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

Read Part I here.

Today I want to talk about my own post-MFA job search. This is all the specific stuff I want to tell my students when I talk to them about graduate school and life after graduation, but it’s what I never have time to say. I want to tell them about rejections and difficulties, but also about acceptances and what went right. I want to tell them not to give up when they get rejected because we all get rejected at some point. I want to tell them about the long, circuitous path that led up to my sitting in the classroom in front of them.

I finished my MFA in 2006, and during my last semester of school I spent a lot of time applying for jobs. I still have a folder on my computer labeled “2006 Job Search,” so as I was writing this post, I was able to go in and see where I’d applied.

First, I applied for fellowships. My dream “job” at that point would have been to have a fellowship that allowed me plenty of time to write. An added bonus would be getting some additional teaching experience, beyond the classes I taught in graduate school as a TA. Here’s where I applied: Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin, the Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship at Colgate University, and the Axton Fellowship at the University of Louisville.

I was rejected from all of these fellowships. All of these applications were a long shot; I didn’t have the expectation that I would get any of them, but I also knew that there was a 0% chance of getting any if I didn’t try. I should also say that I applied for some of these fellowships several more times over the years and was rejected again. (It took me a long time to learn this, but if you get a rejection, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're unqualified or bad. Oftentimes, it means that the gatekeepers were looking for someone that they thought would be a better fit. Or it means that there were hundreds of applications, and those who were doing the choosing tried their best to pick well, but they had to reject a lot of people who were good and qualified. In many ways, getting rejected from fellowships and jobs is similar to getting rejected from literary magazines; there's simply not enough room for everyone that could do a good job.) This is what I want my students to know: keep trying and trying and trying. Sometimes something happens and sometimes it doesn’t, but if you don’t try, nothing will ever happen. Rejections suck, but if you want to be a writer, you need to get good at dealing with them. And even though I didn’t get the fellowships, I got good experience submitting applications, writing personal statements, polishing my résumé, and proposing possible courses I could teach. All of these skills were helpful to me in subsequent job and fellowship searches.

I then applied to jobs teaching English at private schools. Through my work as a TA in graduate school and a job before grad school teaching Adult Basic Education, I’d realized that I loved teaching, but at that point I just didn’t believe anyone would hire me to teach full time in a college or university. I didn’t have a degree that would allow me to teach in public schools, so I thought private schools were my only option. I applied to a dozen jobs all over the country that had been advertised for English teachers at the middle and high school levels. I also applied to a service that paired up teachers with private schools. I was rejected by this service with an e-mail that said I didn’t have enough teaching experience. I felt pretty demoralized when I got that e-mail, but in retrospect the rejection was fair since I hadn’t taught much at the middle or high school levels (I’d worked with younger students in summer programs for gifted students and had participated in the National Writing Project’s Young Writers program, but I’d never taught middle or high school students for more than a summer).

Applying for jobs and fellowships is utterly exhausting.

Applying for jobs and fellowships is utterly exhausting.

One private school was interested, though, and I drove from Pittsburgh to New York for a full-day interview. I liked the students at that school. They were smart and polite and engaged. I would be teaching both history and English to fifth and sixth graders if I was offered the job. I was told what the salary would be, and when I looked up the cost of living in the area, I realized that there was no way I could live within a one-hour radius of the school because the school was located in an extremely wealthy area. I knew the school day would extend to about 5pm because all teachers were required to supervise some sort of after-school activity. I calculated that with two hours of commuting, I would be out of the house more than twelve hours a day, and I withdrew my candidacy. I knew I wanted a job that at least offered me the possibility of time to write, and this job would not do that.

As I drove away from my interview, I had to take some photos of the neighborhood surrounding the school. It was beautiful there.

As I drove away from my interview, I had to take some photos of the neighborhood surrounding the school. It was beautiful there.

I then scoured many websites that posted jobs and applied for positions in a variety of fields for which I thought I'd be qualified. Here are some examples of where I sent applications and the type of jobs I applied for: copywriter for Abercrombie, editor for a magazine for teachers, software trainer for a healthcare organization, copywriter for Hammacher Schlemmer, editorial assistant for a magazine for radiologists, assistant editor for cookbooks. I didn’t get an interview or even a single rejection for these jobs. I wondered if my MFA was working against me and whether these employers would rather hire someone with a BA, with the thought that they’d work for less money. I wondered whether these employers were looking for people with more specialized degrees (perhaps in marketing or advertising in some cases) or lots of internships (in the cases of the editorial positions). I knew it was difficult to get a job, but I worried that my MFA actually had made me a less viable candidate for non-academic jobs than I’d been with just a BA (click here to read about some of my post-college job search mishaps). I hadn’t been offered many jobs with my BA, but I had been called in at least for a bunch of interviews.

