MLA Job Advice (A Guest Post)

I missed my weekly Friday post yesterday because I had grand plans to make it a video post, but when I recorded the video, I couldn’t get it to upload.   I ended up delivering my little lecture on tailoring the job letter three times at different spots around the house, observed with increasing skepticism by Penelope the rabbit, and finally ran out of time and gave up. I will try again next week.

Meanwhile, today I share a delightful email from a client describing her experience at some MLA Information for Job Seekers events (I’m not certain of the exact title) from a few years ago.  These are things they apparently hold annually.  I’d love to hear others’ accounts.

BTW, the client also sent along the “Dos and Don’ts for MLA Convention Interviews” handout that was passed out at one of these sessions.  It begins “The job interview is an event that has caused sufficient anxiety for both interviewer and interviewee to prompt a number of publications dealing with the topic. In recent years, concern about discrimination in the hiring process has led to a heightened awareness of the possibility of discriminatory intent in the questions asked by interviewers.”  Really? Then it launches into a numbered list of pointers that includes: Don’t…

  • Be laconic or loquacious.
  • Be either apologetic or arrogant.

Helpful, that MLA.  I’m conflicted as to whether to share this silly document in its entirety or not.  Your thoughts appreciated.  I’d love to see the most recent version.

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The first Job Session I went to was overwhelming because two of the three presenters (both women) spent a good twenty minutes talking about whether women should wear any other color suit than black. One said she thought a brown suit made a candidate look daring, but another said that candidate would be looked at poorly. This was about five years ago, but by the time they were done, I just thought that if the committees were this concerned about a brown or black suit, they must be impossible to please in areas such as scholarship and teaching. There were about fifty students in the audience, and all the women then asked questions about suits: shirt or shell under the suit? small necklace or absolutely no necklace? “I have pierced ears; should I take my earrings out for the interview?”

I absolutely understand the need to dress professionally, and I’ve read your information on dressing for interviews, which I found really helpful. (And I’m remembering now that the head of my department at XXU discussed candidates at MLA job interviews, one of whom was an extremely large man wearing a cape. [I write this as a person who has a few pounds to lose myself].). But this MLA presentation made it sound like interviewees could be one earring error away from blowing the interview, as in “if only I’d  worn the gold studs instead of the pear studs.”

I have so many things to worry about regarding interviews that there sometimes seems to be hyper-emphasis on “the suit” and other aspects what already seem like appropriate clothing for interviews. I have a friend earning a PhD in history from UC XXX who did a videotaped mock interview where she was told to never wear a watch because it detracts from your face when you gesture. This woman wears a small, conservative watch.

The last Job Session I went to had more than 100 grads in the audience, and because I’m cynical and paranoid, I’m telling you I could smell the fear. The three professors running the talk were from a community college, private university, and public university. The professors from the universities loved saying, “We’re an R1 University and there’s no need to apply if you don’t have an impressive record of publications.” Then they got competitive with who was more R1, as in (they didn’t use these words, but it was implied): “I know he’s saying he requires a lot from candidates, but listen to how much we demand.” Then  there was discussion regarding how much better it was to have published a book than however many journal articles, so suddenly it seemed as if there was no reason to apply if you hadn’t published a book. Grads started asking all the particular, “What if you…….” questions. (I’m glad you muted our microphones during the webinar yesterday, as somehow it’s easier not to hear the desperate voices of others).

What I’m saying is that at these large job info sessions, the academic weirdness and competition are really distressing, at least to me. There is no effort to discuss job letters in terms avoiding emotional language, such as you did yesterday. There was lots of discussion about trying to avoid “the chum pile” but it all centered on what you had done, rather than wording. I don’t think academics can analyze what makes them put one letter to the side and keep another, so they say it all comes down to publications; then all the grad students panic.

The MLA also schedules a Talk for Interviewers which is always, and I mean always, at the same time as the Job Session for Grad Students, so to paranoid me, it feels as though they don’t want the grad students at the grown-ups table. One year I crashed the Interviewers talk, which had about 7 people in it, so I didn’t have to hear about suit colors, and the professors didn’t seem to mind that I was there at all. I suggested to the speaker and on the evaluation form that the MLA hold some kind of job discussion for both students and interviewers to reduce some of the horrible tension, but it never happened. The professors were, however, worried about the job wikis where students “say horrible things” about their interviews, so at least they were verbalizing the need to appear interested in front of candidates.

