Don't Let the Market Unmake You: Teaching and a Good Life after a Ph.D.

Photograph of Chandler Fry

Chandler Fry received his Ph.D. in English from Duke in May 2021. His dissertation, “Reasoning Rebellion and Reformation: Natural Law and the Ethics of Power and Resistance in Late Medieval English Literature,” was directed by Professor David Aers. This talk was presented at the Medieval and Renaissance Studies roundtable “Job Search Tales from the Trenches,” March 3, 2023. It has been revised for publication here. 

As we all know—as most of us knew before we applied to graduate school in Art History, English, History, or Philosophy—the job market for a Humanities Ph.D. is brutal. Knowing that intellectually, however, is very different than experiencing its reality.  

Across the 2020-2021 academic year, in the middle of the pandemic and approaching the end of my Ph.D. in English at Duke University, I applied to 297 jobs. I can name an exact figure today because I can count the different versions of cover letters and résumés that I have saved on my computer. These 297 applications included tenure-track university jobs, community college teaching jobs, private high school teaching jobs, marketing and writing jobs, university administrative jobs, and, at the height of my desperation, a part-time hourly wage job at a bookstore that was mainly interested in how many pounds of books I could lift. From those 297 applications, I got nine interviews: two at liberal arts colleges, one at a public university, three at elite private high schools, one with a marketing firm, and two with community colleges. From those interviews, I got one job offer, the job I have: a full-time English faculty position at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, a short distance from Duke. 

Before I detail my job search, which is very unhappy, I want to start with something happy. That happy thing is this: I absolutely love my job. If you asked me when I started my Ph.D. what my end goal was, I’d have told you that I wanted a tenure-track job at a four-year university. Now, however, I wouldn’t trade my job for any of the tenure-track jobs in the world. I have fun every time I teach at my college. More important than that, I feel that I am doing ethical and rewarding work.  

My students at Piedmont Community College do not come from places of privilege. Their story is often one of gaps and absences. When one of my students—one who reminds me so very much of my younger self—came to me last semester to talk about transferring to a four-year university, I asked her how I could help her, and she just said to me: “Don’t leave.” A few weeks ago, that same student helped me co-lead a class discussion on gender, power, and ethics in book 2 of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, something that she would, I think, tell you was outside her comfort zone, just as it was outside of mine when I was in her shoes. After the class discussion went unbelievably well, she wrote to me and said that she had felt comfortable doing it and that she would “forever be grateful for me and my class.” These two comments—and my being a part of the journey that transpired between them—are among the things I am most proud of and grateful for in my life. I spent much of my Ph.D. learning how to live a good life from my dissertation director; these comments make me feel like I am living that life, and that means more to me than I can say. 

Now, the unhappy part: the job search itself. Both strangely and not, I had the most success getting interviews with four-year institutions. I say strangely because we tend to think of these interviews as the hardest to get. Yet it’s not strange, in some sense, because I was most situated to get these interviews. When I entered the market, I’d had two articles published in national journals, one with the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies and one with Studies in Philology. I’d also won three teaching awards at Duke. I felt, therefore, as good as I could about my position looking for a tenure-track job in a bleak market. Across that year, I applied to anything that was a remote fit, including, of course, jobs within my specialty, but also generalist jobs. The only jobs I didn’t apply for were ones at very conservative colleges, which would not have been a good fit for me and would not, I imagine, have led to any interviews. In total, I’d guess I applied to around sixty to eighty universities and colleges. I got three calls for an interview: two from very small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and one from a large public university in the West. What I found in interviewing with these three institutions was that the articles I’d published and the teaching awards I’d gotten didn’t seem to matter beyond, perhaps, getting me in the door in the first place.  

Despite my own politics and the politics of my dissertation committee being, I thought, evident, the first college that called me seemed to believe that my work on medieval Aristotelian political theory indicated that I was conservative, as they asked me during the interview how I would teach “a highly conservative figure like Aristotle.” I replied that my dissertation dealt with issues related to gender and power—hardly the stuff we might call “conservative” for Chaucer’s age, however unfitting a term that is for a historical epoch that is sharply distinct from our own. But that reply did not shake their cemented assumptions about me.  

The next college did not care about anything I’d done at Duke. I got not a single question about my dissertation or, more surprisingly, my experiences teaching. What they wanted to know instead was whether I could prepare their students to take the English Education Praxis to become high school teachers. To be clear, the job ad was not for an English education professor. It was specifically for a medievalist. How and why this college decided to interview me remains perhaps the biggest mystery of my experience on the job market.  

The interview with the large public university went better. I got to talk about my research and passions for teaching. But the dealbreaker came toward the end of my interview, when my interviewer asked me if I had any experience writing and getting large grants. When I told him that I did not, but that I would be eager to learn, he replied that the committee was insistent on getting someone with that experience already.  

When these jobs all fell through, I tried to tell myself that even getting three interviews before completing my Ph.D. was a massive success. But it didn’t—and doesn’t—feel like a success that reflects in any way what I had accomplished at Duke. It felt random, sporadically lucky and unlucky. It feels even more like that today. 

