Thursday, February 19, 2009

Day 30 (round III) "In the trenches" (launch-pad edition)

Season of change, around here. This year happens to be a transition year, for our department and ensembles: we've got people moving on from Collegium, Celtic Ensemble, and Musicology department--including a number of our teaching assistants. Means next year is a rebuilding year, which is OK: some ebb-and-flow and turnover is healthy for everybody. And we're damned glad to see these grad students finishing up: we're going to be popping out at least five PhD's, at least three MM's, in a single season. For a division whose total grad-student population is maybe 15, that's a great success rate.

Of course, it also means that these grads are going to be rolling out their careers in an especially unstable and unpredictable job market. What I tell them is that this is a much scarier time for the Associates and the Fulls--and especially for those who were hoping to retire sometime soon. Given that TIAA/CREF and other matched-by-employers retirement funds and IRA's have lost 25%-40% of their value in less than a year, a whole lot of folks who thought they were going to retire at 62 or 65 are looking at having to stay on some years more.

Which is not particularly good economics for their employers. While these senior folks have huge insight and experience to offer, it comes at a price: a senior faculty member, 20-25 years in-grade, has (very aptly) arrived at the top end of the spectrum of faculty salaries. Tied as it is to rank, and to annual (or at least regular) cost-of-living and blanket merit raises, that senior person's salary represents probably the highest cost-per-hour of any faculty member in the operation. We don't begrudge them this, of course--they earned it, after all--but it does mean that these senior people, some of whom carry lighter loads than those shouldered by their younger, far-junior colleagues, are expensive. If the University can provide them a reasonably attractive retirement package--or perhaps the opportunity to retire, but to continue as Emeritus or other part-timer--it can hire a junior replacement, to shoulder the same or a bigger load, at a fraction of the cost-per-hour of the senior retiree.

Yet at the same time, in this period of economic downturn, and particularly in this part of the country, one of the only which is experiencing job-creation and immigration, undergraduate enrollment is expanding. We are never not going to have enough quality recruits to fill those ensembles and undergrad classes. We are thus never going to be without the need for new, junior people with experience and energy who can handle those classes--which are both essential to the undergrad core and, because they are typically taught in large rooms by low cost-per-hour junior faculty, an excellent economic return.

So we tell our people, "Look, work on those factors you can control. Don't try to second-guess either the motives, the operations, or the timetable of the search committees to whom you'e submitted applications. You won't know when, or how, or why, they have arrived at their decisions, and it's more-or-less madness to try to untangle those decisions."

Some time back I was talking with one such soon-to-be-PhD, and he said "I don't know whether I'm going to be perceived as qualified for [X] job." I said "you're not going to know how you're perceived. There are two fundamental questions to ask yourself, when confronted with a new job posting to which you think you might apply:

(1) "Could I cut this gig?" (e.g., do the duties fall within your areas of primary and/or secondary specialization, do you have tools, skills, and/or experience that is roughly comparable to that requested?)

(2) "If it was offered, would I seriously consider accepting it?" (e.g., do I actually want this gig? Or is this some kind of abstract exercise or mind-game?)

I said, "Ask yourself, in the case of [X] job, those two questions. If the answer to both is 'yes,' then for crying out loud apply for the gig!"

Most of us--and damned sure our graduates--are perfectly capable of combining a fairly wide diversity of related skills, according to the needs of a particular job. Most of us--and damned sure our graduates--are eventually going to get decent jobs which they enjoy and where they can do good work. But such statements--along with explanations of the actual, glacial pace at which search committees do their work--are not much consolation to a dissertating grad student who's getting ready to defend in June, hasn't heard anything positive about the search by Feb 20, and is beginning to wonder "damn, am I going to have any kind of job possibility come September? Am I going to have to get some dumb temp job? What will that do to my employability next season?"

There is no way you can simply tell people in such a position "don't worry, think positive, be pro-active," and have that actually help them. They need concrete strategies, questions answered, ideas about procedures, and general (and specific) mentoring.

So, in recognition of this season of the year--when the applications go out, the document is near defense, and they're hanging by the mailbox or the cell phone hoping and praying for a call--and of the absolute economic turmoil that's blowing by like a hurricane right over our heads, we organize a round-table at which all four faculty members in Musicology could present a few key insights, and take their questions. Here's the charge I gave them:

“Let us each speak freely to what we each individually believe the exiting grad students would most benefit from hearing.”

Here are the bullet points I asked them to lay out in their 8-minute individual presentations:

  • This is who I am
  • This is what I teach
  • This is where I did my degree work
  • These are the academic job[s] I've held (as grad student and faculty member)
  • These are the related jobs I've held (if any)
  • Here are the things that helped me most—practically, intellectually, and/or psychologically--in working the job search.
And here's the stuff, in response to my own charge, I shared with them.

It was a good session--I think. Probably won't be the last one we need to do.

I sure hope it helps--I want our guys to be OK.

Below the jump: Evening Star on the February South Plains

No comments: