Category Archives: Jobs

Self-Worth

brains As discussed in my previous post, I’ve had some problems with self esteem lately. This post secret card was not created by me, but it brought tears to my eyes.

I had a couple really interesting conversations with 22-year-old men yesterday that I’m still mulling over.

My brother-in-law, who works as a line cook, took a leave of absence from his undergraduate work to think about what he wants to do with his life. He took the cooking job as a way to make money in the meantime.

The way he described his job fascinated me. He explained how he knows he thinks very differently than the other people he works with, and he’s made many small changes in the kitchen to increase its efficiency. All day as he works, he thinks about how to be more efficient, how to make the food taste better, how to make it look better, how to make the jobs of everyone in the kitchen easier.

He described feeling like one part of a well-oiled machine. Every person in the restaurant has a unique skill set and unique personality that make them suited to their job. They depend on each other, but within their own stations they also have control over their own work.

What struck me in his description was that unlike graduate school, which seems to gradually tear people down, make them question their worth, and feel irrelevant and ignorant–working in the kitchen was actually building my brother-in-law up: it was making him realize his own skills and learn how he’s different from other people in a good way. He offers the workplace his gifts, and he sees their tangible effects on other people.

When I talked to my own brother later, I told him about the restaurant conversation. My brother told me that all the things my brother-in-law desribed were the exact reason he spends so many hours playing World of Warcraft. He hasn’t found another situation where he can work as part of a team, get a lot of praise for his actions, and feel confident about his unique skills.

I’ve always considered myself someone who doesn’t work well with others, who would prefer to be doing my own project. But my brother-in-law is very introverted, and he said he was suprised by how satisfying it is to be part of the kitchen.

Universities are anything but well-oiled machines. So I’m trying to figure out how to get this experience of a job that builds esteem. If you have ideas, dear readers, I’d love to hear them.

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Recommendations from Students

When I first heard that grad students should ask former students to write recommendations of their teaching, I thought to myself that I would be way to embarrassed to ever ask my students to say nice things about me.

But one day this winter, buoyed by three compliments on my course from students, I wrote several students from my last six courses. I chose to write a mass e-mail, because I didn’t want any particular student to feel pressured to respond. I tried to give them a few “outs” so they didn’t feel bad if they didn’t want to do it. I told them that I knew they were busy and that I understood that they may not remember the details of the course that well.

One smart thing that I did was offer to show them a recommendation I had written for a professor up for tenure so they would have some idea of what was appropriate to discuss. All the students who wrote were eager to see that letter; they would have had a much harder time without it.

I am so glad I asked. Five of my students enthusiastically agreed, and their letters have been so kind. It’s been a real boost during this last semester. I feel like I have accomplished something while I’m here–I don’t think any of my students from my first few classes would have described me as “organized.” But the students also claimed to have learned real, useful skills that have benefited them outside of my class.

So, I say it’s worth the embarrassment! However, if you feel uncomfortable approaching students out of the blue, it might still work to ask students who tell you they enjoyed the class (either at the end of their final exam, in person, or via e-mail) or even to ask for a little reciprocation if a student wants you to write a recommendation for them.

Hobbies

I was happy to read FemaleScienceProfessor’s blog today, which encouraged potential hires to admit they do something other than work.

Even if copping to hobbies and families is a bad strategy for getting a job, I think those of us on the market should do it anyway. Life beyond work–even intellectual, interesting work–should never be disparaged.

Fun is fun. There, I said it! And no scary hiring committee will ever make me deny it.

What Will You Do With Your Life?

Did you think that going to grad school would solve the problem you had about what to be when you grew up?

Sorry.

I delayed answering this question in 2001 when I decided to apply to graduate school. And for eight years, I have been (mostly) in ignorant bliss–the future life of Doctor Jones was much too far away to worry about.

I have certainly worked on opening doors for Doctor Jones, doing internships, assistant directorships, teaching, going to conferences, etc. But all my experience, the dissertation, and the degree are simply not enough to guarantee that I’ll be employed as an English professor.

I haven’t felt this way since college. And I sincerely believed then that going to college was answering this question for good. But I have grown up. And unfortunately, growing up doesn’t mean that I have all the answers. I do have some experience grappling for solutions. And that’s about it.

I’m not bringing this up to scare you. I’m bringing this up because my friend Rebecca, who has been busting her butt for three years to get a cello performance degree, said upon graduating that she wished someone would have told her that she’d be transported right back into the confusing decision making process of age twenty-one.

So, I’m telling you. I hope that if you expect it, it won’t be quite as scary when it happens. And take some comfort in knowing that what you do with your life is not something you “should” have figured out at your age.

The Future of the Field

I just finished reading Education in the Balance, a somewhat disturbing study about jobs in English.

The report mentioned a phenomenon common in many fields: the division of academic departments into research faculty (who teach mostly graduate students if they teach at all) and teaching faculty (who teach lower-division classes and have little pressure to publish).

It makes me sad, because in my first semester at Boston University I had awesome teachers who were tenure-track. I wish more college students had the opportunities I had there. I was so stimulated by my classes.

On a more practical level, though, it’s important as a graduate student to know where one’s allegiance lies. When I first started, I believed that teaching was the most important thing to me, and research was just a hoop to jump through on the way to that goal. Somewhere along the line (shortly after teaching my first class as the instructor of record) I became passionate about my research and a bit skittish about teaching. Seven years in, I’m not sure where I stand.

These are hard questions, and none of us knows what opportunitites the future may bring. Still, it’s good to imagine what we want. Part-time work teaching composition (at a salary less than I’m making now as a graduate student) is not the only option. Some of us may even have to leave academia to find jobs where we are highly valued. I think that’s something we should all be ready for, because it’s certainly true that not all professor jobs are created equal.

Interviews

I recently attended a panel on interviewing at my school. I want to share my favorite piece of advice: the people who interview you for an academic job are looking for a good co-worker.

Some ways to foster the impression that you will be pleasant to work with:

  1. Show genuine interest in the interviewers when appropriate (during pre- or post-interview chit chat, not in the middle of the interview).
  2. Speak concisely about your project and avoid overly specific jargon. Being long-winded and unclear is unpopular in every profession–yes, even academia.
  3. If you get a strange question (from your future socially awkward colleague), deal with it as gracefully as you can. Don’t make the interviewer feel bad by dismissing the question, but don’t be rattled either–likely the other interviewers are feeling embarrassed by the situation, too.
  4. Be yourself. Give good chemistry a chance to develop.
  5. Never, ever, say anything bad about any of your current or past colleagues. Even if you are a gossip, don’t let on!