Pop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Name your poison.

Alright, so as you might remember from previous posts, I am currently applying for academic jobs.The process, while stressful in a details-and-deadlines kind of way, is actually oddly fun. It’s, well, like applying to college all over again.

Every time you read a posting and visit a school’s website, you get to think: “is this the one for me? What would my life be like there? Will the other kids be friendly, or will they laugh at my dorky elbow patches?”

You get to wonder about your potential colleagues, most of whom you probably haven’t met before, so you have little to go on but a picture (likely twenty years out of date) and a terse paragraph of publications and research interests (with the occasional rambly one about his–always his–pet turtle and juggling expertise). Will they like you? Are they a pain in the ass at meetings? Does he ever juggle the turtle? (Yes.)

You get to wrack your brain to think if you know anyone who lives or works in that part of the world…that is, whom you might actually like to see: “Oh hey! There’s a TT opening at DrShell‘s institution! Oh wait…looking for any sub-field but mine? Dammit, that would have been cool…”

Lastly, you get to talk a lot about how awesome you are. And really, truly, seriously–that can be a major tonic in the midst of the grad school malaise, where it can sometimes feel as if you’ve been spending years just spinning your wheels and accomplishing little of note. (“You mean my conference presentations fill a whole page? And I actually got awards? And a publication contract? WTF? When did I grow up?”).

All of which brings me to my point. Sometimes there is that one school. You know the one. It catches your eye, it sounds so perfect. Like the position was made for you, or at least for your evil twin. Maybe there’s some poetry to it: something about it–a past connection, a coincidence–makes you feel like it would somehow bring your career full circle.

And so you start suffering from unreasonable optimism.

None of us–even the most Spock-like of straw skeptics–are totally rational about everything all the time. We all have our weaknesses, our little irrational beliefs and behaviours. Our little doses of woo, that we sneak when we think no one’s looking like pills in the basement. Even if we’re aware of them (and we should always strive be aware of them), they are sometimes just a little too difficult to push out entirely.

Mine is a persistent sense that I can tell whether something will happen or not. Yup. Seriously. You heard me right. Sometimes I feel, deep down, like I know the future. I know that this is absurd, and that it’s mainly the result of good heuristics, behaviour modification, and confirmation bias, but sometimes the feeling creeps in nonetheless. Certainty. Unwarranted optimism. Sometimes, even a bit of irrational exuberance.

And I am feeling it now, despite the dismal real-life odds of anyone actually getting hired to a tenure-track position in my field. I suppose it’s better than the alternative.

What is your secret woo? Do you ever do things you know are irrational? Any unbelievable but persistent beliefs? Come on, it’s time to come clean.

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. In American longitudes, anyway.

Featured image: A bottle of laudanum with a handy dosage table for infants, courtesy of Cydone.

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!


  1. October 28, 2013 at 2:33 pm —

    A friend of mine once told me that he knows he’s in unreasonable optimism land when he starts looking at real estate near a position he’s applied for. His advice: Never, ever look at real estate. Finding the most awesome home right down the road from the most awesome job allows your imagination to construct an even more elaborate vision of the future–more kindling for the flames when the rejection letter arrives.

    That said, there’s nothing wrong with maintaining a positive outlook on your job search. How would it help if you were morose about it? I say keep on keeping on.

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