job market · mental health · slow academy

The cruelty of job applications

I’m procrastinating from job applications *and* from marking. They’re both pressing. Both have deadlines, although the latter’s are softer than the former’s. I was wondering why I procrastinate from writing the job letter, when I am actually excited by the prospect of these two jobs I’m applying for this week, whose deadline is next week (they require mailed applications, so that effectively means the deadline is this week!). And it hit me: it’s exactly because of this excitement that I have trouble bringing myself to write the job letter. You see, until the moment I’ve committed myself in writing, the possibilities are still open, and my imagination can fly through the streets of the wonderful cities the universities inhabit, and I can wander along with it on the walk of my dreams, to the permanent place of work, where I can finally settle into my exciting new research project, and my teaching gig.

And that’s exactly where that cruelty lies: in the hopes and imaginings and exuberances preceding the writing of the letter, but constitutive of the conditions of possibility for its emergence. I simply have to be excited for a job that I apply for, not only for the mercenary reason of conveying it in a letter, but for the reality of having to move my family to a new location. I have to be able to imagine my kids growing up in that place, and I have to love it for this possibility. This is the reason why I cannot apply for jobs in the States: I just cannot see myself fighting the swelling tide of conservatism there. It’s not where I’d like my kids to grow up.

So, I’m stealing time to write this post instead of writing the letter. Because talking to you about the possibilities allows me to prolong the dream, the fantasy, the desire, all intact. It’s not that they fade once I write myself down. On the contrary, they increase. Especially after I’ve mailed the application, I find myself day-dreaming even more about what it would be like to live there, to work there, to walk into that library with my laptop for a full day of research without the burden of job applications. Yes, I know other responsibilities ensue once one has attained the dream of a permanent position. I’ve held permanent job situations before, and their demands were exciting, not excruciating. No job one likes can compare to a limited-time situation or the job-market precariousness.

“A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a *fantasy of the good life*, or a political project” (1), Lauren Berlant writes in her latest book , Cruel Optimism. She goes on to explain

Whatever the experience of optimism is in particular, then, the affective structure of an optimistic attachement involves a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way.

Yes, it’s this return that I want to keep open, so my optimism doesn’t die. In procrastinating, my attachment grows, my desire lingers, and my fantasy flourishes without being checked by the cruelty of the fact these applications are eating away at me, as they are at everyone who’s unfortunate enough to be on the job market. Any kind of job market. The question is, is my desired outcome, my fantasy of good life–the academic job–an instance of cruel optimism in itself? Or should I start looking for something else, something less cruel, less demoralizing in its process of attainment, less soul-crushing? My own answer: I’m giving it this year. That’s all I can take and still remain the human being that I want to be, the human being that I want my kids to see.

I’d love to hear your answers.

8 thoughts on “The cruelty of job applications

  1. I do the exact same thing! I can tell you all about the real estate market, running trails, and cultural scene in any city I've ever applied to. It is absolutely a cruel optimism, but it is also completely necessary. How else could we convince ourselves to keep sending these application out? I haven't quite figured out how long I will keep at it. My main strategy right now is to only sessional when I absolutely have to. I don't consider precarious academic labour a suitable career alternative.


  2. I love this post, and I love your frankness. I also love synergy (despite hating the word): I've just put the finishing touches on a piece for ESC that was a part of this past year's professional concerns panel on academic cynicism. My take? Precarious employment is *the* ground zero of cruel optimism. And yet! My answer has been to say one more year, one more year. This year, as I watch the clock tick on my yet-to-be-renewed contract, I have been making more plan B lists in addition to sending out All The Applications.

    My question is this: is there a way around cruel optimism? Or is recognizing it (as Berlant seems to suggest) almost enough to break its pernicious hold?

    And Margrit? GIANT HUGS!


  3. I love this post. It explains some important things about how the job market works to beat you down. What scares me in what you describe is that “looking for a job” becomes equivalent to “looking for a life” (or, “looking forward to a job” = “looking forward to a life”) – unavoidable, to a certain extent, since the academic job market pretty much requires a move. But then what *that* does is a) make your everyday in the present moment a little more despicable; and b) make the imagined future impossibly rosy. Hm. Less imagination! Less optimism! Less taking it personally!: rallying cries for the precariously employed…


  4. This post really resonated with me as well. I am currently keeping a “secret” job search diary in honor of digital writing month, and it's really helping me work through all of these issues (and more). I imagine I'll publish it at one point. I need to pick up this book of which you speak, too.

