By Elizabeth

Spiritual Difficulties on the Job Market

The first year I went on the academic job market, I went to my department’s job placement meeting. Our placement directors began by reminding everyone of the odds in our field: between 100 and 500 applicants for every job posted. They then walked us through the process we would go through, emphasizing how important it would be to revise and re-revise our cover letters and all our materials, how essential it was that we submit our articles to the best peer-reviewed journal in our field, how minutely we needed to edit our curriculum vitas to eliminate every error. I remember walking out of that meeting feeling totally overwhelmed. Was I up to the task? Was I good enough to land a job in spite of the overwhelming odds?

The answer, of course, was no. After years in a grad program in the humanities, I had a healthy case of impostor syndrome. But in the past, my shortcomings had been confined to the eyes of my professors and writing partners. Now I had to masquerade, as it felt, for a much larger and more unpredictable audience: the committees of the forty-something universities hiring a specialist in my field.

I found the job market psychologically and spiritually draining for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, applying for forty jobs took a huge amount of time, which I had to steal from my dissertation, teaching, working a part-time job, and being with my husband and child. Second, and more complicated, was the task of marketing myself to each of the schools to which I applied. In every cover letter I had to present myself and my achievements as the perfect fit for this particular school, even if I was applying only out of desperation. But the bigger result of all this self-promotion was that I was constantly thinking about how I appeared to others, constantly trying to put the best spin on my shortcomings and failures while simultaneously feeling that my actual research and teaching somehow didn’t measure up.

The competition with my friends and colleagues also weighed hard on me. My research partner and I applied for all the same jobs, although his dream job was at a research university and mine was at a liberal-arts college. Early on, we made a pact to treat each other’s success as our own, on the theory that we would have many opportunities to help each other throughout our professional careers. This was a helpful stance to take as we began to hear back from schools…until we both landed interviews for the same position, an assistant professorship at a liberal-arts college I had been eyeing all fall. Worse yet, he got the on-campus interview, and I did not. The final blow came when he told me that they had made him an offer, which he accepted. I was in turns disappointed, angry, and confused. I had been so sure I was the best fit for Dream College; all my skills and personal desires lined up perfectly with what I thought the department was looking for. How could “my” job go to someone who, I felt, wanted it less than I did?

In reality this disappointment was the best thing that could have happened to me. First, I had to confront the reality that it was not “my” job. It never had been. Although I was paying lip service to the idea that all good gifts come from God, in reality I had bought into the illusion that my department had communicated so clearly at that meeting in August: that I could only succeed at this task by my own efforts. I really had done all that I could possibly do to convince Dream College that they should hire me. But I couldn’t control how the committee compared me with the other candidates, and I certainly didn’t control any of the other myriad invisible factors that go on within a department’s search.

Moreover, the very odds were stacked against me: even as I applied, the economy tanked, and a third of the job searches in my specialty were canceled or simply disappeared from the listings. If I didn’t surrender my job search to God, I would exhaust myself with anxiety and despair. (For examples of what this anxiety and despair might look like, check out the discussion page on any one of the academic job market wikis, or peruse the job-seekers’ forum at the Chronicle of Higher Education.) But on the other hand, the very unpredictability and difficulty of getting an academic job would make it easy to understand God’s will for my life. The odds were stacked against me, so if God wanted me to have an academic job, He would have to give me one.

He did give me one, though it was not the job I had imagined or dreamed of. After a second year on the market, I accepted and currently hold a visiting appointment at a public university, which for various reasons is the best possible outcome for me and for my family. I am keenly aware that this is God’s doing, not my own, and there’s something very freeing about that. A sovereign God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is the giver of all good gifts, and it is he who determines what my work will be. My job now, as during those two hard years, is to do the best work that I can at whatever tasks I am given.

About the Author

Elizabeth expects to go on the job market again in 2011. She and her husband have two children. Elizabeth loves genre fiction — the trashier the better — and is learning how to hunt wild mushrooms.

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