From ABD to the Job Market: Advice for the Grad School Endgame
1. If you trust your advisor, ask him bluntly about the thesis committee the two of you envision–make sure there isn’t someone on it that can be pointlessly difficult, slimy or ornery. Check to see if there is someone that needs to be given a particular nod or intellectual hook in order to happily sign off on a dissertation.
2. Give as many conference presentations as you possibly can in the two years that follow your return to the US, during your write-up and post-defense as well. BUT. Do not liberally distribute your conference papers. Hem and haw politely when you’re asked for one, especially by someone you don’t know. Say you still want to revise it, or you don’t feel it is ready for circulation. This may actually be true–it often is in my case: I frankly always feel terribly tentative after every talk and presentation and just don’t want to share what I wrote until I’m sure it’s worth circulating.) The only time you should give out papers is if:
You’re required to.
You’re honestly hoping for comments from someone you’re seriously interested in getting comments from.
You’re trying to impress or ingratiate yourself with a senior person in your field who has a good reputation.
You’re honestly very happy with the paper but don’t intend to publish it in any form: the conference paper is its terminal state.
You can afford to make lots of photocopies. It can add up pretty quickly if you’re passing out lots of papers and you’re the one paying for the photocopies of them.
The reason for this is that there are a very small but irritating coterie of academics who collect vast numbers of papers from Ph.D candidates engaged in their write-up who then artfully (so that it’s not an overt instance of plagiarism) rip-off aspects of the doctoral students–research or arguments, knowing that it’s hard to prove when it’s from a dissertation that hasn’t yet appeared in any kind of published form.
3. Form connections outside of your department and institution if you can, any way possible. Serve on a committee; introduce yourself to significant figures in your field; go to workshops and conferences and make a (polite) nuisance of yourself during the question phase of a panel that includes someone you want to meet; inveigle dinner invitations at conferences. Participate in listservs or other online fora. ANYTHING. It’s really important to network in this way, both with other graduate students at other institutions who are in your field and with senior figures in your field at other institutions.
4. Watch for postdocs that will be open the year after you have your Ph.D in hand. This is the best way to develop a full social and intellectual network and get teaching experience while also having the time to prepare your dissertation as a manuscript.
5. Do not be a perfectionist with your dissertation. Write the sucker and damn the torpedoes. Just make sure it’s good enough for your committee. If you *can* write it in such a way that it will require little work to make into a publishable book, do it. For example, make the opening and inevitable “literature review” as modular as possible and plan to just rip the entire thing out of the book manuscript. If you embed your review of the relevant scholarship inside your analysis, that may be more artful for the dissertation, but it’s more of a pain in the context of the manuscript, unless it??s really artful and worth keeping even in the book.
6. Submit your dissertation as quickly as you can for publication. Don’t screw around. Unless it really is a serious mess, or a hideous, soul-destroying bore, you might as well seek a publisher quickly. Because if you spend five years revising and revising until it is absolutely perfect, and then submit it, I promise you that the peer reviewers are going to demand changes anyway. It could be utter perfection–you could be Jonathan Spence or Ferdnand Braudel–and peer reviewers are still going to ask for revisions. So don’t spend too long writing and don’t spend too long revising.
7. Apply for some jobs, but not too many, in the academic year during the (projected) completion of your write-up. Apply only for the jobs you’d really like to have. Don’t pull out all the stops in terms of trying to get those jobs–don’t cash in all your patronage chips. The likelihood is that you’ll be thrown out of the competitive pool for almost all of those jobs on the grounds that you’re not finished, particularly if you don’t have teaching experience beyond TA’ing a course or two. But hopefully you’ll get some screening interviews and possibly even an on-campus interview. This is really valuable experience for the following year, when you should be seriously competitive, when you need to do everything you can to land a job.
8. Think carefully before applying for a job at an institution that you REALLY don’t want to be at. Academics can’t afford to be picky, but here’s the brutal facts of life in your early career: if you get a job that pays poorly or has a heavy teaching load or some other undesirable features at an institution you don’t care for, the clock will be ticking immediately on your long-term prospects. You will need to get another job within four years or so or you might be in risk of getting tenure at that institution. If you get tenure at a place you don’t like in a bad job situation, you may be there for life–the only way out at that point is to publish a crapload of stuff in your field and schmooze like mad on the conference circuit so that you establish a reputation that can survive the negative impact of the institutional snobbery and hierarchy that consumes the world of higher education. Keep in mind that being at a place with a bad job situation, e.g., heavy teaching load and few if any sabbaticals, will make it extremely hard to do what you need to do in order to get out. On the other hand, also keep in mind that the more competitive you are, the less interested such institutions are in you–partly because they know the facts as I’ve just laid them out, and they know that if they hire you, you’ll either be applying for other jobs ten minutes later or you’ll get stuck there and be a hateful grumpus about it for the rest of your life.
