In the heart of a deep recession, with most departments listing few openings and some withdrawing them as budgets continue to shrivel, Kelly Kennington, a newly minted Ph.D. in history, hunts for academe’s holy grail: a tenure-track position.
Originally published in Duke Magazine.
For the past seven years, Kelly Kennington Ph.D. ’09 has kept her mind planted firmly in the 1800s. As a doctoral candidate in Duke’s history department, she has immersed herself in records from Missouri’s St. Louis Circuit Court, where hundreds of slaves sued for their freedom in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
Hers is more than an academic interest: Studying slave legal history represents Kennington’s awakening about the nation’s legacy of racial injustice. “As a child, I wasn’t taught much about slavery, and I didn’t know the founding fathers owned slaves,” says the twenty-nine-year-old white Ohioan, whose studious, meticulous style masks a fierce passion for her subject matter. As an undergraduate at Tulane University, Kennington read Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup’s account of being abducted in Washington in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Northrup was a free man and an accomplished violinist until his early thirties. Then came his encounter with slave dealer James H. Burch and “lackey” Ebenezer Radburn:
As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me.
Reading this narrative, with its raw detail, filled Kennington with “a new outrage,” she says. “I was really struck by this idea that a person could be free and their status could change just like that — through this act of kidnapping. And this happened to a lot of people. Not everyone was able to escape and return to freedom. All those things really made me want to learn more.” She signed up for courses taught by historians Betty Wood, a preeminent scholar of Colonial Era slavery, and Judith Schafer, an expert on slaves and the law. Delving deeper, “I felt a sense of frustration that slavery wasn’t talked about in my high-school history classes,” she says. “This is an important part of our past that we can’t separate from our present. The legacy of our history hangs over us today. We have to be cognizant of that in order to move away from it.” Kennington scrapped her plans to attend law school and, after earning her bachelor’s in 2002, came to Duke to study African Americans’ struggles for freedom in the antebellum South.
But on this warm winter day in Durham, Kennington is firmly back in the present. Fewer than four months away from earning her Ph.D., she is thinking about the challenge every doctoral candidate is pondering right now: how to land a tenure-track teaching post during one of the worst academic job markets in memory.
Under the best of circumstances, finding an assistant-professor job is a harrowing process, as colleges and universities shift toward non-tenure-track and part-time instructors. But the last year has been even worse. The nation’s recession has forced many departments to cancel new faculty searches. In addition, fewer older professors are leaving their jobs, says Robert Townsend, assistant director of research and publications at the American Historical Association (AHA). “A lot of faculty members who’ve looked at their retirement portfolios have said, ‘On second thought, let me stay around for a bit longer,'” he explains. Academic job listings for historians are down 20 percent over last year, even though the number of undergraduates majoring in history has reached a thirty-year high.
Other fields are experiencing similarly sagging job markets. The Modern Language Association reports a 25 percent drop in English and contemporary foreign-language positions for newly minted Ph.D.s. Even the sciences, considered more robust than the humanities, have seen a slowdown, according to Paula Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University who studies the careers of scientists and engineers.
Kennington, whose vita bulges with academic honors, has approached this brutal market with a strategy that is both comprehensive and precise. In August 2008, she met with her adviser, professor of history Laura Edwards, to map out her strategy, then wrote seven drafts of a cover letter that she would adapt for each job. She created a complex spreadsheet listing — among other things — deadlines, academic subspecialties, and status updates. She produced writing samples and model syllabi customized for each prospective employer. She lined up three letters of reference, which she placed on the online dossier service Interfolio.com. With this infrastructure in place, Kennington applied for fifty-four tenure-track assistant professorships and ten post-doctoral fellowships.
She knows this might seem like overkill. “Not everyone I know who’s on the market this year is applying to that many,” she says with typical understatement. “So, yes, I think mine is a little excessive perhaps. I want to make sure I get a job.”
So do her mentors. “We have our fingers crossed for Kelly in this job market,” says Edwards. “She’s extraordinarily good at what she does. Her work has become so ingrained in her life that it is her life.” Kennington, who is compact and professional looking, with short brown hair and glasses, doesn’t emote very much when talking about her topic, but Edwards says this is often true of the best academic historians. “They’re engaged twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but in a way that’s quiet,” Edwards says. “To me, Kelly’s ability to do this all the time speaks volumes.”
The early responses to Kennington’s applications have been decidedly mixed. By Christmas time, she had already gone on one campus visit to Florida Atlantic University, and, more recently had a telephone interview with Texas Tech University. On the other hand, nine of the fifty-four tenure-track searches have been discontinued for lack of funding. These cancellations are typical of 2008-09, says the AHA’s Townsend.
