Perseverance = Fourteen Years


Good news to share: I have been offered and accepted a tenure track position as Assistant Professor in the Music Composition, History, and Theory Department at Westminster Choir College.

More than a few acquaintances might be wondering, “Haven’t you been teaching for a long while? How long did it take you to land a tenure track job?”

Fourteen years.

I went on the job market, while still a doctoral student, in 1999. I received my Ph.D. in 2001. I’ve been applying for academic teaching positions, in hopes of finding an ongoing one, for fourteen years.

Halfway through my search, an op/ed in the Chronicle for Higher Ed told me to give up any hope of getting a tenure track job after three years. When I recounted this to a girlfriend (who was not to be my future wife), she said, “Oh, that’s just if you want to get a good job.”

I’m grateful that my stubborn Irish/German DNA, a score of friends, and another score of stubborn Irish/German-American relations told me otherwise.

During the time period from 1999 until, well, this past Friday, I’ve been employed as a contingent faculty member in seven different places, under a variety of job titles. Particularly early on, I sometimes didn’t know if I’d have a job until the next semester was about to start. I believe the record for a late job offer was two days after a semester started, but there were many Fourth of July weekends spent on tenterhooks.

I’ve listed the job titles below. Bear in mind that the commitments were semester by semester until 2002 and then again from 2004-’06. After that, they were mainly one-year appointments.

1999: Adjunct Assistant Professor
2000: Part-time lecturer and Adjunct Assistant Professor (freeway flier years: three campuses and three other part-time jobs)
2001: Adjunct Professor
2002: Replacement Assistant Professor (my first full-time teaching job)
2003: Substitute Assistant Professor (doesn’t that sound like you have an unruly homeroom class to mind?)
2004: Adjunct Assistant Professor (part-time again, for two years. That was the toughest time: going from having full-time pay and benefits to being eligible for food stamps)
2006: Instructor (one-year contract )
2007: Visiting Assistant Professor (one-year appointment)
2008-’10: Acting Assistant Professor (two-year appointment)
2010-’11: Acting Assistant Professor (one-year appointment)
2011-’12: Acting Assistant Professor (one-year appointment: line split between two campuses)

Do you notice how each of these job titles tells you “Don’t get comfortable?” I mention this not to complain: I am one of the lucky ones. For eight of my fourteen years on the market, I had a full-time salary with benefits. I have friends and colleagues who are extraordinarily talented, yet woefully underemployed. In fact, most of the new Ph.D’s who enter the higher ed job market today will encounter a struggle during the search to find their teaching “homes.” Some will be faced with job offers that they feel they ought to take, even though it involves moving away from family, friends, and the place they have come to think of as home. Many will remain underemployed for years; some will be kept as contingent faculty members for their whole careers.

Once most people get their “dream job,” it’s easy for them to forget these years in the wilderness. It’s natural: I imagine a human
response to coping with adversity. The one blessing I find in the long struggle to remain employed is that it will be difficult to forget what it was like to live semester to semester and year to year for so long. I hope never to take that for granted.

Indeed, it’s still hard for me to believe: I will be teaching on one campus next year, and I will be able to start thinking of myself as an ongoing part of an institution instead of a visitor. I am particularly glad that my wife Kay Mitchell and I (as well as four frolicsome felines) will be living under one roof instead of apart. So many academic couples have to get accustomed to living apart for years at a time. I tend to think that Anneliese  and Zelda would have none of that.

Without the many friends and family members who offered their support and encouragement throughout this long process, it simply wouldn’t have been possible. I hope to get the chance to express my gratitude to each of you in person, but I’d like to say it here publicly. Thank you.

I only wish that my father, who passed away in 2009, had lived to see this come to fruition. But to those still seeking the “right job,” and doubting their perseverance, I’d share one of his favorite sayings, one he’d say to me when the academic job market’s vicissitudes were weighing particularly heavily:

“Don’t quit before the miracle.”

Or, as Churchill said in his last visit to Parliament: “Never give up. Never.”

PS Lest you think that I will be resting on my laurels for even a moment, the conditions of my new job require me to come up for tenure almost immediately. So, if you are one of those kind people who has a concert program or tape of a performance to send to me: now would be the time. Thanks!

6 thoughts on “Perseverance = Fourteen Years

  1. Congratulations on the new gig!

    Wow, do I know the name of this tune — I have an armload of fancy degrees and a decade of don’t-get-comfortable jobs under my belt, as well. Add to the mix being the “trailing spouse” of a successful performer and teacher, and I’m starting to think I’ll never be employable in a “grownup” job. Your story is inspirational!

  2. Christian, congratulations! This is magnificent, and I know your cats will be particularly happy to have everyone united under one roof (not to mention your missus).

  3. Pingback: another one across the line « Walk In Brain

  4. huge congratulations, christian. wonderful to see that your tenacity and determination have paid off!

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