Misadventures Along the Road to a Professorship

October 1, 1978

In the academic world of the 1960s the professional student was often a source of concern. Undergraduate education at a prestigious or not-so-prestigious liberal arts college, followed by a leisurely two or three years of master's degree work, foreign study travel on one government grant or another, and a number of years employed as a graduate assistant doing research to help one's advisor get his book published, all were directed toward a distant goal—the receipt of that Dr. which would stamp APPROVED on a person's capacity to pass knowledge along to others. Then finally, a post-doctoral fellowship perhaps.

For all that, it was not such a bad way to pass through life from the age of twenty to thirty, what with working wives and birth control, and it did keep many of us out of the army, until the war got serious. At the end of the 1960s it was finally time for many of us to become seriously employed.

The incipient decline in doctoral programs, the rise in the cost of education, the end of beneficence on the part of the parties involved in supporting the educational establishment which was created in the early 1960s ("get a good job—get a good education," remember?) have put an end to worries that part of our generation would go to its grave professional students. Now the realities of this decade have conspired to give birth to sinister relatives of the children of plenty which we may once have been. These individuals are professionally engaged in professorship-seeking, an activity with which many of us have some degree of experience.

In my field there is a large number of people looking for work. There is also a large number of employed people looking for work. These include doctoral candidates in music theory at Yale who teach rudiments of music courses at community colleges in eastern Tennessee, orchestral conducting graduates of conservatories in Boston or Vienna who now direct annual musical comedy performances at private prep schools in Manhattan, and specialists in early music who adjudicate other people's research proposals as administrative assistants in private foundation offices. If one is intelligent, perceptive, and under-employed, it is soon apparent that ideas about academic placement that have been handed down to us by our professors who got their degrees in the 1950s do not match the reality of the present situation. At the community college where I teach, unsolicited resumes cross the desk of my department chairman on their way to the wastebasket at the rate of two or three a day. One hesitates to guess at the volume of such mail at an institution such as the University of Illinois. This fact alone is enough to dispense with the first piece of advice my amiable dissertation advisor offered me one spring day, "Pick some schools you're interested in and send your resume around. Let 'em know you interested in 'em."

When a month goes by and you haven't heard from any of the places you've written to, you get another piece of advice. "Give 'em a call. Let 'em know you're a go-getter."

I can not speak for small, private colleges, but reaching a department chairman at the City University of New York on the telephone requires a security check worthy of the Pentagon. "What is this call in reference to, please?" "Does Dr. McInnes know you?" "Is this in reference to a job?" Nothing in our ivy-covered lives is a proper preparation for this kind of reception.

Let us suppose then that as a doctoral recipient from a private University School of Music, now relegated to teaching class lessons in voice as an instructor at the bottom of some college music department totem pole, you eventually tire of making unsolicited tilts at windmills while you pay the cost of the postage and decide to limit yourself to publicized academic openings or information you glean from your associates. Are you aware, as you answer an ad from the education section of the Sunday New York Times, that you may be applying for a position which has already been filled; that the public announcement of this opening may only be intended to satisfy our friendly Federal Government's equal opportunity legislation? You should be. When you follow up your initial application with a phone call to the Dean or Department Chairman who seems to be interested in you, do you do it realizing that a decision on your academic appointment in these enlightened times will be made not by the person you will be talking to, but by a search committee of tenured faculty members? This decision will be the result of a complex and very human interaction of the personalities and special interests of a group of people whom you do not know, and will not meet unless you survive enough of the selection process to be called for an interview. Finally, do you recognize that any publicly advertised academic position in a field such as music will draw one to two hundred applications in this year of our Lord, 1978? In the face of these obstacles the rational man will ask, "Do I have a chance?" The equally rational answer is—unless some member of a search committee knows you and has reason to want you working next to him—"No, you have no chance."

But one can never tell, and so you apply anyway. You phone your placement office and have it forward the confidential letters of recommendation which you know to be first-rate, and you send Dr. Wiggins, Dean of the School of Music at Northern South Dakota State College, absolutely everything he might care to know about your background—your three-page resume, the professional photograph that you paid Bruno of Hollywood an arm and a leg to take, a copy of the text of the lecture-recital that helped earn you the "with distinction" that appears on the face of your doctoral diploma, and reviews of the Carnegie Recital Hall program you did last year with that oboist—all together a package that you proudly walk down to the post office early on Monday morning.

