How do I deal with a big mistake in my last job?
October 24, 2012 12:24 PM   Subscribe

I burned a bridge. Will I ever work in this (academic) town again?

I was a full-time adjunct faculty member at University A. It was my first time teaching, and according to my students' evaluations and my one observation by the assistant chair, I wasn't bad at it and I showed potential and enthusiasm.

After a year of doing this (for extremely low pay) I got a full-time job on the industry side of my subject matter. I took it and left on good terms.

EXCEPT! Around this time I was quietly coming to pieces with what was later diagnosed as anxiety disorder. I stopped opening my mail, answering my phone; I even stopped checking my email. As a result, I wound up leaving two students hanging when I left. They had earned changes to their final grades (one was a minor thing -- a C to a B, but the other was a big deal, an F to a D). And I just let it go. The students talked to the assistant chair, who tried to hunt me down, but couldn't.

Meanwhile, I was getting counseling, taking Xanax and Lexapro, and not telling anyone. I was slowly improving.

Eventually, I faced the music, but not in the best way possible. The assistant chair showed up at my new workplace. I was gobsmacked and started sweating immediately, but I handled the situation as best I could.

I invited him into the conference room, and I immediately began to flail myself for my shortcomings. I apologized and took responsibility for my actions. I offered no excuses.

He said something to the effect of, "You're not the first person to have a meltdown in the (XXX) Department. I'm not hear to heap more coals on you. Just what should I change (the students') grades to?" I told him what they should be and why. He thanked me, wished me luck, and left.

That was a year ago. In that time, i sent him an email explaining what I was going through at the time. I also told him that I would love another chance to teach (and, I implied but did not say explicitly, redeem myself). He never replied. And who could blame him?

Now: There is a full-time faculty job open at University B. On paper, I am well-qualified for it. My anxiety is well under control.

But there's the matter of my meltdown. I believe Assistant Department Chair is an honorable guy, but I wonder what he could possibly say if he was contacted by University B search committee?

It matters to me because I've been working a number of jobs for the last five years, all with the goal of getting a faculty position (I now have the academic credentials and the teaching experience and the publications...).

Am I sunk? What do I do?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What's the downside to applying? I mean, if you don't apply, you won't get it. The absolute worst thing that can happen if you DO apply is that, also, you won't get it.

If you're worried about references, I would ask them in advance - repeat what you wrote here about having diagnosed anxiety issues and that they are now under control. Your description of him is that he sounded pretty understanding about the whole thing, so it's worth a shot.
posted by modernnomad at 12:32 PM on October 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't think he can legally give you a bad reference, unless say, you ignored these students on purpose. You gave no excuses when you two met, and the correct grades were given so I think it is safe to say you are alright. :)
posted by Autumn89 at 12:58 PM on October 24, 2012

I don't think he can legally give you a bad reference

I've never really understood this but I've heard it from other sources here on Ask, as well as in real life. I think it's relevant to the discussion to ask for a cite or other information that tells why this may indeed be the case.

I don't mean to beat up on the OP who seems well aware [And who could blame him?] that a bad reference, or at the very least not good, may indeed be justified. I'm just saying that preparing for it might be in their best interest barring the whole "bad references are illegal" thing" (which may be completely valid and true, see question above).
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:09 PM on October 24, 2012

I don't think he can legally give you a bad reference

In the business world, previous employers can give you a bad reference, they just don't because they don't want to risk that you are some crazy who is going to sue them.

I don't know how references work in academia, but I would also assume that they can give you bad references if they want. The question is what their legal dept has to say.

Also, even if someone doesn't straight out say that they think you were a bad employee, there are tons of ways to imply it without coming out and saying anything directly.

You should probably just call him and ask if you can use him as a reference.
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:17 PM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

In academia, folks say all sorts of things they probably shouldn't on reference calls. If reference calls are actually made.

Do you have good letters of recommendation?

