Until googling "the fool's errand," I didn't know that a game with that title exists. According to Wikipedia, "The Fool's Errand is a 1987 computer game by Cliff Johnson. It is a meta-puzzle game with storytelling, visual puzzles and a cryptic treasure map. It is the tale of a wandering Fool who seeks his fortune in the Land of Tarot and braves the enchantments of the High Priestess. A sequel titled The Fool and His Money was released October 25, 2012."
For the past three years, I, too, have been on my own fool's errand. If my errand were turned into a game, and that game had a Wikipedia page in the style above, this is how it would read: "The Fool's Errand is a 2018 computer game by Jason Jordan. It is a strategy-puzzle game with applications, Skype interviews and a campus visit. It is the tale of a wandering Fool who seeks employment in the Land of Higher Education and braves being routinely ignored during the application process. A sequel titled The Fool and His Lack of Money will be released in 2019."
Anyway, since being in the final year of my Ph.D. program during the 2015-16 academic year, I've been applying for tenure-track and visiting college/university positions in Creative Writing, English, and Fiction. I believe I cast a wide net, but not so wide that I applied for jobs that I wasn't technically qualified for. And, for curiosity's sake, I kept detailed records of this process, including, for each application, the university and its location, the date I submitted the application, the date they responded (if at all), the number of applicants (if supplied), the person who got the job (if known), and whether that person contributes to diversity in any way (if known). I'll cover the stats year by year and then combine them.
52 positions | 0 interviews | 0 campus visits | 1 offer
During my ABD (All But Dissertation) year, I applied for fifty-two positions. I received no interest from any of them except one. That one was for one of three postdoctoral fellowships at Ohio, where I was finishing my degree. So, while it kept me afloat for another year, it also benefited Ohio because they could report that I got a job. Though I was grateful for the opportunity, it wasn't a major accomplishment insofar as only three people applied for three positions. Even so, I felt optimistic about remaining on the job market while still being in academia.
87 positions | 4 interviews | 1 campus visit | 0 offers
During my postdoctoral year, I applied for eighty-seven positions and, as you can see, received some interest but not enough to land a contract. I had three Skype interviews and a phone interview. The latter resulted in a campus visit over the summer, but, in hindsight, I'm glad I didn't get the position. The fact that I didn't get an offer meant that I was going to enter my third year on the market from without academia. That is, I wouldn't have that all-important university letterhead on my cover letters anymore.
80 positions | 0 interviews | 0 campus visits | 0 offers
Out of the academy and living off the land (OK, not really), I didn't think I'd fare as well while applying from outside of academia, and I was right. I had a few requests for additional materials, but that was it. As of this writing, there's another month or so during which positions will become available, but it's gotten more difficult for me to muster the motivation to apply when the process has gone poorly thus far.
219 positions | 4 interviews | 1 campus visit | 1 offer
Quite a disheartening experience, really. That's not all, though. I also applied for positions at literary journals, presses, and video game developers. If these are added, then the actual totals are:
233 positions | 4 interviews | 1 campus visit | 1 offer
Thankfully, although I enjoy teaching, I've never felt that it's my calling. It's not my dream job, in other words, and I'm not distraught to have been denied a prestigious university position. Similar to most jobs, there's a lot of good and bad about teaching in the university setting. There is, additionally, an ugly psychological toll to being on the job market.
Being around people who share similar interests, feeling like you made a positive impact on students, building rapport with colleagues and students, befriending colleagues, learning from colleagues and students, engaging in the long-running tradition of higher education, attending university-hosted events, perks that include being able to use various facilities such as gyms and pools, flexible schedule, working out of the elements in a job that requires little physical exertion, safety, decent pay and benefits if you can get a good position, a lot of free time in the summer if you don't teach, teaching is considered being in your field, access to a good library, a lot of free stuff around (food, books, newspapers, events, etc.) if you look
The job is more like a lifestyle in that you do most of the work outside of the classroom and so you may feel like you're always working or that you should always be working, increasing scrutiny regarding free speech, university as bastion of far-left politics with decreasing tolerance for other views, the divisiveness that is identity politics, dealing with students you don't like, sometimes having to teach content that you aren't enthusiastic about, never-ending grading, sometimes feeling like your students aren't learning enough or showing much progress, increasing adjunctification (fewer positions with job security, good pay, and good benefits), being concerned about the university's and department's budgets, being concerned about enrollment and the shrinking English major, little say as to where you live because you take the job you can get, many jobs don't pay well and don't offer benefits, might be stuck with colleagues you don't like, having to park far away from the buildings you need to go to, serving on committees
The Ugly (of being on the job market)
Feelings of anger, doubt, hate, inadequacy, self-loathing; people constantly asking about your job prospects and, if you're honest, having to tell them that it's going badly; all those pizza boxes stacked in your apartment; lack of motivation to clean, which results in tumbleweeds composed of hair in every corner; working long and hard toward a goal only to fail; possibility of never working in your field; the Netflix bingeing (warning: you may be an escapist if you watch the entirety of The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Justified, and Hell on Wheels in only a few months)
After three years, including coming off the worst performance on the academic job market in those three years, I have arrived at the place where I believe, in the immortal words of Filthy Frank, that "It's time to stop."
At this point, I no longer want to spend my time, effort, and money applying for positions that I almost certainly won't get. Plus, rejections are demoralizing. (I actually began to look forward to rejections, however, because so many universities simply ignore the applicants they aren't interested in, which is worse than every alternative.) This is not to say that I'll never reenter the academic job market if my circumstances change to the effect that I become a much stronger candidate. After all, a select few have academia come to them. A long shot, for sure, but possible. Maybe one day I'll look back and be glad that teaching wasn't my career. In any case, I'll keep doing what I do to cope with life and its ills: listening to black metal and reading the dead.