Thursday, July 12, 2007


Ask the Administrator: The Trial Run

A new correspondent writes:

I'm currently ABD in an English Department at an R1 school, working on my dissertation and hoping to defend in December 2008 (but no later than Spring 2009). I'm working on my first chapter now, but I've actually been working with my dissertation ideas for several years because I stumbled upon the project in my first year of PhD coursework. It turned out to be an area that relatively few have studied, and my advisor tells me that it has great potential to be published when the time comes. I will have my first chapter (a.k.a. writing sample)finished and revised, and I'll be working on my next chapter by the end of this Fall semester.

I've been thinking about taking a "trial run" at the job market this year if something is open that would make a really great fit for my family (husband is ABD in history, and we have two children) and I. My husband and I have agreed that we will not even look at post-docs or visiting positions; it's tenure track or bust. My primary field is a fairly decent commodity right now, and my advisor has a 100% placement rating (in addition to being widely known in the area of study). She hasn't directed me against taking a stab at the market, but a few other faculty have, indicating that the market is so bleak, hiring committees are rarely looking at ABDs. I've got a great work ethic, I always make my deadlines, and I actually *like* researching and writing my dissertation, so I have no fear that I'll be finished on time. If I got a position for the 08-09 academic year, I'd probably only have one chapter (plus revisions) left to complete when I started the job, and I'm confident that that's feasible. But what do I know? Do you have any advice on people taking a "trial run" at the market? In your experience, does it disadvantage a person once they've actually finished the dissertation if they've previously had a run at the market with no luck? Or more plainly, can taking a "trial run" hurt anything? Any tips you or your readers have would be most appreciated!

This certainly brings back memories.

Back at Dear Old Grad U, grad student funding was allocated on the assumption that everybody got a job while ABD, so the year in which you finished the dissertation was typically unfunded. Of course, by that point, nobody got jobs at all, so people sort of dropped off a cliff just when they were about to finish. As 'structural flaws' go, it was a pretty bad one. I don't know if they've bothered to correct it in the decade since I finished, but I'm guessing not.

In the searches at Proprietary U, ABD status was regarded with some suspicion. There was a history of applicants claiming to be this close, then taking years to actually seal the deal, if they ever did. After you've been burned that way a few times, you start looking askance at every ABD candidate. (To be fair, I think sometimes the candidates themselves were surprised at how long it took them to finish, esp. with a full-time teaching load. I'm thinking it was one part lying, one part naivete.)

At my cc, though, ABD status isn't a problem. The doctorate is nice to have, but it isn't a position requirement (except for administration).

Either way, though, I've never heard of a penalty for having been on the market before. As long as your letters and application are up-to-date, I don't see the harm in it (other than the opportunity cost of the time and effort each application takes). Depending on your field and a host of other variables, you may or may not stand a very good chance as an ABD, but if it doesn't work this time around, I don't see why you'd be any weaker next year. If anything, it may be useful to make those rookie mistakes when it isn't crucial yet, only so you can be that much more polished when it really matters, if it comes to that.

I'm intrigued by the “tenure track or bust.” There's something admirable in that. My cc actually has the same philosophy – other than last-minute fill-ins for unanticipated medical emergencies, we don't do “temporary” or “visiting” full-time gigs. If you're full-time, you're tenure-track. Certainly with a spouse and two children, hopping from job to job around the country would be nuts. I admire your panache.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts/observations/experiences?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

I went on the job market in English for the first time in Fall 2006, with a tentative defense date of Spring 2007. I didn't get a job that time around and my graduate department was willing to fund me for another year, so I ended up taking a few more months to finish and eventually defended in October 2007. Nevertheless, I wouldn't trade the experience I got in that first year on the market for anything. I recommend going out as soon as possible, as long as you can live with the fact that it will eat your life for a couple of months.

For one thing, it takes a while to learn the ropes of the job market: how to read between the lines of an ad, what works and doesn't work with different types of schools, how to keep a cool head through the Dreaded Phone Interview and the chaos of the MLA, how to talk convincingly about your teaching and research. The more you do it, the better at it you'll get.

