The Unknown and Unknowable of the Job Market

Today’s post is a guest post from a reader who shall remain anonymous.  She shares her experiences with what she calls the “Unknown and Unknowable” aspects of the job search.  Her message is invaluable:  stay loose, flexible, and open to sudden reversals of fortune.  There are things you can control, and then there are things you can’t–and sometimes those turn out to be the most important.


After two years on the job market, I accepted my dream job:  a tenure-track position in an interdisciplinary college at a big research university.  I was recruited for a search committee not long after stepping on campus and, hardly recovered from what I’d been calling “Job Market PTSD” [KK:  I happen to have a post by this very name!], I was re-immersed in the process—albeit from the other side.  Turning a critical eye over the past few months to my—and now others’—tactics, approaches, and experiences on the job market, I’ve realized that—and rightly so—much of the information and advice that we job-seekers receive focuses on how tilt the market’s myriad factors in our favor.  For example, we work from the first year in graduate school to stack a stellar CV; we spend time cultivating the most flattering recommenders; we slave to craft the perfect job letter; we rehearse our job talks and interview answers with anyone willing to listen, until they are memorized but appear unrehearsed; we polish writing samples down to the footnote; we scour the aisles at Nordstrom Rack for the perfect Tahari suit, marked down to fit our pauper budgets; and we strive to master the fine art of professional-yet-personal hair and make-up.

Of course, with the stakes this high, it’s only natural to try to control what we perceive to be controllable.  What’s missing from this, I think (and, as if we needed one more thing to worry about), is an awareness of and preparation for what my CrossFit coaches would call “the UNKNOWN and the UNKNOWABLE”.  In this “sport of fitness”, an athlete has to be ready for whatever (those seemingly sadistic) judges dream up—scaling walls, carrying sandbags, throwing down burpees, running, lunging, and jumping rope—just as you have to be ready for any question, talk scenario, or interview setting the committees throw at you while on the market.

Let me give you two examples of the unknown and unknowable from my own job hunt last year.

First:  after what I thought was a mediocre-at-best phone interview, I was cut from the pool for what I’d imagined would be a dream job.  Already experiencing moderate success during the second year on the job market, I was disappointed but put the rejection behind me, moving on to prep for the other interviews that were beginning to dot the calendar.  Just after the holidays, however, I received an email from the search chair apologizing for “the confusion” and inviting me to campus.  I hardly stopped to question the reversal, and seized the opportunity.  A few weeks later I went to campus, where I was charmed by the job, the university, and my potential colleagues.  I went home with my fingers crossed and two weeks later I accepted their offer.

I haven’t spent much time since wondering about the reversal of fortune, and accepted at face value what has been explained to me as an “error”.  What was strange about this experience, however, is that it happened to me twice during the last application cycle:  the day after accepting my current position, I received another campus invite in a search from which I had previously been cut following a conference interview.

I raise these examples not to suggest that the “thanks but no thanks; wait, but yes, please” phenomena is something to keep fingers crossed for, but as an example of the ways in which we need to be open and flexible on the job market—ready for the unknown and the unknowable.  Given the insecurity of the market, it would be easy to get bitter following rejections, or to take a rejection personally, rather than as a symptom of much larger forces at play.  While at the time I did allow myself to wonder—as any insecure academic is prone to do—whether the invitation was a mistake, I am glad I didn’t dwell too much on it.  As a result of some unknown and unknowable factors, I am now firmly invested in my dream job, and I feel confident that we are all happy things worked out the way they did.

Here’s another example of the role of the “unknown and the unknowable”, and of the virtues of being open to change and chance on the job market:  In between the campus visit described above and receiving my offer, I visited three other campuses.  One was a small school in the south with which I had had what I can only describe as an awesome conference interview:  Things had gone so well, in fact, that the search chair gave me a fist bump!  Subsequent conversations with the department chair had been encouraging, and I was excited about the unique aspects of the job at this particular university.

By the time the bread arrived at the first night’s dinner, however, it seemed that everything that could go wrong, was:  a faculty member knocked my graduate school and training; I wasn’t getting the sarcasm and inside jokes of the faculty members; the newest junior faculty confessed that he routinely fainted from over-work and exhaustion; and, just when I was considering breaking my no-wine-at-dinner rule to take the quickly-building edge off, I learned it was a dry town.  Ready for a fresh start the next morning, I approached the morning meetings with optimism, spirits rising after conversations with fantastic potential colleagues.  While on the town tour I was determined not to let rumors of local homophobia get me down, but I deflated a bit upon our return when a junior faculty divulged that there was a homicidal student loose on campus.   Then, just as I was preparing to give my job talk, I learned that my increasingly-anticipated evening flight out was cancelled indefinitely, due to a blizzard that had begun to blanket the Midwest.  By dinner, I’d learned that the earliest I’d be leaving was three days later.  With another candidate slated to come in, and work that they needed to accomplish in the interim, it wasn’t an ideal situation for the university’s faculty either.

After discussions with the department chair, we determined I had two choices:  retreat to the guest house to watch Netflix and order in for the next three days (a tempting proposition, given how little I’d relaxed in the last few months), which would allow me to stay out of the hair of the search committee and avoid risking unfairly prejudicing myself with the committee (either positively or negatively).  Or, I would cowgirl up and embrace department- and university-life as much as possible during my extended stay.

 Ultimately, it wasn’t really a choice:  I decided to take the department up on their hospitality.  I had breakfast at a local greasy spoon with a lovely faculty member I hadn’t met in the previous two days; I poked around the campus and library; the Chair took me for a tasty lunch and to a big box bookstore to buy a few novels for my evenings at the guest house; I attended two classes, and got a really good sense of the students I’d be teaching; a faculty member invited me to dinner at his home, where I met his lovely wife and sweet children; I got a tour of the nearby city, learned a lot about its history, saw some important landmarks, and had some great ethnic food; had a fantastic dinner with two potential colleagues, both of whom I learned share many of my hobbies; and I still had plenty of time to watch Netflix and do some leisure reading.

By the time my flight took off three days later, I had begun to look at the job, town, and faculty in a whole new light.  The three extra days, though unexpected, offered me a lens on the opportunity that I never would have had if I had left after the scheduled 24 hours.  And, though we’ll never know for sure (I withdrew from the search before an offer was extended to accept my current position), I have several reasons to believe I would have received an offer.

What I hope these two examples show is that there is so much out there beyond our control—so many unimaginable scenarios and unanticipated factors—that it helps to remain open and ready for the unknown:  for the chances, changes, and opportunities, the happy coincidences and serendipities, that are inherent to any process like this.  We should do what we can—by following the advice of our mentors and prepping the best way we know how—to put ourselves in a position in which we are ready, when it does occur, for the unknown and the unknowable.

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