It was getting late in the summer (I had graduated in April from my MFA program), my lease would run out on August 1st, my remaining funds from my TA stipend were dwindling, and I had no idea what else I could do. Then I saw a job ad for an instructor position at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. At that point, I didn’t know there were sites online where academic jobs were posted, so I must have seen it on a general job search website, something like Monster.com. What I didn’t know then was that most academic jobs are posted in the fall (more on that in my next post), and I was lucky to have even found a job that was still accepting applications in the summer. I don't know why they were accepting applications so late, but this usually happens when someone announces that they're leaving for a new job in the fall or if the approval and funding for a new position comes late in the academic year from the school. I’m not sure when the deadline was for the Missouri State job, but my cover letter was dated June 28, 2006, so my guess is that the deadline was July 1st. I didn’t really think I had a shot at the job, but I applied anyway because at that point I was applying to anything I thought I might even have a remote shot at. I liked that the ad asked for a lot of material; I thought of it as multiple ways that I could prove myself, and it seemed like maybe I’d have a better shot at getting a job when they asked for a bunch of stuff as opposed to a job that just asked for a one-page résumé, and a one-page cover letter. This ad asked for a CV, transcripts, three letters of recommendation, teaching evaluations, course syllabi, and a writing sample. Because I’d applied for all those fellowships, I had letters of recommendation from my professors, so I was able to use those letters. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to pull together an application so quickly. (And for students that are reading this, DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT ask your professors for letters of recommendation—for anything—at the last minute. Even if your professors say yes, they won’t have the time to write you thorough, detailed letters.)

I’d never really thought seriously about applying for academic jobs before and during graduate school. I thought only people who had PhDs or fiction writers who’d already published books could teach full time in colleges and universities. My MFA program didn’t spend too much time preparing us for jobs post-MFA, but there were several experiences I had as a graduate student that helped me immensely. One of the best things I was able to do during graduate school was participate in hiring a new professor to teach in our MFA program. Graduate students were able to read candidates’ files, sit in on interviews, have breakfast with job candidates, and give input about which candidates we thought would be the best fit to teach in our program. While I was reading their files (which consisted of CVs, cover letters, writing samples, teaching evaluations, and letters of recommendation), I was just trying to figure out whom I’d want to study with, but by the time I decided to apply for a college-level teaching job, I realized I’d been lucky to have had the opportunity to see what an application for an academic job looked like.

During my last year in my MFA program, Cathy Day, one of my professors, gave a presentation on academic jobs for MFA students. She showed us her CV and gave us a packet of information from AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) about applying for academic jobs. It was so helpful for me to see her CV (curriculum vitae) because a CV for academic positions is very different from a résumé for a non-academic job. I’d shoved those materials from Cathy under a pile of papers on my desk, thinking that I wasn’t qualified for those kinds of jobs, but when I saw the Missouri State ad and saw that they weren’t necessarily looking for someone with a PhD or a published book, I pulled out the handouts from Cathy’s talk and studied them carefully. I realized there were certainly jobs that were looking for people who had books and had already taught a lot of college-level classes, but there were also jobs that were looking for people who had some teaching experience and had enough publications to show they’d have the potential to publish more.

At that point, I’d been submitting my work to literary journals for four years and had published seven stories and one interview with an author. I’d been teaching at the college level for five years as a TA (as I mentioned in Part I, even though the title was TA, I was fully responsible for planning and teaching all the classes). At Temple University, where I’d earned my MA, I’d taught Composition and Creative Writing: Fiction. At the University of Pittsburgh, where I’d earned my MFA, I’d taught Seminar in Composition, Short Story in Context (a literature class), Introduction to Fiction (a creative writing class), Introduction to Creative Writing (a multi-genre creative writing class), and had spent a year working as a tutor in the Writing Center. I hadn’t thought about it while I was teaching in graduate school, but these experiences were preparing me to teach afterwards. Now I tell my students that if they’re thinking at all about teaching, they should seek out graduate programs that allow them the chance to teach.

I went on the forums of The Chronicle of Higher Education and spent hours reading the discussions about academic job searches there. I read and absorbed everything, down to the advice people gave for how to dress for interviews. I scoured the Internet for samples of cover letters and teaching philosophies for academic jobs. After I felt I’d done enough research, I put together a CV that was different (mostly in the amount of information and detail included) from the résumés I’d sent out for non-academic jobs. I wrote a cover letter that described the classes I’d taught as a TA and included my thoughts on teaching creative writing to undergraduates. As I was putting this material together, I thought for the first time that maybe I did have the skills to teach at a university, and that the work I’d put in as a TA for the past five years had taught me a lot. I found it much easier to write a convincing statement about teaching than I had about cookbook editing or teaching middle school history. And at that moment, it struck me that perhaps teaching writing at a college or university was what I really wanted to do.

Part III has the results of this job search.