Job Market Stories

College classroom 3

I noticed last night that some folks on Twitter were telling horror stories from the history job market.  OK, I’ll play.  Here are a few of mine.

  • A professor at an research university asked me during an on-campus interview lunch if I wanted to be a historian or a minister.  This interview, I might add, happened after I published my first historical monograph.  I did not get the job.
  • I was asked to give a lecture on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society for a teaching demonstration at small liberal arts college.  Later in the day, a politically conservative professor said he did not like my lecture.  I asked him if he thought I had said anything inaccurate or misrepresented Johnson or the Great Society.  He said, “no, I just don’t like LBJ.”  I did not get the job.
  • As members of the search committee at a research university drove me through town on my “community tour,” one member asked me, somewhat sheepishly,  if I was an evangelical Christian.  I said yes.  He then said, “wow, that’s great, we need one of those on our faculty.”  I still think his response was an example of postmodernism at its best.  I was offered the job.
  • At one mid-level state school in the Midwest I learned midway through the on-campus interview that I was the fourth candidate to visit campus.  I hit-it-off with one member of the search committee and on the ride to the airport he told me that I had no chance of getting the job because they needed to hire a woman.  I was the only male candidate they brought to campus.  To this day I still wonder why they even invited me to campus.
  • During another interview at a research university I was scheduled to have individual meetings with all of the faculty members whose research intersected in some way with early American history.  When I met with the department’s professor of native American history, a member of an indigenous people group, he told me up front, before we even started talking, that he would not be voting for my candidacy because he did not want the early American position filled by a white person.  The rest of that conversation was very awkward. I got the job offer despite his negative vote.
  • During a conference interview with a southern university in the midst of redefining its religious identity, I met with two history department faculty–one who was in favor of the new identity changes and one who was not.  The entire interview revolved around what I thought about these changes. They asked me nothing about my work or teaching.  It was clear that these two men did not like each other and they were using me as a punching bag to air-out their differences. I did not get an on-campus invitation.
  • During an on-campus interview at a regional state school I was asked to give a lecture to a large United States history survey course.  After the lecture, I was chided by one of the search-committee members because I did not put the students into small groups.  I did, however, get the job offer.
  • At another regional state school, a professor on the search committee called me up the day after I received the job offer and warned me not to take the job.  The place “sucked” he said and he was trying to desperately get out himself.  I took his advice.  And he eventually got out as well.
  • At another research university I called the chair of the search committee two weeks after I had visited campus.  I asked him if there was any news about the committee’s decision since I had not heard from them in a while.  He told me that he would call me back in an hour since he was in the middle of helping the top candidate’s wife find a job in the area.  He even told me the name of the candidate. (Yes, this is true).  Needless to say, I did not get this job.  Apparently he found sufficient employment for the guy’s wife.  By the way,  today, about 20 years later, I am a big fan of this guy’s work.
  • The committee of a small liberal arts college insisted (due to plane ticket prices) that I fly into town on the Friday evening before the Monday interview.  They put me up in a bed and breakfast in town that doubled as the home of one of the members of the search committee.  Needless to say, it was a long weekend.
  • At one research university, which invited me to campus for a position in early America, a senior scholar spent most of the candidate dinner peppering me with questions about Harry S. Truman, the subject of his most recent book.  I did not get the job.
  • In an on-campus interview at a liberal arts college I delivered a job talk on Presbyterians and the Enlightenment in early America.  During the Q&A, one of the faculty members began a question by saying, “I don’t know why religion is so important.  I just wish they would abolish it.”  (That’s a direct quote.  I will never forget it).  I did not get the job.
  • During a conference interview with a regional state school, I met the six-person committee in a standard hotel room (not a suite).  There were three men and three women. Several members of the committee lounged on the beds because they only had one chair and one small love seat.  I did not get the job. This was 1999.
  • During an on-campus interview at a Catholic college in the Midwest I was asked to give a lecture on the Stamp Act.  One of the professors in the room, a well-known conservative historian, asked me why I did not say anything about stamps on Bibles.  This, he claimed, was the real reason why the colonists resisted the tax. When I told him I did not think the resistance to the Stamp Act was religious in nature he told me, in front of all of his colleagues and the undergraduates in the classroom, that I was being swayed by revisionism.  I got the job offer.
  • I received a job offer from a private university in the mid-Atlantic and turned it down.  The next year at a big history conference the person who accepted the post after I turned it down contacted me (we had only met once before) and asked me if he could take me out to dinner as a “thank you” for not taking the job.  As far as I know, this person is no longer in academia.
  • During a driving tour of the community during an on-campus interview I started to get car sick.  When we got back to campus the chair invited me to lie down on the coach in her office before my next meeting while she sat at her desk and took a phone call.  I got the job offer.
  • During an on-campus teaching demonstration I began by going around the room and asking the students to tell me where they were from.  When I was rejected for the job the head of the search committee, in what I imagine was an attempt to give me constructive feedback, told me that I wasted too much time at the start of the lecture “getting to know the students.”

I’ll stop there for now until more stories come to mind.  I should also add that the job market was much better back in 1998-2002.  Those were some boom years in early American history.

3 thoughts on “Job Market Stories

  1. John,
    Very interesting anecdotes from your job-search history! The stories made me even more distrustful of the academy. Some of the incidents were actually depressing.

    By the way, I wonder what you think of the following possible technique. Specifically, if an applicant is standing before an academic search committee, he/she needs to use the colossal egos of the members to his/her advantage. Instead of letting them ask the applicant a series of questions, the applicant can stroke their vanity by asking, “I am curious why you decided to go outside of your university to hire a new professor? With all of the in-house talent here, an outsider is really unnecessary, isn’t it?” They would be jumping over each other trying to answer the question. Ha ha

    Getting back to your anecdotes, I really think a good script writer could take a few artistic liberties and come up with at least two T.V. seasons of a hit sitcom set in a mid-sized university. I’d watch it, and I don’t even like sitcoms!



  2. These stories are fascinating! Would make a great documentary. I have some of my own, but none to match these. I did receive a ‘secret’ call from a search committee member once who said the committee had recommended me for an on campus interview but that the Dean threw out my application based solely on the fact that I had been a student at Bob Jones. He then told me that if I revealed that he had called, he would deny it to the end.


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