Now Kennington is getting ready for the AHA’s annual meeting in New York, which Duke professor John Thompson calls the “meat market for historians looking for their first academic jobs.” Kennington has twelve interviews scheduled, compared with a handful apiece for some of her friends. Thompson, who is the history department’s director of graduate studies, attributes Kennington’s first-round success to “her diligence, her persistence, and her never-flagging enthusiasm.” Kennington is, characteristically, more modest.
“Nineteenth-century U.S. history is a much easier field to get a job in than twentieth century,” she says, largely because of “supply and demand. But twelve is on the higher side. It’s a good problem to have. I’ve been telling myself that during the last few days as I try not to tear my hair out with nerves and stress.” If she does land a job, Kennington says, “I just hope the one that I get doesn’t have to cancel.”
After an outing to the Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibition of Van Gogh night scenes, Kennington returns to her New York hotel room. It is New Year’s weekend. The museum trip was a reward for surviving the interviewing frenzy at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting. For three days she kept a regimented schedule, frequently consulting the stack of index cards she had prepared to keep names and job descriptions straight. “I expected to be pretty nervous and anxious the whole time,” she says. “But it was exhilarating, running from one to the other and getting to talk to so many different people. I didn’t expect to feel that way.”
Kennington did have unsettling moments. During her first interview, for a job teaching Southern history at The Citadel, someone asked what books she would assign for a course on the antebellum South. It was a reasonable question — but not one for which she had rehearsed an answer. “I completely blanked on it,” she says, annoyed at herself. “It was as if all the books I knew just jumped right out of my brain. I fumbled around a little bit and eventually came up with a few things, but not the list I would give them if we had the conversation again. That was a little horrifying.”
Things went more smoothly after that. As the weekend rolled on, Kennington spent less time consulting the note cards. She grew more confident each time she answered a familiar question. When an interviewer from the University of California at Riverside threw a provocative curveball — asking whether nineteenth-century U.S. history can be considered its own field, or whether the Civil War created an unbreachable divide — she set aside her panic long enough to craft a deft “yes and no” answer.
Tougher, though, was figuring out how the interviewers felt about her. “Usually, the committees were very nice,” she says. “It seemed like everything I was saying, they were just eating up. They were smiling, laughing, joking around with me. Ultimately, I think that that has nothing to do with the outcome of the interviews. You could easily think that you did great and, in fact, you didn’t.”
Back in her room after the Van Gogh exhibition, Kennington checks her email. There’s a message from Larry Schweikart, a history professor at the University of Dayton, one of the schools that interviewed her this weekend. Schweikart has been trying to call Kennington to tell her she’s one of three finalists for a teaching position in African-American history. He wants her to come to Ohio later this month.
That’ll mean two campus visits in a single week. Besides Dayton, Kennington has been invited to Auburn University on January 21 to interview for what she calls her “dream job”: teaching U.S. Southern history from 1800 to 1850. Preparing for these visits will take considerable work. Kennington doesn’t know when she’ll find the time.
“My greatest stress right now is trying to write an undergraduate lecture that I’m supposed to present at Auburn,” she says. “One thing I don’t do a lot in my own classes is lecture; I mostly do interactive activities. They made it pretty clear that they don’t want interactive activities. They want to see me lecture.”
As she prepares for these visits, and finishes the first draft of her dissertation, Kennington also waits to hear the results of her other AHA interviews. “I’m checking my email about every five seconds right now,” she says.
Late January 2009
The Auburn visit starts off awkwardly. Shortly after Kennington checks into her hotel, an assistant professor arrives to give her a tour. “The poor guy had a horrendous cold,” she would recall afterward. “And he was fairly new to the area. The other thing, too, is that it’s Auburn, Alabama. There really isn’t that much to see. I think he wanted me to tell him what I wanted to see, and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s here.'” The two historians drive past the football stadium, the art museum, and Auburn’s small downtown. Kennington keeps a lookout for upscale restaurants: Her husband waits tables at the Washington Duke Inn, and she wonders whether he could find similar employment here.
The answer becomes apparent that evening, when the search committee takes her to Yellowhammer, a fine-dining restaurant in nearby Waverly. She expects casual dinner chat, but instead the professors ask detailed questions about her research. “Which is fine,” Kennington says. “My tendency is to be shy for a little while and get comfortable with people, and then let my personality shine through and be more talkative. But on these interviews, you don’t have time for that. You’re trying to get them to want to hire you right away.” She worries that she seemed unprepared to discuss the research and therefore made a poor first impression.
That night Kennington develops a headache and fever. (Getting sick will become a recurrent theme on her interview trips.) She barely sleeps. The next morning, she wakes up with a headache, wondering how she’ll survive the long day.
