Down and Dirty Details

I wrote yesterday about the experiences of folks in academia who have a PhD and do not immediately (or ever) find a full-time position in the academy.

I wrote about my experience and how it outweighs my recommendations to avoid a PhD as if it were a mosquito carrying malaria and West Nile virus.

However, I didn’t give anyone the down and dirty details. I summed it up quite quickly. So, that didn’t hurt too much, right?

You read it and decided to go get a PhD anyway, didn’t you?

Maybe you should stop and read something else. Here’s my newest recommendation.

A way too detailed look at my own job search process:
If you want to see what my job search process was like (overall), just click on the “Job Searching” category on the right hand side of the page. You can read 156 posts on the topic. There are more. I took notes on the colleges and universities and was a bit too frank, so those are private. But those 156 posts represent several years’ worth of pain, anguish, hard work, and success (and failures).

Maybe I should assign them as reading for the grad students in my classes?

If that’s insufficient, perhaps I could assign them the entirety of PhDComics?

To Hope or Not to Hope… Is that a question at all?

“Earning the PhD and a False Sense of Hope: My Experiences (So Far) in this Racket Called Academia” is Dr. Kelli Marshall’s discussion of her academic educational and career experience.

I do not think that what she has gone through is unusual.

I am afraid that it is going to become more common than it is already.

To sum up her situation:
Dr. Marshall received a PhD in what most people thought was a relatively marketable humanities area. (“Groundbreaking” one of my friend’s in a very closely allied area’s T&P outside letter said.) She had far more experience teaching than her cohort. She has publications. She took a VAP. Her husband left a good position for her move. She lived on unemployment.  After several years, her husband has a full-time position again and she is an adjunct–in line to become a long-term adjunct (which I can say from personal experience does NOT sell well) and concerned because of recent postings requiring a PhD received within timeframe.

Then she saw some job postings that specifically precluded her from even applying because they carefully requested a degree gained within the last three years.

Reactions to that information among academics was strong, as you would expect.

Sell-by date for PhD degree problem:
Inside Higher Ed’s Restricted Entry says: “‘We were told to ride out the storm, but it seems we were lied to,’ he said. “Everyone knows that there is this bias against lecturers and adjuncts. This ad codifies it. It is brazen enough to just put it out there.”’

A blog post, Old PhDs Need Not Apply, says: “ I find the language to be astonishingly dismissive of the reality of the humanities job market. As Eduard Gans states below, there are any number of reasons (besides already being in a tenure track job for 3 years) why someone might be 3 years or more out from their degree, completely qualified (eh hem), and looking for work.”

Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette writes in her Inside Higher Ed blog post on the topic:

I think many, many long-time (heck, even short-time) adjuncts and non-tt faculty’s hearts sank when we read, in plain language, what we had long suspected and feared (reading the comments on this blog didn’t help, either): we are not what departments are looking for. We have priced ourselves out of a job (or aged ourselves out of a job. Or we’ve past our “sell by” date. Whatever.).  There is a sick irony to being the lowest-paid people on campus and then being told we don’t qualify for a job because we’re too “expensive.” This is the paradox of higher education today.

My experience with the job search process:
I worked on my PhD in the “glory” days of English in higher education. I called my alma mater from my PhD university and asked for a full-time position, which request was granted in less than a day. I moved home to full-time work with the written guarantee of a raise and a tenure-track position as soon as I was no longer ABD.

Instead of working like a maniac on my dissertation, I had babies and became a stay-at-home mother. I had no expectation that getting back into the job market would be difficult–after all it hadn’t been hard to get into it.

Then, finally, after three moves and a number of years, I finished my dissertation–just barely within the 12-year time limit allowed by the granting university.

I voluntarily worked part-time as an adjunct for six years. I was still homeschooling my sons and did not want full-time work.

Then, when I stuck my toe in the job application process when a great job opened up where I was adjuncting, I discovered that long-term adjunct work was a problem. I also discovered (as I probably should have known) that I needed research–conference presentations and publications–to get hired.

So, I began working as a full-time adjunct and pumping up my research.

In two years (April 2008-August 2010), I:
taught 20 classes
had 15 articles or chapters accepted and published
presented 22 papers at regional and national conferences

I was able to do this only because my family was also completely committed to my having a career in my field (and willing to do without my full participation for a while) and my husband’s job paid sufficiently that we could fund 22 conferences.

My abnormal experience:
In August of 2010 I applied for two positions.

In August of 2010 I received an offer of employment in one of those positions (a non-tenure track but relatively stable long-term assignment in a system without tenure).