Besides, the market is tough, but not as tough as people will tell you it is. ABDs can and do get interviews for tenure-track jobs, particularly at colleges with heavy teaching loads. If you interview well, you have a decent chance of lucking into something early, and even if you don't, getting a feel for what the market is actually like is a good confidence booster.
I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with doing a trial run this year, but I think the chance of getting even a couple of MLA interviews when the candidate has only ONE CHAPTER written (out of a dissertation that will presumably have at least four chapters) is very, very unlikely, especially if the candidate has no referreed publications. The fact of the matter is that more and more English departments don't waste their time with someone who doesn't look like a sure bet, because they don't have to. When I was on the job market the first time (as a sixth-year in a top PhD program, with two accepted publications, one chapter left to write, and a very famous advisor) I was shocked by how many of my competitors were already in tenure-track positions and often with book contracts in hand.

I'm now in a tenure-track job at a regional university (3/3 teaching load, but pretty serious about striking an even balance between teaching and research), and we won't even interview anyone without a PhD in hand by December. Of the six people we brought to campus last year for two positions, five already had book contracts.

That's not to say it couldn't happen, since the market is so different from one year to the next, as well as in different fields and at different institutions, but going on the job market can be much more time consuming than it might seem, and with a family and possibly teaching obligations. . . it seems to me that the time could be better spent working on the dissertation. It probably wouldn't hurt to make the rounds at a couple more conferences, try to get a serious, substantive article accepted (or a second one!), and wait until the following year.
Flavia makes a good point. Going on the job market consumes you. It becomes a job. It is emotionally ane economically draining. Don't go into it until you are 100% committed. In the arts it is so competitive. Don't get discouraged. I finished my Ph.D. in history in 1996 and sent out over 100 apps, but did not get an interview until I had a book in press in 1999. Taught at night until then, worked at a decent job during the day. Finally landed a FT/TT job in fall 2000. Good luck.
This is interetsing, and not at all how my social science discipline works. People routinely get jobs when they only have a couple chapters written. Good, hard-to-get jobs.

Also interesting: we're always warned not to go out on the market too early, lest we become stale. Nobody wants sloppy seconds, they always say.
Trial Runner here:

I should have added in my mail to DD that I also have 6 years of college teaching experience (at three different institutions), almost a dozen conference presentations, a history of department service and awards, and a conference paper on which my dissertation is based was solicited for publication by the editor of a refereed journal in my field. And, I'm not at all interested in an R1 job. My husband and I are both looking for tt positions at a school that places fairly equal value on teaching and research (hopefully a 3/3 load). Do any of the above help, or has it come down to only the publication aspect?
I went out on the Eng. job market last year, ABD, no publications, and didn't get _anything_, not even MLA interviews. I learned a lot about the application process and I found it valuable, but didn't get the chance to practice my interviewing skills.

Another thing to think about would be how well you can work on the diss while in full job freakout mode, and afterwards. One member of my dept. was so crushed by her first year on the market, _bad_ interview experiences, and not getting any offers that she went into a depression and didn't do any writing for four months afterward. If there's a chance you'll lose productivity after market season, you might want to not do a trial run.
I agree that it can be useful to have a "trial run" (not least because it lets the application materials gestate for another year). I applied to a couple of jobs that were near my husband's position in a year I hadn't planned to go on the market, got no interviews, but was glad I did it (the following year, still ABD, I got four interviews and one TT offer). However, the key is to be very selective: not just tenure-track or bust, but REALLY GOOD job or bust. There are two disadvantages to getting a job at this stage: one, having to rush through the rest of the dissertation, thus creating more work during the book-revision stage (when you'll have even less time to spend on it) and two, the danger of accepting a less than perfect job while knowing you would have been a stronger candidate the following year. If you do go on the market, be prepared to have it take over your life at least for the fall, and be determined that you won't settle for a job you have real reservations about. The luxury of an extra year could put you in a much stronger position down the road.
I agree that going on the market is a full-time job in and of itself.

I went on the market ABD as a 'trial run' (in the social sciences) and was shocked to land a tenure-track job in March (which has been an excellent fit for me). That made for a frantic few months of finishing the diss, defending, revising, graduating, moving and prepping new courses (oh, and spending a month that summer teaching overseas). My point being to think about both best and worst case scenarios and how they would play out.