Are you planning on listing Assistant Department Chair as a reference? If you are not (and I don't think I would, given what you described), I would be surprised that the ADC would actually get a call from the search committee, although you never know what sort of back-channel discussions might happen. Honestly, I would avoid talking about the whole situation should you be called for an interview.

It's not clear what you have to lose in applying, but there are lots of applicants for few jobs, so the meltdown might have little to no impact on your not getting the job. But you don't get jobs if you don't apply.

(Of course, if you are really interested in working in academia, you might have to go work in some other town anyway. And then the potential for gossip is less.)
posted by leahwrenn at 1:37 PM on October 24, 2012

Companies can legally say whatever they want about you - it's just that if they lie about you to a future employer, you can sue them for slander. As a result, many HR departments at big companies have policies in place that prohibit your manager from saying anything about you other than to confirm that you worked there. It's not a legally-mandated rule; it's simply a smart business policy that limits liability so it's in widespread use. Smaller companies that don't have their act together and are less professional tend not to have such a policy, so you have to tread lighter there.

As far as this situation, it sounds like you really burned your bridges. Why would you ask for a reference from somebody you screwed over? That sounds like a ridiculously bad idea. Do you seriously think this guy (who doesn't even respect you enough to return your phone calls) is going to lie on your behalf? And all he has to do to ensure you won't get hired is to tell the truth, as you're well aware. Most people would even say he's a good person for doing so.

The bright side is that HR departments can sometimes get lazy and not vet you thoroughly enough, so I don't think getting a career in academia is a lost cause as long as you don't deliberately point them to this guy (while at the same time not lying either). Eventually you'll get offered a position where they haven't checked up on this, and by the time they do you'll already have established a good reputation and entrenched yourself too deeply (at least, if you know what's good for you) for them to do anything about it.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:47 PM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

While there are a lot of variables here at which we can guess, the bottom line is that there is zero upside to you deciding they'd never hire you - they are perfectly capable of making that decision themselves.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:32 PM on October 24, 2012

The bright side is that HR departments can sometimes get lazy and not vet you thoroughly enough, so I don't think getting a career in academia is a lost cause as long as you don't deliberately point them to this guy (while at the same time not lying either). Eventually you'll get offered a position where they haven't checked up on this, and by the time they do you'll already have established a good reputation and entrenched yourself too deeply (at least, if you know what's good for you) for them to do anything about it.

This is so not how Academia generally works. Most fields are actually pretty small when it comes down to it (even the large ones like history) and references count for a LOT. People often know each other and the reference checking is usually not done by the HR department, but by the hiring department.

To the OP: I am sorry but in this job market I think that this will be a real problem no matter what your discipline. You will need a reference from the last academic job you had - it will send up all sorts of red flags if you don't have it- and it sounds unlikely that they will give you one. And if they give you a reference all the writer has to do is mention this happened and your chances of employment will evaporate. You can try and head this off in your letter of application, but given the fact that even the worst jobs have a lot of applicants, I can't see you not being adversely affected by this. Now that might change if you have something awesome from your other work that you're now bringing to the table, of course, so if you're serious about this I'd start burnishing that in your applications.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:35 PM on October 24, 2012

Your reference doesn't even have to say anything bad about you. A lukewarm letter from an important reference (such as your first full-time adjuncting gig) will look very, very bad.

It is perfectly okay to contact the asst. chair and say, "I was thinking of applying to this opening at University B. [link to ad]. Do you think you'd be able to write me a strong letter of recommendation for this position?" (Note the word strong.)

They may say yes, they'd be happy to, in which case assume all is forgiven. If they're a real stand-up person and the answer is no, they'll say, no. More likely they'll say something weasely, like they will write you a letter if you really need a recommendation from them, but gee, it's been a while, and maybe you know someone else better suited to write...

