Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shotgun or sniper rifle?

So, my content advisor suggested that I opine about whether one should apply for anything and everything or just specific types of positions... shotgun or sniper rifle. In some respects my post from March 17th (Intensity of Focus... not activity) was about that very issue, but since I have actually gotten two other emails about this, so I will be a touch more definitive about it.
When asked by an interviewer whether he worked out or exercised, Neal Armstrong said:
"I believe that every human has a finite number of heart-beats. I don't intend to waste any of mine running around doing exercises."
Career development in general and job hunting in particular fit this metaphor. One of my areas of responsibility is managing the Letters of Reference Service for the university, so I have a fairly good idea of the number of reference letters that go out for grad school and med school applications as well as applications for teaching positions. Two or three years ago, I was approached by a graduate student who asked if we would consider giving her a "bulk rate" for her requests . Thinking that she might be sending out 25 or 30 letters, I replied that we had little margin in our charge and it would not be feasible for us. She became quite adamant and said,
"I have already sent out 82 applications and I have another 70 ready to go. I don't want to let a single position get by me without applying for it."
I shared that I had been in higher education for 20 years and I could never remember a time when there were 150 positions available in her discipline of Asian Studies. Her quick response,
"Oh, I'm not applying just for Asian Studies positions, I am applying for Sociology, Anthropology, Ethnic Studies, and Chicano Studies. I'm also applying for anything that has humanities or diversity in the title."
Her rationale was flawless. Asian Studies was a subset of Ethnic Studies and Ethnic Studies departments had formed on most campuses in Sociology or Anthropology departments. She had majored in history as an undergraduate and since her mother was Latina, she should be considered for Chicano Studies. I saw her on campus several more times over the next couple of years and she told me that she had maxed-out at 320 applications before she could not sent out another application and need to get back to the dissertation that she had fallen behind on. I held my peace, but remain convinced that her shotgun approach kept her from putting an appropriate amount of effort into positions that she might really enjoy, relegating all jobs to the same degree of watered-down effort.
During my first application frenzy after graduate school, I will admit that I threw out a lot of paper... nothing approaching 320 or even 150 for that matter. It only took two horrible trips... one to a small coal-mining town in the hills of Virginia and another to a long-forgotten cattle town in West Texas, to get me to rethink what I was doing. During the dying weeks of that job campaign, I zeroed in on positions that I knew would fit me and my family. Since that time, I cannot remember a time when I had more than two job feelers out at a time. (Several years ago, when the university I was working for closed four departments, including mine, I sent out only one resume in a four month period, got an interview, and took the job as a transition to my current job which I found out about from a friend... not because I was looking.

Friendliness is next to Jobliness.
For the record, my last three jobs came to me in the following fashions.

Weeks ago I told the story of moving to Alabama to accept a teaching position and then realizing that I really, really needed to stay in California. After I handed in my resignation, I began to contact department chairs and deans to see if there were any part-time teaching slots available. One guy in particular dodged my every attempt to make contact, until he foolishly picked up the phone one day and got me. We chatted for a few minutes and he was very negative about the possibility of having any teaching for me. At that point I mentioned talking with a friend at the University of North Alabama. He asked who I knew there and, of course, we both knew the same person. The next day he called and offered me two classes. I got four more classes a week later when a friend of mine at San Jose State was in town and introduced me to his college room mate who was a psychology professor getting ready to leave for sabbatical. Midway through the year, I was offered a permanent slot at one of those schools.
I was commuting 60 miles to this job and it was okay, but I would have preferred to be closer to home. One day at a U12 soccer game, I ran into one of my old professors from my Masters' program... his grandson was playing on the opposition's team. We chatted for a while and I told him that I liked my job, but that the commute was brutal. About three weeks later he called told me about a position that was open in another department to be in charge of a Career Counseling Masters' Program. I was not looking for a job, but it was 10 miles from home. I took the job when offered.
This was the infamous job that was foreclosed along with three other Masters' programs. That was the bad news, the good news was that one does not simply cease an academic program, the current students have to be "taught out", which we decided would take two years. During that time, the university offered me a couple of slots, but I declined them as not being exactly what I wanted. One afternoon, my friend Lea Beth (Who I swear I will call, because I know she reads my blog and I feel all guilty and stuff about not calling her weeks ago!) called me out of the blue. She said,
"I was thinking about you yesterday because there is a position at UC Riverside that would be perfect for you."
I told her that I was not looking to commute 40 miles away. She paused for a minute and said,
"Okay, it's like this, I have a friend on the committee there and and they are really looking for a specific person, which I promised her was you, AND I promised her that I could get you to submit a resume."
Anyone who knows Lea Beth knows that when she's on a mission, she does not give up easily. I sent my resume and the rest, as they say, is history. All three of these jobs were secured in a reasonably casual, low-key fashion. I went through a formal application process and was not the only qualified applicant. I doubt I was the unanimous choice and I don't think that my "source" was able to exert any influence over the selection process. The deciding fact is that I was able to focus on the positions before the interviews and do well because I didn't have 320 other applications crowding the stratosphere for me. Yes, it is important to have an active, evolving network, but it is equally as important to have time to exploit that web of relationships.
The other day I suggested that focus was more important than activity, but perhaps what would clarify that recommendation is this restatement.
If all of our energy is spent on the mechanics of researching postings, revising resumes, crafting cover-letters, or designing elaborate ruses to "network" with others, then we will have no time to let those "best fit" opportunities find us and little time to research and prepare a strategic self-presentation.

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