11.08.2008

Finding a Job in Academia

My friends who do not work in academia are surprised that I "haven't gotten a job yet." In their biased opinions, I'm a great musician, an excellent and admired teacher, a giving colleague, a wonderful person, a real employment catch. So why am I still without a job?

Academia is a fickle world. It surprises many people that with the vast number of colleges we have, at any given time there may be only 8 job openings in my field nationwide. Somebody with an MBA can find at least that many openings in one city. Sometimes that number of academic positions includes international positions looking to hire Americans. The job descriptions are often misleading as well; sometimes they are annoyingly specific (one job currently on the boards is looking for a "tenor, lyric soprano, or coloratura soprano" -- I'm a light dramatic/spinto soprano, does that mean I'm not qualified?), sometimes they throw in everything they want when they are willing to settle for much less, other times you have to jump through 6 websites before discovering the "Assistant Professor of Music" position vaguely described is for a musicologist. Why couldn't they put that in the title of the posting?

Then you have to decide if your desire or need for a job is so great that you are willing to move to places like ice-encrusted small town North Dakota or the unrelenting dry heat of the deserts of New Mexico, no offense to residents of either of those places. I have a colleague that I did my doctoral studies with who currently patches together a fair amount of adjunct work. His exploration for full-time, tenure-track employment is somewhat curtailed by his wife, who has never lived any further north than South Georgia and isn't fond of temperatures below 45. (They currently live in South Florida.)

Also, hiring is done essentially once a year. There are very few instances when someone can start a position other than in August. Come September, if you are unemployed, it is most likely a full year before the possibility of a full-time job in academia can become a reality. Occasionally a position comes available for a January start; that usually happens because someone is going on sabbatical or the college managed to get funding for a special "visiting" position. Even more rarely is it a position that will go beyond the Spring semester.

The application process is tedious and requires great patience. The application packets are pretty intense and more complicated than simply sending a letter and resume, and every one is slightly different. You can send out a dozen packets, and get back 3 responses that they received your materials. The response that they hired someone else is about the same. Overall, the process can take 6 months or more from the application deadline to the hiring of someone. One of my colleagues in academia admits he never went through the application process, and he is about to retire from only the second position he's held and he's been at for 28 years. He is particularly impatient about my search, not understanding how slow the system works although he's been on his share of search committees.

In reality, given all of this, why do I work in academia? If the jobs were posted truthfully, no one would apply. Would you answer this advertisement?

Looking for an expert in vocal music who has either 2 graduate degrees (Masters and Doctorate) or extensive performing experience (15-20 years on major stages around the world) who is willing to teach an unreasonably busy load of private students, courses (most, but not all of which you may be qualified to teach), advising (primarily of students in other majors which you will know nothing about), and committee work (an exercise in futility and wasted time, occasionally making a decision or producing an overly-edited document no one will read). Additionally you will be tapped to perform (for free) at various college and tangentially-related but not really college functions with little to no warning. Every year you will be required to prove your worth to the school through the vague criteria for achieving tenure, although the college will give you little time and even less money to pursue the outside events and publications we expect you to be participating in or pursuing. Successful completion of vague tenure requirements may not be sufficient to achieve tenure as interpersonal politics will inevitably come into play. The administration will be completely unaware of what really goes into a performance and will probably underrate your schedule as a performer, equating giving a recital with them giving a speech. They will also fail to understand how your teaching schedule is more demanding than your colleagues in other departments, who only teach 2 or 3 3-4-credit courses (but no private students). Benefits include a sub-standard salary for your degree level, mediocre retirement and health benefits (eye and dental separate), and unpaid summers off. Submit letter specific to this position, vita, professional performing resume, transcripts, 3-5 letters of recommendation, additional list of references with phone numbers and email, teaching philosophy, proof of teaching effectiveness, CD or DVD of recent performances, and a DVD of your teaching. Additional materials may be requested of finalists. Materials will not be returned.

Believe it or not, the last three sentences are from actual job descriptions. That much is required for an initial application. Some colleges have additional on-line applications to be filled out, which mostly replicate information on your vita but are required of everyone, a true exercise in futility and red tape. Then come committee interviews, which are akin to medieval firing squads, followed by, for the fortunate, in-person interview marathons which will include more committee and individual interviews, a teaching (lesson) demonstration and/or master class, a mini-recital, a Q & A with students, and probably teaching a lecture-based class. Yet I willingly jump through the hoops.

Why? I genuinely love teaching. Genuinely. Even the problem students, the annoying ones, the obnoxious ones who resist change or think they know it all already. People might be surprised that I don't necessarily want to teach the best natural singers, I prefer the diamonds in the rough. I love watching the transformations in young lives. I love watching them discover for themselves what I already know they are capable of. It is a reward that means more to me than anything else, and it is something that I, a noted verbose person, can rarely express to my colleagues who question my decision to not pursue performance full-time. It is so rewarding that it is worth the applications, the process, and the actual unrewarding part of being in academia.

At this point, I am a semi-finalist for two positions that will start Fall 09. I have several other active applications and more jobs will be posted over the next several months because of the academic trickle-down effect (as those in higher positions retire, mid-level folks move up opening up mid and entry level positions). I am guardedly optimistic and trying to leave it in the hands of God.

Even if I don't get my recordings back.

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