Rob Gee is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Maine and a permanent author at GradHacker. You can follow him on twitter at @robgee18.
You've heard the stories from those who have successfully navigated the grad school gauntlet and come out the other end with gainful employment both inside and outside of the academy. While everyone's experience is uniquely their own, when you ask them about it two common themes seem to emerge. The first one is dumb luck—which always bothers me. I'm not a big believer in luck and I'm partial to the idea that we create our own luck, even if we don't recognize it immediately. Whatever we want to call it, there is a degree to which stars must align, some of which we can control, others of which we cannot. But the other common theme seems to be that employers and search committees are universally drawn to those things about our candidacy that we never expected would draw them. And very often it's that thing that is attention-grabbing because it doesn't seem to fit neatly into other aspects of our personal or academic profile.
I come from a discipline that can be isolating at times (which may be why all of my posts at GradHacker have something to do with community-building). It is not one for which graduate training tends to embrace collaboration or co-authorship or, for that matter, wandering around in spaces outside your specialty. At the culmination of our degree programs we prepare a very narrow, focused study that we hope someone else hasn't already written and prepare for either an academic job market increasingly dominated by interdisciplinary programs and dual department appointments or a non-academic job market that has a hard time understanding why we've spent five (though usually more) years cultivating a set of skills the applicability of which we struggle to articulate.
A few years back a friend of mine decided to organize a collaborative project. The concept of the unconference was not too widespread at the time, but she decided to get a group together and think about a problem and try to solve it—allowing the discussions of the problem and potential solutions to develop organically through conversation. So the whole objective was simply to collaborate. The group decided to look at ways of adapting the content of history courses to new delivery formats. They divided up the literature as it then existed (almost entirely from other disciplines) and familiarized one another with the key themes and then designed an experimental course. That phase of the project resulted in a poster presentation at the American Historical Association annual conference. Membership in the group shifted over time and through several phases the focus of the project itself also changed. As environmental historians like myself became involved we began to steer the conversation towards a consideration of “academic landscapes,” both physical and virtual. With this we wrote a short article and presented at another conference. Having designed online courses in the humanities in a place where not too many people had, suddenly we found ourselves in demand. We got an opportunity to team teach online and hybrid courses. We gave seminars and led discussions on alternative pedagogies, started blogs, got travel grants, fellowships, more teaching gigs, and, yes, even jobs.
Just last week I got together with two members of the original team. The occasion was to celebrate and say good-bye to one team member who was moving on to a full-time job at a university in Boston. When he looks back at his career trajectory thus far he notes that our team teaching experience in an interdisciplinary program in the Division of Lifelong Learning was that unusual piece to his CV that employers had found compelling. And it said a lot about him. He could teach, he could work as part of a team, he could marshal technology to practical ends, he had a broad and well-rounded base of knowledge, he could see and understand connections and relationships. He is a big picture guy and it shows. It may also be worth mentioning that the other two people at the table had just finished co-authoring an article on academic uses of social media that will come out next week.
Much of the work we do in grad school is solitary. We read, we write, we grade, we ponder. It can be fulfilling at times, but it can be equally lonely and isolating at other times. Spending time in groups is important. We should seek to cultivate social interactions, but there is value in cultivating academic interactions and collaborations as well, even if—especially if—such collaborations may divert you periodically outside your specialties and comfort zones. So often in our academic lives, really our lives generally, the best stories are the ones that began as digressions!
What have you done to collaborate with others in your field? Let us know in the comments below.