Friday, September 28, 2007

Timing the Job Market: The “trial run” and the “gap year”

Over at Dean Dad’s is an interesting discussion about making a “trial run” on the job market. This person doesn’t say what discipline s/he is in, but for English literature jobs, the job “season” goes something like this: in the end of the summer, job candidates start preparing their materials. Jobs are posted throughout the fall, with the vast majority of searches doing interviews right after Christmas at the MLA convention. In Jan/Feb, schools fly out their top few candidates for a tour and extended interview, complete with giving a talk and possibly a teaching demonstration. Then the candidates wait anxiously, sometimes even a month or two, while schools debate their choices. There is then a second, less intense “season” in spring, which largely consists of visiting positions and community college jobs (the CC tenure track searches are like Australia to the universities’ Europe; the weather is off by a season. Readers are left to ponder on their own whether the analogy can be carried further.)

Now, this season is important when you start pondering timelines for finishing the dissertation. Dean Dad’s comment that at his previous school they simply chucked all the ABD applications matches up (depressingly) with anecdotal evidence I have heard elsewhere. Does this really mean that a candidate should have the PhD in hand at the start of this long job season, rather than finishing in spring and filing it with all the corrections in August? I’ll note that of the many job listings I have pulled of the JIL this year, almost all of them state “PhD in hand by start of appointment” and then list the appointment start date as August. Or September, if they do quarters. I only have one that states the PhD must be in hand at the time of application. Which means that either this pattern is not true or search committees are not being honest on their job descriptions.

I know people who have gotten jobs, then finished; I know people who have finished and then gotten jobs. Both kinds have come from my department, so it’s hard to tell definitively which way would be best. In fact, I have gotten vehement advice advocating for each way. If one goes on the market while ABD, getting a job is a wonderful incentive to finish up everything. In fact, this is the preferred method of our grads ---- and yes, you can write a chapter and a half between March when you get the job offer and June when you walk in the graduation ceremonies. And our profs do not allow people to run off to a new job without having completely revised and filed their dissertations, despite our frequent attempts to weasel away. (I hope the profs put this in our letters of recommendation, as we don’t do a dissertation defense. Those references to defense dates in Dean Dad’s post comments worry me.) The most important advantage of this route is that you go straight from one job to another, and you start a “real” salary before the student loans kick in. I know people who are pretty much finished, but didn’t get any jobs, so they are not filing and still trying to pick up TAships for this year to have health insurance and not pay back loans yet. “Don’t file!” They tell me. “Try to publish something rather than finish up the diss, and do another run next year.” This is probably fucking up our graduation and retention statistics, but hey, why give up the tenuous advantages of our grad school positions and no longer have access to the library or a university email account, just to be a Dr.?

Of course, the other side has the argument that any finished dissertation is superior to the best mostly-finished dissertation. Just push through and file, these advocates say. Then you can go on the market with the advantage of a completed PhD and work on publications to be stronger. Focusing on cranking out the diss by working as hard as possible is a lot easier when one is not also going on the market. And some of my cohort members tell me that the feeling of accomplishment is a wonderful ego-booster that really helps protect one during the frustrations of job hunting. However.

Think about the job market season again. If you walk in spring and file in August, you are perfectly placed to go on the market for fall. Except for the pesky details of paying rent and eating. And your student loans will start to come due with crushing force (and if you took out loans as an undergrad too? Those’ll be some big loans.) This is the “gap year,” which Dean Dad has in the past criticized but acknowledged as a regrettable necessity. My department doesn’t really have anything in place for our PhDs; there are sometimes some lectureship positions open but these are subject to the vicissitudes of profs’ sabbaticals and unstable funding. It’s possible to try and grab some composition adjuncting at the local community college, but it, too, sometimes fills up (with the “eternal grad students” who are out of funding from a variety of humanities departments) and there are no guarantees that it will have a job open when you need it. It also pays less than I currently make as a TA, with my loan deferments.

Furthermore, some of us have heard that schools want “newly minted” scholars rather than the penny with the shine worn off that adjuncts seem to be. Therefore we are wary of finishing and becoming locked into an adjunct trap where we are slowly suffocated on our loan payments and never actually get a tt job. I hear that Fancypants McPantserson U, my envy and arch nemesis, has set up a lectureship program where they guarantee all of their grads one year of post-defense teaching in their exact field, thus removing the desire to procrastinate endlessly in school while allowing them to build a couple courses in their area of expertise. I covet that for my grad program. (yessss, my precious!)

