Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Ask the Administrator: The Emergency Hire

A hopeful/scared correspondent writes:

I have a job dilemma and no one seems to be able to give me a helpful answer. I live in [California] and teach composition part-time at a community college and at a UC school while I am finishing my dissertation on something totally unrelated to rhet./comp. Two days ago, a position opened up at a major state school in the Midwest in my field; the professor who normally holds the position had to take emergency leave. Because of the school's rather desperate situation (school starts in three weeks), they are willing to take an ABD. I think that, if I apply, I'd have a very good chance of getting the job because my research interests align exactly with the position and because I doubt there are many people willing to pick up and move on this sort of notice.

My question is this: would having a year of experience teaching upper-division courses in my field be significant enough when I applied for tenure track jobs next year to warrant some major sacrifices? These sacrifices entail leaving my husband behind for nine months (the job is only for a year and he needs to be here for his job), moving on two weeks notice, moving somewhere where I don't know anyone, and living in a climate that I find unbearable. I went to prep school up in your northeast neck of the woods and found myself significantly depressed by the weather, although I know that sounds wimpy and insignificant to most people…

My first thought is that a ‘very good chance’ is speculative. Maybe, maybe not. Counting chickens, and all that. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some strong local candidates, given that it’s an evergreen discipline.

That said, the real question here is about the wisdom of a short-term job-related separation. (The point about the weather, I can’t answer. Different people have different tastes. If it’s full blown seasonal affective disorder, it can be treated. If it’s just a matter of taste, then there’s nothing else to say.)

Would a year of teaching upper-level courses make you a better candidate? Probably. Would it slow down the dissertating? Almost definitely. Are you likely to face variations on this same geographic dilemma a year from now, and two years from now, and three years from now? Yup.

The two-body problem in academe is absolutely brutal. For reasons I still don't understand, it's seldom addressed directly in graduate programs, so each new cohort discovers it anew. If the two halves of the couple are both academics in evergreen disciplines, and neither is a superstar, then the odds of them getting satisfying jobs within live-together distance are vanishingly small. (The preponderance of one-year positions actually makes things worse, in some ways, since they add 'constant moving' to all the other burdens.) Absent a wonderful coincidence, most of the available choices suck: you can do the long-distance relationship thing, you can split up, or one of you can become the de facto 'second' career in the family, and simply go along with the primary one.

(Interestingly enough, among the academic couples I've seen do that, the woman is usually the one with the primary career. I don't know if that's just a function of a small personal sample or a broader generational shift.)

To the extent that these things are under anyone's control, I recommend finding partners who aren't academics. Most of the rest of the world doesn't live this way.

Should you take a shot at the job? Sure. But I'd advise some serious discussions about the possibility that a one-year long-distance arrangement could quickly become much more than that. Go in with your eyes open.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – I suspect this is a sore nerve for many, but what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

We're about to do year three of the two body problem... it sucks. We are lucky in that it is about a 6 hour drive from one place to the other, but you are talking airline tickets and lots of airline hassle...

I'm not so sure we would have done it if it was explicitly limited to one year -- espectially since it will slow the dissertation significantly.

You need to do some serious cost of living math before you make this decision -- especially with higher transportation costs, the cost of two households is pretty high. When you are negotiating, make sure you ask for enough to let you live minimally in the new city AND visit home at least once per month.

The other negotiating you should do, if you can -- is for a Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday schedule -- so you can travel more easily.

Finally, ask about housesitting --- if you know the reason the normal person is going on leave, AND they have to be out of the area long-term, they may not have thought about the problem of leaving their house empty. ... it is also possible someone else is travelling on sabbatical etc -- housesitting can make the math work out significantly better.
To the extent that these things are under anyone's control, I recommend finding partners who aren't academics. Most of the rest of the world doesn't live this way.

This can help, but only if one has a partner who is willing to up and move for your career, and if you're willing to ask.

My partner finally got promoted into what is, pretty much, hir dream job. It's a good job, and provides me the security to keep working at crappy wages adjuncting so that I can get the experience to be hireable at a community college for a full-time instructor position. I'm not going to ask hir to up and move so that I can start chasing jobs around the country. (Zie'd do it if I asked. I'm also unwilling to uproot from my family. Been there, done that, it was fun, came home.)

It's certainly easier if you don't have two academics trying to job hunt, but it's still ugly with one. We have a system where it's considered acceptable - in fact, it's expected - to uproot one's life completely for jobs, and where if one isn't willing to do that, you're the bad guy, the one who doesn't care enough about their work and discipline, and you're shunned and criticized for that. How did we end up here?

Ahem. I'm done ranting now. This is a subject currently near and dear. :)
A year of full-time experience will not hurt a future job search as long as it does not confuse the sales pitch you plan to make. (If you plan to sell yourself as a rhet/comp teacher at a CC, a year in a different specialty area at a Uni might make you look like you are "settling" for a CC comp job. It can only help if you seek a job at a 4-year school where you might do both.) I can tell you that faculty I know who came here ABD took about twice as long to finish as they expected, but you might have more time at a major uni.

That said, it is time to put on my Scientist hat for our Evergreen correspondent. It is lack of sunlight, not the "weather", that usually leads to winter depression. It is called SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and it depends on latitude, not snow, because it is driven by hours of daylight. If you found yourself wildly energized and productive in the summer when in the NE, but morose and unproductive in winter, that could be it. I know my wife is much happier at our present latitude compared to where we grew up.

