After that conversation with Barb I pulled out of my depression. Despondency was getting me nowhere. I had financing for the rest of the year and a dissertation to complete. That was the first order of business. Perhaps with degree in hand I would stand a better chance on the job market. I resolved to stay in New Haven, finish up, and try again in the fall. Meanwhile, I would look for stop-gap employment. If worse came to worst, I could survive for another year on savings. That would give me three shots at landing a teaching job. Three strikes, and I would have to think about changing careers.
So I went forward with this plan, slogging ahead with the dissertation while exploring entry-level or temp jobs at Yale. There were some possible admin or support positions, including sub-sub deanships, assistant program coordinators, and the like that would have kept me in bread but felt, at this point, like potboilers. I thought about writing on the side, for self esteem as much as anything. But in any event the positions wouldn’t come open until summer. There was nothing for it but to finish the diss, which seemed an increasingly hopeless chore. What was it for? Wouldn’t it just mean I would emerge overqualified for anything other than college teaching?
By the middle of March I had become inured, both to winter and to the general hopelessness of my prospects. But then, unexpectedly, a call came from the department secretary. They had heard of two temporary positions that might be attractive, “given your unusual interests.” She meant, of course, mountains, wilderness, and nature in general. Remember that this was the heyday of deconstruction; no one at Yale had heard of the nature writers, and ecocriticism was not even a blip on the horizon. The positions were at the universities of Montana and Utah, so of course she was right. Both wanted a “utility infielder” to teach interdisciplinary humanities courses for the next three years, a perfect fit for a comparatist.
I applied right away and heard back within two weeks: a form rejection from Montana but from Utah an invitation to interview on campus. I remember stepping out of the plane to the uplifting sight of the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains towering eight thousand feet above Salt Lake City. No doubt it was my enthusiasm as much as my degree that got me the job. But after a winter of despair resided over by dismal numbers, it felt like a stroke of the purest luck. And three years seemed like all the time in the world.
What had I done to deserve this? No more nor less than any of my grad student colleagues. I was prepared for failure. But I got lucky. I got a start. At the time it felt like a lottery, just like they were using for the draft. It seemed a matter of chance rather than justice. But all the same, before you can stay in the game, you have to get in. And once you’re in, there’s a whole other set of issues to deal with.
But more on that later. What did I learn from this experience? First, you can do everything right and still not get hired. Qualifications are necessary but not sufficient; you also need luck and chemistry, both of which lie well outside your control. Second, you need friends. Barb’s innocent comment shook me loose from paralysis, and I realized that no one would talk to me if all I did was mope and complain. Third, you need a plan and you need to keep working. Idleness only feeds depression, and almost any plan is better than none, as long as it gets you moving, and besides, you can always change it as things develop. And finally, a bit of savings can make a huge emotional difference. Knowing I could get by for a year gave me breathing room to imagine alternative futures.
These lessons paid off dramatically in the years ahead. I also saw them reflected in the experiences of colleagues and friends, both in job searches and tenure reviews.