Ok, so that’s the gap year of my title. How the hell does this long post deal with the idea of a “trial run”? Well, my fellow grads are anxious. (me too.) The UC has been putting the screws to our teaching eligibility and slashing fellowship money, meanwhile being much more punitive against students who exceed the standard amount of time (when I first got here, we were all assured that it was no problem to take 10 years and that there were always comp sections to pick up once you ran out of “official” funding). And we see fellow grads go on the job market while ABD and pick up jobs. This combination of normative time pressure, lack of extended funding, and fear of being “tainted” as a permanent adjunct, has led us to go on our “trial run” of the job market earlier and earlier in our careers. My “trial run” last year, which I actually thought was a “real run” but didn’t get anything, was with three chapters under my belt. I’m late. Most of us are going out with two, sometimes “two,” meaning they have not been revised and accepted by their committees yet. In the last job meeting the Job Placement Advisor just kicked out a couple people with one chapter and one who has just defended the prospectus (“you can listen in,” he told them, “but you are not going out this year.”) More and more of us are worriedly saying we will “just apply to a few places this year” even though we have hardly anything done.

Thing is, going on the market is incredibly time consuming, frustrating, and emotionally draining. I bet it’s especially hard to write a dissertation abstract when you haven’t really gotten the chapter-writing format down quite yet. It is certainly difficult to sum up the “through-line” of your dissertation for your cover letter if you aren’t really sure what that through line is. (I still don’t know. It might not be there.) Plus there is a lot of running around, getting your letters in, copying, pulling together material, and general freaking out. And I can assure you that even if you aren’t the emotional drama type, not getting any interviews or not making any flybacks can be crushing. I was depressed all winter break last year. My friend took her rejections really personally as a sign that she was a fraud and not meant to be a professor, and was too depressed to work on her diss for several months afterwards. You could be using that time to actually make progress on your chapters and to prep stuff for publication ---- turning in chapters and sending off articles will pump up your confidence, while going on the market extremely early and not getting a job will only bring you down.

So, to conclude: hire me. Oh wait, that’s not it. Uh, no more of this “early hunting” and “trial run” business. To most effectively support their students, departments should discourage early job hunts and force grads to focus on writing their diss and publishing things instead. And have a guaranteed year of lectureship post-graduation to help them go on the market with the PhD and without the gap year. Now someone please put all this in place in time for me to benefit from it. Oh, wait.


heu mihi said...

Yeah. Or, well, there's the one-year VAP route, which might be ideal (if it weren't for having to move to Wherever, USA and teach Whatever 101). Since most of those jobs come up in the spring, it's possible to get a lot of work done in the fall/winter and then send out some applications once the diss is in good shape.

Personally, I am aggravated by the fact that so many people are going on the market with nary a chapter written, but are still (presumably) stating in their cover letters that they'll be finished by May. Okay, yes, this is selfish of me, but here's the thing: I *was* almost done last fall. I *knew* that I would be finished by May (in fact, I finished in February, though my defense was a little later). But (as I'm fond of telling myself) there was very little way for search committees to distinguish my "I will defend this spring" from the less-finished candidates' "I will defend this spring." Because presumably the very *fact* of all these unready trial-runners contributes to search committees' reluctance to consider ABD candidates, no?

Sisyphus said...

heu mihi, personally, VAPs and postdocs scare me. I'm not really a "get up and go" kind of person who strikes out on her own, so personality-wise, I'm tempted more by the "stay forever" choice than the "finish finish finish and travel" choice. This time I think I need to go for them, though. (eek!)

I wonder whether committees are ever fooled by those who haven't done much work yet. I think it shows in your writing if you're just blowing smoke. But then, _someone's_ getting these jobs and then getting tossed because they still haven't finished at their third-year review. Hmm.

Dr. Crazy and Dr. Medusa said...

Ok, so I got my job ABD. That said, here's how it went with my adviser. I wanted to go on the market the year before my first run. He told me no, that I wasn't ready. I went out the year that I finished. I thought I'd defend in April or May. He refused to let me defend in April or May in the early part of the new year, because, he said, who knew if I'd get any of those jobs that I'd interviewed for at MLA, and it would be better if I were on the market the next year to have a "fresher" defense date. (Big fight, tears, threatening to drop me as his advisee, big dramatic make-up followed.) And, he said, it was better to get it as close to a book as possible while I had time.

Well, it turned out I got one of those jobs from the MLA interviews. Defending in August didn't hurt me, and getting it closer to a book totally helped me, as the job that I got was with a 4/4 load with no pre-tenure sabbatical.

Yes, I probably could have successfully defended in the spring. But my advisor's advice was good advice in that it meant that I had more time and more feedback than I'd have had otherwise.

