A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why I Didn't Go on the Academic Job Market this Year

In April 2014 I had been on the academic job market twice--once somewhat halfheartedly as an ABD, and once doing the full-court press right after having defended my dissertation. For those who aren't academics in English literature, job listings for professorships typically come out via the MLA Job List, put out by the Modern Language Association. The list typically comes out in September, applications are due in the fall, interviews are conducted at the MLA annual conference in January, and offers are typically made in the spring for jobs that will start the following fall. This is the traditional job "season," but increasingly, as schools are uncertain as to their budgets, postings are coming out later and later, well into the summer. That April, not having had any luck two years in a row left me scrambling to figure out what I would be doing in the fall--or, for that matter, in the summer.

An added complication was the fact that I had recently gotten engaged. My fiancee PJ, a biology graduate student, would need to be in Ann Arbor for the 2014-2015 school year, and we scheduled our wedding to take place in Ann Arbor in May 2015. I was immensely excited about the engagement, but anxious about the professional and financial uncertainty that the next year would bring.

Then I received an opportunity to teach for two months in China during the summer, and an offer to teach as a lecturer at the Sweetland Writing Center in the fall. After many rejections, these opportunities felt exciting, and made it easier to make a plan for the future. I would go to China for the summer while PJ went to the gulf coast to collect samples for her dissertation research. Then at the end of the summer we would move in together (we had been living in separate apartments at the time we got engaged), and during the 2014-2015 school year, PJ would finish her lab work while I would work as a lecturer while making one more attempt at the academic job market. By the end of the school year, PJ would be done with her lab work, and hopefully, I would have a job, and she and I could get married and move to a new city where I would teach and she would write her dissertation.

Initially, I was nervous but excited about China. It seemed like an opportunity for a unique experience, and also a chance to, as I put it at the time, "hit the reset button" on my relationship with my job. Then, one week into my time there, I got an interview for a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Georgia Tech University, a position that I had applied for months ago and assumed I had been passed up for when I got to China. I interviewed for the position via Skype, and received an offer a day later. I discussed it with PJ and my parents. Saying yes to Georgia Tech would have involved moving to Atlanta less than a month after returning from China, turning down the position I had accepted at Sweetland, living apart from my fiancee for a full year, and disrupting my wedding plans for the spring. Ultimately, it was too big of a sacrifice, so I turned the position down.

This significantly soured my experience in China, but I was excited to be back in the United States in July. PJ and I moved in together and got a dog (something we'd been discussing for some time), and started working on wedding plans.

Then PJ started experiencing panic attacks. She would have uncontrollable crying spells and suddenly get sick to her stomach. She became agoraphobic, and her personality seemed to change. As I began to prepare for another year on the job market, she became clingy and accusatory, telling me that I was too obsessed with work. She would become irrationally angry at our dog. She also suffered from severe insomnia, sometimes going all night without sleep.

In retrospect, this was the beginning of an episode of mania. We saw several therapists, both individually and together, and they initially thought it was anxiety brought on by the stress of moving in together and of the wedding. PJ began to discuss details of her unhappy childhood and unhealthy home life, which seemed to be the underlying source of this anxiety. Things got better for a little while. But then they got worse.

PJ's insomnia became uncontrollable. She began saying things that made no sense (psychiatrists call this "disorganized thinking"), and began to hallucinate colors and shapes. On September 18 I took her to Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES), and they admitted her to the inpatient psych ward. That semester's classes had begun on September 2, and the MLA Job List had been released on September 12.

I had been working less than three weeks in a new department, teaching two classes, one of which I'd never taught before (and had been assigned only two weeks before the start of the semester), and working ten hours a week as a writing consultant. I was just barely able to hold it together in front of my students. I didn't know what was going on, and I was a basket case.

That first hospitalization lasted 12 days, at the end of which she was discharged with no real plan for follow-up care, and without a clear diagnosis (officially, this was described as a "psychotic episode," and her diagnosis was "Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified"). She was heavily medicated on a drug that made her depressed and gave her terrible akathisia--a state of agitation that some describe as feeling like you have a spring inside you. It makes you shake and move uncontrollably, and can be so irritating as to drive some people to attempt suicide. She was also taken off of her ADHD medication out of fear that it had contributed to the episode. All of this led to a second hospitalization in October. Then a third hospitalization the day after Christmas. Only after that third hospitalization was PJ finally given a diagnosis of Bipolar I and given a course of medications that seemed to genuinely help manage her symptoms with relatively tolerable side effects.

