Sarah Marcus

Sarah Marcus

Cohort 2012–2013. When I decided in 2012 to attend Princeton for graduate school, the academic job market in English was already looking uncertain, to put it mildly, so I harbored no illusions of a guaranteed job waiting for me at the end of the process. But I had drafted my previous book, a history of the punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement (Girls to the Front, Harper Perennial, 2010), as an MFA thesis. So returning to grad school was, at first, a way for me to write another book, whatever career change it might or might not allow me to enact.

By the time I took my general exams, I was hooked on academia. If there was a way for me to nab one of the rare golden tickets into this profession, I wanted to do it. So alongside the rapturous researching and writing—and with the advice and support of faculty including Daphne Brooks, Diana Fuss, Bill Gleason, Joshua Kotin, Kinohi Nishikawa, Sarah Rivett, and Gayle Salamon—I also undertook some very practical projects. I submitted an article to an academic journal two years before going on the job market, which allowed me to go through multiple rounds of peer review before my piece came out in American Literature. In my final years of grad school and my first years after finishing, I organized conference sessions where I could workshop portions of my book-in-progress while building relationships with colleagues in the field. I became an editor at an academic journal. I continued to write occasionally for public venues, which was useful cross-training and also a lot of fun.

Perhaps most important, and most different from how previous generations of aspirant academics operated, I decided to start pursuing a publishing contract for my first academic book, an outgrowth of my dissertation. Traditionally, scholars weren’t expected to land a book contract until they had been in a tenure-track job for several years. But now this was becoming one way for candidates to stand out in an increasingly difficult market. I’d seen other junior scholars hopscotch between postdocs and short-term teaching appointments, only finding stability once they had one or more books in the pipeline. I had already published one book in my pre-PhD life, so I had some experience finishing a big project and shepherding it into the world, but the academic publishing industry was a different universe with unfamiliar expectations. I set out to navigate it as well as I could.

In my first year after grad school, while teaching at Notre Dame as a visiting assistant professor, I wrote a book proposal, met with editors at conferences, drafted a new introduction, revised several chapters, and began writing a new final chapter for the book. One year after graduating from Princeton, I sent around a book proposal and most of a draft. Six months after that, while on a postdoc at the University of Southern California, I signed a contract with Harvard University Press. Two months later, as academia and the rest of the world shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, I accepted a tenure-track job at Notre Dame, where I am now teaching as I work to complete my book, titled Political Disappointment: A Partial History.

If this all sounds calculated and a bit bloodless, allow me to assure you that there have been plenty of feelings, obstacles, doubts, and trade-offs along the way. But I had reached a point where I was either going to launch myself in the profession or leave it for good. Whatever happened, I wanted to give it my best shot.

Finally, need I mention that, in addition to everything else, I was lucky? Mere (“mere”!) dedication, hard work, achievement, talent, and so forth simply aren’t enough to secure an academic job for everybody who deserves one in the system as currently constituted. The stable jobs in academia are dwindling, the competition is intense, and outside factors often play a decisive role. Throughout this whole process, I kept reminding myself that I had very little control over whether I would ever get a job, but I could decide whether I would finish my book. No matter what the outcome, I was determined to complete the project. And focusing on that seems to have landed me a career in the academy—which means that my initial decision to go to Princeton in order to write a book, and possibly to become a professor, wasn’t so far-fetched after all.