The "sloppy seconds" idea hasn't been part of the discourse at the R1 where I work. Maybe this is a field-specific notion (small fields where everyone knows everyone and whether they've landed or not landed positions previous years.)
Thought I'd weigh back in to respond to Trial Runner: definitely, all your teaching experience and conference work, and your publication, are huge pluses--without them, I don't think it would be worth the effort to go on the market. Because frankly, I don't see much benefit to going out early *just* for the experience: if you've got a good job-placement officer in your department, you'll get enough good feedback even on your first go-round.

On the other hand, I've never heard of anyone being considered a weaker candidate for going out a second or third time--it's pretty normal in English, even for very strong candidates from very strong programs.

I guess what I'd say is this: if you're okay with the fact that you may genuinely get NO interviews, and still think that you can keep up a reasonable pace on your dissertation and in other areas of your life while going on the job market--and esp. if you're going out, as Anon suggests, only for jobs that are really worth your while--why not?

Maybe people in different departments have seen different patterns than I have, but speaking purely anecdotally, it seems as though it's less common for early candidates in English to be successful than it was even four or five years ago; now most people seem either to stay in grad school an extra year or two, or to log time as an adjunct, visiting prof, or post-doc first.

Good luck, though, whatever you decide!
I was on a committee this year at a teaching/research place (though we have a 4/4 load). The guy we hired was ABD when we interviewed but we confirmed that he would be done by the time he started this fall. He defended in March. Places that are ok with that status will often indicate so with the "degree in hand by August 08" line.

Why not send out a few apps to positions that seem REALLY good fits and see how it goes. Good luck!
"so the year in which you finished the dissertation was typically unfunded. Of course, by that point, nobody got jobs at all, so people sort of dropped off a cliff just when they were about to finish."

Wow, you just described my PhD program.
I am NOT in the humanities, so I can't offer any specific advice in that area, but do agree that being on the market can be extremely draining and time-consuming. I do have experience being in a dual-academic family, however and I would caution you about that "tenure-track or bust" philosophy. It's an admirable goal, but with both of you looking for jobs in competitive fields (even if you aren't aiming for R1), it can be nearly impossible and since you have children, I am assuming that you won't want to live apart. You may have to expand your horizons and reconsider what kind of jobs you are both willing to consider. I wish you the best of luck, but wanted you to know how tough it is- there are so many academic couples out there who cannot get jobs in the same region. Good luck!
I think going on the market for the experience is definitely worthwhile for the experience, even if you get no interviews. But let me chime in on something several people said above: don't underestimate how much effort will be involved. When you start, it looks like you can get it mostly finished in a couple of weeks of serious work. Everyone thinks this, and everyone learns otherwise. It will consume your life for multiple months.

I still think it's worthwhile, but expect it to take much more effort than you think it will!
DD alluded to this, but it's worth revisiting: letters of recommendation. If some of your professors are discouraging your going on the market, I would advise that you don't. Most places won't let you get very far in the process AT ALL without seeing your recommendation letters, and if you shove your way onto the market this year, you will either 1.) put your professors in the awkward position of refusing to write a letter for you if they think you're not ready; or 2.) get them to write letters that are probably kind of lukewarm (if they're being honest about your dissertation progress), which are the kiss of death to hiring committees.
P.S. Depending on your field, it's probably best to try to think of your first time out on the market as a trial run regardless of whether you're ABD or not; you'll save yourself some heartache.
I'm ABD, but should finish next spring (if nothing else happens, lol). Five years as an adjunct (master's level), lots of professional conferences and non-academic experience in my field (social work), but no publications.

I went on the market this spring, had a few interviews, and was quickly hired by a really well-respected CC. It's tenure track, but I'll be an instructor 'till the diss is done. And my time as an instructor does not count toward tenure, so it's in my best interests to finish the diss asap.

My biggest challenge now is finishing up at my full-time research position and simultaneously preparing syllabi for this fall, while keeping an eye on the diss and my rugrat (senior in HS). I will literally end my present job on a Friday and start classes the following Monday.
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