I guess what makes me want to drink and give up is the entrenched hierarchy you discussed in the webinar yesterday, particularly since I’m older than at least some of those at the grown-ups table. After yesterday, I realize I just need to get over my anger about this. At the same time, regardless of how much the MLA says it wants to help graduate students and adjuncts, they can hold all the seminars they want and issue all the proclamations they want, but there is no way they are going to do away with the hierarchy that serves those in charge.

I do want to admit to my own paranoia as someone whose parents grew up on small farms and defensively made fun of people who were “too smart” for their own good. I think they felt that discussions were for people who didn’t know what it was like to work.There really are people in the US who still believe that if you have a job where you sit down, you aren’t really working.

Thank you again for the webinar yesterday. I think it makes all the difference that you don’t need to protect yourself through the hierarchy. 

 


Comments

MLA Job Advice (A Guest Post) — 9 Comments

  1. “I don’t think academics can analyze what makes them put one letter to the side and keep another, so they say it all comes down to publications; then all the grad students panic.”

    THAT

    Very well said. Moreover, they just don’t know what goes into their decisions (and whether and to what degree this includes biases).

  2. A while back I had tell me their first round of assistant prof application triage involved checking the font used by the applicant, and discarding without reading those in a format they didn’t like. This person did not elaborate on his preferred taxonomy of fonts…and now I’ve got scenes of the business card scene in American Psycho in my head.

    I wish that instead of being anxious and neurotic, more applicants would look at interviews as two-way events and ask themselves if the interviewers are people they’d want as colleagues and peers. If they fail that basic test, it’s insane to accept a position from them. Yet so much of the conversation around this makes it seem like a zero-sum power game where the applicant must paradoxically be both confident and capable but also sufficiently desperate to completely surrender their self-worth.

    • “I wish that instead of being anxious and neurotic, more applicants would look at interviews as two-way events and ask themselves if the interviewers are people they’d want as colleagues and peers. If they fail that basic test, it’s insane to accept a position from them. Yet so much of the conversation around this makes it seem like a zero-sum power game where the applicant must paradoxically be both confident and capable but also sufficiently desperate to completely surrender their self-worth.”

      YESSSSS!!! Beautifully stated, Chris. The economy sucks and so it is harder for me to envision employment outside of academia. But I’d prefer not to give up the little bit of dignity I have left merely to join a clique of mean, frightened, conformist twits. Especially since rebellious, kind, and free-thinking nerds were the people who inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in the first place.

  3. Yes, the interview process is ridiculous. I wish an HR representative had to be present at all search meetings (as someone who has been on search committees). You don’t want to know how bad some people are at reading CVs. Don’t get me started on candidates who seem like competition to someone in the department — they are the first to go. BUT…I will note two important points that job candidates need to hear. First, many PhD candidates never had to interview to get placed in a graduate program — hence, they do not know how to conduct themselves in an interview, never mind dress. Therefore, you will hear a lot of advice that seems obvious. Second, it really, really, really is “publish or perish” in this profession. That means real publications, not a book review, not an on-line publication on Buffy the Vampire, not a book chapter in your dissertation director’s edited collection. All graduate students want to hear in these settings is that they will be the exception. Year after year the number of real publications needed to land a job increases: one article, two articles, three articles, have four just to be safe. It is maddening, but still a fact. Rather than dismiss this as “I don’t think academics can analyze what makes them put one letter to the side and keep another, so they say it all comes down to publications,” take it seriously. Publications don’t assure you a job, but without them, you don’t have a chance at all.

    • We actually have very good data over the past few years on hiring in philosophy. We’re hearing the same things you articulate: you have to have x articles to have any chance. Except that that’s not borne out by the data. The median number of publications for TT hires was ONE. Just one. The median number for postdocs was <1.

      I wonder if other disciplines are collecting this sort of data.

  4. This whole concern over the proper suit color mentioned above as we’ll as concerns over whether or not to wear earrings on an interview and all the concerns about insignificant details is just an artifact of the lack of real demand for PhDs. If hiring committees will write off a candidate for something as inconsequential as a brown suit verses a black suit then they obviously don’t need the position filled bad enough if at all. And seriously, tossing away letters because of the font? There is just too much supply of workers. An obvious statement I suppose.

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