Rebecca Schuman

Author, Translator, Independent Scholar at self-employed

A Fine Rejection Season

Full vitae rejection stamp front

Image: iStock

So that was fun. All right, so it wasn’t Disneyland-fun. But returning on my own terms to the academic job market — after a four-year absence — was a surprisingly empowering experience. And it remains so, even though I didn’t make it very far.

I have been documenting the journey, including the requisite humiliations, in this series, "Ice Skating in Hell." I tackled my rather surprising decision to go back on the tenure-track market, the various applications, and the single (and unexpected) first-round interview for an real, live tenure-track job. I’ll spare you the suspense in which I assume you have been living every day: I didn’t get invited for a campus visit.

The chair of the search committee was exceedingly nice about it, though, sending out a generous and timely rejection email to everyone in the large club of interviewees who didn’t make the final cut.

I know! Shocking, right? That missive was the first of its kind I have ever received, after many years of interviewing for tenure-track positions. The standard departmental response after a first-round tenure-track interview — even one for which the candidate has traveled to a conference at considerable expense — is a metric ton of silence. I mean, why bother to notify the people whose futures are hanging in the balance when you could just let them look for updates on a soul-crushing and unreliable job wiki instead?

I have to say, though, silence definitely beat out a rejection email I received in 2013, which said (and I am not making this up): "We have spent a considerable amount of time discussing your research and have come to the conclusion not to invite you for a campus interview." Yes, that exact phrasing was what the committee chair thought would be a good idea to send out in (what I assume was) a form letter. In my case, it was especially amusing because my publication record — as a second-year postdoc at the time, in a non-tenure-track position — was already more robust than that of the professor who had just composed and sent me that message.

This time around, my initial reaction to rejection was brief disappointment — mixed with extreme relief, as I wasn’t sure how I would have managed a campus visit with a 3-year-old who has never spent a night away from my side. (Can I mention how delighted I am at not having to write the I-took-my-toddler-on-a-campus-visit column? Silver linings everywhere, friends.)

Then, however, I immediately switched into Rebecca Schuman, Education Journalist mode and did the unthinkable, which is to email back a search-committee chair after a rejection. Yeah, I DID THAT. I thanked the chair for the extreme kindness. The chair then wrote back to me (Yeah, IT HAPPENED!) explaining how difficult it is to write rejections to so many good people (and to me, wokka wokka). I wrote back again and said that — given the way most departments treat applicants — it was extremely appreciated and should be the standard by which all search committees operate.

All in all, it was a lovely exchange, and I regret nothing about any aspect of the application process. I plan to go on the tenure-track market again next year. After all, since I got all these dossiers together and talked recommenders into writing a bunch of "hire Schuman even though she quit the faculty market in a huff" letters and everything, why not?

Of course, I wish I’d made it further this year. I wish I had a dozen competing offers to choose from. (I also wish I had an IKEA soft-serve machine at my house; it’s good to wish for things.) But even though I made it to only the first round, I do indeed feel powerful for having done so publicly, and this despite the army of skeptics — aka family and friends — who assumed that this winter would be spent like the Januaries of 2010, 2011, and 2012, and the March of 2013, the latter being the sole instance when I made it to a campus interview (and biffed it legendarily).

Every year back then, after failing on the academic market, I would spiral into self-loathing and bitterness so extreme that it made a Slate essay I wrote about the experience, "Thesis Hatement," look like Katie Roiphe’s odious rebuttal. My now-husband and my parents and (dwindling) friends would have to spend months looking on helplessly as I raged through my grief and slowly, slowly put myself back together every summer, only to start the process all over again.

So what’s different now?*

Simple: I’m not in academe and haven’t been for years. So the importance that The Profession places on itself, and upon working within its own confines (at all costs), is now foreign to me. This job was, at long last, just another thing I didn’t get.

And as a freelance writer, I am so used to not getting things that I barely blinked. The territory I now inhabit comes with dozens of rejected pitches and scores of editor-eviscerated articles (which then get published and "rewarded" with hundreds of hateful comments). On my first three book proposals, I made it almost all the way the up the chain before getting my hopes dashed. (The fourth one comes out in paperback this week; tell your friends.)

Alas, I cannot be a positive example of job-market failure, because my case is atypical. For, unlike most of my angst-filled fellow Ph.D.s who go on the job market every year, I have a pretty good deal where I am. My future no longer hangs on the balance of some search committee’s definition of "fit." I know where I’m going to be living next year. I know that my mortgage will get paid, my daughter fed. I don’t spend my nights breaking into tears over the uncertainty and precariousness of my life. (I now spend my nights in tears about living in a racist kleptocracy, but that’s another thing altogether.)

I do still want a tenure-track job, and if I ever get one, that will be fantastic. But I don’t need one. And that is the takeaway of my return to the fray: The academic job market is kind only to those people who don’t need it. To everyone else, it remains a brutal experience, one that ends, more often than not, in a lifetime of adjuncting for a pittance and being treated like furniture.

This continues to be the great shame of the academy, and it is a shame that, should I ever be fortunate enough to return to the hallowed halls, I will work with all of my might to destroy.

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