Graduation letters: Jeffrey Auerbach


Illustration by Brandon Sarmiento

Jeffrey Auerbach

Jeffrey Auerbach, Ph.D., is the chair of the history department at the college of social and behavioral sciences. You can learn more about him here.

When I graduated from college, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: go straight to graduate school to get my Ph.D. in history and become a professor. I felt proud of what I had achieved in college and confident about my next step. What I did not know was that there would be challenges along the way, and that while I have ended up doing exactly what I thought I would do, there were lots of twists and turns on my path.

The first inflection point came midway through graduate school, after two years of coursework and then another year studying for my exams. I had written dozens of papers with almost no feedback from my professors and read hundreds of books in the library, often starting at 8 a.m. when the building opened and not finishing until 11 p.m. when it closed. I began to ask myself whether this was really what I wanted, and so, with support from my parents and several of my professors, I decided to take a year-long leave of absence to explore other possibilities.

I got a job at a local CD store to earn enough money to live on while I worked my way through “What Color Is Your Parachute,” the bible of job search guides, trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. I had always enjoyed playing Monopoly as a kid, so I interviewed for jobs on Wall Street. I liked problem-solving, so I pursued jobs in management consulting. But the closer I got to those positions, the more I realized that what I really loved was history. I wanted the life of the university, surrounded by other intellectuals and students. I was, at heart, a teacher and a thinker.

I also realized that what I valued was autonomy and flexibility. I could have earned a lot more money as a banker or consultant, but going to the office 60 hours a week, 5 days a week, in a suit and tie, was not for me. So, after a year of searching, I returned to my Ph.D. program with the confidence that this was what I really wanted to do and a determination to make it fun.

The second inflection point came after I received my Ph.D. and started to look for a tenure-track job. What I did not know was how long it would take or how competitive the process would be. Over the course of several years I sent out hundreds of letters and interviewed at dozens of schools in my quest for a good job in a good location. I turned down an offer from a small college in rural Georgia because I didn’t want to live in that part of the country, and then lucked into a one-year replacement position in Maryland before giving that up to drive across the country to be with my girlfriend in Southern California, having found a one-year position in Los Angeles that I hoped would convert to a permanent appointment.

It did not, so two more itinerant years followed: a few courses here and there, and a fellowship, but only heartbreak in my search for a tenure-track job, as I repeatedly made it to the final round only to see the offer go to someone else.

And so, four years after getting my Ph.D., I began to ask myself whether I would ever get an academic job or whether it was time to pull the plug and try something else. I thought about working for my mother, who ran her own executive search firm, but realized that would not be a good idea. I even thought about law school, though I had no desire to be a lawyer.

But I hung in there and kept applying for jobs, so many in fact that I could cover my office walls with rejection letters. I clung to the belief that if I kept working hard and did not give up, I would get there eventually. Finally, five years after getting my Ph.D., the Northridge job came through, and I have been teaching at CSUN ever since. I never thought I would end up at a large public university or in Los Angeles, but I am ecstatic to be able to do what I love in a great city.

Looking back, I would tell my 22-year-old self graduating from college that there will be twists and turns and moments of doubt and that’s ok. I would tell myself that it is ok to explore new possibilities and that doing so can help us clarify what we really want to do. I would tell myself to be prepared to send out hundreds of letters and emails in pursuit of my goal, but to keep at it, relentlessly. Above all, I would tell myself that what matters most is to do what you love. Life is too short to do otherwise.