What I’d Like My Students to Know About Academic Jobs: Part III

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

I was shocked when I got a call from Missouri State shortly after I submitted my application. In a way, this was confusing. A university was actually interested in me, but dozens of non-academic jobs had found me unworthy of even sending me a rejection. As I reflected on my skills and preparation, it made sense that I was better suited for teaching than I’d been for most of the other jobs I’d applied for. Maybe I was a viable candidate for teaching at a university. In fiction writing classes we talk about epiphanies and whether people in real life have epiphanies as often as characters in stories in fiction workshops do. The answer is, of course, no, we’re not going around having huge realizations all the time, but I have to say that realizing I might be qualified to teach at the college level was an epiphany for me.

During the initial call, a phone interview with the search committee was scheduled for a few days later. During the phone interview, I was asked questions about my teaching and writing. Among other topics, I talked about how I crafted assignments, how I graded creative writing, and how I facilitated workshops. I talked about the stories I'd been writing and sending out to journals. A few days after the phone interview, I was invited out for a campus interview. I flew from Pittsburgh, PA, to Springfield, MO, and spent an entire day on campus talking to faculty and administrators. Because it was the middle of the summer and most students were not on campus, I didn’t teach a sample class (which is usually part of an on-campus interview). Instead, I read one of my short stories to a handful of professors from the English Department and then answered questions about that story in particular and my writing in general. I had dinner with two members of the English Department. I flew home, and a few days later I was called and offered the job.

An aside: This timeline is incredibly sped up and compressed because they were looking for someone so late in the year. Generally, academic jobs are posted in the fall—usually between the end of August and mid-October—with deadlines in early to mid-November. Job seekers submit applications and then wait until December, when, if they are lucky enough, they get calls about either phone, Skype, or conference interviews (there is a large conference every year called the MLA—Modern Language Association—Convention, during which many interviews are held for college-level teaching jobs in English. There is also the AWP—Association of Writers & Writing Programs—Conference, where some interviews are also held, but this conference often occurs too late in the academic year, usually late March or early April, for it to make sense to conduct interviews there). The conference/phone/Skype interviews are first round interviews, and around a dozen candidates get interviewed at this stage (sometimes more, sometimes fewer). Depending on the job, these twelve or so candidates may have been whittled down from hundreds of candidates. Usually the top three candidates are invited to campus in January or February to teach a sample class, give a talk or do a reading, and meet with/interview with students, faculty, and administrators. Then it might take until March (or even later) for the offers to be made. The delay is because all three candidates’ campus visits need to transpire and then the hiring department needs to meet to discuss the candidates and the department needs to get final approval from the administration to extend the job offer. The whole process is long and drawn out and full of waiting. People who are not in academia are often surprised to hear that you may have to wait until March or April to hear the results of a job you applied for in September.

I was excited by the opportunity to teach at the college level, and I immediately said yes to the job offer at Missouri State. This meant that within a few weeks I would have to pack up, move halfway across the country, and begin teaching four classes a semester. I had to leave behind people I cared about and move to a place where I knew no one. But this isn’t unusual; there are plenty of people out there who have left a great deal behind for academic jobs. This moving around, this starting over and over again, is something that most people I know who’ve taught in colleges and universities have dealt with. In a way it’s exciting and allows you to get to know different parts of the country (or even the world), but if you’re really tied to a certain place, it does drastically limit your options on the academic job market.

Here’s what I remember most about the phone call in which I was offered a job: the person who chaired the search apologized to me before he told me what the salary would be. When I heard the salary, I was struck by the fact that the salary was the exact same amount I’d made five years before—before I started graduate school—teaching GED and Adult Basic Education. I knew immediately that I’d be working a lot harder for the money than I had in the job before graduate school. I’d been teaching as a TA long enough to know that there’s a lot of take-home work with college-level teaching, and the hours in the classroom are only a fraction of the work of teaching at a college or university. The search chair said that I could not negotiate for a higher salary because this was all they could offer. He told me that one piece of good news was that the cost of living was fairly low in Springfield, so that salary would go farther there than in a lot of other places. He sounded contrite but I was incredibly happy to have been offered a job and grateful for the opportunity and assured him the salary would be fine. (I had been told explicitly that I couldn’t negotiate for a higher salary, and so I didn’t, but I also was unaware at that point that one could negotiate.) I’d been searching for a job for months, and I’d come to the conclusion that I wanted to teach at the college level, and this job seemed like an excellent place to start a teaching career. Since Missouri State is a public institution, that salary isn’t a secret. If you want to see it, click here. Let's do a little math here. Each year I was teaching eight classes with twenty-two students per class. So that's 176 students. Take that salary and divide it by 176, and you come up with $153.41 that I was being paid per student. And that was BEFORE taxes. Let's say I was being paid around $110 per student after taxes. If I divide that $110 by the number of hours I spent grading each student's work, I would end up with just a few dollars an hour in compensation per student. These aren't pretty numbers, but I don't think this kind of thing should be a secret to students. 

I was okay with taking a job with that salary because I knew the job was a good start. I would gain skills, enter into the profession, and continue to grow as a teacher of creative writing. I knew I’d never get rich being a teacher, and, honestly, the salary was more than twice what I’d made each year for the last five years as a TA. During the two years I held the job at Missouri State, I lived frugally and saved whatever money I could. But during my second year, I needed a root canal and then, after the root canal, my tooth cracked, and I needed a crown. And once I paid for my dental work (even though I had dental insurance that covered a portion of the costs), I was left with almost no money in the bank. At that point, it truly hit me that the job wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t keep working and ending up with no money in the bank at the end of each year (while spending little on anything besides rent, food, utilities, car upkeep, and other basic necessities. I was also paying off a small loan that I’d taken out while I was in graduate school to help supplement my TA stipend). What if I had a medical issue? What if I needed to spend a significant amount of money on a car repair? What if my computer broke down? Actually, this did happen, and I had to ask my parents for help purchasing a new computer because I needed it to do my work. And I hated having to ask for help, especially as someone who was employed full-time and was working hard. Something seemed a little off-balance to me: I thought that with the amount of work I was doing, I should have had enough to buy a new computer when my old one broke down. Plenty has been written lately about compensation for non-tenure-track faculty members, so I won’t write too much here, but I think it’s worth letting students know that oftentimes their teachers—especially those who are adjuncts or in visiting or non-tenure-track positions—are not compensated particularly well.

The job entailed teaching four sections of a class called Creative Writing: Short Story a semester. Each class had twenty-two students in it, for a total of eighty-eight students. Some semesters I also worked one-on-one with students in tutorials, so during those semesters I had ninety or more students. Except for one literature class I taught during my second year, my classes were all writing courses—either this introductory short story course or an intermediate fiction writing course. This meant a lot of reading and grading of student writing. A lot of reading and grading of student writing. But here’s the thing: this university was trusting me with eighty-plus students a semester. They were giving me the opportunity to figure out how to teach creative writing. And no matter how difficult the job was, this was an opportunity. A good one.

Read Part IV here: What I learned by teaching all these students and why this difficult job was ultimately worth it.