Secret Jobs

In my last post on leaving academia, I raised the issue of music having no centralized jobs listing or standard job search cycle. But music is worse than that. Lots of jobs in music aren’t publicly posted at all. If I had to point to a single thing that makes searching for a job feel futile, this is it.

I have lots of reasons to be burnt out. And I have lots of reasons to think that I’m at a disadvantage relative to other people who do a similar amount and quality of work. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the growing awareness that other people were applying for far more jobs than me, not because I wasn’t willing to put in the work but because academic departments were not publicly posting their jobs. There’s a different job market for well-connected people than there is for the rest of us. When well-connected people get to apply for 5-10 jobs for every 1 job I apply for, the entire effort seems futile.

It seems that most music jobs are not posted in any of the standard academic job market sites. For any field without a single, comprehensive job repository, I would expect them to post all searches to one or both of Academic Keys and Chronicle for Higher Education. A smattering of music jobs get posted to these places. I don’t think I’ve ever found anything at Chronicle so I’ve stopped looking. An occasional posting makes it to Academic Keys. But most jobs seem to rely on the secret email method.

The secret email method of job posting consists of emailing some friends and maybe a listserv you subscribed to years ago. Yeah, secret email jobs are probably also posted on their university’s HR site, but people on the job market don’t check the HR website of every single university in the country or world just to see who is hiring. That doesn’t count as publicly posting the job. To publicly post a job, you have to put it where the public will see it, not where the public might find it if they’ve built some kind of especially amazing web-crawler. (In which case, by the way, they really don’t need your academic job. Some tech company will have recruited them and offered them so much money your academic job cannot hope to compete.)

The secret email method presumes two things. First, everyone who might be a good fit for your job is connected by an email network. Second, everyone in the discipline plays along.

It is not rational to assume that everyone who is a good fit for a job is connected by an email network. The primary guideline for academic hiring is: don’t hire your own graduates. Some schools will hire their own graduates, but only after they’ve spent time someplace that’s away and developed professionally in a different milieu. Why? Academic inbreeding is bad. We all benefit from intellectual cross-pollination. It keeps us from getting set in our ways. We get used to each other and someone looking at us from an angle can show us our blind spots. That’s a good thing.

Some schools go further than that. A few years ago, a friend of mine from Large Public Research University asked a professor at Private Research University if he should apply for the job they’d just posted. The professor from PRU said no. He said that PRU had realized that although they’d generally avoided hiring their own graduates, way too many of their recent hires had been from LPRU. Plus, lots of their graduate students did their undergrad at LPRU. And lots of LPRU’s graduate students did their undergrad at PRU. LPRU and PRU were beyond inbred, and they really wanted to hire someone from someplace else this time around.

If you only hire people on your email list, you’ve got intellectual inbreeding. You’ve got your friends. You’ve got colleagues who play on your team when intellectual debates break out. You’ve got people who share your biases. You’ve got very few people who will intellectually challenge you, think in completely different ways from you, and help you see your blind spots. Unless you are intellectually lazy and are afraid of challenge, you should be making sure your job posting reaches the widest possible audience. That would have to include people who aren’t part of your email network.

It is a mistake to assume that everyone in the discipline plays along with the secret email game. A big factor here is diffusion of responsibility. Some people don’t know who to email. They don’t know where the email chain is supposed to stop. They don’t want to be seen as a spammer. The people who are especially well-connected nodes are likely to receive several copies of the email themselves. When you receive several copies of the same email, you see it as spam. Maybe your email client sees it as spam for you. Assuming well-connected nodes see the secret job email, they might not recognize that the network contains many people who are connected only through them.

As I’ve said elsewhere, Wesley is a really horrible mentor. I get the impression that lots of people think that Wesley is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I think he sees all the job emails he gets as spam. He probably gets duplicate emails and doesn’t recognize that he’s an especially well-connected node. Despite the fact that I’ve been telling him for years that he needs to actually forward these emails, he assumes no one relies on him to find out about jobs. He thinks that everyone else would be just as annoyed to get the secret job email from him as he was to get it in the first place. Those of you who think Wesley is the bees knees: you will never hire a Wesley student unless that student has some external mentor if you rely on the secret email system to somehow get your job listings to all potential applicants.

In my experience, everyone who gets the secret emails assumes everyone else is getting them. I have friends who tell me after the fact that they’ve applied for all these jobs–usually at the interview stage when it’s too late for me to apply. I’ve repeatedly asked pretty much everyone I’ve ever met to forward me secret job emails. But people have a hard time getting over the social prohibitions against forwarding emails. After years of this, I have convinced exactly one person to forward me secret job emails. He’s a composer not a computer musician, so there’s not a lot of overlap. But if he gets something computer-related, he is generous and sends it on. It’s perverse that the ONLY way I find out about computer music jobs is through ONE person who is NOT a computer musician.

I don’t know how to make this any clearer: if you are on a hiring committee and you don’t post your position to Academic Keys or The Chronicle for Higher Education and instead just email your friends, you are not posting your job publicly. You cannot expect that somehow everyone who would be a good fit for the position will hear about it. You are not looking at everyone who is qualified for your job. You are not making a merit-based hire. You are making a hire based on some combination of competence and social connectedness. You can kid yourself you’re doing an international search and somehow finding the best person in the world for your prestigious job. But you aren’t. You’re gambling that your little email circle has the best person for your job in it.

You’re gambling that the most socially connected people make better artists, musicians, thinkers, researchers, and teachers. You’re tossing out any possibility of bringing in someone amazing with an energizing and different perspective from a slightly different corner of the field or a related field. You’re reneging on one of the basic premises of academia: that we benefit intellectually from cross-pollination.

Secret emails let an institution follow the don’t-hire-your-graduates guideline while making damned sure that only close proxies of their own graduates will find out about their jobs. They hire a student of a former student. A friend of a friend. No one can find out about the job who might intellectually to challenge orthodoxy or cause some kind of vigorous intellectual debate to happen. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but it’s a sad side effect of going with secret emails instead of just posting jobs publicly.

I’m obviously not part of the finding-out-about-jobs social class, so it really feels delusional for me to keep telling myself I’m on the academic job market. Because the academic job market for computer music isn’t where I can find it. As long as computer music jobs are treated like state secrets to be occasionally leaked, I’m pretty much out of the running.

If something shows up in Academic Keys, I’ll go for it. Unless someone starts forwarding me secret job emails, that’s as much effort as I can justify putting into looking for jobs that probably aren’t where I can find them. It seems more intellectually honest to admit that I won’t be getting an academic job and move on with my life. It’s better to find ways to pursue my work outside of academia.

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