Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Existentialism of the Job Search

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By Wiz

Today the history department at our university held a job panel, where students heard from the handful of profs who have recently been hired, to discuss strategies for being hired and to get a sense of the job market.

Grad students in the audience were telling stories of jobs which received 600 applications. These weren’t 600 random people either, of course. They were 600 people with PhDs in your field (or close to having them). The point was, of course, that there were probably 200 perfectly qualified people, who’d any department would love to have, and above them at least 50 amazingly intelligent applicants who are all, more or less, equally excellent. You have a certain control over whether you end up in that top 50 (these numbers are all sort of made up), but after that, it all came down to matters that you simply couldn’t control: was there someone else in the department who studied what you did? Did they just have some symposium where someone said “we need more people who study x”? Did someone on the search committee get in a fight with your adviser? Did they like the shirt you wore to your interview?

Anyways the point is there is almost nothing, after a certain point, which you can do to guarantee yourself a job. There is just this insane absurdity to the whole thing. It’s so offensive to this naïve belief we all have that we, in some small way, control our destiny. Instead you just sit around hoping that that dumb butterfly flapped his wings the right way.

And yet, here’s the thing. Both professors said that despite the fact that, objectively, you have no control whatsoever over what is arguably the most important moment to your career, you have to act as if you did. There are two reasons for this. First, if you internalize your lack of power you won’t put the effort into writing the best dissertation you can. Second, nervous interviewers don’t get jobs. One professor said something along the lines of “you may know they’re looking at 30 people, but you have to act like they’re only looking at 3.”

Anyways… shouldn’t it all be a great metaphor from some mopey existentialist novel from the 1930s? Like… you know you can’t prevent the plague; it kills randomly without rhyme or reason. But you just keep trying to fight it, hoping to salvage some dignity and meaning out of the pure absurdity of existence, knowing full well that your attempts are pathetic fantasy, yet also knowing that it is only in that fantasy that you can make your life worth it.

I liked it better as a Camus novel than a job prospect.

But since we’re on the topic of meaninglessness, here is my all time favorite Onion article:

Update: Opps, The Plague came out in 1947. Good thing I’m not applying for French Lit jobs….


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

September 17, 2010 at 22:08

Posted in Academia

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