PJ shared her experience of all of this in an article for XOJane a few months ago. From her perspective it was one kind of hell, and from my perspective it was another. When she was in the hospital, I worried constantly, uncertain about the quality of care she was receiving and what her prognosis was. I needed to know if she could find her mind again, and I called the hospital daily--getting doctors on the phone in the little time that I had between classes and meetings with students was next to impossible, especially from my basement office, which lacks cell reception. When she was home from the hospital, I worried even more--with the diagnosis still uncertain and with PJ seeming more and more depressed, I worried about accidental or intentional self-harm whenever I was at work. All the while, I served as the go-between with her family (who are not exactly easy people to communicate with), as well as her Ph.D. advisor. I worried about her department not allowing her to complete her graduate work, and encouraged her to go on medical leave, which she initially refused to do. She did go on medical leave for the Winter semester, after the third hospitalization, and that gave her four solid months to recuperate.

But from August through January, I was carrying a massive ball of tangled worries. In that time, we saw at least seven therapists, eight social workers, and twenty psychiatrists--that’s counting residents and attendings at the hospital as well as private practice doctors, but not countless interns, nurses, orderlies, and other hospital staff. We also made two trips to her primary care physician, two trips to the ER, three trips to the university counseling service, and five trips to PES. I tried my best not to let it interfere with my teaching, but I know it did. I haven't even looked at my student evaluations from that semester.

PJ's third hospitalization lasted a full two weeks, cutting into the first week of the Winter semester. I had spent most of the Fall semester assuming I would not get reappointed for the Winter. The reappointment was a pleasant surprise that made things easier from a financial standpoint, but also created more work at a time when things were their most uncertain. My ball of worries had gotten so heavy that I started to have panic attacks myself. I would come into the office between 7 and 8 in the morning in order to write my lesson plans for my classes, and within minutes of turning on my computer I would feel a tightness in my chest, I would have difficulty breathing, and I would feel sweaty and dizzy. On more than one occasion I came very close to calling 911, thinking I was having a heart attack, but, recognizing that it was likely a panic attack, I would close my office door and lie on the floor for several minutes, until I could get my breathing under control, then I would go on with my day. All of this was happening while my colleagues were interviewing for jobs at the MLA conference in Vancouver.

By the end of January, though, things were beginning to look up. PJ was on medical leave, and her meds and therapy were working far better than before, and I had been given prescriptions for Zoloft and Ativan for my anxiety. We moved our wedding back a year, PJ started doing volunteer work, and my courses for the semester were a resounding success.

A lingering regret was that I had been unable to go on the academic job market. My job at Sweetland was a full time job. For several months in the fall, monitoring PJ's care was a full time job. The academic job search is a full time job. I didn't have time for three full time jobs, so one of those had to be sacrificed.

But now that things had begun to improve, I began applying for professorships and postdocs that came up later in the season. I came to think of Georgia Tech as my ace in the hole. I had gotten an offer from them a year earlier, and I sensed regret when they were unable to give me a deferral. Plus now I had international teaching experience and a year of working in a writing center under my belt, making me an even stronger candidate for the postdoc, which was a teaching fellowship at a writing center. I applied in February and interviewed in May. The interview was almost identical to the one I had a year earlier. I came out of it confident in my chances.

Just this week I received the rejection letter.

The situation isn't completely dire. PJ has funding for the year if we stay in Ann Arbor, and Sweetland has offered a teaching position for the Fall semester. But I don't have guaranteed teaching for the Winter semester, and if I stay, it will be my fourth semester as a Lecturer at U-M, meaning I will be scheduled for my interim review, a labor-intensive process that involves assembling numerous documents that account for my teaching. It's a useful procedure (though I have some criticisms of exactly how it's conducted), but it's a procedure designed for "career" lecturers. For those in my position, who had expected this to be a temporary position, the review is somewhat alien and unexpected, and a lot of the documents that I would need to provide (like comments on graded papers), are materials that I didn't know to keep. I'll have to assemble these materials while teaching two classes, spending ten hours a week as a writing consultant, and, oh yes, going on the job market again.

The greatest disappointment in being turned down by Georgia Tech is, it was the only opportunity available to me that would have bought me time--time to slow down and actually think. Prior to this summer, I had not had the opportunity to so much as think about article writing for a solid twelve months. I still do not have an article published in a peer reviewed journal. I have several articles that have spent ages in a state of being near-publishable, but between teaching and job applications and PJ's health crisis I have Not. Had. Any. Damn. Time. I'm in a state of constant mental and emotional exhaustion. Georgia Tech was a three year postdoc, meaning I could have spent up to two blissful years not even thinking about the job search. I would have had to teach three courses a semester, but at least some precious brain space would be available for me to actually do the thing I'm trained to do, write scholarship.

Furthermore, I am desperate to move out of Ann Arbor. In the two years since I've earned my degree, this place has been the site of too many professional disappointments, and with the events of the past year, I've come to associate it with a kind of personal fear that I struggle to adequately articulate. PJ has been stable for several months now, for which I'm immensely grateful, and she supports me whether we stay or go. But I'd really rather go.