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Essay on how to be a good mentor for academic jobs

Get a Job!

Be a Good Job Mentor

October 21, 2013

If you are a graduate faculty member at a Ph.D.-granting institution, part of your job is advising Ph.D. students. Despite the humorous warnings about pursuing advanced graduate work, one of our goals as Ph.D.-granting institutions is to help our students get jobs. And, depending on which field you are in, graduates may take jobs in the private or public sectors, and some will enter academe.

Although this advice likely holds true for any kind of job-seeker and job mentor, it’s based on my experiences participating in, watching, and learning from the academic job market and the job-mentoring experiences provided to students at multiple institutions across the U.S. (I’m learning about international academic jobs this year, while living in Norway, and I look forward to sharing that perspective as I gain a better understanding of the differences.) For the past nine years, both locally and nationally, I’ve mentored graduate students on the job market in English studies and related fields. I hear a lot of stories about wonderful and terrible job market experiences, and I’m glad to report that the wonderful stories are happening more and more often. Here’s a short list of tips for advisers and programs to consider to help their students be more successful on the job market.

1. Make mentoring part of the program structure.

Being a good mentor for a student on the job market doesn’t have to fall necessarily to the student’s dissertation adviser. The adviser is there to give discipline-specific advice to the student, but much of the daily operations of the job market can be formulaic across disciplines. The best-prepared students I’ve seen on the market -- and, subsequently, the most successful -- are those who come from programs with a faculty or staff member permanently assigned to be the job mentor. This person is responsible for keeping up to date on the trends and genres of the job market in that discipline, a task that senior and even junior faculty members sometimes assume remains stagnant over a 20- or even 10-year period.

As evidenced by the massive shift in the job market during and, particularly, after the 2008 economic downturn, markets change. Economists know this, of course. Scientists know this, and know that writing job materials is similar in purpose to writing a grant.

Humanities faculty don’t often understand this, and, more often than not, aren’t or can’t be as involved in a student’s job-seeking as the student really might need to succeed. (This is not to suggest that faculty aren’t doing their jobs, but that the job market is a different beast, with different intellectual and emotional requirements, than a dissertation. Why not outsource some of that repetitive work?) For administrators reading this column, keep in mind that running a job-mentoring program should account for some percentage of a faculty member’s work load. Whether it’s slotted to service, teaching (because, oh, it is!), or as part of a permanent staff position, providing time to the mentor means the mentor can provide time to the students, which also leaves the advisers additional time to work on their research. It’s a win-win.

2. Create job-market cohorts.

If your program has multiple students graduating and going on the market in a single year, ignore the advice that job-seekers shouldn’t talk to each other. Granted, some disciplines can be cutthroat, and there will always be jealousy, but having students come together and share some details of their search helps them remember that there are others going through this exact same process. Advisers see it all the time: students writing their dissertations, and away from their cohort of classmates and the daily structure of coursework, often feel isolated -- so isolated, in fact, that they assume they are the only person ever to have felt like nothing is going right, everyone else must be doing amazing, and they’re the only ones not meeting their deadlines, etc. (See #5). Cohorts help students remember they’re not alone, and they also promote collaboration and collegiality, an important professionalization lesson for students about to become faculty members, likely in a department where they’re the only one in their specialty.

Secondly, cohorts can actually be of concrete, information-sharing, and job-getting benefit to students on the market together. I often tell students about the cohorts I was part of my first few times on the market. In one case, there were six of us who created a virtual cohort since we were mostly at different schools. We knew we’d be competing for some of the same jobs since we were applying to sub-sub-discipline ads. (Not that it mattered we were competing: We each had slightly different specialties, and it was up to the departments to figure out which ones best fit their vision for the job; more on that in another column.) We had weekly online chats to share information (this was before the Academic Jobs Wiki was created), including sharing what kinds of job materials we sent to particular departments, who got preliminary interviews, what questions they asked, etc.

