The Academic Job Search: My Experience

Ok, so, that's not how it was like for me at all. 

In fact, I think my quest for an Assistant Professor position was a bit charmed. But I figure it might be helpful to chronicle my experience. What was the process of interviewing for an academic job in creative writing like for me and what did I learn? I'll explain:

Last fall, I heard a rumor there were going to be some openings this English department. Because I already knew some of the faculty members, I had a good idea that I wanted to join that department, but of course, how does one go about doing that? I've applied for a few academic jobs, and up until this one, I never get so much as a sniff.

This time, though, I tried to be a little strategic. At an upcoming conference, I knew Department Chair would be there, and it would be a great opportunity to introduce myself and make a first impression. I attended his presentation and asked him some hopefully smart questions about his book to break the ice. It worked! He probably knew exactly what I was up to, but I dropped a few hints about how much I'd love to work in his department and how much I admired him and his colleagues. Generously, he said to send him an email after the conference and to keep in touch.  

And I did just that, understanding this was going to be a serious long shot. In December, Chair sends me an email informing me of an opening in his department. I go to check and my stomach drops. It's not just any job; it's an amazing job! A job for qualified people. A job for people with all kinds of experience. A job for people with all kinds of publications. A job for smart people. A job for the real deal. Enter: Impostor Syndrome! Maybe Chair thinks I'm someone else, I tell myself. But I figure that Chair reached out, and I should at least give it a try. It would be pretty stupid not to. So I apply for the damn job. And try not to think about it again.

A few more months go by, and it's February. I get another email from Chair saying the committee reviewed my materials and wants to talk to me on the phone. At this point, I let myself get a little excited. I practice responding to questions about my work, my teaching, and I try to articulate my vision for running a press. By the morning of the interview, I'm feeling strangely calm. My phone rings. I take a deep breath. I do my best, surrounded by my notes, scribbles, and books. I'm in my bathrobe and pj's, but luckily it's not Skype so no one's the wiser. By the end of the interview, I feel like I'm chatting with friends. I feel like I nailed it. 

And I did, apparently! About two weeks later, Chair invites me for an on-campus interview. Now come the real nerves! He sends me the schedule: I'll spend an entire day on campus, starting with an interview, then meetings, lunch with the faculty, teach a class, have an interview with the dean, then a tour of the town, and finally, dinner. I've heard about these campus visits, but I've never done one. So I do what I always do: talk to my mentors and get some advice. I feel better, ready to tackle this. 

B and I drive up together the night before the interview. It's about six hours away. I'm nervous, but on the way up, I practice answering questions, describing my work intelligently, and I make a list of small talk points to bring up with the various faculty I'll meet on my itinerary. I do my homework! The morning of the interview, I feel as ready as possible. 

I was imagining something more intense and scary than it actually ended up being. Yes, I had an interview with a committee of about six, but it really was more of a conversation.  I answer their questions honestly about what I'd like to do, what I can offer to the department, and my ideas for the press. I feel like I don't have to put on airs or puff out my chest. 

After the interview, I meet with Chair one-to-one, and he tells things are looking good. He asks me how I'd feel about working there. And I'm honest again. I know the conventional wisdom is to play hard to get in these kinds of conversations, but I don't because it doesn't feel right. "This is the only job I've applied for and the only job I want." Adviser would be boiling at this moment, but Adviser is six hours away and can't hear me.

The rest of the day goes really smoothly. I meet the rest of the department and find I have some kindred spirits there. One professor tells me, while taking me to lunch, not to be nervous, that everyone already likes me, and that she looks forward to working with me. I squee (internally, of course, I am, after all, a professional). The only really nerve-wrecking part of the day is my meeting with Dean. The moment I arrive at his office, he takes one look at me and asks me, "Where are your cowboy boots?" I don't know if he's serious or if he's joking. He then pulls my book off his shelf and grins. Ok, joking! 

