Tomorrow is my first day of class, and I’m not used to people calling me Dr. Buchanan.
For those who don’t know, I’m starting a new job as Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University, specializing in English language studies, but of course sneaking in medieval stuff whenever possible. However, as recently as April of this year I assumed that I wasn’t going to have an academic job at all. It’s my hope that by sharing some of the past year, I can help other people.
The day before my thesis defence (or defense depending on your country), I had an interview at Barnes and Noble for a job I wouldn’t get. I’m not entirely sure what did me in. It may have been the fact that I’ve never used an e-reader before. Not out of technophobia or anything like that. I just spend a lot of my life staring at a screen already, and I like the tactility of books. It may have been the fact that preparing for a defence makes it weirdly difficult to answer the question, “What have you been reading lately?” in an accessible way. I’m not sure that phenomenology, Old English, my own dissertation, and a novel called I am not a Serial Killer made for a very compelling answer. Really, it’s probably best to avoid using the words “serial killer” in a job interview. Or just avoid job interviews entirely the day before your defence. Or it may have been the fact that I haven’t had a customer service oriented job since I was a teenager.
Or have I? There was a flurry of internet chatter about Texas A&M-Kingsville incorporating the language of customer service into all of their job postings. David Perry was skeptical of what simply seems to be an attempt to import the language of business into the world of education without thoughtful reflection about what service means in the context of universities. But unlike him, I think, I have been in the position of having to explain how teaching at a university is like customer service, because it was one of the questions I was asked at that Barnes and Noble interview. I don’t have a compelling answer, primarily because customer isn’t the right word for student, but I think service is. And universities often fail to serve their students’—psychological, educational, financial, whatever—needs.
One of the other job interviews I had shortly after my defence was for a job packaging baked goods. It actually paid pretty well and offered health care. The major downside was that my hours would have been from 5pm to 2am. I’m actually glad that I wasn’t offered the job. I would have felt like I had to take it, and it would have meant that Renee and I only saw each other on weekends, which kind of defeats the purpose of living together after two years of long distance dating.
I didn’t hide my graduate degrees during those interviews, although I know some people who have. But I also didn’t insist on being called Dr. Buchanan. It would have seemed bizarrely hubristic to insist on the title while spending an hour doing a practice shift heat sealing packs of brownies while wearing a hair net.
I ended up working at a tutoring center, where my coworkers were people like me, the educated and underemployed, and teachers, the educated and underpaid. Other than my boss, I was the only person with a doctorate. I typically would tell students my educational background when I first started working with them, but I also introduced myself as Peter. The youngest students I worked with would sometimes call me Mr. Peter, but for the most part I worked with sophomores and juniors. And they respected me and thought I was intelligent. One said that he thought I was smarter than his teacher, and I had to remind him that she had a full time job with healthcare while I was in the process of negotiating the Obamacare system. I still am, for that matter, as it turns out cancelling your healthcare coverage is complicated when they’ve lost all record that you signed up for it in the first place.
A lot of the past year was spent dealing with failure and uncertainty. I applied to creative writing programs and was rejected by every single one. I reread my college calculus book and skimmed a statistics book. I also went through a couple months of intensive language practice on duolingo. Who has time for anxiety when you’re learning/refreshing your knowledge of four languages at once?
Of course, I applied to academic jobs, including adjunct jobs in the area. I also spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do when I didn’t get an academic job. My plan was to apply to jobs teaching English at private schools, and if that didn’t work out set to work next year on obtaining either a teaching certificate or an MLS degree, since I want to be around learning and books no matter what. I wasn’t sure whether or not I would apply for academic jobs in the next market.
I’ve been on the job market for three years (Y1, Y2, Y3). Y1 was primarily about dipping my toes in the water. In Y2 I was finishing writing everything up, and I had a full draft of the diss. ready to go by MLA. Y3 was my post PhD year. In those three years I had first round interviews for four jobs. In Y1 I had a phone interview for a VAP-position. In Y2 I didn’t have a single interview. If anyone’s wondering whether you should go to MLA even if you don’t have an interview, the answer is no. Everyone assumes you are there to interview, and as a result you end up having the exact same demoralizing conversation with every person you meet. There’s a weird kabuki dance in which your lack of employment prospects elicits great sympathy while preventing any actual networking. This year I had one MLA interview. Because I haven’t been teaching outside of tutoring, this year’s MLA was the first time I’ve had an opportunity to be Dr. Buchanan in a professional context.
Then I had two first round interviews in rapid succession after Kalamazoo and my first campus visit at the beginning of June. Now I’m very definitely Dr. Buchanan. What’s interesting is that even though I have been qualified to be Dr. Buchanan for a year, the honorific only works now that I have an appropriately professional context to use it in. This became especially clear for me when I was having dinner with my brother- and sister-in-law-to-be right before the move down to New Mexico. They were congratulating me and teasing me a little bit about the new position. They went out of their way to introduce me to our overly solicitous waiter as Dr. Buchanan.
It’s easy to try to draw lessons from individual experience on the job market. One of the lessons I don’t want people to draw from my story is that good people get jobs. Anyone who is familiar with the caliber of people on the job market should be aware that the number of well-qualified individuals far outstrips available positions. The last two interviews I had were for positions that were not very widely advertised, and the only reason I knew to apply for them was that friends directed the postings to my notice. It’s conceivable that both positions could have completely escaped my notice, in which case I would have only had two first round interviews in three years on the market.
I’ve been fortunate to be supported throughout the experience of looking for a job by people I love: professors, other struggling early-career academics, friends, and family. My biggest supporters, of course, have been my partner and soon to be wife Renee and my parents. It’s not an easy thing having to confess your failures to the people you care about, especially when your failures seem so frequent.
I’m still not entirely sure how to introduce myself to my students tomorrow. Dr. Buchanan? Professor Buchanan? Dr. B? Am I really a Dr. B type of person?