Trying to get an academic job can be really horrible. I just want to offer sympathy.

I got an email a few days ago telling me that my MathJobs account will be deleted in a month, after nearly two years of inactivity. The 4 years I spent on the job market have given me a Pavlovian response to MathJobs emails. Not that I start drooling–I just get anxious. Did I mess up an application? Was I turned down for something? Are all my recommendations in? That tiny drip of anxiety reminded me of the enormous iceberg of stress that is trying to get a job. Let me just offer my sincerest best wishes and sympathy to everyone who is on the job market right now. It can be incredibly stressful and demoralizing.

Don’t get me wrong–it also has exciting and wonderful aspects.  But Sara’s post last week about taking time off also started me thinking about the process of trying to find a tenure track job. Why do young professors feel guilty for taking weekends and holidays off? Nobody would ever actually say that professors or anyone else should work all the time and never take breaks. So why the guilt and anxiety? I think that (for me) a portion of that “should always be working” feeling has to do with being on the job market.

Let’s look at it for a second: you apply for jobs, probably many, many jobs, perhaps putting enormous amounts of time into the applications, developing enthusiastic cover letters and in the process totally falling in love with the idea of job after job. You are constantly looking at yourself on paper, comparing or unsuccessfully trying not to compare yourself to everyone else, wondering how to be a better candidate. Which is a bummer mindset in itself, I must say. But then how to accomplish anything and become a better candidate when the whole job application process itself takes up a whole lot of time? How to put aside worries about your worthiness as a candidate and just get to churning out math and being an amazing teacher?

On lucky years you get interviews, which is exhilarating but you feel like you are wrecking your classes by taking so many days off. You find decent clothes, write job talks, study each college’s curriculum so you can talk intelligently about teaching there. You meet a lot of people on their turf, without getting much feedback. You get your heart actually broken by some rejections.

And then you get an offer! Hooray!  This is awesome.  So you move, and start a new job, which is really cool but for about a semester or year is actually like doing two jobs because you not only have to learn the new job but you have to do it at the same time. You try to make new friends.  If your new position is short-term, rinse and repeat.

If you are a Jedi knight you can do this without feeling really weird. I am not a Jedi. I was a huge stressed-out mess for big pieces of the years I was on the market. I couldn’t stop checking my email, ever. I felt like I needed to work all the time because I really did need to work a whole bunch of time to do it all, plus I was always trying to be in a better position for the job market the next year. Instead of just trying to do my job well, I was trying to compete with every other amazing candidate in the world. After a few years of this I thought, “I cannot keep doing this. This is not a sustainable way to live.”

This all sounds very grim, and so let me mention that my job search had a few real positives.  I had a lot of fun in some interviews (even the short joint meetings interviews!), and met great people across the interview table. People asked me questions that gave me ideas or made me put together my old ideas in new ways.  The applications and interviews got progressively easier, and I definitely got better at applying for things and presenting myself.

My current job is wonderful for a host of reasons. It’s an amazing job! I love my colleagues and students. Also, I can now fully appreciate what a great benefit it is just to break that cycle and let go of the whole extra job of applying for jobs. For the first time in years, I feel that I can usually take weekends off when I want to. Of course there are many, many other things to apply for now, but I feel that it’s possible to live a good life while doing this job, which I can now love more.

For those of you who are on the job market and stressed, I totally get it. You are going through something that can be objectively awful. It’s super competitive, you get rejected a lot, you have very little control over it, and the nature of the process constantly encourages you to think that you are not good enough. That is just not true. Everybody feels like that. I just wanted to say “way to go” and remind you that you are actually doing a pretty hard job—really two stressful, difficult jobs at once. Hang in there.

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3 Responses to Trying to get an academic job can be really horrible. I just want to offer sympathy.

  1. Heidi G says:

    Yes! Thank you for this.

  2. Trevor Ryan says:

    I guess my problem was that I was just at the wrong university (NMMU) in the wrong city (PE). I put my whole heart and soul into firstly studying mathematics and applied mathematics up to postgraduate levels and obtaining distinctions right through, then teaching physics and mathematics for 12 years on contract, but the university did not appreciate me at all, overloaded me with heavy workloads and extremely big classes of extremely weak students, paid me very poorly and I could not survive on it and lived like an impoverished squatter, and then blamed me for all the students who failed saying it was my fault and I’m a bad lecturer. Eventually I collapsed in 2013 from all the stress, trauma and bad treatment, was hospitalized for 3 months, diagnosed with a range of disorders and declared permanently disabled and am now living off a tiny disability grant. I am on numerous medications and therapies, in constant pain, ill health and ailments on a daily basis, and cannot get over the trauma and depression of my whole life and passion for the subject material being ruined by this monster of a university, and basically have nothing more to live for and have given up on life. Is there any hope or chance of recovery from this or any other advice you can give, especially in a difficult country like South Africa where scarce-skill specialists are generally not appreciated, and the legal system is corrupt and dishonest so it is pointless trying to pursue the university in court. Any input or advice will be highly appreciated.
    Kind regards.

    • bmalmskog says:

      This sounds like it is a terrible time for you. I am so sorry that things have been so hard and gone so wrong, in your math life and otherwise. I have nothing to offer as advice, but please accept my sympathy and hopes that things get better soon. Please take good care of yourself. Sending my best wishes that you will find something that is right for you, and that you find joy again in math or something else.

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