After a long day on campus, Chair takes B and I on a tour of the town. He shows us around the nicer areas and gives us advice on where to look for a house. He then even takes us to HIS house, he says to show us what a typical professor affords, but in the end I think it's just an excuse for us all to chat on his patio and relax. I even get to meet his wife and pet his cat! I begin to realize professors and even department chairs are actual human beings like everyone else. Like me! And that's a comforting thought. 

Last but not least, we head out to dinner. It's super informal and by now, almost all my nerves are gone (or maybe they're frayed so much that I no longer notice them?). B gets to join us, too, and he's incredible because he starts talking about how wonderful I am to everyone. He name drops some of my well-known writer friends. He mentions some of my events and readings coming up. He tells them all I'm a marathon runner and brags and brags and brags so I don't have to look like snot. By the end of the night, Chair tells me, "You'll be hearing from us very soon" with one of those big, genuine smiles. I shake his hand. I tell him I can't wait. 

And within just two days, I do hear from them. Chair offers me the job! At the time, I didn't even know negotiation was a thing, so I giddily accept the generous offer. Adviser later scolds me for this, but still, I couldn't be happier. I speedily type-up an acceptance and a thank you before even leaving town.

Since then, I've been on cloud-nine making plans and dreaming big about a house in the woods! I don't know how typical this experience is because it's really the only time I've ever gone through the process of getting a tenure-track position, but I do have a sense that I'm incredibly fortunate. I feel like the university has given me a wonderful offer and is creating a fantastic position for me to thrive in. I feel like this is where I'm supposed to be.

In a few weeks, I'll be returning to the area for a house-hunting trip. I'll use it as an opportunity, too, to check out my new office and visit my new colleagues. I genuinely look forward beginning the fall semester, and I couldn't be more grateful for this opportunity. 

So what did I learn from all of this? That's a really good question. 

My experience has taught me the importance and meaning of networking in academia. It's something I used to underestimate and kind of thumb my nose to. If I'm really good, it shouldn't matter who you know, right? Wrong. If you're really good, you'll also know really good people. Networking isn't about making friends, socializing, and brown-nosing. It's about EARNING the respect of the people in your field and making genuine professional connections through mutual interests. It's taken me some years to understand that nuance, but really, it's made all the difference. Though I didn't know Chair going into this, we're both creative writers and the world is small. I am more than sure he reached out to some of our mutual professional acquaintances, and those people said nice things about me.

Mentors are invaluable. This is so true. Without the guidance of my mentors, I would have been really lost and confused throughout this entire process. Ok, I was already lost and confused, but having trusted, experienced people to talk through things that didn't make sense was invaluable. One kind mentor coached me over the phone to prepare for my interview both before the phone call and before the campus visit. How nice is that? Another would debrief with me monthly or so over a cup of coffee and helped me troubleshoot issues or concerns I was having during the process. One spent an afternoon with me over lunch, armed and ready with the best kinds of advice and encouragement. Another helped me pick out what to wear to my interview. Several reminded me not to twirl my hair, a nervous tick that makes me look like a bimbo (I wore it in a bun on my campus visit!).

Most of all, though, even with the best of networking skills, the best of mentors, the strongest support group at home (like I do, B and my parents are my biggest cheerleaders), what matters most is the work. In order for all of this to come together, you've got to be good. You must be knowledgeable and passionate. That's how you earn that peer respect, by the way. And it's that talent and passion, too, that inspire mentors to believe in you and invest their precious time in you. My family, however, pretty much will thinks I'm a rock star no matter what I do :)

For the past ten years of my life, I've been a poet. It's been a part of my identity, an integral part. I write and think about poetry and pedagogy all. the. time. It's what I spend the vast majority of my energy on and I do this because it's genuinely what I love. Though I feel incredibly fortunate, I also know that I worked hard to get to this point in my life, and this new job is a result of that... plus a lot of kindness... times a little luck.