But you should really reflect for a moment at first. Your graduate school placement office pays student help $1.75 an hour to put your dossier together. Do they care if your two best letters of recommendation have been filed in their wastebasket? It has happened, I assure you. And what about that resume of yours? If the job announcement calls for "vocal music education, also theory, history, conducting, applied voice and piano; Doctorate preferred, experience in public school music necessary," then your resume had better document all of that. With a couple of hundred resumes to choose from, a selection committee's task is not to select, it is to eliminate, and the criteria for elimination will not include a judgment about your excellence in a field of your choice, but whether or not your resume matches exactly a job profile which has been put together by the self-seeking members of the search committee. Having had the dubious pleasure of serving as a student member on one of these selection-rejection committees, I can report that their academic job description which is a matter of public record represents just the tip of the iceberg, and that the secret profile for an academic job may include details which are irrelevant to the ability of an applicant to do the job or which are just plain picayune. On this occasion one aggressive, opinionated member of our group persuaded the committee that youth and vitality would be the most important attributes of a successful candidate for the position. On this basis many highly qualified mature individuals were screened out, leaving a small group of finalists which included many youthful aspirants and one or two older men. Only at a late stage in the selection procedure did it become apparent that the emphasis on youth had served as a pretext to further the interests of two members of the committee who had had a particular choice in mind from the beginning—by means of this stratagem the strongest rivals to their choice had been eliminated.

Your resume, then, must be tailor-made to fit the requirements of a particular situation, and even with this precaution taken, you will be flying blind. Proofread as much of the material your Placement Office sends on your behalf as it will let you have access to. Better yet, type the stuff yourself. Keep original copies of anything you value, because at least half of the schools you send materials to are not going to send them back.

Let us suppose that all of these details have been attended to, and one day, just as the family is sitting down to dinner, there is a phone call from Northern South Dakota State and the offer to "come and see us so we can get to know you," is made. Fine. Your chances are now probably about one in six—you think. When you arrive at NSDSC for your interview, you will find a department chairperson just as nervous as you are waiting for you at the airport. If you are lucky, you will receive accommodations at a Holiday Inn; if the institution is cheap, it will be the guest apartment in what used to be a women's dormitory. Shortly after your arrival you will find yourself engaged in private conversations with members of the search committee, each of whom has his own idea of the responsibilities involved in the job you are being considered for.

Other strange experiences may be in store for you. One or more members of the search committee may remain inexplicably absent, and you will notice your guests engaged in nervous glances toward the door. "I wonder if we should phone Tom? You did tell him we were meeting with Dr. Smith this afternoon, didn't you?" This is a very bad sign. It may transpire that a business lunch with the selection committee turns out to be some kind of social event. You find yourself strangely ignored and left out of the conversation as the department chairman and the head of the voice department engage in a hilarious discussion about wives and tennis lessons. "But what about the musical education of our talented youth?" you would like to ask, but you do not. That evening you may be invited to a joint concert by NSDSC's madrigal group and jazz lab band, or you may be luckier and be given the evening to yourself to prepare for the rigors of the next morning, meetings with the Dean of the Faculty and the Vice-Chancellor. Of course, you know what the topic of these conversations will be—money.

Naturally, you have spent hours totaling up your credits and debits in terms of the phrase Rank and Salary open depending on training and experience. You engage in endless mental debates on "I would like this much, I am worth that much, I can accept so much," and perhaps somewhere deep in your subconscious you know exactly what it is that you would really accept when the fateful morning comes and goes and you realize as if through a fog that no one is saying anything about money. . . . On the airplane back later that day you purchase two bottles of gin from the stewardess.

By the time you reach your home you have convinced yourself that you made an excellent impression on Dr. Wiggins and NSDSC. Naturally, you expect to hear from them soon, for they did say that they were interviewing only three candidates. Perhaps you do hear quickly; in fact Dr. Wiggins is on the phone to you early the following week:

"Dr. Smith, good to talk to you again. We were all awfully impressed with you when you visited with us last week."

"Thank you so much, Dr. Wiggins, it is good to talk with you too."

"Well, Dr. Smith, everyone on the search committee is really high on you."

"Thanks very much, Dr. Wiggins, I'm pretty high on all of you too."

". . . Well, . . . er. . . We'd like to offer you the position here, Dr. Smith, if you're still interested?"

"Gee, that's great, Dr. Wiggins; that is, yes I'm certainly very much interested."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that, Dr. Smith . . . Er . . . We really haven't talked very much about salary, have we . . . ?"

"Not really."

"Well, I spoke with the Vice Chancellor this morning, and he tells me . . . let's see here . . . that he can authorize this position at a rank of Assistant Professor . . . which would be . . . about $11,500."

And there it is. You can tell Dr. Wiggins about your previous teaching experience, your European study, your recital hall performances, your article which is about to be published, but the cold fact is $11,500 and in 1978 nothing is going to change that. Ten years ago a change of position meant professional gain; now it often means professional loss. An administrator will be compassionate if he is a compassionate individual, but the reality in academe is that money is scarce, and the supply is not greater for excellence. You will be lucky if you can afford to accept the salary that is offered to you. Haggling over an offer will only compromise your position, and if you refuse it, you may not have a second chance to accept.

This, then, is the sound of the tune that we are dancing to now in our colleges and universities, and which we will continue to hear for some time to come. If it is a dissonant melody to your ears, understand that it is the music of our times. We will all have to learn to sing this tune, or a variation of it, sooner or later.

2307 Last modified on November 9, 2018