Then in April of 2011 I received an offer of employment in the other of those positions (a tenure-track position that looked relatively stable as well).

I accepted both.

I loved the community college I worked at and in many ways wish I were still there. But the political situation and my experience with non-tenure track faculty being booted out (at another, private institution) led me to believe that the tenure-track position was more likely to remain stable–and it was at my alma mater, my home institution, and thus was the job I had always wanted to have, whenever I finished my mothering duties.

So I, of all people, know that there is hope. I did all the “wrong” things and I not only received one full-time, long-term job offer at a school that I miss with colleagues who were amazing, I also received a second tenure-track offer at another good school with great colleagues (some of whom were already my friends).

And my take on the question of getting a PhD:
Despite the fact that I got the job(s), despite the fact that I teach graduate students, I would NOT recommend that anyone who needs a salary get their PhD in my field.

I have tried to discourage the up-and-coming PhD candidates to stop and think and do something else.

My experience with recommending against PhDs:
The students don’t listen to me. They know I received a full-time, tenure-track position and so they are sure that they will as well. I’m not “special.” I’m not a “superstar.” They know that. And they fully intend to be a superstar.

So, in a way, my own experience is counterbalancing (and overbalancing) my advice.

In a way, that is to be expected. These students are professional students. They love and admire their professors and want to be just like them. Their passion is for becoming a professor in their field. Why would a little salt on a wound that has not yet appeared hurt them? It doesn’t.

And what about those who are writing about the issue of PhDs and no jobs… At least two of the people cited above are still working in the fields they love BECAUSE they love it, DESPITE the knowledge that it is unlikely they will receive a tenure-track offer. They are recommending you don’t get a PhD either, but their lives ALSO tell you that it is worth it.

Sometimes our actions speak so loudly no one can hear our words.

Rules of the Academic CV

I knew most of Dr. Karen’s Rules before I read her post. Some of the advice I don’t like, but I’m not sure it is wrong. In fact, I am sure it is most likely correct. In a time when job searches are scary and often end without offers (or sometimes even interviews), it pays to make sure every jot and tittle is done right.

Because of that, I recommend reading the post. (Which has been updated to respond to things left out that were mentioned in the comments.)

Specializations

Long-time readers know that I wear many hats: rhetorician, composition specialist, early Brit lit expert, pop culture guru, etc. It’s been a problem, as I have mentioned in Too Far Afield?

I finally decided to explain the multiplicity of interests as my being an instructor of writing and reading, in all its many forms. But that doesn’t really completely cover what I do.

For instance, there is little that the average academic would recognize as new media experience in the traditional instruction of reading and writing. Yet, I have presented and assigned communicative works of art that are not necessarily paper and ink essays and yet present the same, similar, or even better information. That isn’t part of that identification either.

College Ready Writing author Dr. Lee Skallerup has been dealing with those same issues. And she has made a decision, a life-changing decision, an ENORMOUS decision, just last Thursday.

Dr. Skallerup has decided to become (even more than she already is) a digital humanities specialist. Such a thing might (will, I hope) subsume all the other work she does under one umbrella and allow her to be as diverse as she and her students need while remaining specialized in a sense that academics would recognize, even if it is in a field most of them do not understand.

Pick a Project

I was thinking of this in terms of graduate students particularly, but if you are looking for a job, you may need to do this too. Or if you are one of those people who dithers around thinking of all you could work on but never working on anything, you could use this too.

From Robert’s Rules of Writing by Robert Masello, rule number 96:

[O]nce you do make a decision, and pick one project and stick to it, you’ll notice something strange happens.

You become a virtual magnet for related information and ideas. Suddenly, you will start discovering, all around you, all sorts of juicy tidbits–observations, quotes, statistics, stories–that directly relate to, and nicely amplify, the project you are working on. You’ll stop at a yard sale and find an old book, for fifty cents, which provides great background research…. You’ll open the morning paper and come across a piece in the science section that neatly explains a rather arcane bit of business….

The more you focus in on one piece of work, the more attuned you are to everything around you that might help. And there’s a lot.

While I found this more true about my novel than my research, which would match up with his “nonfiction tome,” it is something that students need to be told so that they will
1. choose a topic and
2. start seeing what floats to the top around them.

The best line, and its explanation, comes immediately following the quote above.

Writers are scavengers–we find all kinds of odds and ends and either paste them into what we’re working on, or into notebooks for later use.

What Do TT Profs Talk About?

