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

Each fall two of my English Department colleagues and I lead a fifty-minute presentation and question and answer session for students who are interested in graduate school in English. My colleague Keith talks about PhD programs in literature, my colleague Todd discusses programs in composition and rhetoric, and I talk about creative writing programs. Our goal is to inform students about the possibilities for graduate study in English and writing. I set out to just focus on  graduate school, but the questions the students ask always have a lot to do with jobs afterward, so I know this is a concern—perhaps the primary concern—for them. A lot of the students who attend these sessions say they want to teach at the college level and this is why they want to go to graduate school. They want to know how we got our jobs and how they can get similar jobs in the future. Again and again, students have said to me, “What I really want to know is how I can get a job like yours.” (I am an assistant professor in an English department, and I mostly teach creative writing classes, although I have also taught composition and literature courses.)

I think the question “How did you get your job?” is something that takes a long time to answer, something I don’t have time for when we’ve got less than an hour for our presentation. During these talks, my colleagues and I try to squeeze a whole lot of information (GREs, letters of recommendation, personal statements, writing samples, etc.) into a fifty-minute block of time, and I always feel like I have so much more to say. Every year, in the weeks after our presentation, I have a handful of students who come to my office and ask more questions about pursuing writing after their undergraduate degrees are over. I talk to them and try to learn about their individual goals, and I hope they leave my office feeling like they have a bit more of a sense of direction. But I still think there’s more to say, and perhaps it might be helpful to spell out the long answer to “How did you get your job?” Of course it must be noted that what I’m going to detail here is just one experience, and no experience is typical. But sometimes it helps to hear about how even one person went about things. (Please note that these blog posts will focus on graduate school and employment in the field of creative writing and not English programs in general.)

In this series of four blog posts I want to talk about not only the process of getting a job post-MFA but also what academic jobs entail. I know that when I was a student I had no idea what was involved in teaching at the college level (even though I’d spent many years in school), so perhaps these posts might help clarify some things for others who have a vague notion that they want to teach but don’t know what teaching jobs—especially first jobs after graduate school—are all about. I hope this series of posts might be a resource for my students, and maybe for others as well. Each year I get e-mails from a handful of former students saying they want to go back to school for an MFA with the eventual goal of teaching college students. It is for these former students, especially, that I want to get all this information up here.

Here’s the quick rundown of how I got to my current job (this is really all that I have time to say during our grad school presentations): I am in my first tenure-track job, teaching at Siena College in upstate New York; it took me six years of full-time teaching and three big geographic moves before I landed in this job. I went to the University of Pittsburgh for my MFA, and then I moved to Missouri to teach at Missouri State University for two years as a lecturer. From there, I moved to a small town in Ohio to teach for three years as a visiting assistant professor at the College of Wooster. That job was not renewable after three years. When I finished at Wooster, I moved to Boone, North Carolina, and taught for one year as a visiting assistant professor at Appalachian State University. I knew that none of these jobs was permanent, and almost every year while I was teaching I was also balancing being on the job market, which is a time consuming task (there are recommendations to ask for, teaching philosophies to write, cover letters and a CV to write and update, teaching portfolios to prepare, interviews for which to prepare, teaching demonstrations to plan, etc.). I did not select these jobs because of their geographic locations; the job market dictated where I ended up moving and teaching. I didn’t know a single person in any of these locations before I took these jobs. One thing I think many students don’t know is that for academic jobs you’ve got to look and see where there are openings; you generally can’t choose a place you want to live and/or choose the schools where you’d like to work and ask if they’ll give you a job. You’ve got to check the job lists every year and see what positions have opened up.

You might be wondering if my experience is typical, if all that moving around is necessary if you want to teach creative writing. I don’t know; I don’t think there’s really anything that’s typical about academia. There are some people who immediately fall into a tenure-track job after an MFA or PhD, but I think this is less common in creative writing than in other fields. (I’m basing this just on what I’ve seen happen around me, both with my peers from graduate school and my colleagues at the schools where I’ve taught.)

