The essays

The academic job search is a lot like dating. You get excited about a college, only to find out they don’t feel the same way. You wait for the phone to ring, and they never call when they say they will. Just when you think things are going well, you find out they’ve been seeing someone else.

But I’ve never had a potential boyfriend ask me to write an essay on “What Being a Good Employee Means To Me.”

This was the lowest point in my job search by far. Two years on the hunt for an English faculty position hadn’t yielded anything except a one-course adjunct gig at a local community college. I had expanded my search, reluctantly, to non-faculty jobs – jobs with university presses, in writing centers, and at a few nonprofits. Mostly I didn’t get very far. They seemed to smell my desperation. Looking back, I’m sure they knew these jobs weren’t my first choice.

But this time I’d made it to the interview. I’d driven two and a half hours to get there, changing into my interview suit at a gas station as I got close. I couldn’t see much of myself in the mirror, but I felt like an imposter in an unflattering suit. Where did people find suits that actually fit well and were comfortable? And how did they afford to dry clean them?

I was a few minutes early, as our university’s career office (which didn’t really know what to do with an English PhD) advised. The receptionist looked as if he had just finished his undergrad degree in English himself, so I tried to make small talk, but he simply escorted me into an empty office.

“First, there is an editing test,” he said.

The position was “editorial assistant,” which I was over-educated for, but I had been assured that in publishing one had to start at the bottom no matter what. At least it wasn’t in the mailroom. For a moment I was excited – I’ve taught enough freshman comp that I can see how to revise all but the most hopeless texts. My excitement died when I saw it was a copyediting test. I had 20 minutes, he said, to bring the manuscript up to Chicago style standard, using appropriate editorial marks.

Unfortunately, I know MLA rather than Chicago style.

Next, the receptionist left and came back with a sheet of paper. He made a production out of opening Word on the PC. He pointed to the sheet of paper and then left.

The paper told me I had 30 minutes to write a series of essays and gave instructions as to what file names to save them under. The first was on “the future of the university press in America.” The second asked me to share my strengths and weaknesses. The third asked me to define a “good employee.” I groaned.

Don’t think I’m an inveterate snob. I had applied to plenty of jobs with lower salary and prestige prior to this, including to a job at a coffee shop whose name I can’t mention (but it rhymes with Glarducks). They at least treated applicants with a modicum of dignity. Here I hadn’t even met anyone besides the receptionist – whose name I still didn’t know – and while the first test had at least assessed real skills, these essays just begged for bullshit answers. “Why, my weakness, Mr. Employer, is that I work much too hard.”

I wouldn’t have assigned these essays to my beginning comp students – first thing they would do would be to plagiarize them off the internet. I don’t know why they presumed I wouldn’t do the same, although they were right. I sat there and churned out three essays I wouldn’t want to ever see with my name attached.

After that, the sullen receptionist took me down the hall, no introductions to the people we passed, to the office of the Humanities Editor. Her suit was worse than mine, and her office was a disaster area of paper and books. She cleared off a seat for me and then launched into a rambling 30-minute interview with questions culled straight from an HR manual. She asked about my strengths and weaknesses (again), why I wanted to work at the press, why I was the right person for the job, about a time I successfully led a project, and what animal I would be.

“What animal?” I asked. “Um, a lemur.”


“Because I like lemurs?”

She looked disappointed and asked me if I had any questions. I remember asking something about possible opportunities for growth and advancement before being ushered out.

I walked outside and back to my car in a serious funk. Was this what non-academic job interviewing was like? Would all my co-workers be as depressed as the receptionist and as scattered as the editor? If I was offered the job, I’d have to take it, and I was seized with terror that perhaps I had performed well.

At least that fear wasn’t realized. Not only was I not offered the job, I never heard from them again.

I told my non-academic friends about the interview with great indignation, and they just looked at me.

“Well,” one said, “It wasn’t a great interview, sure. But it wasn’t especially bad. I remember this one time …” and proceeded to tell me about an interview where the only question she was asked was if she had any pets. Her prospective boss spent most of the time telling her about his malti-poo and his Portuguese water dog. “He had pictures, too.”

I started to appreciate academic interviews. Even if they were long, they were humane. They treated me like a colleague, for good or ill depending on the school. No one made me write essays.

And then when the coffee shop called, I took it.

The author is a manager at a locally owned coffee shop in a university town in California.


About almosttruetales

The stories contained herein are entirely fictional. Any resemblances to persons living or dead are entirely coincidental. Anyway, what seems like a unique story probably plays out dozens of times in other academic departments each year. I don't know if that's consoling or depressing.
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