January 20 2018

Accepting the “Seligman Fellowship”

by Gail Labovitz, American Jewish University

Opening title screen of the film (2001) The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

The “Seligman Postdoctoral Fellowship in Judaic Studies” is very generous as academic fellowships go. It supplies full living expenses, including use of a large (multi-bedroom!) apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It includes health insurance and (very rare in a postdoc) a retirement plan. This coming week it even includes tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert, and I don’t know of any other postdoc that offers that. Moreover, the “Seligman Fellowship” will give me an opportunity to do the researching, writing, and publishing that will make me a more attractive candidate for academic jobs—most particularly, to do the necessary rewriting to make my dissertation publishable—without any teaching obligations. Finally, the “Seligman Fellowship” is highly exclusive. It’s never been offered before, and very likely will not be offered again. It’s only ever been offered to one candidate—me.

As you may have guessed, I’m married to Seligman.

Telling people I’ve accepted the “Seligman Fellowship” is a convenient and humorous way to answer the inevitable (and getting awfully irritating) question, “So what are you going to do now?” Thing is, I did go on the academic job market—albeit in a somewhat limited way—this past year as I was completing my dissertation in rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. To slightly misquote Simon and Garfunkel, “but I got no offers.” I didn’t even get an interview. Now, this is not a unique situation. Friends with PhDs from Ivy League universities taught religious school after receiving their doctorates. One then cobbled together a roundelay of adjunct positions in Boston just as her husband got a job offer too good to refuse in New York; after three years of a postdoc (in fairness, a very good one at a very good school) in New York, and three more seasons on the job market, she got one offer for a tenure-track position in a small, conservative, Midwestern city. Fortunately, one was enough, and after a year she seems to be enjoying her job very much (whether she—and her husband, the New Yorker—are enjoying living in the Midwest is a trickier question). Other friends have commuted from New York to Philadelphia to fill adjunct positions. (That’s an hour and twenty minutes station to station, by the way, if you take Amtrak. New Jersey Transit and Septa are much cheaper, but longer, and you have to switch in Trenton.) And so on. At least one friend with a PhD is in rabbinical school now.

It is hard not to find my situation discouraging. Despite the evidence of numerous friends’ torturous roads to academic careers, I somehow expected things to fall into place once I received my doctorate. I looked forward to finally be contributing to my family’s budget in a meaningful way (what a graduate student gets paid for teaching a class each semester is not meaningful). In a society that judges career choice by job remuneration and social acceptability by commitment to productive labor, announcing my acceptance of the “Seligman Fellowship” can sound like little more than a humorous way to say I’m unemployed.

I reassure myself with the belief that there are two main reasons for my current (lack of) job situation, neither related to my abilities. The first is that I hadn’t actually finished my degree when hiring season was in full swing. You can promise a prospective employer up, down, and sideways that you’ll be done by the time you arrive on the doorstep, but someone who has actually finished will always be the better bet. In fact, so close to the deadline did I finish (I turned in my thesis on the last possible day for defense in the spring semester), that one interview, one campus visit, might actually have been the difference between being called “Dr.” now and waiting until October. Academic friends and acquaintances assure me that things are likely to be different now that I have the PhD in hand. Unfortunately, these friends are mostly the ones whose careers I’ve described above.

And then there’s the “Seligman Foundation.” The “Seligman Foundation” finances the housing and other benefits of the fellowship through partnership in the real estate department of a large law firm. Real estate work of the type practiced by the chief donor to the “Seligman Foundation” is not done everywhere; it tends to center in major urban areas. Small, conservative, Midwestern cities won’t cut it. Also on the board of the Foundation are two junior Seligmans, who attend a nearby Jewish day school where they are receiving an excellent education and having their social and emotional needs well met.  Thus, last year I restricted my search to an area around New York City of about 100 miles, and will most likely do the same in the coming year.  Last year, there was one tenure-track position for my subspecialty of Judaic studies offered within my set radius, and several postdocs for scholars in any field of the humanities. In one case, about 600 people applied for the twenty or so fellowship positions being offered.

We all know about the ongoing employment crisis in academia. I’ve given way too much time to considering—and despairing over—what else a person with a PhD in Jewish literature of Late Antiquity, feminist commitments, and even rabbinic ordination (but neither the interest nor the temperament to lead a congregation) might do with the rest her life. I’m an INFP, if anyone wants to offer any suggestions. There’s a wonderful children’s bookstore around the corner and up the block from us, and if they put a help-wanted sign up in their window again, I might be sorely tempted…

So, accepting the “Seligman Fellowship,” despite the limits (mostly geographic) it has put on my job search, is, paradoxically, also a statement of faith in academia—and myself. It is a statement that I will give the terrible, soul-scorching academic marketplace a chance to see how wonderful an addition I would be to someone’s faculty, or how much great scholarship I could produce with the right postdoc. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the opportunity I’ve been given. I’m going to grit my teeth, be as dedicated and productive as possible, and do my best to justify the Seligman Foundation’s ongoing faith in me.

Gail Labovitz completed her PhD in Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2002. She is now an associate professor of rabbinics at the American Jewish University in Bel Air, California, and the author of Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature (Lexington Books, 2009).