Scott Gac: Ph.D. in history decides that four years on the academic market without a tenure-track offer is long enough





[Scott Gac is a Ph.D. in American history who is in the final year of a postdoc at Yale University. His first book, Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Culture of Nineteenth-Century Reform, is due out in May 2007 from Yale University Press.]

... Hope had governed the early stages of my job search this year. Using my three years of experience on the market as a guide, I thought long and hard about how to present myself in the cover letters that would lead to my AHA interviews. In previous years, I opted for the what-I-think-this-institution-is-looking-for letter over the this-is-who-I-am version. The former approach secured me some meetings with prestigious universities, but ultimately left me dissatisfied.

"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself," cautioned Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Man, you was who you was 'fore you got here," said Jay-Z. So this year I followed what every worthwhile career counselor, 19th-century wiseman, and 21st-century rapper advises: Be yourself.

My cover letter spoke of combining music history and American history, "storytelling and scholarship" (a phrase that likely made the multitudes attached to the Germanic Order of Dissertation Writing turn in their graves -- if they were dead). My letter also talked about my careful attention to writing as an invaluable tool for learning. If I was going to be reading rejection letters, I made sure it was going to be me that those letters were rejecting.

It turned out that, for a while, they loved me. And one campus interview did arise from my convention interviews.

Which explains why I spent Valentine's Day 1,800 miles away from my wife, looking across a dinner table into the eyes of Mr. Late, the search-committee head who had needed a wake-up call. He told me he has trouble sleeping; that was why he had been delayed for the first interview.

After two nights and a day in the steamy South, I headed back to snowy New England armed with a positive attitude, formal institutional information, and less formal institutional gossip. I had learned all the departmental news about divorces and sexual preference (and changes in sexual preference that had led to divorces).

Then came the wait. During my visit, I had been assured that, in an effort to close the job search as quickly as possible, a decision would be made in the week following my departure.

One week passed. Then two weeks. Ah, let's give them three weeks for good measure. After the third week, I accepted what I had begun to suspect: My 2005-6 job search was going to end without an offer. Notification arrived in week eight: "The position was offered to the other candidate, who ultimately accepted."

In years past, that would have been the point at which I would scrutinize the whole process to figure out what tweaking was required to make next year's search a success. But four years without a permanent job offer is too long. It is time to explore other interests (which, fortunately, I have)....


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