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The Path to the Professoriate

Three letters are known to strike terror into the hearts of all soon-to-be Ph.D.s in English, French, Spanish, Italian and the other languages. They are M, L and A – the acronym for the Modern Language Association, which holds its annual conference and a job fair, whose hazards are legend, every year just days after Christmas.

Last month’s MLA conference was held in the winter garden spot of Chicago. As if to make up for the ice-tipped winds roaring like a freight train off Lake Michigan, the convention hotels were located within tempting proximity to the Magnificent Mile. This happy hunting ground of after-Christmas bargains simply seethed with shoppers during my three days in Chicago – none of whom appeared to be attending the MLA convention. Indeed, the clearest measure of the single-minded intensity that the MLA seems to evoke in attendees is the fact that, in three days of attendance, every single person I heard say, “See you guys, I’m going shopping!” was, in fact, planning to visit the convention’s book fair.

This was not my first MLA, but it was the first MLA in which I was, in convention parlance, “on the job market.” It’s a singularly nerve-wracking process, much moreso, I believe, than the process one endures in seeking jobs in nonacademic fields. And the pressure is intensified by the fact that the number of jobs for English professors shrank last year.

According to the MLA’s own statistics, the number of jobs in English literature is down 4.1 percent, to 1,720, compared with an exciting 4.3 percent rise in the number of jobs in the foreign languages, to 1,660. And while this in no way compares to the crisis of 1993-94, when the number of jobs in English hovered around 1,100, or 60 percent below this year’s level, the competition for tenure-track jobs, both for the roughly 1,500 newly minted doctorates in English and the foreign languages produced in 2006 and the untold numbers from previous years who are assaying the process for the second or even third time, remains intense.In recognition of these pressures, Diverse’s handy dandy “tips for surviving the MLA” is intended as a light-hearted commentary on the process both for those who have endured it, or a similar one in a related field, and for those who are looking forward to (or dreading) embarking on such a process later in the year.

I hope I may be forgiven for donning the cloak of anonymity in offering this piece. As someone with active applications in process at three schools, I think the reasons are obvious. But to give you a better idea of who I am and where I stand as a job candidate, I’ll describe myself in a bit more detail. I am:

• An African-American woman

• A doctoral candidate at a flagship state school in the South

• A nontraditional age student whose background includes nontraditional but high-level administrative experience

Without further delay, here’s what I learned on my path to the professoriate:


The Role of Preparation

“Preparation, preparation, preparation.” It’s the mantra I heard repeated countless times in the months leading up to the convention. I was fortunate in having a good relationship with my advisors and in coming from a department that has, in recent years, developed a strong commitment to placement.

What this translated to in practical terms for our cohort of job seekers was a high level of institutional support. The placement officer and individual professors were willing to go the extra mile in looking over and critiquing application letters, dissertation abstracts, even CVs to ensure that each of the candidates was putting his or her best foot forward to hiring committees.

We received a steady stream of e-mails offering encouragement, caution and advice. The department even staged a series of practice interviews in which candidates both sat in the hot seat and observed our peers going through the process.

The question, of course, is how much this level of intense focus actually helps. Is it possible to overprepare? To rehearse questions and answers to the point that the actual interview falls flat?

In my case, that was certainly a danger. I was so focused on the nontraditional aspects of my background that I was perilously close to “overthinking” the whole process.

And, as the course of four interviews I had scheduled unfolded, not a single one of the prep questions that I had sweated over ended up being asked. The actual interviews, in fact, more closely resembled a dissertation defense in which I fielded tough questions about my topic, my chosen methodological and theoretical approaches, and the future directions of my research.

Of course, as my advisor later said at one of the convention’s cocktail parties, “If you hadn’t done all that preparation, those would have been exactly the questions they zeroed in on.”


At The Convention

The folks who say the MLA is a madhouse are not in any way exaggerating. More than 9,000 registrants spread over upwards of a dozen official and unofficial hotels, are swarming in and out of nearly 800 convention sessions from 8:45 a.m. to nearly 10 p.m. Fear and anxiety are probably the most natural of responses to so much stimuli, especially when one considers that the universe of individuals who can have the most potential impact on one’s career, current and future, is concentrated within a square mile of any spot that you might be standing.

So it’s essential to remember one thing above all: The MLA really is a big family reunion.

Yes, it can be overwhelming to walk into the atrium of a convention hotel and find it absolutely jammed with men and women poring over copies of the convention program, arguing at the tops of their lungs about Derrida, quoting the poets of the Chicago Renaissance, or standing 20 deep at the restrooms and house phones.

But just after running that gauntlet at the Hyatt Regency Chicago on the first full day of the convention, I ran into an old friend from graduate school – a woman who had come to my institution on a postdoc, made a big splash while she was there, and then moved on to much bigger and better things

Still glowing from the hugs and laughter of that encounter, I fought my way into the elevator only to find that the distinguished young professor in the dapper tweed suit standing beside me was a graduate of my department, doing well, apparently, at a job in a posh private liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania.

That experience was to be repeated over the next 48 hours as I ran into old friends and was introduced to new ones on escalators, in coffee shops, even on the street while hailing cabs.

So yes, the MLA is about the stress of delivering papers or coming face to face with one’s competition in the hallways outside hotel suites. But it’s also about the friends we’ve made on the way. And that’s perhaps the biggest affirmation that academia offers to those of us who are still hoping to join the ranks of the professoriate.

Post Convention

So I made it through. Four interviews over two days with four very different institutions. Two of them flagship state schools in the South and Southwest, one a small, elite private liberal arts school, and one a large commuter school in a very desirable area. I fielded questions from 16 individuals coming from wildly different perspectives, and I think I managed to handle myself with professionalism and dignity.

Looking back on my interview technique, I’m not sure how good a job I did of selling myself, though two of the schools did a particularly good job of selling themselves to me.

Alas, I returned home to find that one of those schools had decided not to invite me for a campus visit.

But that leaves three.

And now it’s a matter of managing my morale, remaining positive while continuing to clarify my personal goals and what I’ll do if I achieve – or fall short – this year.

As for what I’ve learned? Well, if the long lines at the elevators and restaurants taught me anything, it’s never to book a room at the main convention hotel.

But there’s a lesson of far deeper significance. Every challenge I encountered, every ordeal I endured from graduate classwork to prospectus to completed dissertation, it was all worth it. After years of doubt, drudgery, wavering, I’m finally sure – sure that in stepping off the fast-track of a career that I no longer enjoyed and stepping into the uncharted waters of academia, I made the right choice.

And, as Robert Frost says in a related context, that makes all the difference.

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