I recently applied for a job in an academic department. I didn’t really want the job, but I wanted to know – I might even say needed to know – if I could least make the long list, the short list, or even the interview stage. I’ve stopped applying for academic jobs not only because I have a job that I really love, but also because I grew weary of writing carefully tailored cover letters. What I have grown even more weary of is the endless “will you be one of my referee?” emails. But I found referees on three continents to support this application and sent in the materials with a fair bit of confidence.

Needless to say, I didn’t even make the long list.

As I read the rejection letter, something one of my referees mentioned during one of our email exchanges immediately came to mind. This referee wrote, and I paraphrase, “you’d be a good hire, but they’re going to hire an Important Department Member’s former student, who is currently “stuck” teaching at a university in a sub-optimal location.”

Something Jonathan Wilson recently wrote about match-fixing in cricket seems to speak to inside-track, specially-written job description success in the academic job market. Wilson first tells a story about the press box in Romania greeting the news of Chelsea scoring two late goals to snatch a victory with the immediate response, “Fixed!” Then he tells a story about a cricketer he knows:

The former Test player told me about his greatest performance for his country. With the opposition chasing a gettable target in the fourth innings, he’d taken three quick wickets in the final session to help secure a narrow victory. He spoke of his pride, of the thought that whatever else happened, he’d helped his country win a memorable victory. Now, he says, he looks back and wonders. Was it genuine?

Why did that player hit the ball in the air from that delivery? And why had that other player missed that straight one to be lbw? The greatest hour of his professional life, he said, had been ruined by doubt, because now he wondered whether he had actually taken those wickets, or whether they had been ordered by some bookmaker on the other end of a phone.

That is terrible. It’s like finding out that the wife you thought loved you is being paid to stick around, like finding out that the friends who laugh at your jokes are actually resentful extras, like finding out that the glowing review for your new book was actually written by your agent’s best mate. It’s like realising you’re Truman Burbank. I can’t even begin to quantify how that must feel, to strive for years at a skill, to work and practise and hone and refine and then to produce under pressure at a key moment, and not to know whether you deserve the congratulations.

That former Test player had lost his faith in sport, and perhaps even a little in life. Those Romanian journalists were so browbeaten by the regular scandals of the game in their country at the time that they preferred to meet all sport with a carapace of scorn than believe a good team could score two late goals against a less good team.

And that is, in a nutshell, how academia has not changed. What used to be an old boys club is just a more diverse club. Or at least that’s a way to look at how the limited number of good jobs get distributed within the realm of possibility. I guess that counts as an improvement?

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