Be Yourself on the Job Search

Lydia McDermott
Assistant Professor of Composition and Director of the Center for Writing and Speaking at Whitman College

Around this time of year, I find myself thanking the rhetoric gods that I am no longer on the job market. You know how I feel. If you have a job, you too are thankful. If you are looking for one, you are looking forward to being on my side of that prayer.

Last month, my colleague, Erin, posted the first blog in this series on finding a job in rhet/comp. The series was spawned at the 4c16 CFSHRC mentoring tables, where we, with colleague Letizia Guglielmo, offered advice on the job hunt.

I’m going to take this opportunity to elaborate from personal experience on some of Erin’s wonderful pieces of advice.

Be Honest

Cat Typing on computer

It’s a lot of work, but remember to be yourself.

It is easy to get wrapped up in the “spin” of the job search, adjusting your documents for a variety of institutions to make yourself seem like the perfect fit. It’s also easy to become too concerned with other people’s wishes for your success: fellow graduates, your adviser, your mentors. When it comes down to it, you know who you are and where you would fit better than anyone else. Trust that.

When I was on the job hunt, I applied for a wide variety of institutions. I was flexible, as Erin so wisely advised. In my application process, I became distracted by a vague concept of prestige and I lost track of my own strengths and desires. I am an excellent teacher and I love students. As much as I enjoy my research, I need teaching to fuel me. I’m not meant to be at an R1 institution. Yet, I applied to some. I have colleagues who have taken positions similar to mine at a small liberal arts college, who really are dissatisfied with their teaching and service loads. They aspire to very prestigious journals and presses and hope to make academic waves. They’d probably be happier at a more research-intensive institution.

Think about Fit, and then Rethink

I didn’t know that I was the perfect fit for a small liberal arts college where I am part administrator and part faculty until I was interviewing for the job. True story: I had several interviews lined up at MLA. The night before my first interview, with the school where I am currently employed, I had horrible, gut-wrenching food poisoning. I got 2 hours of sleep at the most. I went into my interview convinced the whole MLA experience was for naught. My lovely interviewers kept offering me snacks and drinks, and all I could concentrate on was NOT getting sick. In the end, this distraction proved useful. I had no energy to be nervous about my answers. I could not spin them because I didn’t have the brainpower. I was forced to be honest and open and it paid off.

I enjoyed that interview. I ENJOYED that interview, despite my stomach, despite MLA, despite the fact that I never attended a liberal arts institution. Pay attention to how you feel about interviews. If you feel at home, that is a good sign. If it feels like something is off, maybe something is off.

Now that I am on the other side of job searches, we resist talking about “fit,” because it can be shorthand for discrimination. Whoever is interviewing you or evaluating your materials cannot tell you if you “fit.” However, they do know what competing demands the position needs to fill. They want to imagine you filling those demands. So, again, you must be honest. I would rather recommend a candidate for hire who is exceptionally prepared for two of the demands of the position, and only slightly prepared for a third, but willing to learn and take on the challenge.

Be Flexible, but Know your Limits

You know how daunting your dissertation was when you first wrote that prospectus? Remember the process of sorting through the literature relevant to your research? At some point, you had to stop sorting and start writing. At some point in the writing, you had to conclude. You could not make it perfect and get done in time (If you are still finishing your dissertation, take this to heart, especially if you are on the job market—you must finish). Your goal with the dissertation was ultimately a degree, not a perfect piece of writing. Your goal with the job search, is ultimately a job, not perfect job materials, not the best teaching statement ever (you will have to write it again for tenure anyway), not even the perfect job (none exist).

Give yourself a break. Do what you can and learn to let go when it is time to let go. Do other things in your life that keep you sane: exercise, eat chocolate, spend time with friends, family, and animals, work on an article (no, really), watch some Netflix (but that has an end too). Be kind to yourself and know when you need to take a break from the process. You can come back refreshed and ready for more.

Bunny falls asleep at computer.

Get some rest!