9. On the other hand, give up all hope that you will be able to live in a community or place that you have a preference for. Your life is now a complete crapshoot as far as that goes. When a decent job comes up, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Alabama or Alaska, Newark or Tuscaloosa: you have to apply for it and take it if you get it. If you have a significant other, be sure they understand this. If you have a significant other who is also an academic, get ready for some serious pain in the next six to seven years: the likelihood is that one of the two of you is going to find your career on the backburner. In this one case, you may want to limit yourselves (both of you) to applying for jobs in areas that are dense in colleges and universities.
10. Take care in preparing your dossier. A missing letter can kill you. A letter from someone who doesn’t really know you can hurt you: because most letters of recommendation are unbelievably hyperbolic, even slightly moderate or cursory praise tends to get picked up as “suspicious”. (This is not true for letters of reference in general, just for letters for graduate students for academic jobs or grants). Make sure you don’t make your c.v. too long or too short. Don’t put too much of your written material in–in fact, I wouldn’t send a writing sample unless the job application specifically requests it. You’ll get asked later on if they want to see some of your work. (Exception: if you have off-prints of a journal article you’ve already published, put one in the packet for the competitive jobs you’d really like to land.) Do describe the basic argument and “hook” of your main research project in your cover letter, but keep it short and sexy. Have several trusted friends and advisors, including at least one non-academic, read your cover letters: specifically ask them to have their bullshit radar turned on. I’ve read cover letters that have badly hurt candidates, where they come off either as terribly insecure, impossibly perfunctory or as supercilious, arrogant assholes. Hell, I’ve probably written cover letters like that.
11. Read job ads carefully, and if it’s a job you really want, call in your network of spies to gain more information on what the department in question is like. Write a custom version of your cover letter with that in mind, but do NOT set out to deceive people or bluff in some fashion. There’s a particular odor about a candidate who is playacting a role with the intent of pleasing people. You’ll get further on the market if you’re honest without being stupid. Don’t go out of your way to wave a red flag at a department or person who is interviewing you, but don’t try to be an amateur Kremlinologist either. Most of the time you’ll be wrong, and even when you’re right, it probably doesn’t help that much.
12. Keep in mind two things. First, the psychic toll of the academic job market is extremely intense. It’s highly seasonal (August-December is the season of intense activity and high hopes; January-March is where your life either comes together or falls apart; March-July is a desperate hunt for something to keep you going next year if you didn’t get the job you wanted or any job at all) and then it starts all over again. You will want to give up even after just one spin of the wheel. Don??t. Second, don’t forget that the previous advice notwithstanding, 9 times out of 10 if you didn’t get a job that you wanted and got close to (say, on-campus interview close) it probably has nothing to do with you or your qualifications, or your performance in interviews. In fact, notoriously, in many searches, the best candidate doesn’t get the job, because two or more factions in a department disagree so doggedly and are so afraid of changing the balance of power between them, they end up picking a safe mediocrity as a compromise.
13. Do your best to get something in print during the year you’re doing your write-up. Though normally I hate this, you should send off the best chapter from your dissertation in progress, the one that stands best alone but also shows off your work to best effect. Pick a journal that is well-regarded in your field but one that you have a reasonable shot at getting published in as an ABD.
14. If you get a chance to adjunct a single course at a somewhat decent university or college besides your own, do so during the year you’re writing up. Do NOT adjunct more than one course, because that will slow the pace of your writing. Do NOT plan to have adjuncting actually provide you a reasonable living wage: the pay and benefits suck. If you have a significant other to support you through your writing-up, you’re in good shape. If you don’t, find one. Or be really nice to your parents or your weird uncle Jake who is going to die any day now. The ability to claim teaching experience helps a lot on the market. After the dissertation is done, if you do not have a full-time post, take any adjunct opportunities that present themselves, whether it’s a single course or a three-year full-time contract.
15. Sketch out some sample syllabi–a survey in your main field and a couple of topical classes, maybe one fairly meat-and-potatoes and two sexy dream courses. Don’t include these syllabi unless you’re asked for them, but it will help a tremendous amount in interviews to be talking about specific pedagogical plans and teaching aspirations. Don’t get too dreamy or goofy in your enthusiasm for teaching if you’re interviewing for a research university position, though.
16. ‘Cold’ cover letters make sense only when they’re sent to institutions in your immediate geographical area, wherever you’re living, that might have a need for adjuncts, and even then I’d say only less selective institutions. Probably more useful is making sure that the specialists in your field at local institutions know you’re around, and the best way to do that is informal–if you were living in Chicago, for example, I would go to workshops, seminars and lectures at U Chicago , Northwestern, U. of Illinois and gradually let it be known that you’re around. When department chairs are trying to fill a hole or spend some extra money for replacements, they usually don’t open up the file full of cold cover letters, most of which come from burn-outs, cranks and the truly desperate, they call up their colleagues in the field they’re trying to fill and ask if they know of anyone living in the area. Make sure your advisors and your department chair in your graduate program know where you are if you’re no longer in their area, and make sure they know if you’re in serious need of a job, any job.