Stop 1: Coffee and bagels in the department office — a casual meet-and-greet with prospective colleagues. Stop 2: A fifty-minute lecture attended by thirty-five undergraduates and various faculty members. Kennington has prepared a PowerPoint presentation organized around the story of a Virginia slave who successfully sued for her freedom in the seventeenth century on the grounds that, among other things, she was a Christian convert and the daughter of an Englishman. Just before Kennington walks into the classroom, she learns the lecture will be recorded for a search-committee member who can’t attend. “That was a little unnerving,” she says. Still, the lecture goes well, even if some of the questions Kennington poses to the students fall flat.
Stop 3: A lively lunch with more queries about her research. Stop 4: A meeting with the department chair, who explains Auburn’s unusual workload: In exchange for teaching a few extra courses, all faculty members get one classroom-free semester every three years. “It’s a great system,” Kennington says. “They want to encourage you to get your research done.” Stop 5: A job talk with professors and graduate students, who pepper her with questions about her teaching style, prospective courses, and — most challenging — whether the data from her St. Louis courthouse research really support her conclusions. Even when the inquiries get tough, Kennington is impressed by the collegiality. She realizes how much Southern graciousness appeals to her. She really wants this job. “I like that they encourage you to continue to be a productive scholar,” she says. “Teaching is important, certainly, but I want a balance in my career.”
Later, at dinner with two professors, Kennington permits herself a glass of wine. She makes a mental note: “I really need to learn how to relax faster.”
The University of Dayton visit didn’t go quite so well. That’s okay. Kennington wasn’t sure whether she wanted to return to the “dying city” where she grew up, or whether she would feel nourished on a purely undergraduate campus that emphasizes teaching almost exclusively over research. “My general impression of Dayton was that I didn’t get the job,” she says. “Not surprisingly, I didn’t get the job. I think that’s for the best.” She felt better about her final interview trip to Webster University in St. Louis. She appreciated the beautiful campus, with its history department located in a converted 100-year-old Craftsman house, as well as the university’s emphasis on small class size. But Auburn remains her hands-down favorite.
The night she returns from Webster, she goes out for bowling and beers with some other Duke history graduate students and professors. When she gets home after midnight, there’s an email message waiting for her. “I realize just now that I do not seem to have a phone number for you,” writes professor Charles Israel, chair of Auburn’s history department. “So I hope you’ll excuse my violation of Miss Manners or whatever rule book it is that forbids such news by email. Since it is (hopefully) good news, I’m hoping you’ll give me a pass.
“I want to talk with you about the outcome of our vote on candidates for the Old South position. In short, you’re number one on our list.”
Kennington had wowed Auburn’s search committee, which had a strong field of finalists from which to choose. “She had a really interesting topic; her training at Duke was good; and the interest in legal history — that’s something that we’ve not had thoroughly covered in the department for some amount of time,” says Israel. “And then, when she showed up and did her job talk, and presented her research, and showed what she could do in a classroom, she took a strong paper candidacy and gave it a real person attached to it.”
Reading the email message, Kennington literally jumps with joy before calling several night-owl friends. “It’s just about the best feeling ever,” she says.
Still buzzing from the news, she wakes up at 9 a.m. to get into the February 7 Duke-Miami men’s basketball game with some friends. Duke trails by thirteen points at halftime, then starts to build momentum. The game goes into overtime before Duke pulls off a 78-75 victory. The day, and the game, and Kennington’s mood are “just perfect,” she says. Afterward, she calls her adviser to discuss her negotiations with Auburn.
The next day, Auburn drops a small bomb. Alabama, like every state in the nation, is facing economic hard times, putting funding for higher education in flux. Auburn is a state university, and “it wasn’t entirely clear that there would be money for tenure-track lines in the coming year,” Israel would later explain. “The upper administration was making all kinds of warning signs: We’re going to have to cut this, we’re going to have to cut that, but we don’t know yet.” At the same time, Auburn is undergoing a transition in its provost’s office. Israel and his colleagues believe the safest course would be to lock in Kennington’s position under the current interim provost — before any budget-cut edicts come down. This means there’s no time for a leisurely negotiation: Auburn needs Kennington’s RSVP immediately.
Kennington accepts the offer. “I don’t think I’m a very good negotiator, especially when I know I want the job,” she says. “This is the place I want to be.”
But locking in the position proves harder than expected. The paperwork, which usually takes days to process, drags on for weeks. The interim provost, not wanting to bind her successor during a time of fiscal uncertainty, is requiring “extra layers of justification” for every hiring decision, Israel says.
Needless to say, Kennington feels antsy during the delay, imagining what might happen if all tenure-track hiring were suddenly frozen. “If the freeze happens before the paperwork does, then it’s gone,” she says. “Once the provost signs, my understanding is it becomes a contract and it’s much, much harder for them to cut it. So I’m really eager to sign it.”
