History job market experiences: the un-read application

As a historian, I try to focus my attention on the deeper past  (say more than 50 years ago) and not dwell on my own history.  The history of my experiences in grad school and on the job market might have something to teach others, however.  With this post, I’m initiating a new category on my blog, a category labelled “history job market.”  I will update relevant past posts by adding this label.

For now, let me give a quick story that illustrates some of the frustrations a young historian might have on the job market.

A few years ago, probably three years after I had earned my Ph.D., I was working as a visiting assistant professor, still applying each year for new jobs.  One particular post-doc opened that year and it just so happened that the theme of the post-doc was what I was focusing on with my new research. Namely, it was a post-doc about the Civil War, with some indication that a theme of the international element of the war would be welcome. At the time, I had just published an article on Lincoln and Dutch Suriname for the journal Civil War History, and I had a second, new Civil War article far along in production.

At any rate, I of course applied for the job. Unfortunately, I was not accepted for an interview. One can’t get too upset about this, since there are literally hundreds of applicants for every history posting these days.

It just so happened, however, that as the job season wound to an end, I attended a conference where the person who was running the post-doc search would be presenting a paper. Great, I thought, I could introduce myself, meet a new colleague in the field, and ask what this person thought about my work. After all, I had sent them my new article as a writing sample.

The moment came where I bumped into this person in the hallway after their lecture. I introduced myself, said that I had applied for the job they had posted, and openly wondered how many applicants they had received. “Only about 25 applicants” was their response. “Great” I thought, figuring this meant that they must have read my new article. I asked the person what they thought about the article I had sent it. They hadn’t read it. They shrugged and backed away.

And this, my friends, is the existential absurdity of modern academia. Six years to get a history doctorate, twelve months of intensive, unrelenting effort, with travel to foreign archives to produce a new article which was accepted for publication in a solid journal. And when the time comes for a search committee chair to read your application – even with an applicant pool as small as 25 people!! – they don’t read your material.

Well, who knows?  Who knows whether the search committee had already pre-selected a candidate. Who knows if there was some other unspoken criteria they were looking for. But, one wonders where is the fairness in all of that?

The only hope is that some search committees will be fair, that somewhere, someone will actually read your material, and that sometime down the line, you will get a job. But with the great number of folks on the market today, I wouldn’t count on it.


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