Karen Kelsky wrote about How to Talk Like a Professor in her article Dissertation Limits

Here is a partial list: They talk about journal articles and the frustrations of long journal response times. They talk about conferences and the frustrations of getting the paper done in time. They talk about grants and the frustrations of institutional review boards. They talk about teaching and the frustrations of apathetic students. They talk about graduate students and the frustrations of inadequate TA funding. They talk about their large courses and the frustrations of dealing with the dean. They talk about parking and the frustrations of the football program.

Dissertation: Not All That

Inside Higher Ed has Karen Kelsky’s article Dissertation Limits, which is an excellent work for graduate students to read.

Here are some points that I felt especially poignant/relevant/fascinating.

The heart of her argument:

What young scholars don’t realize is that the more they talk about the dissertation, the worse they do on the job market. …

The fact is, nobody wants to hear about your dissertation.

Yes, they want to know that you wrote one. …

Beyond that, they don’t want to hear about it.

So what do they mean when they say, tell us about your dissertation?

What a dissertation does is bring about tangible and visible results in the world. What are these results, you ask? Here is a partial list:

It intervenes in major debates in the field.
It generates important peer-reviewed publications
It qualifies for large and prestigious grants and awards.
It provokes dynamic discussion at symposiums and conferences.
It transforms efficiently into a book, preferably at an influential press.
It inspires interesting and unconventional classroom teaching.
It catalyzes an original second major project.
The dissertation does the very things that faculty like to talk about — publications, grants, contracts, teaching, and new research.

Until you transform your dissertation bladdedy-blah into short, pithy, punchy statements about refereed journal articles, book plans, conference papers, prestigious grants and fellowships, innovative teaching and new research, and learn how to express all of these in a dynamic (not static), dialogic (not monologic), symmetrical (not hierarchical) manner to your would-be future colleagues, you are dooming yourself to fail, forever, on the academic job market.

Fascinating idea.

And, I think, very true. Especially in its reference to the guilt graduate advisors feel while dealing with the stress of the 500 applicants for their single position.

I don’t think I ever talked about my dissertation until after I’d been hired. The reason for that is that it is done, was done, has been done and I’m on to the things that make a colleague. So the dissertation talk isn’t why it took me three years to get a full-time job. But I can see that it might be a problem for newly minted PhDs who have just spent two to six years of their lives on it.

Be Careful What You Post on Facebook

Several years ago, when I joined Facebook, I friended old friends and colleagues. One of those was a friend who was also the chair at a college I knew well.

As I was looking for a position in my city, I would post on fb whenever I had an interview. I would ask for prayers, encouragement, good vibes, blessings, whatever positive things could be sent my way.

I was very encouraged by my job search because I was getting interviews and second interviews in positions which had hundreds of candidates.

When a job came up at the college of my fb friend, I applied. I was not even considered for the position. The reason? My friend/chair said, “If she can’t get a job when she’s been a finalist twelve times in Big City, there must be something wrong with her.”

Why did she think that? Her college had 5 applicants for the position they advertised. She assumed, very wrongly, that all colleges and universities were receiving about the same number of applicants for positions. Imagine if I was one of a pot of 48 people for 12 different jobs and never got one. That would not say great things about me, or it would say REALLY great things about at least 12 of the other people.

Thankfully she was speaking with another friend and that friend had job searched in Big City for five years, before she went to work at the college with my friend/chair. She explained to friend/chair that the jobs I was applying for had 250+ and that my having made it to the finalists 12x was a BIG deal.

I did finally get a ft position in Big City. But it was very painful to know that my friend had used my fb posts against me.

Be careful what you post on facebook. The context is not always as clear as you think it is.

Here is a model of discourse analysis on Facebook that was presented by Kate Retzinger:

Examining the Job Postings

Escape the Ivory Tower makes a recommendation that I require for my business writing students, but one which I think would be particularly useful in an English majors capstone course: “one of the best ways to explore your options is to actually go out and scan job boards, company job postings, and anywhere else you see jobs listed.”

Why is this necessary? It is necessary for us as professors.

Because we live in a world of strict credentialing and clear pathing, we don’t see the various serendipitous ways that people get and become qualified for jobs. We don’t see the ways jobs are more about skills and fit than they are about degrees.

But outside of academia, jobs are being invented daily that don’t have paths or credentials, because the jobs themselves didn’t even exist yesterday. But something changed and now we need someone to do this particular set of things. Voila – job.

And think. Our students have been students for twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen years. They know little else. Sending them to the job postings is a good way to get them thinking about how they are going to make a living.

Most people don’t have a husband supporting them while they work full-time for part-time pay and spend over half a year’s ft salary going to conferences in order to get a full-time position. (I did. But most people don’t.)