The "gap year" does suck, but I know people in my program who had like FOUR gap years (and I was in a very good program), so my best advice is to spend as much time as you can on the diss legitimately (and in consultation with your mentors) to polish it before going on the market. And when you go on the market, don't do it as a test run. Really go on the market, with the expectation that you will really be done if you get that job. This is especially important because if you do get an interview, you need to be able to talk precisely about your research, and you can't do that if you're not mostly done. (My first run I had a complete draft.) Otherwise, you're just creating more hassle in your life and postponing finishing, which ultimately is bad.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I can see your point, but on the other hand, I'm really grateful that I did go out on the market early-ish, when it wasn't a "this year will make or break your career" situation. (It wasn't precisely a "test run," in that I was prepared to get my act together and defend the dissertation in April if I absolutely had to, but I was far enough from finishing that I do think it was a fairly serious handicap on the market.) That said, I did get several first-round interviews, and although none of them led to campus visits, it gave me some valuable insight into how the process works and a chance to get a few of the rookie mistakes out of my system.

The second year, I defended in October but didn't file until spring. It seemed like the best solution at the time, since it allowed me to keep my teaching contract for the full year, but it came with its own set of pitfalls -- many committees refuse to believe you're really done until you have that piece of paper in your hand. (Right after I started my current job, the Dean called me at home to ask if I was really, really finished with the doctorate -- ten months after I defended, three months after graduation.)

Oh, and hear, hear about the visiting lecturerships. There need to be more of those.

Flavia said...

I think it's worth making sure that your advisor (and any other recommenders who may be on your committee or who are intimately familiar with your diss) SAY in their letters that you're really and truly close to being done.

Whether an institution will even consider an ABD candidate REALLY depends on the school, and as far as I can tell the nature of the institution (SLAC, comprehensive, R-1) doesn't much matter; what seems to matter most is that institution's prior history with candidates who arrived ABD and either did or did not finish the PhD in a timely manner. Unfortunately, though, the market is so tight that a lot of institutions just don't need to bother with candidates who are ABD. . . and so they don't. But sometimes what they say in their job ads is not what they do in practice, especially if your experience matches up with what they need, or if they like you personally.

The first year I went on the market, the dean of A&S at a school where I'd had an MLA interview called my advisor and basically wanted an iron-clad promise that I'd be done in May.

I don't know what my advisor told her (in fact, I finished in September), but the search wound up being cancelled for several reasons--one of them, though, was a split within the committee between a candidate or candidates who were done and one or more who were not. I later found out from Dean Lady (whom I know professionally) that the institution had been seriously burned in recent years by two or three ABD hires who just plain never finished, so they had more or less agreed never to hire ABDs again.

It's unfair to assume that all ABDs are alike. . . but at the same time, it's hard to blame an institution in that situation for being a little risk averse.

Tiruncula said...

I'd add to what everybody else has said that much can depend, on the school's side as well as the candidate's, on how many jobs there are in the field in question in a given year. I went on the market really early (one chapter done), for what I thought was a trial run, in an unprecedented/unequaled year in which there were FIFTY jobs in medieval, a good half of them in OE, and ended up getting a perfect-fit job for me. Yes, I almost became one of those never-finished-ers: I finished in the summer after my first year and defended a semester later, but I did finish. From what I've seen since in searches run by the SLAC that hired me, committees will definitely make judgment calls about how deep into the applicant pool to go depending on how much competition they anticipate, so in retrospect I think they gambled on interviewing and ultimately making an offer to me because there were so many jobs that year and they knew a small school was going to have to scramble for the candidate they wanted.

adjunct whore said...

i agree with dr. crazy/medusa--a gap year sucks but it is important. i went out early, got interviews, no job, but as you likely know the market sucks up so much mental energy that it drained my energy for work and set me back quite a bit. after that, i decided not to ever go on the market again until i was finished. it gave me the chance to really focus on my diss and to separate it from market forces. it seems like the only way to actually do good work. then, when you've digested everything, your candidacy is solid and you can speak with confidence about your project. my two cents.

Belle said...

I am so envious of this format; when I was going through the hell so well described, I had no pool of experience to draw on. My grad school cohort was so freaked by the lack of jobs that they'd hunkered down into a rather sheltered perpetual grad student existence, protected by mentoring faculty from losing their insurance and teaching basics.

I finished my diss in late November, had 50+ applications out (modern Europe being easier to find, apparently, than medieval) and had 5 interviews at the national convention. My advisors argued that I delay my defense until spring term to get that extra term of insurance coverage as a TF; during the interviews, though, I could honestly say the DD was done, I had a specific defense date set and my references could affirm all of that.