Toward January, when things started to feel more desperate, I began applying to jobs beyond university teaching jobs. This started with private high schools—or, as they prefer to be called, independent schools. To help with this process, I contacted someone who’d graduated from Duke before me who worked in a private high school. He generously helped me prepare my résumé and cover letter. This was a massive help and is the single reason why I got any interviews at all. As these jobs were easier to apply for than tenure-track jobs, I probably submitted one hundred applications across the year. I got three interviews. The dealbreaker in each of these cases, and the reason why I probably didn’t get more interviews, was that I could not prove I was good at teaching high school students. I’d won three teaching awards at Duke for a class comprised mostly of freshmen. But freshmen are not high schoolers, and my experience, in the interviewers’ eyes, could not be translated. These jobs would not have been a good fit for me anyways. In one of the interviews, I was told the school—which charges $75,000 per year in tuition—was doing more for equity than the public schools in the area, a statement I find both reprehensible and representative of the ideology that seems to govern many of these elite private high schools. 

When private high school jobs weren’t working out, I turned to marketing and other jobs in the business world. I did not want these jobs. At all. But I was desperate. I knew very soon I would need money—regardless of its source. Everyone told me I needed to do informational interviews. So I did—not just a handful, but a lot of them. None led to anything even remotely approaching employment.  

I also worked what connections I had, contacting people employed at fancy marketing and consulting firms and tech companies. One marketing executive, whom I knew through my undergraduate thesis director at UNC-Chapel Hill, was incredibly kind and helped me put together a résumé and cover letter that would be intelligible to marketing folk. She also got me an interview at the old firm where she had been an executive. And she told me what to say during the interview. The interview process at that firm includes six steps; I didn’t make it past the first one. I’m not sure why. I think I said all the right things. Perhaps the interviewer could detect, beneath the answers I was advised to give, a deep loathing of the marketing profession and what it has come to represent in our culture.  

By March, when community colleges really started posting jobs, I was in despair, convinced that I was both worthless and hopeless. This is what the market does: imposes abstract and arcane categories, forcing job searchers, that is, human beings, to contort themselves into these categories, or else. This despair, however, did not override my financial fears: I applied to every single community college job I saw across all states in the U.S. In my cover letter, I talked about how my grandfather taught automotive technology at a rural North Carolina community college and how I was inspired to follow in his footsteps: a statement that was true and a breath of fresh air after the slew of verbiage I’d carefully constructed for marketing jobs. With this cover letter, I got zero interviews for jobs in states other than North Carolina. Within North Carolina, however, I got interviews at two community colleges.  

Two things, I think, convinced Piedmont Community College to interview me. First, I had gone to UNC-Chapel Hill for undergraduate school and Duke for graduate school. Second, and I think much more importantly, I grew up in a tiny, rural North Carolina town. I have little doubt in my mind that I would not have gotten an interview—much less a job—at a North Carolina community college had I grown up in the larger cities my peers at Duke had lived in. In my interview, I talked almost exclusively about my grandfather’s stories about teaching at a community college. When I did talk about my experiences teaching at Duke, which they asked about with interest and care, they always ended up bringing it back to how I would translate that experience into something that would be intelligible for North Carolina high school students. Later, when I asked someone on my interview committee about this line of questioning, she said, “We knew you were an expert in your content and that you could teach. What we needed to know was could you still imagine the lives of rural North Carolinian high school students.”  

I wish I could say that excellence in an elite Ph.D. program will get you a job, either inside academia or outside it. This is what I believed when I started at Duke. But for me, it was not that easy. It came down to a combination of excellence at Duke and good experience teaching together with what was likely much more decisive: a random quirk in my history, the fact that I was from rural North Carolina and thus, so my interview committee imagined, could probably relate to rural high school students in the state.  

While it is certainly true that my being from North Carolina makes me better equipped to answer questions about transferring to our public universities, my ability to relate to my students has little to do with my being from Beulaville, and everything to do with the fact that my Ph.D. program, and in particular my dissertation director, David Aers, taught me how to teach and how to care for other human beings. But communicating what David taught me and how that works through me every day is not possible in the fetishized language of professionalism that we must adopt when we enter the job market. I doubt I would have gotten any interviews had I opened my résumés and cover letters affirming my belief that our interactions with others must be grounded in knowledge of how material realities work on individuals, and that one should be guided by efforts to imagine pain that is both similar to and different from our own.  

This brings me back to a happy place. I have a job that in practice does not just allow for my fundamental beliefs but encourages them. I see people as people, and I teach others to see people as people—that is, not as disparate, free-floating individuals, but as members of communities who are formed by their histories and cultures. This may seem basic, but it is not. My experiences on the job market, academic and otherwise, have convinced me that, beneath the veneer of professionalism, the guiding principle of our culture is that human relationships should be transactional, and that the ideal way to live is as an isolated individual seeking to dominate others. This is the norm in our culture, which I would have accepted like breathing had my advisor not taught me otherwise. It is also a view, I fear, that I might have come to accept yet again (though with considerable pain) had I not been lucky enough to find a job that allows me to see people as people. 

The market for tenure-track jobs is truly terrible, and as far as I can see, there are no signs that it will get better. Humanities doctoral programs already feel pressure to adapt. My concern is that, in their attempts to adapt, they’ll lose what makes them vital to our culture in the first place, becoming more and more focused on skills and less on virtues. For now, for the future, I cling to what I am lucky to have learned at Duke and am able to put in practice daily in my new job. 

For their careful readings of and thoughtful suggestions on this article, I am very grateful to Maci Mize, Ryan Smith, and Dr. David Townsend.