Off to the races?

Just for the sake of completion, I should mention that today I let both my Dean and department chair know that I'm planning to apply for jobs this school year. I'm hoping that both will contribute a letter of reference for me - of course, if they for some reason say no, then I'm in a bit of a quandary.

Last year I did a very small job search, mostly in hopes of landing someplace near my aging parents. And there was some oddness with my department chair over the matter of reference letters. It wound up being something of a semantic game: "You asked if I'd be willing to write a letter; you didn't actually ask if I would write one." that ultimately worked out, but that gave me a scare about the whole process. For a moment, it felt like my battleship was in a wading pool and someone just dropped a torpedo in the water with it. My career - where I lived, what I did, and all the things that extend from that: happiness, a social life, health - could be tanked because I forgot to say "Mother, may I?"

Life in academia carries with it a continuing sense of indebtedness in a way that I've never experienced as acutely anywhere else, even in my several years in the kiss-ass or die corporate banking area. Obviously there's intellectual indebtedness - that's why we cite things so religiously. And certainly I owe a lot to the various faculty and colleagues who've asked me to read something, who've challenged what I asked them to read, who argued with me over drinks at the bar on Thursday nights. But it goes beyond that. Having done both hiring in both and firing in the corporate world, I remember all too well how references worked there. When I was at the bank, checking references was essentially limited to calling an employer and asking "Did Person X work there?" There can be all sorts of legal hassles if they try to tell you that Person X was a bad employee, plus most people find someone who isn't going to hang them anyway.

In academia, the reference can be everything. You don't have to look far to find someone in academia who owes their career (or their lack of it) to the person who chaired their dissertation committee. When I first looked for an academic job, one of the interviews I had owes no small debt to the friendship between my undergraduate advisor and someone working at the school in question. Academics aren't afraid to call someone they know where you worked and asked for all the dirt. And they're not afraid to share with anyone and everyone who'll listen.

Increasingly (at least in my experience) potential employers want detailed reference letters at the outset of an application process. It used to be - or so I'm told - fairly common to just list contact information, and if an employer wanted more details, they'd contact references. But in the years I've been jumping from place to place and job to job, the majority have wanted letters.

Where this really becomes problematic is when you're casting a wide net. My first year of job searching, when I was A.B.D., I applied to 108 jobs. Imagine if even a quarter of them wanted a full letter (and I'm fairly certain it was more than that). Now imagine that you've somehow done someone wrong (or that they think you have).

Scary, huh?

So presently, there are four jobs out that I'm interested in. The theory is that since I've got a couple of publications and a book contract plus good teaching evaluations, that this is my best year to jump to a new ship. I'll keep you posted how it goes.

Wish me luck.

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ash said...

so you gave them the bad news, huh? hope it wasn't too unpleasant!

August 24, 2007 at 1:03 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

It could have been worse.

What's interesting is that the Dean chose to use InterFolio and write a single letter, though with a colleague who is also looking for jobs, the Dean indicated they always would rather write individual letters, rejecting a similar offer.

I wonder if I should feel slighted.

August 24, 2007 at 1:40 PM