Having recently graduated with a Ph.D. in English, I spent last fall and winter on the academic job market in pursuit of a tenure-track position teaching literature. I got a surprisingly healthy number of interviews, campus visits, and offers -- and, as a result, colleagues keep asking me what my "secret" was.
My response? I simply didn't care if I got an academic job. Of course, that's a complete lie. But my ambivalence about an academic career shaped my tenure as a graduate student in ways that appear to have made me a stronger applicant.
Here's what I learned on my job hunt:
Disregard Strategy and Do What You Love ...
I heard the literary scholar Jane Tompkins speak recently about graduate school, and she argued that in its drive to professionalize, graduate school terrifies students and divorces them from the joy that probably brought them to the profession in the first place. I agree that it's difficult to enjoy graduate school, but I think it's important to try.
I chose my dissertation topic -- audiences in Ireland -- because I thought it was fun, not because I suspected it might be in fashion when I applied for jobs. I chose to work with advisers I respected and trusted, even though they weren't obvious specialists in my field of interest. Making those choices was scary at the time, but I had to feel my project was my own to take any pleasure in it.
My greatest joy during graduate school came in an adjunct job I had teaching literature to adult learners at a small, suburban liberal-arts college. Of course, you don't have to teach to enjoy your job as a graduate student. I have peers who edit poetry journals, monitor electronic discussion lists, administer academic programs, tutor underprivileged kids.
Notably, experiences like these also enhance you professionally. For instance, by serving as a part-time faculty member at a college less competitive than my home institution, I expanded my sense of where I might enjoy working.
... but Be Strategic.
While you're ferreting out ways to enjoy your experience as a graduate student, you need to attend to the standards of your chosen field. Look around and see who's doing well on the market and ask for their C.V., their dissertation abstract, their advice. Virtually everyone will have a story that can benefit you.
For instance, one piece of advice I'll offer based on my experience is to try to pitch your research project toward a few different areas. One chapter on women won't land you a position directing the women's studies program at your dream college, but if you can demonstrate competence in different arenas, all the better.
I had a distinctly Irish dissertation, which made me ripe for Irish-studies positions. But I didn't want to preclude more generalist positions in 20th-century British literature, so I taught modern British literature surveys and published a paper on Wyndham Lewis to demonstrate to hiring committees that I could teach and produce research on topics outside of Ireland.
Define Your Own Measures of Success ...
As you pursue a graduate degree, think carefully about why you want it.
The bad news for most graduate students: There aren't many academic jobs out there, and even fewer that match the parameters you probably set for yourself before you chose to go to grad school. There are only so many research institutions, so many universities in urban centers, so many pretty liberal-arts colleges in quaint towns.
Ironically, you need to find motivations other than an academic job to complete your academic training. Part of what helped me finish was, ridiculously, the fact that I wanted to be "Dr. Reynolds."
I also suggest that, when you go on the market, you determine what you need to be satisfied in a job. I knew I had to be in (or very near) a city. My other arbitrary criteria included a nearby research library, faculty members who seemed happy, and a convenient Banana Republic store. I have other colleagues who thought about what they wanted, and were then happy to move to Turkey or to teach a 3-3-3 load for $34,000 -- things I couldn't imagine.
Point being, it doesn't matter how you define a "good" job, just make sure you are the one doing the defining. And remember, you can always change your mind.
... but Stay Abreast of the Market.
Know the standards for your field. Ask around because standards in academia change, rapidly.
When I arrived at graduate school, students could get tenure-track jobs with an unfinished dissertation or with no publications -- and even, sometimes, with both "strikes" against them. Now, it's virtually unheard of for a student to get a campus visit, if not a conference interview, without at least a publication or defended dissertation.
If I had stopped paying attention when I finished my oral exams, I wouldn't have known that I really, really needed both to have publications and a degree in hand to get a job.
Be a Professor Now ...
This is the best advice I have to offer. Teach a course -- or two or three -- each term to see how a full teaching load might feel. Volunteer for committee work in your department. Often departments want graduate-student representatives for admissions committees, for advising undergraduates, and even for faculty searches. Go to conferences. Publish an article or book review. Be a research assistant for a professor writing a book to see what that process looks like.
By acting like a professor, albeit an impoverished one, you can determine if you actually enjoy the job. Plus, teaching, research, and committee work strengthen your C.V. and allow you to regard yourself as an already practicing professional, both of which make you a more appealing candidate.
... but Make a Back-Up Plan.
By researching different professions and then applying for jobs while I was still in graduate school, I learned a tremendous amount about my value on the nonacademic job market. From exploring jobs with foundations in Chicago, for example, I learned that I could continue my interest in drama by working to support theater companies.
Oddly enough, those job-search skills earned me a position as a career counselor, advising graduate students on the academic and nonacademic job search. As a counselor, I create and teach programs, work with smart students, research interesting topics, and write texts -- fairly academic tasks.
I encourage everyone preparing for the academic market to take a few moments to explore their options: See your career counselor, read columns like those in the Career Network section of The Chronicle, check out books like those by Margaret Newhouse, look through magazines like Fast Company or Working Woman, spend time on Web sites like Idealist.org.
Once you realize that there are cool jobs out there, ones that probably pay better and let you choose to live where you want, it's easier to enter or to leave the professoriate with dignity and a feeling of self-worth.
I'd offer one final piece of advice, one that I won't qualify with a "but": Think hard about what skills you have, what activities you enjoy, and what you value. Then take a job, academic or not, that rewards those skills, provides those activities, and reflects those values.
The academic market, for all of its pleasures and privileges, is a market characterized by paucity. In the nonacademic realm, we're luckily in the midst of a labor crunch and a boom in information-based Internet jobs, both of which force employers to attend to those of us with previously "unmarketable" degrees.
This isn't a suggestion to abandon academia, but to be wary of it -- realizing your worth can only make you a stronger job candidate in any context.