a note on the academic job search

image of card with due date typed at top and two lines down the center, green stamp in upper left that reads "Faculty June 8 - 1970." Stamp is crossed out with one diagonal red line.
the borrowing slip for The Midnight Bell, a novel I read & wrote about in my exams that was stored off-site and (possibly) hasn’t been checked out since 1970.

Recently I posted a Twitter comment about how I hate the term “job market.” It feels, for lack of a better word, icky, calling to mind the little piggy that goes to market in the nursery rhyme. I always imagined that market in that instance meant a grocery store, as though the piggy was off to find fresh produce for a picnic with his friends. In reality, market in that case means the slaughterhouse (a fact I also learned via Twitter).

Disturbing childhood revelation aside, it’s fitting that such an innocent-seeming word captures the regular horrors of looking for an academic job. No one I know “on the market” ever says positive things: it’s a lot of self-care talk and battle stories. I don’t want to obscure the horror too many talented folks face trying to find a job in a broken market, but I do want to find another metaphor, one that does less to divide us from those who are on- or off-market.

When I brought up my search for different metaphors, both silly and serious, to my dissertation director, she laughed (not unkindly).

Why can’t you just call it looking for a job?” she said.

At that moment, I didn’t have a good answer, beyond a general feeling of unsettledness. “Looking for a job” doesn’t capture the physic, physical, material reality of the academic job search. In my search for a new metaphor, I was really searching for language that would capture the fear, the anxiety, the reality of our broken system. I wanted something that I could wrap myself in, a phrase reassuring to me because it could testify to the difficulty too many face. “Looking for a job” obscures the reality that looking implies—that there are things to look at, to look for. I need words that honor the reality that the job might not ever happen, might not materialize, might not be found, no matter how much looking I or others do.

I settled, somewhat jokingly, on “going into academic circulation.” But the more I think about that phrase, the more I like it. Like a library book, I am ever hopeful someone will find me in the stacks, perhaps a bit surprised and elated at the discovery. There’s also a chance I will languish, my artful cover or my back blurb not enticing enough to catch someone’s eye. There’s a safety, too, embedded in the word circulation— a word OED traces throughout history and describes as generally making a circuit before returning again “into itself.” My work does not disappear if market forces demand otherwise; instead I circulate back into myself, whole instead of broken.

Circulation also brings up connection; there’s a network of people circulating job ads, news, support. If we start to think about jobs not as a market, where we compete for attention and money, but as a site for circulation, how might our metaphor help shape a new reality? It won’t fix the systemic problems, certainly, but it could help us imagine new futures.

Even if I never circulate beyond the walls of my own academic library, my work still exists. Just because a book isn’t checked out doesn’t mean it hasn’t been read or valued. Perhaps its circulation pattern takes time to locate, meanwhile leaving behind traces, marks that others can still find and amplify. This metaphor is my refusal to let a market dictate worth, just as the worth of a book cannot be dictated by the number of lines filled in its checkout card.

Ornate bookplate with swirls and insignia, reads University of Cincinnati Library, image of building on campus, below image reads Charles Phelps Taft Memorial Fund.
an ornate library bookplate from the same copy of The Midnight Bell.