the rest of your application. If I saw a paragraph, I would at least read it. Just because it's so out of the ordinary.

  9. Yeah, I think only publications can really save this one. I'm sorry to say that where I work, this would be read as not taking your own career seriously enough, as we have a couple of long-distance couples hacking out lives the best they can while they pursue separate careers. But Stella's suggestion seems worth considering.

  10. The answer is pretty simple, to me. If you looked like someone we wanted to hire, we'd feel damn lucky that you were ready to settle down and considering taking our job. If you didn't look like someone we wanted to hire, we'd look at your wanderlust-prone CV and say, "there must be something wrong with this guy" and pass on it. In other words you would either be on our fly-in list or not even on our phone-interview list.

    So how do you make yourself look like someone we'd want to hire? Three things: a very well-written one-page cover letter that tells us simply and in the second paragraph, what you've been doing and why all the wandering. Decent publications, as much as we would have expected you to produce if you had had a tenure-track job for all those years. Yes, this is unfair; how are you supposed to publish that much when you're moving every two years?. But unless you have a kick-ass paradigm-changing book out, you'll need to make up for it in quantity.

    But the third thing might matter even more than the others - personal connections. Now is the time to drum up every connection you've got. Who's your adviser? Does he have a Name? Does anyone on your committee have a Name? Get them to write for you. Do you know anyone anywhere who has a personal connection with the chair or with senior people in the department you're applying to? Evaluate this for every department. You need people they KNOW - either by reputation or by grad school acquaintance or friendship or whatever - to get in there and say good things about you.

    I've been astonished how much and how often personal connections do the trick. Of our last five hires, one was an adjunct in our department for 2 years (so known to all of us); one was recommended by the previous incumbent; one was a friend of an undergrad mentor of one of us; one was a grad student at the same school another one of us had adjuncted for a year; one had been recommended in conversation by the thesis advisor of another member of the department, who had met him at a conference. So every single one had a personal connection with someone, by one or two removes, and it was that extra personal recommendation that tipped them onto the shortlist.

    That won't help if you don't have the CV. But it can make you jump out of the pack if you do.

    Thinking about it further, the best personal connection you could have is the chair of the place you had the TT job. If he knows anyone in a department that's hiring, beg him to make a phone call.

  11. I had a similar history to yours but kept up my publications and conference presentations. I wrote up a similar narrative (to what Stella suggests) by capitalizing on my varied experience across various institutions (community college, R1, SLAC, IEP, etc.), and got an interview at almost every school I applied. This said, that was six years ago... but no one held it against me when I showed how much experience I had gained by not having stayed in one place my whole life.

    But then I also was willing to accept my t-t job by doing long-distance with my family for five years.

    The job market being what it is now, you might be able to better get your foot in the door adjuncting first so they realize you are for real... although that doesn't pay the rent or feed the kids.

  12. Even us folk down here remember how Cletus Summers brought back Norman Dale... after he was banned from basketball in New York and nobody wanted him.

    When you're hurting, you go back to what you loved and you go back to the people who knew you when you were good. If you're honest with them, lots of times they'll help you. They want to help you.

    Some people will say you don't have a prayer, you can't write the book, you can't discover the theory, you can't win the championship. Ignore those people.

  13. Don't bother applying here. As the always astute Stella points out, "smaller" schools and departments hate job searches. We look for any reason to cut that huge stack of applications by 75 percent. And frankly I must say that yours would be a quick cut--no matter where you went to school and how many pubs you have. Our fear is that we would have to replace you in a few years.

  14. @Tuba and others:

    Are you all saying that you just don't believe Oscar?

    I'd think there are lots of couples out there who have 2 careers going, and certainly it could be that the woman is the lead spouse, and certainly it could be that she's actually leaving her career and the formerly trailing spouse is seeking a job.

    I guess I'm surprised by the negative responses.

  15. Thanks for the responses, though I must admit they leave me a bit depressed.

    I, too, wonder if readers just wouldn't believe me when I said I wanted a job, and that my role as a trailing spouse is over. I can't say it any more clearly than that. And if committees are looking for reasons to not believe me, then I'm really out of luck.

    But for one reader to assume that I haven't taken my career seriously enough is really troubling. I've always worked, hard, and to the limit of whatever was available at the time. Moving to a tiny town in Iowa for a year does not, however, give one time to cobble together a full time load of courses anywhere. (Especially when you move there in October.)

    There have been some questions about my productivity. I've published 4 books and about 20 articles, although 2 of the books were mass market things, and not tied directly to what I do in the classroom.

    And my relations with past employers is good, and every couple of years I see these old pals at conferences or alumni events and I know they're pulling for me.

    Having tenure was okay, but it was not the grail I was always told it was. The fact that my wife was our breadwinner for so long made it a necessity that her career needs were more important than mine, but I was always able to give my employers plenty of notice, and on more than one occasion I headed up the committee to replace myself.

    I love teaching and although I'm sorry my wife's career is coming to an end, I've been really excited about seeking an academic home for the the last 20 or so years of my teaching career.

    But these comments so far have really tempered that excitement.

    Still, I value your feedback, and I thank you for your answers.

  16. @Darla:

    I do not think that it is a question of whether anybody believes Oscar or not. I believe that he is sincere, but it don't make no never mind.

    When you are confronted with a massive stack of applications (and depending on what field of English Oscar is in, that stack might well have 300-400 files in it), your first pass through the files is an "elimination run" in which you are quickly cutting everyone who is not a plausible fit for the job.

    It may be unfair, but unless Oscar is a highly plausible fit for a particular job as advertised, his story is going to make him an easy cut at a stage where committee members are looking for easy cuts. The easiest way for him to establish that fit would be if he maintained a tenure-stream publishing profile despite his "outside the stream" lifestyle.

    The only prayer (and it is a prayer) that he has is to make a strong case in the first two paragraphs of his letter, as Stella and Merely rightly point out. If he doesn't win them over there, he's finished.

    It is, as a snowflake once wrote in a paper for one of my classes, "a doggy-dog world" out there.

  17. Oscar and I posted at the same time.

    If you have 20 peer-reviewed articles, 2 monographs, and 2 mass-market books, then you certainly have maintained the right kind of output to help you over the first hump. I suspect that since you did not mention publications in your original post, most of us figured that was not a substantial part of your profile. But clearly that impression was in error.

    That said, you need to make a customized pitch for every job to which you apply. Make your best-case-scenario argument for why you are the right one for the job as advertised.

  18. Why are we tip-toeing around it.

    I'm an academic. Someone tells me they left - of their own volition - a tenured job. I know it's a lie.

    Oscar cannot be telling the full truth, and I suspect he knows it.

    Also, show me his 4 books before I'm going to buy that, too.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. Hi, if I may, after thinking more about it, I wonder that for my department if it's not about believing an applicant. Perhaps it's more about faith and trust. Someone new to the process asks us to have faith that s/he is what s/he promises to be. And we hire those people. Someone with a "record" or history that gives us pause asking us to trust that now things are different makes us anxious. And being anxious is not what we like to be here. Easy cut; move on the next file.

  21. All I am trying to say is that where I work, you're expected not to "trail," particularly not a non-academic spouse. If you're the ghost of Jacques Derrida, or your spouse was him, OK, maybe. But in general, we hire people either fresh out of grad school or with a proven record at a tenure-track job. Often, the latter kind of candidate has held down their job with their spouse in one place and them in another -- that's part of what it means to take the career seriously. I'm not defending it; I think academia is ferociously family-unfriendly. But the "whither thou goest, I will go" candidate who stays a year or two at every place will not be attractive to us, unless those books have transformed the field, and perhaps not even then. We've been burned before, and now when people leave, we lose the line *for good*.

    And if Oscar's in American lit and it's a good job, that pile will have 700 in it.

  22. Motherfucker does this page have the right name.

  23. Oscar, lean on your personal connections; after this long in the field you've got lots.

    Prickly Prof, it doesn't matter what we believe or don't. Everything Oscar says is documentable to a hiring committee, for whom it does matter. His publications are out there or they're not. He left the tenured positions as a trailing spouse or he didn't, but if he did, presumably the first letter of reference in his dossier will be from the chair of that department.

    If what he's told us isn't true, sure he has a problem. But he's got no reason to be making stuff up for us, when he's asking us for advice. We don't matter.

  24. As I've noted, I'm appreciative of the feedback.

    I just was not sure how to approach schools in my letter vis a vis my work history. I'm not ashamed or embarrassed about what I've done, and don't think my career has been tossed away.

    My wife and family come first for me, as I suspect is the case for most of you. It's created a harder road for my job search, perhaps, and I'm grateful to have your input to help me.

    Thanks again.

  25. prof_flake's comment last night was not deleted due to content. It was deleted for a variety of past actions against blog rules.

  26. @Prickly Prof: To quote the Dana Carvey(as John McLaughlin): WRONG! cf

    I know plenty of people who have left tenured positions for greener pastures. One of my favorite colleagues is leaving a full professorship at my institution for a (better-paying) job at a uni that rhymes with "Pandabuilt".

    I'm tenured, and I'm thinking about leaving. Why? Because my OH's latest opportunity is in another state (and it pays, quite literally more than 5 times what I'm making now). Commuting is not possible. Am I supposed to keep my low-paying job and live without my OH just because sometime down the road some schmuck is going to think that nobody in their right mind leaves a tenured job? Nope. Sorry.

    So, you're wrong if you think the only reason people leave tenured positions is due to some sort of malfeasance (I'm assuming, by your tone, that that's what you're driving at).

  27. I would leave academia in a heartbeat if my husband made enough money.I don't think I'd leave no matter how much we had if we had to live where we live, but if we ever moved away, to somewhere that was more "stimulating"...'bye 'bye academia.

    Basically he'd have to make his salary plus mine and then some, because it's cheaper to live here and he'd have to provide our family's insurance. He'd also have to have a good deal of job security. And we'd have to be moving to a place that I'd be willing to call home for the rest of my life.

    But in that case, I'd be gone, baby, gone...

  28. Oscar, apply for the jobs. You're going to apply anyway. Don't NOT apply simply b/c of what we've written here. Good luck with your job search!!!

  29. Hi, Pardon yet another comment from me. I've decided that you must apply for jobs and thus you must address your history. Be upfront about it--straight away. That way, anxious departments like mine won't consider you--saving your time so you don't get cut later. Yet other departments who will have a kinder reaction will appreciate your situation. Good luck. But when you are rejected, don't take it personally.


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