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Survivor’s Guilt

28 December, 2004

Survivor’s Guilt

New Kid is anxious, and suffering from a combination of first-year performance worries and survivor’s guilt. From what I know of her, both things are silly. She’s a clearly bright and dedicated teacher who came out of a solid program and managed to get her first job while ABD. She has a research agenda that she follows. And now, she’s on her second T-T job. How cool is that? Mixed up in her worries are her feelings about giving up a decent job that many of us would really like, because it didn’t quite “fit” her aspirations:

Nonetheless, it was not a job that was going to make my peers swoon with envy (other than through being a job at all. But it was not one of the “sought-after” jobs in that year) or that was going to make people at conferences look at my nametag twice.

And you know what? That’s pretty much ok. Even looking at it from the other side of the picture — the job hunter who would be most likely be fine with the job at Rural U., I get it. We are trained to see ourselves as failures if we’re not at the top of our profession. For NK and Ancarett and me, I think that means that we should be teaching at Research I schools and padding our CVs to become Fellows of the Medieval Academy, as well as leaders in whatever our particular subfields are. Any job we take at a lesser place is only because of the dismal job market, and should probably be seen as a stopgap.

But most schools aren’t Research I schools. And I doubt whether those aspirations are realistic — or even meaningful. Some people really are cut out to be publishing stars, but most of our students aren’t taking our classes because of that, nor do they really care until they are seniors or grad students. What bothers me about the whole “correct aspirations” myth is that it tends to ignore the needs of the undergraduates (and sometimes, graduate students too) and it plays on our own insecurities. If we don’t get the good jobs, we’re clearly not goods enough. If we get the ‘lesser’ or not so sought-after jobs, we probably just gamed the system — because we clearly aren’t good enough to have jobs in the dismal job market. Or maybe, we got the jobs we almost deserve, but we can’t trust the places who hired us because, well, they hired us! What were they thinking?

It gets more interesting when you throw Comunity Colleges into the mix. Generally speaking, Community College job descriptions in History are very vague and require very little. Many simply ask for an MA in History or a BA in History plus graduate work in another Social Science. It’s a very non-competetive type of job description, compared to the numbers of unemployed History PhDs out there. So, if a PhD takes such a job, there’s little to show for it in terms of being the best for the job. It’s therefore easier to discount the whole thing as a “luck of the draw” occurance. I’ve been very lucky in my CC job, in that the interview process was pretty rigorous, and it was clear that the breadth of my teaching fields and my teaching evaluations were really important. Moreover, I work with a lot of really bright, giving, talented people who have chosen to teach in a CC because they think it’s important. They also have no reverse snobbism aimed at colleagues who try to keep a scholarly career going. And most of my colleagues can make me feel really dumb, but insist that half the time they don’t know what I’m talking about, so I can be realistic about my insecurities. But it’s still a hard place to be, in some ways.

The upside to CC life is that it’s great for dedicated teachers. You get to work with students who generally want to be there and, because most CCs have an open-door admission policy, you get to make a real difference in students’ academic development, although sometimes it’s just in seeing them hit actual college-level work. On the downside, though, it’s all about the survey courses you can fill. Even if you’re lucky enough to teach a specialty course (oh, I would LOVE to teach a course on just the Republic, or the Early Middle Ages, or Popular Piety and Heresy), it’s not that specialized. Basically, it’s a 200-level survey. And if you don’t have the enrollments, it’s back to Western- or World Civ for you! The big trade-off is that tenure is not that difficult to get, and if you teach required courses, you’ll get the FTEs that allow the specialties. Everything else is gravy. Throw in location, etc., and it’s enough.

Except that we need to do better. We need to be allowed to push ourselves. And so, people like me look for jobs at Rural U, with a teaching load and emphasis that puts students first, but also where scholarship is expected, so that we don’t stagnate. And I guess this is for me where the problem lies. I know I’m good at what I do. I have both student and peer evaluations that say I’m a great teacher. I also work in a field where there are very few of us working in English. Anything I work on is therefore pretty new — especially because I don’t necessarily agree with the only other person working with the same group of sources. I’m also not a bad writer — after the first two chapters of my thesis, I only had to revise each subsequent chapter once, and my committee was made up of people who know what they’re doing! But the jobs at Rural U? Or Private Liberal Arts College (the dream job)? Sometimes it seems like they’re just stepping stones for the people just out of the Ivies and Research Is– people who aren’t happy, because they expect more of themselves. So they take the ‘lesser’ jobs and move on in a couple of years, and the jobs open up for a new crop of students.