    I worry about pessimism I am currently experiencing. Received my first rejection yesterday. Now dealing with feelings of, why even bother? Why am I even doing this? I could be using my time so much more productively than making syllabi for classes that will never get taught, etc. I'm not sure what's worse, the optimism or the pessimism.

    Here is a great post (and I think a perfectly healthy and reasonable approach to the job market/search season):


  5. Margrit, thanks for this post. Though I do not have children, I also have to take space/place into account when I apply for jobs, so I can definitely relate. That same conservative streak you mention is why I have to be selective and do a large amount of research on how certain cities, states, etc. feel about LGBTQ citizens. It definitely adds another level of anxiety to the search. I firmly believe that family requirements are an important part of the academic job search conversation, yet it is an aspect that rarely appears in a positive light. The usual stance is, “if you are truly an academic you should be willing to move anywhere” which of course is far from reality.


  6. With this post, memories long since suppressed flooded back – it is over 20 years ago (eek!) that I was on the job market, but it was one of the worst experiences of my life. At the time, having a young baby and a marginally employed English grad student husband and being by nature a catastrophic pessimist, I felt all the cruel and none of the optimism. So I feel real empathy for you all. And even though I did get a job (and never applied anywhere else, for fear of having to go through it all again), I would not advise pessimism as a more productive approach. Hope is always good in and for itself- really!


  7. Thank you, all of you generous women! Thank you for your solidarity, for your community, and for your added perspectives!
    @Danielle: yes, exactly! I used to find out everything about the location, just like you say, in order to determine whether I'd actually like to be there. But then I stopped, exactly because of what @Heather said: what you gain in imagining your new location is lost in your existing reality. And yet, you do have to imagine a rosy situation, because, as Danielle points, out, how else will you convince the hiring committee, if you yourself are not convinced?
    @Erin: your support, as usual, warms my heart, and gives me hope for our academic generation!
    @Lee: I'm looking forward to reading your journal one day. I've been grappling with how to handle rejection better. I want to not fret, but it's impossible *and* unproductive: if I don't analyze what I might have done better, then how *am* I going to improve for the next one?
    @Ann: Thanks for the different perspective. I've been having this conversation a lot with people, and part of my resentment appears due to how a (fiscally) conservative job market has turned socially conservative, too. You didn't mention your field, but in English, while interdisciplinarity is much touted and desired, the job ads have mostly reverted back to nation/period/genre. I cannot speculate on who gets hired, but we've had a whole conversation on FB about whether or not to put our maternity leaves on the CV.
    @Christina: thank you for your perspective. Being on the job market, no matter when, no matter one's discipline or education is enormously stressful, but what adds to the cruelty and feeds the impostor syndrome is the lack of clear rules and expectations. That's where optimism fails, because unreasonable optimism is not productive, and reasonable one is impossible, within these unclear expectations.


  8. Hm… I don't know that I fully understand both cruel optimism and Margit's post. Is the optimism only cruel if one NEVER gets a job? What's a good way to define NEVER? 😉 3 years? 5 years? 10 years?

    Anyway… I am a Recovering Academic in the Sciences, about to go back to the metaphorical “bottle”, so I can definitely relate to applying for jobs and keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of rejection. In fact, I thought I had enough rejection and took that well known exit to high school teaching, even going as far as getting a B.Ed. after a Ph.D. and currently subbing everything from Calculus to grade 7 Band. (Subbing, by the way, is probably as close to Educational Prostitution as I've come.)

    But I digress. I find myself applying for a very unexpected and almost unthinkable multitude of tenure-stream opportunities in a small university town, where my husband holds a tenured job and currently supports the vast majority of our household spending. I barely cover daycare and car costs with my subbing gig, and the workings of the Teachers' Union make it very likely that I have a good 5 years of instability in front of me before I have a classroom of my own (sort of like a cruel tenure-stream for teachers!). And even while these tenure-stream opportunities that I am well qualified for seem like some kind of magical purple unicorn shooting a rainbow from its butt, bedazzling me completely, I am still having trouble focusing on my job letter.

    For me it's not prolonging the optimism. For me it's the fear that this time it may actually work.

    And by the way, how come all the books in the background picture for this blog have no writing on their spines?! Is it some kind of post modern allusion being lost on me?


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