Monday, October 22, 2007


Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to have a job. I don't think I'm alone in this lapse. A person can get wearied by work in general or pestered by something particular at work and feel beleaguered, but usually a little chronological or spatial distance puts things in perspective.

It's no fun looking for work when you're out of work, and even when you have a job, looking for another one puts you out there "on the market" again. Oy. On the market, like a slab of bacon or an apple.

I'm very lucky to have had the same job for a long time, although when most people learn just how long and strange the path can be to a steady academic job, they just shake their heads, and I can't blame them. Earning a Ph.D. takes anywhere from 5 to 10 years, and I'd say 7 is probably the average--and that's 7 years after you've earned a B.A. or a B.S. So even if you're fairly quick and don't take detours, you're likely to be in your late 20s or early 30s before you're in a position to find secure academic employment, and usually you have to apply for jobs all over the country--and maybe even abroad. And then most academic institutions want to have a look at you from 3-6 years before they want to hang on to you permanently.

It took me 8 years, so when I've applied for loans and have had to put down the number of years of education, I put down "24"--12 to get the high-school diploma, 4 to get the B.A., and 8 more to get the Ph.D. Freshly minted Ph.D. in hand, oh these many years ago, I sent out over 60 applications, which netted me four interviews--and one job. Luckily, I needed only one job, just as the home baseball team needs only one run if the game's tied in the bottom of the ninth.

A greater percentage of academic jobs are part-time now. Community colleges and state universities meet the infamous bottom-line by hiring part-time instructors, who in turn have to piece together work at several places to compose a full-time job; and of course the benefits are shaky: yet one more reason why "health care" is on the docket during the presidential campaign.

At the same time, no one is forced to choose the academic life; it's really more of a calling.

I applied for and held lots of other jobs along the way to the relatively settled life of an academic, however. I worked as a carpenter's assistant--digging foundation-footings, framing houses, carrying hod. I cut weeds, I worked at a gravel plant, and I stocked shelves. I flipped a few burgers and made some not very stylish "frosty cones." I worked the usual jobs in college--washing pots and dishes, serving as an "R.A." in a dorm. For a while I was a part-time sportswriter, and later I worked as a part-time editor for state-government.

I think I ended up as an academic for two main reasons: I love books and writing (#1), and I like a certain autonomy (#2). If you're a professor, you're certainly part of an institution and its components, such as a department. But you're also a kind of private contractor insofar as you have to take care of your own courses, designing and delivering them. There is a hierarchy, a chain of command, at a university, but there are some interesting spaces of autonomy as well.

When I worked in state government in particular, I discovered I was somewhat allergic to the veneer of "teamwork," the unusual culture of bureaucratic and corporate life. Colleges and universities actually share much of this culture with corporations, but as a professor, you can spend much of your day in a classroom teaching or in your office working on things you have defined: reading students' essays (the "parameters" of which you have set), for example, or doing your own research, or just (just!) reading books.

In other professional venues, there may be even more pressure to be part of the group, to buy into "the philosophy." And everybody seems to have a "philosophy" now--fast-food chains, car-dealerships, insurance companies, and so on. Of course, the "philosophy" is something that decorates the real philosophy, which is to make money. And if you want to stay in business, you have to make money, but to make money, you don't necessarily need to "gin up" a "philosophy."

I think I'd prefer insurance companies just to say, "We like to make money, and we have charts that say how high we can push our rates" rather than to imply that they are my neighbor. At the same time, there are probably a lot of high-school seniors and their parents out there now wishing that colleges and universities would simply say, "We need X number of students with SAT scores in the Y range in order to meet our budget," as opposed to selling their particular curriculum or locale. Of course, the insurance companies and the colleges and universities will protest that they really do pay a lot of attention to more than the bottom line. Fair enough.

Let's just say I saw a bit too much of myself for comfort in the film Office Space, especially when I look back on my days in state government.

On the other hand, if I needed to get a job tomorrow, I'd go out there and try to get one, and I might have to do my best to pretend to "buy into" a business's or a company's "philosophy." I actually have a fear of poverty, so I'd do the philosophy-thing if I needed the paycheck. Among the innumerable hurdles standing between me and becoming a priest, to pull an extraordinary example out of thin air, is that fear of poverty. (God is no doubt a somewhat larger hurdle, but that's another story.)

All of which is an even more circuitous way than usual of saying, "Here's a poem about looking for work"--and if you happen to be looking for work, may the road rise to meet you:

Looking For Work

They said to call back tomorrow,

which is today.

I did .

They said there were

qualifications to which

everyone agreed, certain

expectations. Values, too.

They said there were values

they, we all, hold dear and

so on. They said somewhere

between qualifications and

values my application got

"misplaced." They said if

I wanted to reapply, I

should come back tomorrow,

which was yesterday. Today

is where I am and they are not.

I am not they. I am not there.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom
Post a Comment