My favorite story from that year was the little game we played with one college’s search committee chair. I had the first Modern Language Association meeting interview of the first day with them and noticed the chair wearing an Elvis tie. I complimented him on the tie as I was leaving the interview room, and immediately texted my cohort, all of whom also had interviews with that college the next day. A close friend had the first interview on the second day, and when he walked in, he noticed the chair was not wearing the tie I had described, so he asked, “Where’s your Elvis tie?” He told me the room erupted in surprised laughter, and one of the committee members had to explain how our field is very small and everyone knows each other. While this little story may seem childish or stupid, it’s useful to keep in mind that such camaraderie between the cohort (as well as building that collegiality with the search committee) helped immensely when this colleague and I were both invited for on-campus interviews at this school. It also helped during negotiations, a story for another day.

I’m not suggesting cohorts exist solely to pull practical jokes on search committees. I’m suggesting (and have other stories to back this up) that cohorts can function to help each other through what otherwise might be a really trying time, and that job mentors should facilitate this kind of communal experience and collegiality whenever possible, as a framework for working as colleagues once the students actually have jobs.

3. Be a straight-talker.

Tell students job-search stories. Explain to them in detail what the process -- from beginning to end -- of going on the market is like. They’ve never done it before and are nervous and, as good Ph.D. students, will want to know everything, so that they feel like they have a handle on it. The job market is NOT the time to let them figure it out on their own. (Hell, no part of graduate school should leave students to flounder like that.) While getting a job may feel like old-hat stuff to you, it’s brand-new and scary to students (again, see #5). Tell them exactly what to expect, and if it’s been more than five years (a picked-out-of-thin air, but pre-tenure time period) since you’ve been on the market yourself, do your research about the current  market trends and genres needed for applying, or send your students to the dedicated job mentor in the department.

4. Offer workshops on job-market materials.

I was lucky to have more professional development experiences to take advantage of as a graduate student than I could possibly have undertaken. One of those was a weekly job-market seminar run by a brand-new faculty member (who, a decade later, is chair of a prestigious department elsewhere. It matters who you get to run the mentoring!). She had us workshop our C.V.s extensively, and the eight or so who who attended these optional sessions worked feverishly to design and redesign them to suit our individual and disciplinary needs.

Whenever possible, I’ve modeled all of the local job workshops I’ve offered on this practice, extending it to cover application letters, research statements, teaching philosophies (the hardest genre of all!), online portfolios, and other documentation that might be needed. In my experience, the students who have most diligently attended these workshops have been the most successful on the job market. And what I’ve learned as a mentor is the wide range of features that job materials have, even in different disciplines within English studies: A cover letter for a creative writing job looks nothing like a cover letter for a literature job, which is also slightly different from a cover letter for a rhetoric or professional writing job. (I hope readers will include in the comments the differences they witness across job materials in their own disciplines!)

5.  Attend to the emotional.

You don’t need to provide a fainting couch in your office, but you do need to remember that, for students, the job market feels exactly like you’re 15, and you’ve never kissed anyone, and you’re waiting for that someone special (who may or may not even know they are that someone special) to call you back after you’ve asked them out on a first date. O.K., maybe that’s just me ;) Students don’t understand the timeline of a job search, or what and why they are having to wait. On top of trying to finish their dissertations, they’ve put any remaining emotional energy into what they feel like is playing Russian roulette with the market.

As a rational adult who’s been through this situation before (that’s you, dear mentor), it behooves you to talk them down. That doesn’t mean dismissing their fears, worries, and other freak-outs. It means providing a (perhaps limited) space and time for them to voice their freak-outs and their “I’m the only person who’s ever gone through this experience’s, and to reassure them that this process is (sadly) “normal” and typical of the job search.

Having a mentoring program, particularly one run by someone who is not the student's adviser, allows for a shared space for this freak-out to happen, which helps students take their emotional worries outside of the hopefully productive space of the dissertation (adviser’s) work and to form a community among the job-seekers. In addition, a mentoring program, or job adviser, can create a safe space for students to make mistakes in the job-search process without feeling like fools in front of their advisers. And, sometimes, only the job mentor can answer truthfully to the student who asks, "What’s the difference between confidence and cockiness?" with "Asking the question in the first place" without ruffling disciplinary and professional feathers.

In retrospect, these are the same strategies I use when mentoring undergraduates who are planning to get a job after graduation or with master's students who are applying to Ph.D. programs. We all have a stake in making sure our students are employable -- to do otherwise is simply unethical in any economic environment -- and providing good structures for job mentoring can form the basis for consistent and sustainable and successful practices in Getting A Job!

 

 

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