If the result is less than enthusiastic, then probably you're not going to get a good letter, and maybe University B is not in the cards for you this time around. If so, you should be looking for another opportunity to adjuct, so that you can earn the sort of good reference you'll need for a faculty position.
posted by BrashTech at 3:35 PM on October 24, 2012

If you are relatively fresh out of the PhD, and this was a one-year adjunct job, I think you could just not give that chair as a referee. The new search committee are going to be more interested in references from your advisor and anyone else from during the PhD, especially if this is a research-focussed job rather than one where teaching is a big deal.

The only reason you might want to consider giving this guy as a referee is if you didn't have any teaching experience during your PhD and you want someone to be able to talk about your teaching. But I'm not sure you should list him even then.

Is there someone else from that department you could plausibly list who has some experience of your teaching ability (did you co-teach anything? did anyone have to do peer evaluation of your teaching? did you have a mentor?)? Because even if they saw you fall apart from the sidelines, they wouldn't have been personally as inconvenienced by it as it sounds like the chair was, so they are less likely to hold it against you.

Then if you decide you really do need a reference from this guy, it might be worth considering using the exact phrase "anxiety disorder" or even "disability" when discussing things with him. This might be enough to make him worry about discrimination and legal consequences if he dwells on your breakdown in his letter. (Although unfortunately academia is a small enough place that he might know the people from the new university personally and just have a private word in their ears.)

Finally, you should apply for the job no matter what. I have seen someone get a job despite a god-awful letter of reference from someone who hated her guts, simply because the people from the new university had a long-standing feud with that referee anyway, so they took her on on the assumption that the enemy of their enemy was their friend. Academia is so weird and bitchy that this might happen more often than you'd expect.
posted by lollusc at 4:02 PM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you really want this job, go for it - you may not get it, but you're not the one who should be making that decision on their behalf.
posted by heyjude at 4:12 PM on October 24, 2012

The assistant chair was quite gracious and very effective. Write him and tell him so, and thank him. Tell him that you have been in successful treatment for your health problems, and are considering another go at teaching. Ask him if he would be willing to talk to you, and if there's a time you could call him. Call him and ask him if he would be willing to give you a reference.

Your anxiety disorder is a real illness, and a disability. He's likely aware of that. You should talk to him by phone or in person to get a good sense of what he'd say, and also for him to get a sense that you're in good shape. You need to know if he'll be a reference or not, and he's already shown that he's unflappable and kind, so call him.
posted by theora55 at 4:35 PM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Very few people who work in academia are familiar with anxiety. Dont make any more drama about it.
posted by spitbull at 4:51 PM on October 24, 2012

Apply for the damn job.

Since you worked for a year as an adjunct, the search committee is going to expect a letter from someone there. This is not to say that there is no way you could land a job without such a letter, but your odds will be vastly better if there is someone at University A who will write a letter stating that you were a good teacher and colleague. Is there any such person?
posted by LarryC at 6:32 PM on October 24, 2012

Yes, I would say apply with a letter from someone else in the department. However, if the prospect of getting in touch with someone from University A causes you a lot of anxiety, consider whether a teaching-focused career is right for you.

I had a masters teacher who fell off the radar in bigger style than you. She left us with her email address and said she would be around during the holidays to help with our assignments, but never replied to any enquiries. She was also supposed to mark a major essay, but our submissions were left in her pigeon hole for six weeks before the department realised she never picked them up. She never submitted our scripts from a previous assignments for verification. It was a mess.

However, I was far more angry with the department. It was obvious to me that the teacher was suffering from a major anxiety disorder. It was upsetting to see that there was no back-up plan for this situation, and no one else in the department was qualified to teach or mark our work. Moreover, she was one of the best teachers I had, and I think that with proper care she could've been an asset to the university. The whole experience made me reassess whether I wanted a career in academia - especially as a young female prone to similar issues with perfectionism and imposter-syndrome.

Anyway, rant over. If you believe that your anxiety is dealt with, and you are a good teacher, then please do apply.

If you don't apply, then please know that having an anxiety disorder did not detract from the good teaching you did.
posted by dumdidumdum at 4:59 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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