In the meantime, the people who might once have been great fits have left academe or fallen so far behind while trying to cobble together a paycheck and move on with some kind of normal life that they’re out of the running. And some of the Rural Us and PLACs will go on to hire more #1 draft picks, not realizing that they won’t stay, because, after the initial joy of getting any decent job, those stars will want to leave for better libraries, a better chance at being a “somebody,” or maybe (as happened at our school) because the wages don’t pay enough or there isn’t a job for their also-academic spouse.

This might sound a bit snarky, I know. But there are two sides to the imposter syndrome, and I would much rather be on the side that wonders how they managed to get the job than on the side where I wonder if I’m an imposter because no one wants me. That’s the side that’s hard to argue, after all. If you’ve got the job, you should know that there were probably other qualified candidates (hence the survivor’s guilt), but you can also think about the fact that you’re probably a pretty good fit. You can look at peer reviews and student evaluations and hopefully find tangible evidence of scholarship. If you aren’t getting the job interviews, let alone the job, and still have plenty of external evidence that you are good at what you do, it’s far easier to see yourself as unworthy and undeserving, just as it’s far easier to discount those externals. And you know, I think that’s worse, because then you’re not just doubting yourself, but also the underpinnings that have held you together as an academic since you began grad school. From there, it’s very hard to justify going on.

Ok — that came out differently than I expected, but I’ll leave it, I think. As you may have guessed, no one’s offered me an AHA interview yet (although there is a week to go). More annoying is that only one place has actually rejected me, which means that 7 places are letting me drift in the wind. Also, on the plus side, I did just realize that one very well-known medievalist was an adjunct for around 15 years before getting a T-T job. And there are still the January apps to get out. So that’s my post-holiday blues. I’d rather be suffering survivor’s guilt than wondering if I’ll survive.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 December, 2004 2:34 pm

    It’s a crap shoot, but this game is played with people’s lives and careers. Like you, I know someone who spent more than a decade as an adjunct (shuffling between multiple institutions) before finally landing a T-T job. I still have some survivor’s guilt for landing my T-T job ABD.But unlike others, I don’t really have aspirations to move up the ladder. As I said over at New Kid’s — I know people at R1s who are madly unhappy with their lot due to hostile colleagues, distant administration and teaching duties that, while respectful of one’s research specialty, are narrowly confined to teaching sections of WCiv and a few upper level courses in their narrowly defined areas. So while their research may be rewarding, their teaching can become repetitive and their work environment toxic.That said, at least they’re securely employed. That makes all the difference in the world, to have that position and then be able to decide whether or not you want to keep it.I want to say that I had only one interview at the AHA in my year, for a term position which I obviously didn’t get. I had one other enthusiastic phone interview for a position that didn’t come through (it somehow morphed into a 19th century position due to departmental wranglings) before I finally landed a job interview in April through the backdoor, almost literally. Don’t give up hope, keep pumping those contacts and pushing out new applications.

  2. 29 December, 2004 5:19 pm

    I should mention that I completely agree with Ancarett about the teaching conditions of the RI university, which I wouldn’t enjoy. Nonetheless, there are a lot of different ways to judge a job. The #1 draft pick issue is a huge one, I think. It’s a tension from the point of view of the non-top tier schools, because it becomes a question of whether you should hire someone you think will stay or someone you think is the best candidate (when those aren’t always the same thing). Certainly when I was on a search last year, my fellow committee members did seem to want to privilege the fresh and new, which was interesting to observe (although hard to generalize about). And our first choice candidate was a #1 draft pick, who did turn us down (about 3 times). It’s kind of amazing, given how horrible the market is from the perspective of the candidate, to think about schools worrying about getting good candidates; I never understood in the past how searches could fail when there were so many good people out there. But from the point of view of the schools hiring, they don’t always hold all the cards either. Anyway, being on the other side of the process just confirms even more how random it all is, actually. I think you have a point about the stepping stone syndrome, but I think one of the things that’s kind of dangerous/problematic about that is that people often do get jobs and consider them “stepping stone” jobs, but don’t actually manage to move out of them. It would be interesting to know the statistics, how many do move “up and out” so to speak, and how many don’t. But yes, it certainly is better to be dealing with survivor’s guilt than worrying about whether you’ll survive. For what it’s worth, I think imposter syndrome is just as much a self-delusion on the part of the un/underemployed as it is on the part of the employed – almost everyone I know feels like an imposter, but where you’re employed or if you’re employed at all reveals nothing about how good you are – given the crapshoot that is the market, not getting a job is not connected to quality of applicant. But I understand that while it can be hard to ignore imposter syndrome while employed, it must be even harder to do so if un/underemployed.

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