I know that sometimes my colleagues and I might make students rethink pursuing graduate school when we conduct our grad school talks. It feels responsible to mention the challenges of a career in academia (or even getting a job in academia) to young people who are seriously contemplating spending years (and sometimes a lot of money) pursuing a graduate degree. In some cases, I think our discouraging these students can be a good thing. I don’t think someone should go to graduate school simply because they can’t think of anything else to do or because the job they landed in after college is boring. I don’t think someone should go to graduate school in English or writing because they kind of like reading and writing; these are activities one can participate in outside of school. I don’t think someone should go to graduate school because they think a graduate degree is a guarantee of publication. I don’t think someone should go to graduate school because they think a graduate degree ensures them a tenure-track job. But I do think there are students who’ve made serious progress as undergraduate writers and would benefit from a few more years to work on their writing surrounded by other people who care deeply about creative writing. I also think there are students out there who would make great teachers, and I want to encourage these students to keep going, to keep pursuing the study of literature and writing in an academic environment, and to take advantage of the opportunity to teach as a TA. (I should note here that the term "teaching assistant" might be misleading; I had full responsibility for teaching classes while I was a graduate student. In some fields, TAs help professors, but I taught composition and creative writing classes throughout graduate school, and I think having full responsibility for prepping and teaching classes is fairly typical for graduate students in English departments.) I also want to encourage students who don’t want to teach but want to pursue a field of study seriously and intensely to continue on to graduate studies. There are many good reasons to go to graduate school, but I think it’s important for students to realize that getting a graduate degree in English doesn’t mean anything is guaranteed afterward.

I think that lots of students have an idealized notion of what it means to teach at a college or university. Throughout my years of teaching fiction writing, I’ve had students write stories in which characters were professors (mostly English professors). Often, these characters were married to other professors, and they spent evenings reading novels out loud to each other. At meals, they quoted lines from Shakespeare’s plays. These characters loved books, and one, if I’m remembering correctly, had time to open a bookstore on the side. These fictional professors spent a lot of time reading for pleasure and being passionate about books. Of course these are activities real-life professors partake in, but in these stories I didn’t see the professors spending late nights grading papers, prepping for classes, advising students, completing piles of paperwork, or serving on committees. These stories made me realize that many students don’t really understand what it means to teach at a college or university. In a way this is a good thing. This means their professors have been enthusiastic in discussions of literature and writing. It means their professors have shown that they’re passionate readers and they love working with students. But the passionate, enthusiastic face presented in class is only one part of what it means to be a professor. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes hard work that’s invisible to students. I think most professors I’ve encountered love the time spent in the classroom and time interacting with students. I know these are the best parts of my job. But there is other stuff that’s a whole lot less fun that students don’t know about; like any job, there are boring components that take up a lot of time (time most of us would rather spend writing or working with students). There’s paperwork and forms to fill out and proposals for new classes to write and submit. There are students to advise. There’s service in the form of committee work. There are meetings that can be long and boring and sometimes contentious. There’s the hard work that goes into developing new classes. There are student e-mails to answer. There’s participation in the process of hiring new professors. If you’re on the tenure track, there’s the process of getting promoted and applying for tenure, which involves a ton of paperwork and a lot of accounting of your teaching, scholarship, and service. I won’t spend too much time going into the non-teaching portion of academic jobs, but I will just say that students need to be aware that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes, and there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for that hour or so that you see your professor in class.

If you are a very good professor, you get a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf with a ladder in your office. Just kidding. 

If you are a very good professor, you get a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf with a ladder in your office. Just kidding. 

I think that if students are aware of all these things—the lack of guarantees after graduation, the work that goes into teaching, the good chance that they’ll have to move at least once after graduate school—and are still enthused about pursuing graduate work in English and writing, then they should, by all means, pursue what can ultimately be a very rewarding and fulfilling line of work.

I’ve separated this post into four parts. Part II  discusses my post-MFA job search, Part III describes my first job offer, and Part IV talks about what my first job entailed.