I'm no wunderkind; I was in my mid 40s and all/sundry had assured me that there were no full time, much less t-t jobs out there for people like me. They advised me not to take the one I did, as it was VAP. Turned out to be VAP with the likelihood to turn into t-t (which it did) and I'm still here. My grad school cohort? Well, only one got a full time job at last count; and he's on a renewable 3 yr contract. No tenure, no promotions, no security.

So hang in there. Lean on us. And best of luck.

BTW, I'd hire any of you. Except, of course, you're not in the field we need to hire....

kermitthefrog said...

Thanks to you and all the commenters for weighing in -- job hunting's still a couple years off for me, but it's instructive to hear the feedback.

In my department, many grad students are international, complicating the situation further: if they take a 'gap year' and don't end up with the kind of visiting lectureship you discuss, their visas expire and boom, they're out of the country.

The Constructivist said...

It strikes me that one thing to do with a gap year is begin turning the dissertation into a book manuscript and maybe even start submitting it to presses. A VAP would be great, too, so long as you're done and need to flesh out your teaching experience on your c.v. Adjuncting does run you the risk of being typecast and tracked, but if it's that or move back home, I'd choose the work--and with a book it is possible to get off the adjunct track if you're willing to move.

Personally, I finished the diss after I accepted a job offer on my third time out on the market. I've had colleagues who have finished during their first year, and it was hell for them.

Sisyphus said...

Ooh, I hadn't thought about international students, but yes, the typical advice will screw them. Hmm.

It's interesting how whenever I state "X is true" I get enough comments to the contrary that I (should) feel abashed that my advice is only partial and probably only works for me. Still, I think there's a _huge_ difference between going out with a chapter to go and with none or one written --- and I think my dept people agonize needlessly with the diss. abstract when they go out early --- of _course_ it kills you to write it! You barely know how your diss is going to turn out!

constructivist, I totally agree with your advice, except that it's not really specific on how I'm going to eat. But based on this and Crazy's advice I think I need to ponder timing and gaps more in light of preparing "the manuscript." Which kinda freaks me out even to type.

On the other hand, I was shocked at my last job placement meeting to hear that other advisors look at, and even sign off on, "drafty" drafts. My advisor won't even read it unless it is a polished final draft, then rips it to shreds, and then once she has basically no further comments on it I can show it to my other committee members. So I'm hoping that means the quality is high and the amount of revising for the final diss push will be little.

hermance said...

I just want to chime in as one of the ABDs who had about 3 chapters written when I want out on the market. I got 10 MLA nibbles, 2 campus interviews, and 2 job offers. My advisor did not want me to go out. Yet, my advisor also was not going to fund my "gap" year, and my program would not pay my tuition as part of my TAship any longer (this is after 6 total years, including MA). Then, once I got offered the jobs, my advisor wanted me not to defend until summer. We got in a huge fight. I did not want to pay summer tuition to continue working on the project when the rest of my committee would be away during their own research, which is what R1 faculty do during the summer. I promised that I would keep working on it, but I was sick of paying the school.

This is my second year at my 3-3 SLAC job. I have gotten another article under review since starting this job. I am on the market again trying to move to a more research-oriented environment, though I am content in my current position. I am still doggedly working on the manuscript and book proposal; it can be distressing.

I doubt anecdotal experiences should be the basis for advice, but I thought I would speak from the flip side of some of the experiences discussed here. Clearly, my overall project is not as developed as it would be had I waited to defend, and I definitely feel stress about having to do substantial work on two of my chapters. However, I have experienced such a boost of confidence and financial support since leaving graduate school that I feel much more able to do the work than I did two years ago. It has also been much easier to present myself as a more complete professional in my job materials during this season. Trust me, I realize that a lot of my situation is about luck, and I am very grateful. That said, I think grad students get a lot of advice from advisors who came through grad programs that provided much more support and longer timelines yet they expect their own students to follow their same route, without vociferously demanding that their departments, grad schools, and universities provide more grad student research support. In an ideal world, I would have loved to have had another year to work on my project, but my program didn't even give me one semester off from teaching in order to focus on it, which makes me skeptical of faculty advice about the mystical transformation that can happen to a project if one stays another year, semester, or--even more ludicrously--summer. If they don't help students find ways to support themselves, this advice is very difficult to follow. When peers from grad school ask me about "trial runs," I usually say that if you feel like you are ready and you can talk about the specific narrative arc (or "plot"), rather than just summarizing the idea of your project/chapters, and if you can discuss your methods and analysis in detail, then you should go for it, understanding that luck might help you get the job--but that you must make fiscal and emotional arrangements for Plan B. (Mine was continuing teaching comp classes at grad u.)