Monday, November 17, 2014

Turning Down the Imaginary Car (Advice from Actors to Academics, Part 2)

I blogged earlier about how the academic job search can be framed like the search for an acting job (where the odds are incredibly steep, rejection is pervasive, and the stakes feel deeply personal). Today's post is a second installment of advice from Robert Cohen's classic Acting Professionally, a very career-specific book of advice that I have found applicable to other careers. Cohen's maxim that "Children are rewarded for being good" while "Adults are rewarded for being useful" has stuck with me and proved invaluable. So has his point about what I will call Turning Down the Imaginary Car, a thing that plagues budding academics as much as would-be actors.

Cohen writes that many acting students begin (or once began), with a fairly naive and juvenile fantasy of acting success leading to vast fame and fortune. Hollywood! Broadway! Ten million dollars a picture! A hundred million fans! Marrying Brad and/or Angelina! And that's perfectly natural. Even people who never set foot on a stage have that Hollywood-star fantasy, and of course people motivated enough to pursue an acting career seriously usually started out with that fantasy. The question is how you mature out of it.

So, Cohen writes, many acting students (and here we're not talking about undergrads, but people in competitive graduate programs) move past that initial fantasy to a point where they say that they could be happy without fame, fortune, and international stardom. They just want a good living in the theater, just steady work in some repertory company. They just want to practice their craft in interesting ways. This looks like a realistic lowering of sights, but in fact it is -- as Cohen points out -- another fantasy. "Just" making a living by acting is winning a huge brass ring. As Cohen puts it:

Too often the actor who "rejects" Hollywood thinks that by dint of that rejection regular repertory work will materialize somewhere else. It is as if scorning an unoffered Mercedes-Benz somehow entitled us to a Honda Civic.

Turning down the imaginary car disguises itself as a realistic adjustment of expectations, so the person doing it doesn't have to face actual reality. But in fact, it is the form as magical thinking called bargaining: "if I give up daydream A, I will magically be given daydream A-minus." It is a way of conning yourself into thinking that you already deserve something so that you don't have to earn it.

The graduate student/job-seeker version of this is to say, "I don't want a job in the Ivy League. I'd be happy with a job at [Michigan/UCLA/Williams College/an R1 university/on the tenure-track with a 3-3 load/on the tenure-track]. Not aiming for a gold medal doesn't guarantee you a silver or a bronze. In fact, everyone who wins silver or bronze does so by striving like hell for the gold. 

You will not get a job because you view that particular job as humbling, or because you view yourself as humble for being willing to accept it. That unglamorous job in an unglamorous location may have "only" 175 other job applications, instead of 300. But that hardly makes it a consolation prize. You may think that you're not asking for much, but hundreds of other people are asking for the same thing as you are, and most of them are at least a deserving as you are.

The most pernicious effect of imagining some jobs, any jobs, as automatic consolation prizes is that it leads you to underestimate those jobs' actual requirements. The most common version of this problem is to lowball the amount of research that a school doing the hiring expects. Telling yourself that you don't need to publish more because you don't want one of the fancy jobs is self-destructive. Telling yourself that the two book reviews you've published should be good enough for a place like Unglamorous State is a huge mistake. The research expectations at every school, from the top to the bottom, have risen steadily over the past decades, and that school you think of as humble doesn't hire people who won't publish enough to make tenure there. 
In fact, even if the amount of research a university expects you to do for tenure is low, what that means is that some of the people competing for that job will already be close to having enough published to get tenure, maybe more than halfway to the local standard. That's a nice proposition for the hiring committee. If you're really a place that doesn't prioritize research, but (for example), expects two peer-reviewed articles for tenure, and some of the applicants for that job already have two articles ... well if they hire one of those people, the school doesn't have to worry about them publishing enough for tenure. And it doesn't have to make time for them to keep publishing. That beats hiring you without any articles, giving you course releases, and crossing their fingers that you'll get across the finish line.

If you think that you shouldn't need to have publications just to get a job at X State, then you are turning down the imaginary car. The question isn't what you think should be expected of you. It is what your competitors for that job are already offering.

On the flip side, if you're coming from a high-powered PhD program with a load of publications under your belt, and you get a whiff of the big, shiny jobs, that doesn't mean schools further down the prestige chain will be grateful to have you. They're not your consolation prize, either. If you get interviewed by an Ivy that doesn't hire you, that doesn't mean a "lesser" school will be grateful to have you. A school full of big shots might be more willing to hire a promising researcher with less teaching experience, or less experience teaching low-level classes. But when you apply to X State you will be in a pool where other applicants are almost as well-published as you are but have much more teaching experience. Less glamorous jobs are often different jobs, with different demands.

The lesson, which actors long ago had to learn and academics have begun to work the hard way, is that any gig is hard to get, and precious. They all require hard work and good luck. You have to take them all seriously. And if a job doesn't seem flashy enough for you to work hard for, there are people more talented than you are who don't feel that way. It's not about the dream job. Making a living at your calling is living the dream.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog

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