She is now Dr. Kelly Kennington. The defense of her dissertation — “River of Injustice: St. Louis’s Freedom Suits and the Changing Nature of Legal Slavery in Antebellum America” — was low-key and collegial. “I don’t know if it’s quite sunk in yet,” she says. “I still have some minor revisions to do, and I upload the final version next week. I think after that I’ll feel completely done.”
She is also a member of Auburn University’s history faculty. The delay lasted a month, but in March Kennington signed her contract. And exhaled.
But she is not starting in Alabama until the fall of 2010. Kennington has hit the new-Ph.D.-in-a-recession jackpot: In addition to the Auburn job, she’s been offered a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin Law School. The postdoc, which is aimed at humanities and social-science scholars who study the law and society, pays a minimal stipend and carries no teaching responsibilities. Instead, Kennington will spend most of her time in Madison working on a book about her dissertation topic. She’ll also participate in the school’s Institute for Legal Studies, which supports socio-legal research. The fellowship will kick off with the two-week J. Willard Hurst Summer Institute in Legal History, which Kennington says is “jokingly called legal-history boot camp.”
She feels fortunate. “It very well could have not had as happy an ending,” she says. Of the fifty-four tenure-track jobs she applied for, “I had fifteen interviews to get four on-campus interviews. And then one offer from that.” Many of her colleagues got none.
For them, of course, there’s always next year. But experts are not expecting the market to loosen up immediately. “The cycle that we’re finishing — those budgets were established more than a year ago,” says Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. “Next year, we’re going to see, in most people’s views, an even tighter job market.”
As she launches her own career, Kennington will continue to watch the national job scene. “I have a lot of friends who are finishing in the next few years,” she says. “I’m hopeful for them, but I’m nervous for them, too. There’s a lot of anxiety that goes with this process — even in a good year. These difficult economic times only make things worse.”
“I’m relieved,” she adds, “not to have to be on the market again this fall.”
SIDEBAR: Experiencing Turbulence
As a child growing up in rural South Carolina, Howard Conyers Ph.D. ’09 used to visit relatives in Florida. One of his favorite parts of the experience was the airplane ride. “I was always fascinated how a vehicle that large is able to get up into the air and fly like a bird,” he says. Even then, he wanted to become an engineer. When he entered Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering in 2004, he decided to specialize in aeroelasticity: the ways air flow distorts a structure like an airplane wing, a bridge, or an office building.
Conyers, twenty-seven, is a meticulous planner. Before he finished his undergraduate work at North Carolina A&T University, he had already mapped out his career. As he envisions it, he will spend the next two decades outside academe. He might work for the government or a defense contractor. Maybe he’ll design state-of-the-art skyscrapers for an engineering firm. He can even imagine busting out of his field completely, using his analytical skills to “build models to predict the stock market.”
Then, after racking up private-sector or government experience, he’ll spend the second half of his career in the classroom — imparting his practical knowledge to future engineers.
When the economy began to tank in 2008, Conyers didn’t panic. “I thought it would be a small sniffle,” he says, “instead of the flu that we’re experiencing right now, which we can’t seem to shake.” But then, this year, he began his own job hunt. He attended job fairs and applied for positions posted online, only to have promising leads peter into silence.
Roman Czujko, director of the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics, says this is indeed a rough time for doctoral-level scientists and engineers to begin corporate careers. “The economy goes in the toilet at least once every ten years,” he says. Often, Czujko adds, companies respond to these downturns by cutting clerical and information-technology staff — and those employees also get hired back first. “Things will have to bottom out and improve before the private sector starts to take a chance on new Ph.D.s again,” he says.
At one job fair, a defense contractor expressed an interest in Conyers — as long as the company didn’t have to pay him a Ph.D.-level salary. “One of the questions that was posed to me was, ‘Would you be willing to come in as if you had a bachelor’s or master’s degree?'” Conyers recalls.
“I said to the recruiter: Given the situation, where we are in this country, if I had to take a pay cut, I would take it. You can’t miss something that you never had. What they’re offering as an entry-level engineer would probably be a lot more than what you get from a graduate-student stipend.”
That job didn’t come through either. Conyers grew resigned to taking a position doing something he wasn’t thrilled about — in a university research lab, for example — to “just weather the storm.”
But then NASA called. The space agency was looking for a structural analyst for the successor to the space shuttle. Conyers flew down to Mississippi for an interview, and in July accepted an offer. It felt like the adult fulfillment of a childhood dream: As a kid, Conyers often asked his parents to send him to a NASA space camp, but they couldn’t afford it.
Conyers says his job quest has taught him a lesson in tenacity. “It took eight months,” he said. “But I learned you have to be persistent and patient. Don’t give up.”