On the job hunt, trust no one


Loyalty. That’s a word I never gave much thought to in relation to the job market. I was brought up in the do-unto-others school of thought; my colleagues had always had my back and vice versa. But that all changed, actually came crashing to an abrupt halt, with one brief text message from a peer, which read simply: “We need to talk. Now.”

“Patricia” and I had been friends for more than a decade. On paper, we were virtually identical twins: same depressing rust-belt town, same doctoral program, same adjunct circles. But more than that, we fraternized with the same cohort. So we always ran into each other at the inevitable weddings, moves, and funerals. Were we the best of friends? No, but I would have counted her in my inner circle. We were close, and I trusted her.

Through a series of unfortunate twists and turns called life, we both found ourselves back on the job market. I was lucky enough to land a one-year contract with a state university in the North, and she was on the tenure track at a liberal-arts college in the South. We were both thrilled at our prospects at those campuses. People in my department had told me, privately, that if I performed well in my one-year gig, the permanent position would be mine. No worries. It was in the bag. After the job ad for the tenure-track position went live, I kept my prospects under wrap for two reasons. First, it was a good university with solid benefits. I knew there would be a lot of competition. And second, I had been told that the position was mine to lose. Show up. Get good reviews. Volunteer for every committee known to woman. Publish now and then. I did all of those things. Only to my inner circle of friends, Patricia included, did I discuss my master plan, which was to aggressively pursue the permanent version of the job I already held. That is when a little bell should have gone off in my head, but didn’t. Patricia began asking a series of questions about the position: “How’s the pay? What are the benefits like? Do you like the students? What classes are you teaching?” At one point, I even jokingly asked her, “Why? Are you applying or something?” She said no. She said she would never go after my job. I was a friend, and that would be too awkward. It would be disloyal. I figured we were just making conversation, so I spilled my guts about the position, all the while praising the institution left and right. In the meantime, we were both helping each other, sending job ads back and forth, encouraging one another in both our private and professional lives, and talking about collaborations for national presentations. She briefly discussed marriage troubles and wanting to be closer to her family, but I attributed her complaints to stress. New jobs, young children, and big moves do that to people. It would all simmer down in time, I told her, and we’re all looking to be more settled. Fast forward a few months, and she was sitting at my kitchen table with her children. At that time, I was a finalist for the tenure-track position. My boss pulled me aside and said things looked very promising. He even referenced long-term employment with phrases like, “Oh, when you are here in the fall,” and “You will take this over next year.” I shared my giddiness with Patricia, and she was supportive yet exceptionally quiet. She looked down a lot. Still as naïve as ever, I attributed her silence to pressures in other areas of her life. Interviews were around the corner, and I was feeling confident. My peers were rooting for me. Then came her text message: “We need to talk. Now.” It was my hell day at work, a night class I had to teach until 9 p.m., so I didn’t write back. The next day she sent a series of similarly cryptic messages: “Where are you? Will you answer your phone? Are you at work right now?” And then the bombshell text: “I am afraid you’re going to hate me. I am a finalist.” I literally dropped my phone. In one dizzying instant, the whole year of phone calls, e-mails, and awkward lunches flashed before my eyes. She knew I was gunning for the position, and yet she masterfully played me like a fiddle. If she hadn’t told me via text message, she would have been given a campus tour during her interview and been shown my office. I would have been innocent enough to say, “Hey, what are you doing here? Did you surprise me for lunch? How thoughtful.” I remained tight-lipped. I didn’t respond to her or any of my peers. After all, we were the same person on paper, but seeing that I had been there for a year and been repeatedly told the job was mine for the taking, I was cautiously optimistic. I vowed to smile and shake her hand if I saw her on the campus. I had to remain a professional until the position was mine. As the weeks dragged on, I heard nothing. Colleagues began to look down at their feet while talking to me. Things move slowly in academe, I was told, just sit tight. In the meantime, I was offered a temporary position at another institution—a job I had originally spotted as a good opportunity for Patricia. I mentioned the offer to my boss in passing. Days later, over the phone, he bluntly stated, “Take it. We are in negotiations with the current candidate.” Although there was another candidate from the West, somehow I knew the front-runner was Patricia. So I did what anyone would do. I wept like a blubbering baby. I wept over a friend’s betrayal. I wept over the betrayal of my colleagues. I wept, primarily, over my own stupidity and confusion. My students came in one by one, offering condolences, tissues, and booze from the back of their pickups. Peers tossed around terms like “shafted” and “unfair.” It was the end of the semester, so in less than 24 hours, I had to pack up and vacate my office, a dream catcher the only remaining artifact of my presence. I still don’t know what went wrong. I had received a 4.9 out of 5.0 from the dean, glowing student evaluations, and an outstanding-service award. Hell, I even managed to get seven articles published while teaching overloads both semesters. I may never know the truth, but as fate would have it, my story does have a happy ending. Just as the academic year was ending, I was lucky enough to land a full-time teaching position on the East Coast, a pebble’s throw from the ocean. I could put on my big-girl pants, call it a day, and say it all worked out for the best. And in many ways, it has. I am fortunate, but the betrayal still stings. Deeply. Patricia and I are no longer friends, and I doubt we ever will be in this lifetime, simply because of the do-unto-others mantra. I would never do to a friend what she did to me, no matter how much I longed for his or her position. In the end, I will simply chalk it up to a live-and-learn experience. If I had to do it all over again, I would have kept my mouth shut and said nothing to anyone about the position. I wouldn’t have been so blindly trusting and naïve either. As cryptic and pitiless as it sounds, the humanities market is a shark tank. We’re all going after the same bait in one way or another. And while sharks are known for a lot of things, like dexterity and hunting expertise, loyalty isn’t one of them. Edwina Martin is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in the humanities. She is currently teaching as an assistant professor at a technical university on the East Coast.