If "SAD" is the problem, look at a map. Day lengths in Boston, Madison (WI), and Eugene (OR) are pretty similar. But, as DD said, there are ways to treat it. Reading under a full spectrum light in the morning and evening can help fool your body.

If it is just the weather, you should know that the climate varies a great deal across the "midwest" in winter, partly depending on where you are relative to the Great Lakes.
On the other hand, nine months of solitary living could be conducive to lots of marathon dissertating sessions, couldn't it? I lived half the week apart from my family for a semester and was able to churn out seven published papers (the diss having been finished years ago), thanks to the lack of personal distraction.
I am an emergency hire...in her third year. It went from one temporary contract to another, meaning that every year I have to worry about finding a new job. So keep that in mind as well--this could turn into something much longer than you anticipated because the college "promises" more each year, you say yes and then you get shafted, because after all, you don't have a PhD yet. Harsh, but a reality nonetheless.
(Interestingly enough, among the academic couples I've seen do that, the woman is usually the one with the primary career. I don't know if that's just a function of a small personal sample or a broader generational shift.)

Count me in your small sample. We're currently in month three of long-distance marriage but with hopes of an end in sight. (Of the long-distance-ness, not the marriage.)

And kaylynne is right; I'm taking nine hours of outside-my-field-of-study graduate hours online while still maintaining my 40 hr/week job in student services while I'm on my own. It can be mighty quiet in an empty house...
I'm not convinced that a one-year gig is really all that big a feather in one's vita cap, especially in an envergreen field. Sure, it's nice, it doesn't hurt, but I'm unconvinced that it helps that much either. (yes, I speak from experience)

In the end, hiring comes down to the wildly subjective criteria that have been discussed and discussed. You may have the one-year gig, but the other cadidate, freshly out of grad. school with little teaching experience, may just be a better "fit." And you can't beat that.

Finishing your diss. and publishing some essays gets one a job, not one-year positions. And publishing plus the one-year job really may not make that much of a difference. Publish, publish, publish.
I'm DD's grad school friend, who reads daily but generally doesn't comment publicly. However, this one jumped out at me. Based on my experiences and what I've read, I would definitely not do this.

My wife and I spent the past two years apart since we lived in two different cities flying distance from each other. It was extremely tough: We spent our time getting work done rapidly and then racing to the airport (which also meant no research production), and the personal and financial costs were astronomical. Cost of living: We were spending my entire TT salary on travel costs and maintaining two household. Personal costs included exhaustion, repeatedly sleeping in hotels at airports (warning: there is no such thing as an on-time flight, so plan to miss about 1/3 of your connecting flights or give yourself several hours between connections), and a whole lot of extra stress--not to mention constantly missing my wife.

After a few semesters of abuse, we did the math, discussed what our career goals were, and then I quit my TT position. My wife is not only incredibly supportive; she is also extremely successful with a much higher salary than me, and financially we are better off with me teaching adjuncts and doing research than continuing apart. And I now have greater freedom to do the work I want (that is, teach and conduct research) without unending service demands. One of the best decisions of my life.

So, my thoughts: (1) I'd focus on finishing the dissertation. The PhD is key: You are either in the club, or you are not. I'd be careful not to overextend yourself by attempting to do everything (move, teach new courses, maintain a long-distance relationship, and do endless research.) You might be able to pull it off, but I'd bet against you, especially since this is a temporary position;
(2) Despite the way academics often see this, work-life balance is not a reference to how you divide your time between teaching and research. Exhaustion, stress, and loneliness is not going to make you a better researcher--assuming that you even have time for your dissertation in this scenario;
(3) Financially, you will lose a huge chunk if not all of your extra income trying to maintain two households and a long-distance relationship.

That's my experience with this. Good luck.
I recently served on a hiring committee for an R1 institution. We did not look at teaching experience AT ALL as a part of our decision. Even the sample lesson was really more of a research presentation. If this is the type of institution you hope to end up at, focus on finishing the diss and publishing, publishing, publishing. For it is the only way into an interview. Also, if you are looking at more teaching-focused institutions, they still pretty much require a finished diss before they will even consider your application because they already have a wealth of applications of people who are done, according to my friends who are still on the market or working at these schools. Moreover, I wouldn't be surprised if this temporary job came with some expectations of "service" that will be heaped on to someone who "has nothing better to do."
I think I'd agree with the others that say that the one-year teaching experience wouldn't make enough difference if your aim is to teach at a CC OR if your aim is to get a position at a research institution. I'm at an "R2" trying to be an "R1" and, like the previous correspondent wrote, look more at research productivity. "Everyone" has some teaching, and we figure that everyone can teach at least the basic courses in our field. So, adjuncting would give you as much of a leg up in our dept hiring as would having the one year gig at a 4 year. And, as was mentioned, if you want to teach at a CC then stay where you are.

I also agree with focusing on getting the PhD in hand. Really important.

Good luck!
You HAVE to get a PhD before you'll get a TT job. So do that first. If you really can finish it and teach than finish it and put the extra time into your job search.
To the extent that these things are under anyone's control, I recommend finding partners who aren't academics. Most of the rest of the world doesn't live this way.

Okay, I had to bite at this one. This is about as myopic as they come. Two career families face these sorts of challenges regularly. One gets a "great opportunity" while the other "really enjoys their job." What to do, what to do...

There is also the military family faced with the 1 and 2 year remote assignments, on top of the 90 to 180 day deployments.

The only real "solution" to this problem is to have two people who love and respect each other enough to talk through the issues, try to understand how much each means to the other, and work through it.

I am suddenly reminded of the O Henry story, "The Gift of the Magi."
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