Now His Take: When Spouses Search for Tenure-Track Jobs

Graduate Center alumnus Paul Fess with his wife and alumna Krystyna Micahel with their young child
Alumni Paul Fess and Krystyna Michael with their son Andrzej

Last month The Graduate Center profiled Krystyna Michael (Ph.D. ’19, Comparative Literature), who started a position this fall as an assistant professor of English at Hostos Community College. As part of an academic couple, Michael has a lot to celebrate: her husband, Paul Fess (Ph.D. ’18, English), also recently started a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of English — in his case, at LaGuardia.
Fess spoke to The Graduate Center about his experience of their parallel job searches, which overlapped with the birth of their first child — an event, Fess notes, that made their search for permanent positions even more urgent and complicated.
The Graduate Center: You're now in a tenure-track position at LaGuardia. What do you think helped you stand out when you applied for this position?
Fess: This is a difficult question to answer, but I think it was my relentlessness in bringing all aspects of my professional experience to bear on my development as a teacher in my job materials and during my interview. I felt my applications were the strongest when I had a clear through line that reflected across my material. This also made it easier to focus my answers to questions in interviews. For me, my teaching experience was that point of connection. I would also echo Krystyna’s comments about trying to take advantage of all of the different kinds of professional development available at CUNY.
GC: Were you and Krystyna searching for similar positions at the same time, and if so, how did you manage that process? What are the particular challenges of being part of an academic couple, both seeking tenure-track positions?
Fess: We were on the market at roughly the same time. I started clumsily applying for jobs when we found out Krystyna was pregnant, and she started sending out applications after we had adjusted more to being parents. The major challenge we faced was the same one that every couple looking for a tenure-track job faces: the two-body problem. Having a baby compounded this problem because it wasn’t really feasible to live apart.
Looking back it is difficult to see how we negotiated the uncertainty of not having permanent employment while figuring out how to take care of a baby, and I don’t know if I have practical advice for anyone. We definitely made mistakes and felt the pressures of a tough job market, which can weigh on a relationship. Krystyna, for instance, had to give up a lectureship in Alabama in order for me to accept the position at LaGuardia, and I’m eternally grateful to her for that. In general, we have tried to approach each of the decisions we have faced along the way as a team, a unit, and we trust each other and have a lot of open communication about our aspirations and anxieties. I feel very lucky to have Krystyna a partner.
GC: Before landing the job at LaGuardia, you held a few positions outside of New York City. Did you find that these shorter-term positions were helpful in getting the LaGuardia position?
Fess: I do think that taking positions outside of the New York area enhanced my appeal on the job market because it allowed me to talk about teaching in different settings and populations of students. In my interview at LaGuardia, I could talk about both the experience I gained as an adjunct in the CUNY system and the experience of teaching at the University of Rochester, a small liberal arts school, and the University of Alabama, a flagship state school. I think this deepened what I was able to say about myself as a teacher and how I have arrived at my thinking about pedagogy. If it is feasible to take a lectureship or fellowship elsewhere I would recommend it. 
GC: What do you want to accomplish in your new position?
Fess: I hope to take advantage of my ability to help shape the curriculum in the department and participate in the broader organization of the college, which are aspects of academia that adjuncts are unfortunately too often shut out of.
GC: How do you like teaching at CUNY, and how does it compare to other schools you've taught at?
Fess: Teaching at CUNY is great! There seem to be more and more opportunities to create interesting teaching and research experiences every year. The biggest differences between other jobs I’ve had or ones I’ve heard about from friends at other schools flow from the efforts of the PSC. The union does such a good job at protecting one’s experience of the work.
GC: What advice do you have for current students who are looking for tenure-track positions, and what do you wish that you had known at the beginning of your job search?
Fess: Having a baby is a great motivator. Kidding. I wish I had a greater appreciation of how much time it takes to put materials together and apply to positions. It was impossible to do anything other than send applications and teach for the two fall semesters I went on the market. My assumption was that I would put them together once and spend a little time tailoring each application. In practice, tailoring each group of documents took a lot of time. This was due partly to my inexperience and partly to the nature of the process. There is no standard job application, at least not for the jobs I was applying for. This meant that there was a great variety in what each school wanted. Had I realized this I would have planned my dissertation-writing schedule differently. So my advice would be to keep this in mind if you are still writing and planning to go on the market.
GC: And what advice do you have specifically for job seekers in the humanities?
Fess: In the humanities I think the prevailing advice is to cast a wide net, but be wary of job ads that are too vague or capacious. It’s a good idea to approach your adviser or your dissertation workshop instructor about talking about a set of job ads to get a sense of how to read them critically and discern what might be only implied or suggested about the candidate the committee is looking for.

Submitted on: OCT 30, 2019

Category: Alumni News | Comparative Literature | English | General GC News