It happened in a Laundromat. I was reading Adam Bede while my friend switched her laundry over. My phone had been at full volume and on prominent display for several days. Earlier that week, a call from a car rental company had nearly launched my pregnant colleague into early labor. But this wasn’t a false alarm. I was suddenly hot, heart-pounding, tears-welling. It was an effort to sound calm and detached, to avoid showing my hand.
“I’m calling with what I hope you will see as good news regarding our search…”
Last week at a minor league baseball game I overheard a slightly younger woman expressing jealousy for the players, most of them younger than us both and paid to play a sport they loved. I crowed to my partner that I wasn’t jealous at all, but that might be (imagine my smarmiest of tones) because I finally owned a home, had a PhD, and was about to start a tenure-track job. The analogy doesn’t quite hold but the minors look a lot like graduate school, players being paid a pittance to be taken less seriously than those doing similar work to them. I had been called up to the majors when so many others hadn’t yet and might never be at all.
Joy is a fragile emotion compared to the realities of guilt. My guilt at surviving, however, serves as wholly unproductive unless it motivates me to participate in changing the structural issues in academia. These are very real issues to which my work with union movements has only begun to expose me. After you read this narrative of triumph, you also need to read my colleague Erin Bartram’s piece about the grief of those left behind. Any and all comments I make in this post should not be regarded as contradicting or counteracting Erin’s argument, an argument of far more value than my own musings here.
There is plenty of data I can share with you about my search. I was in my fourth year of the PhD program and I had written four chapters of a dissertation. I had eleven conference presentations and six peer-reviewed articles listed on my CV. But… but… but… I felt as though my insanely busy previous year of conferences wasn’t enough because I hadn’t been accepted to the North American Victorian Studies Association’s conference. I felt as though my articles weren’t closely related enough to my major fields and hadn’t appeared in prestigious enough venues. I thought the many special issues I had been featured in demonstrated my need for an easier submission process. However successful I might have appeared, the external achievements never adjusted my internal assessment. I knew then what I know now with more vigor. There is no formula. I can attempt to justify my luck by quantifying my success, but then I can also compare myself to many others without tenure-track jobs who would beat me in any statistical match up.
And yet, dear readers, you’re now reading the words of Dr. Reeds, shortly to be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at Hastings College in Nebraska. My job search was a short one as I interviewed on campus in early January. It was also a limited one as my remaining year of funding and visa status led to a focus only on tenure-track jobs that sponsored international candidates. I applied for thirty-one jobs in sixteen states. The first rejection stung more than I expected. A small liberal arts college in a rural-but-not-too-rural place in the Midwest feels perfect. I might stay forever.
If I have any advice to offer based on my own experience of graduate school, it’s extremely limited. Move through the process as quickly and steadily as you can. Find the people who will read your work and inspire you with their own, and who will respond as kindly to your 4am doubts as you try to theirs. Hold onto them with all your loving might. Take up running—or whatever mindful hobby or exercise finally does the trick for you. Do not be afraid to throw your ideas out into the world. Go to therapy. Go to therapy again. Remember that you are already doing what you love and the ultimate success would be someone allowing you to continue doing it for a lifetime.
How do I feel? Probably how I look in this photo of my defense celebrations. Loved. Exhausted. Thrilled. Relieved. Ready.